Social Security – the Personal Option

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One of the greatest problems that we face as a country in the US, is that too many people end their working life without assets they can use for their years after work. Another issue is that many people do not benefit from overall improvements in the economy. They have no stake in the game. And a third problem is that Social Security will exhaust its trust fund within a small number of years. For the third problem, there are solutions that will push the day of reckoning for Social Security out decades longer into the future (raise the taxable base, limit further the benefits paid to workers who earn well above the median wage, small increase in the Social Security tax rate). But I’ve not seen any proposal to solve the first two problems. This post provides a potential solution for these critical issues.

First, some background. The Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index, known as the S&P 500, is an index of the largest companies by stock valuation that trade in the US. Since 1926, it has included at least 90 companies, so that its performance is nearly a century old. Since 1957, it has contained 500 stocks. If you invested money in the index in 1928, just before the Great Depression, it would have earned an average of 9.6% per year if you continued to reinvest the dividends. So over time, the investment earned at a higher rate than investing in bonds, and that covers all of the stock market declines since then. Other stock indexes exist that track US corporations, and they show similar rates of growth over time.

The proposal is this. Out of the current 12.4% of employee contribution (split evenly between employee and employer) that currently goes into the Social Security fund, allocate 2% of new employee contributions into a personal account that invests in a stock index fund of companies based in the US. All dividends from the stocks will be reinvested into the personal account. At the time when a person takes Social Security payments, this person will have the option of converting the account to an IRA rollover, or converting it to an annuity.

A simple spreadsheet model shows the potential value of this approach. For someone at the lower end of the income spectrum, a person with salary income of $30,000 per year whose salary increased by 3% per year for a 40 year working career, the personal account would be worth $220,000 assuming that the accounts earn an average 8% per year. The 8% is less than the 9.6% average of the S&P for the past 90 years. This would enable someone who retires to have a significant account that reflects the growth of the economy during their working years. If they choose to select the security of an annuity, it would be administered by the Social Security system in order to avoid additional expenses of going through an insurance provider. Using an annuity calculator, the income for a 67 year old investing $220,000 would be about $1200 per month. This would be a significant increase in the benefit available as compared to the Social Security benefit for an individual.

The Social Security benefit would need to be reduced to reflect the smaller amount of tax revenue that is allocated to the standard benefit pool. But that reduction would take into account the length of time that a person has paid into the personal account fund. Social Security uses a 35 year working career as its basis for calculating benefits. Therefore, someone who has paid into the personal account for 35 years would have a benefit reduction of 16%, since they paid 16% less into the program(2% going to personal account / 12.4 % going to Social Security originally). For those who paid into the personal account for fewer years, the benefit reduction would be approximately 0.5% per year that they paid into the personal account.

What would the effect be of this money being funneled into the stock market? It would be relatively small. In 2016, the amount of money going into the Social Security system accounts from wages was about $700 billion. The proposed personal account would be about $110 billion per year. That amount of increased demand for stocks would raise valuations somewhat, but the investment markets should be able to absorb the incremental demand for investment. This would need to be modeled by real economists, instead of armchair analysts armed with Excel spreadsheets.

Those who are wary of stock investment will point to the inherent risk of stocks. And yes, there will be times when the value of personal accounts will go down on a year over year basis. But the nature of the equity markets has tended to go up when viewed on a longer timescale, such as a person’s working career. Perhaps there could be a personal option for those who are philosophically opposed to investing in stocks, but it would be one that people would have to select, instead of being the default option.

Those of us who have had the fortune to be able to invest over a lifetime, know the benefits of our economic system. We’ve been able to build up our pile of equity. But many folks will work their entire lives and have little to nothing to show for it, except for a Social Security payment. This suggestion would allow for everyone to have a stake in the economy, and would allow for individuals to either opt for the security of annuity payments for their lifetime, or to assume control of a personal account for their own benefit, and for the benefit of their heirs. I believe it is time to think outside of the box in order to attack some of the intransigent problems that this country faces.

Back during the administration of G. W. Bush, Social Security privatization was proposed, and quickly abandoned due to the outcry from many supporters of the system. Those proposals included more diversion of accounts than this proposal, and added more complexity in terms of investment choices. This approach keeps it simple, stupid. And since it rolls out so gradually, everyone would see how well their accounts are doing over time, and should be pleased with the long-term performance of their fund. It’s been nearly 15 years since the last attempt was made to enable private accounts. It is past time to reconsider the approach, and recognize that this is a populist proposal instead of a free ride for Wall Street.

