NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN!

Recently I read a fascinating book entitled Last Ape Standing: The Seven- Million- Year Story of How and Why We Survived, written by Chip Walter. The major take away for this reader, as revealed by carbon dating and DNA analysis, was the original 27 species of what we know today as Homo sapiens is now only one.

The other 26 fell by the wayside for a variety of reasons that can only be surmised. Some of the other species for instance had bigger eyes; others had bigger brains. Some got wiped out by climate change, including invasions of cold and ice. Some migrated far and wide and almost got wiped out but came back stronger in numbers for considerable periods of time. The evidence to date indicates that there were never a lot of them on earth at one time and their lives and fortunes evidently waxed and waned with a lot of volatility.

Along the way they lived exceedingly simple, rough lives by comparison to most of the lives in today’s world. Survival was obviously the main accomplishment for most of those creatures. And, most people today largely believe that for almost all of that long period of time, as measured in human life spans, there was little or no language or other forms of modern intellectual activity.

Today’s scientists as well as archeologists  reach farther and farther into the human past as well as further and further into the past of space, or future?, perhaps depending on which end of the telescope they are looking through.

For example, an English man named Higgs dreamt up the idea, a generation ago, that there was some other dimension or ‘thing’ in the Universe, now called a Higgs Boson, which now appears to have been proven to exist by a giant physics experiment, costing some $13 billion, in CERN Switzerland. No, Bosons are not related to buffaloes; they do, however, explain a lot about dark matter in space and may ultimately explain a lot more, than we already know, about mass and energy. All of which ultimately may reveal more about spatial relationships as well as time and distance. Who knows? We may have gotten here from some other place; we may go somewhere else when we die?

Well, that entire introduction sets the stage for an equally amazing revelation that is now on display at the British Museum in London.

That is an exhibit of Ice Age art, placed in time again by carbon dating, from about 40,000 years ago, when our ancestors were presumably largely simple hunter gatherers who could do little but grunt at each other – or so we thought. Think again. And, if you can get to London, see the exhibit or at least buy the book [Ice Age Art] about the exhibit from the Museum store, or online from Amazon.

Those artists displayed their work on cave walls, human and animal bones and other hard materials, which accounts for how they lasted. They were found not only in caves but in grave sites along with the remains of their presumed owners. Their work was as sensitively artistic as humans produce today. And, if one makes allowance for when they were done and the conditions which must have existed then, they are even more impressive.

They drew pictures and sculpted figures every bit as creatively as you can see today and even managed to convey motion in some of their pictures of fast moving animals like lions. Their displays of the female figure at all ages, some pregnant, are elegant, sexy and lithe. Some figures were decorated with beaded jewelry. And, they even appeared to capture individual likenesses as distinct from generic faces. Much of their work is vastly more sophisticated than, say, Egyptian art 10s of thousands of years later.

What you see will really knock your socks off and should make you reexamine all your assumptions about where we came from and how we got here compared with everything we were ever previously taught.

Today we debate global warming and freezing and many people still dismiss those realities, as if they have no bearing on our lives. Those phenomena may not have much effect on two or even three lifetimes. But, they do have a lot to do with the longer evolution of our species.

We must remember that those people who ignore or do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

There really is nothing new under the sun.

And, for the curious among us, the future will surely show us more and more of the old and new as we reach further back in time and deeper into the slowly shrinking mysteries of space!

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A Rosetta Stone for Today’s Muddle

The sequestration idea, whoever really came up with it, was fiendishly too clever by half. It was designed to create two Hobson’s reciprocal choices at one and the same time (remember the English innkeeper who offered two stalls — one empty, the other with a broken down nag to the rider in a rush to get onwards with his journey?).

In this case both choices were designed to stop the errant journey to a smaller national budget cold in its tracks. The conservatives could not/would not stomach the defense cuts. The liberals would not/could not stomach the social benefit cuts. Therefore it could not/would not ever happen. Only a real Grand Bargain could do that.

Well, now to everyone’s surprise, including mine, lo and behold the sequester is happening! Some people think, obviously, that now bargaining will finally begin in earnest and the sequester cuts will never kick in a big way in the longer run.

The White House has been using scare tactics — especially on the flying public and defense workers. So far most people have not really taken that bait and some public concern now may be drowned out by the Dow Jones average daily making new all time highs, normally signaling full economic speed ahead!

Someone is right and something is wrong with this bizarre scenario.

There is an old Wall Street wisdom that says “markets never lie.” Markets really do reflect in a numerical way what many thousands of people think. People do not knowingly bet against their best interests, if they have their heads on straight. So what is going on?

First, we seem to be turning a corner in terms of job creation and growth. February (a short month at that) saw 236,000 new jobs for the first time in almost eight years. Unemployment fell to 7.7 percent. Hurray!

Second, we really do need, in the long-term, to trim our national budget. The argument about how to do that has so far resulted in stasis. Miraculously now the unthinkable has happened and the budget is being cut in a way that no one really believed could or should happen. And, if the stasis continues the budget really will be cut meaningfully — crudely, yes, but really.

Third, the stock markets may be telling us that it really likes the fact that the budget finally is being cut and also, perhaps by a sheer accident of timing, growth is resuming. The combined overall result may be both the needed leaner national budget at the same time as resumed economic growth to take up the slack being created by budget cuts. Or, finally, an acceptable Grand Bargain!