The Bill For Trump’s Folly

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Where are we now, sixteen months into the unprecedented chaos that the Trump administration has unleashed? We now have enough data points to do a regression analysis on the trends we are seeing. Let’s review some of the highlights of this journey we are travelling on together.

We’ve watched the baby steps at weaving a cult of personality around our leader. We’ve learned that personal loyalty to this President takes precedence over any and all qualifications or accomplishments. We’ve seen the cabinet love fests where each cabinet member expresses their best fawning statements about the honor and privilege it is to sit at the feet of the master. We’ve learned that our dear leader is most fulfilled when he is holding a Nuremburg-style rally out in fly-over land (and I live in fly-over land). Hearing the waves of adulation and blind adoration charges the President up enough to face another hard week of executive time watching Fox and Friends.

We’ve confirmed the statements Trump made in his campaign where he discussed his foreign policy advisors, basically admitting that he uses his own gut instinct as his north star. In March 2016, before he began his self-imposed exile from Morning Joe, he said “But my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.” Confirmation of this approach for foreign policy is exhibited in the failure to staff and support the State Department. Additional confirmation came with the decision to move the Israel embassy to Jerusalem, thus appeasing Christian Millennialists who see Donald Trump as an enabler of God’s will. Nowhere is the disparity between the unilateral actions taken by this administration, and the reality of the apartheid of Israel more evident than the slaughter of demonstrators at the Gaza fence on the day that the new embassy was opened. We’ve seen the benefits of impulsiveness as a foreign policy strategy through the well-thought out tweets that flat-out contradict what was supposed to be the position of the US.

We wait to see if there will be good consequences coming out of the upcoming Korea summit. This should give a validation as to the effectiveness of the Trump policy of shaming and name-calling in the name of diplomacy. Will such a policy gain valid results? Or will Donald Trump be swayed by the grandeur of the moment, and the ability of the North Korean leader to play on Donald’s emotions, such that he simultaneously declares victory while handing carte blanche to the North? I will be surprised if a truly good outcome results from this effort. If it does turn out good, I will admit that I was wrong, and give credit where it is due. My sense is that the odds of a good outcome are slim at best.

We’ve seen how the shell game master works as he oversees the efforts to fulfill his populist campaign pledges of draining the swamp. Too many regulations are stifling the finance industry as it tries to fulfill its vision of providing valuable services to underserved people! Therefore, we must castrate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, since it was over-regulating the payday lending industry, and preventing it from gouging the most vulnerable citizens of our country.

Too many regulations are stifling the for-profit college and education industry from fulfilling its mission of enriching investors while sticking its customers with exorbitant debt and a worthless degree that doesn’t lead to a job. So staff Betsy DeVos’s Education Department with for-profit college executives so that we can reverse the enforcement actions that might have given relief to the thousands of former students who had been ripped off by for-profit diploma mills.

Too many environmental regulations were developed using data that is not totally transparent (so says the little Caesar running the EPA). Therefore, if regulations developed in the past used medical data where all of the data cannot be made public due to patient confidentiality, these regulations must be reviewed and possibly reversed due to the lack of transparency. This is one of the most insidious efforts going on, where by declaring that we are in favor of motherhood, and baby bunnies, and data transparency, it will actually enable the gutting of regulations that have been in place for many years. So the industries that cut emissions due to public health benefits, will be able in the future to relax their compliance and continue to emit particulate and other pollution and contribute to the deaths of thousands each year, all in the name of data transparency (and corporate profits).

Sixteen months into this administration and we’ve seen the ongoing diminution of our culture due to the example provided us by its leader. An explosion in anti-Semitic language in on-line postings, a claim that white supremacy is normalized by asserting equivalence to those who protest against the supremacists, the lack of civility shown by White House aides towards a dying Senator, all of these are symptomatic of the virus being spread from the top. But what were we to expect when we had the image of spastic movements purported to be that of a reporter with a muscle disease? It’s just fine and dandy and a good visual to mock the disabled. And what were we to expect when we heard entire nationalities dismissed as just hardened criminals wanting to set up shop in the US to enhance their criminal career? No, we knew what we could expect from this administration from the start. Its leader played to the baser nature of his supporters, and this is part of the attraction of the rallies. See, you can manipulate the audience to whip them up in a fervor by using simplistic slogans and group chants. Crowds feed on themselves, and now that we have the on-line community, incivility begets worse through the chat rooms, and message response threads.