Fourth, amazingly, therefore overall “clear sailing ahead!”

Boy, that must be Pollyanna’s ultimate dream.

Is that really possible? Could be.

But, the chances really are that what may be happening is that the president is finally getting down from his high horse and talking seriously and personally with a lot of people, who have a crucial vote, including many Republicans. (Boehner, Cantor and Ryan must be going crazy.) All that talk almost surely ends up becoming the long elusive Grand Bargain. And, do not let anyone tell you this was the plan from the beginning; if you do, you might end up owning the Brooklyn Bridge and all its needed repairs!

And, that is what nearly everyone has believed in and hoped for from the beginning of this staggering saga. The difference is that no one, except the invisible Mr. Market perhaps, could foresee this peculiar and devious path to political and economic heaven.

So, to add one final bit of confusion to this drama — while we all may have been wrong about how a solution would unfold, we were right to believe that it would happen, because it simply had to happen.

And, therefore we may not have been wrong after all.

How is that for drawing a target around where the arrow, hopefully, is about to land and restoring our predicting reputations at the same time?

Or, simply doubling down on being right or wrong and being willing to boast about or live with it!

A Quibble That Revealed A Lot

As a result of the great worldwide depression of the 1930s, the United States and Europe led the way in creating social safety nets for the less fortunate members of their societies. What was originally labeled socialism has today become mainstream to nearly everyone except the extreme right. Those programs are anchored in sensible economics which hold that all of a society is better off when less fortunate people are provided with decent housing, adequate food and education to some reasonable degree.

Call that whatever you like, but it worked and we have seen, in the last 50 years, the most amazing economic and social progress of any similar period in all of human history.

Now we are facing a crossroads in Europe and the United States where we have apparently gotten a bit ahead of ourselves in trying to have it all for everybody — for national defense, space research, education and medicine, etc.

The challenge obviously is how to curtail expenditures and to raise more tax revenues at the same time without so destabilizing our systems that we lose steam/growth and fall back into self-reinforcing recessions. This is where the horrifying topics of curbing so-called entitlements (basically the safety net) enter the discussions and, not surprisingly, to date has led to political stalemate.

A topical conversation took place recently in London with a childhood friend — a scientist with a socialist bent. His children grew up in England’s social safety net. The oldest child never completed her education and discovered that the best way to support herself was to have a child out of wedlock, which provided enough income to live decently. She did that, but when that child was to become 18, the gravy train would stop.

So guess what she did? She simply had another child! And, that went along swimmingly until that child left for university quite recently.

The second kid appeared to have some of his grandfather’s genes and brains and seemed interested in science and mathematics. The public sources of financial help for higher education were insufficient to enable him to stay in university without additional resources.

The grandfather (my old friend) did not want his promising kid to have to take part-time work (limiting his studies) so he — despite his very meager pension and resources — volunteered to the tune of £3,000 ($4,500) per year.

That lasted for two years and then suddenly the kid quit school completely, saying he was working too hard to be happy and for what purpose? The grandfather was sorely disappointed and had put his retirement income in peril at an age when he could do nothing about it.

That led to a conversation that took place among the grandfather (age 87), his current woman companion, a psychologist who shares socialist tendencies, and myself.

I had said it was a shame to witness such waste and that it was perhaps better in many cases for such kids to have “skin in the game” by working part-time and to invest in their own future.

That view is based on a belief that what most people get in life for free, they often take for granted. In fact, recently The New York Times reported a study which found that college students whose parents paid their tuition costs and other expenses did noticeably less well than those students who had loans and jobs to support their own education.

We all agreed that the grandfather’s extreme act of generosity in providing support for his grandson’s advanced education was a wonderful thing and it was sad that it resulted in such heartache for him.

His companion, however, took exception to the use of the word ‘support’ for what he had provided because she felt it was not adequate, which seemed to be an astonishing quibble. Her point was that ‘support’ had to mean an amount sufficient to complete the education (anything less was merely assistance not support) and the government’s refusal to provide all the funds necessary for a complete education for everyone was the basic problem which had to be addressed.

That quibble struck me to be at the heart of today’s political struggles about how to curtail public spending and still maintain our long-held belief that society is well-served when it ensures that people in need have their basic needs met.

Much of our public — in Europe’s welfare states and the U.S. — have become so accustomed to cradle-to-the-grave public support that they have come to feel and believe it is a fundamental birthright.

If that support in and of itself really was a natural right, why did it take the world so long to figure that out and create the right? Perhaps instead as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration Of Independence, political power is the fundamental birthright because that is what created all the rights to begin with, along with moral justice. But where are the limits?

Now our challenge is to make a transition to a world where less will be inevitable for some time to come. If we accept the position that public social support has to have some rational limits, then many more people must build on whatever that base of support will be to push their lives further forward with their own efforts, brains, energy and ambition.

This is clearly not a dream. There are constantly fantastic stories coming out of everywhere about all sorts of young people, who come from nowhere, and achieve great successes solely on their own with minimal public help.

We have to be very careful not to quibble about how much support really is support. That could sap personal initiative and drive by contributing to a fantasy that success can seem like a sure thing, even without serious investment on the part of the person receiving the help.

We cannot continue down the road where too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.