Sixteen months into this administration and we see who it is really intended to assist. The benefits of government largesse have flowed to the corporations and to those who will benefit the rigging of the tax system to slash personal tax rates. Some of the saddest scenes from these past months came when administration officials and Congressional leaders tried to spin the tax cut bill as preferentially favoring the middle class. “See, since the corporations you work for are going to be soooo grateful for this tax cut, they will want to share it with you. A thousand here, a few hundred there, and pretty soon you’re talking about REAL money.” The spin was at about 50,000 rpm on this one. And in the midst of this, we had those images of ‘Murican families smiling as they contemplated their $2000 in annual benefits, on the commercials paid for by shadowy groups who fail to divulge their origins or funding. So we did get a business tax adjustment, and that was necessary in order to stay competitive globally. But as usually happens when one side of the political spectrum refuses to deal with the other side, the cuts went too far, and the effect on the deficit was dismissed since the supply-side pixie dust will generate growth in the economy as far as the eye can see.

Meanwhile, any semblance of an infrastructure bill that would address the horrendous conditions of our roads, sewers, electric grid, water supplies, and other transportation venues, that infrastructure bill slumbers on peacefully. Slight susurrations emanated from the administration on how to leverage $200 billion in public funding into $1.5 trillion in total infrastructure spending, if we accept the wonder of public – private partnerships which would transfer ownership of public infrastructure to private hands.

It is clear after 16 months of failed leadership that there are only two purposes this administration is aiming for. And they seem to be succeeding in their efforts to fulfill these purposes. The purposes are: 1) Enrich the corporate and capitalist classes by slashing taxes and eviscerating regulations; and 2) Stroke Donald Trump’s ego. Any serious attempt to deal with the problems of this nation and of the world are dismissed as not fulfilling the two purposes of this administration. Any mention by the media of the fallacies uttered hourly by administration representatives is castigated as “fake news from the failing media”. Any suggestion that the administration is working for the detriment of those who saw Donald Trump as an economic savior is derided as not being worthy of a response.

The bill for Trump’s folly is coming. The delayed bill for the issues being swept under the rug. The delayed bill for the failure to address environmental issues that will continue to grow increasingly dire. And finally, the delayed bill for ignoring economic reality by pretending that all is fine while deficit projections grow larger and larger, and the interest to service the accumulated deficits starts to swell and threatens to burst our economic bubble.

Chemicals I Have Made – Hydrogen Peroxide

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It’s such a cute, cuddly chemical. Found in its brown plastic container in medicine cabinets across the world, it is poured on cuts and scrapes where it foams up in bubbles. Safe enough to be used as a mouth rinse. Good old 3% hydrogen peroxide! But let me assure you, what is safe at 3% strength, is not safe at 35% concentration. Or at 70% strength. Hydrogen peroxide, or H202 , is a chemical that must be given a great deal of respect. In my career, I worked in a process that made H202 for several years, and I’ve seen examples of its power.

When tank cars were loaded with H202, the hoses would still contain some of the liquid in the lines. There was an attitude that since this was not an organic material, and since the decomposition products were water and oxygen, it was not worthwhile to ensure that the last drops were purged out of the line. So a metal box was filled with steel scraps, metal shavings, and other pieces of metal with a high surface area. This box was used to decompose the peroxide before it ran into our cypress-lined trench system. On one occasion, significantly more peroxide ran down into the box than was intended, and not all of the peroxide decomposed before it entered the tar-covered cypress trench. Decomposition continued, and the heat released along with the enriched oxygen environment inside the trench, actually caused the trench to begin smoldering. The fire alarm was sounded, and the investigation showed that the fire was essentially caused – by water. That is the power inherent in industrial strength H202.

Before I worked at the plant, they had a specialized still that concentrated peroxide to 90% purity. That strength was used as a rocket fuel, and as a propellant for torpedoes. I never heard of any stories about accidents with that grade, but it would take very little in order to release the energy found in that strong of a chemical. After I left the Memphis Plant, I heard about something that happened to a tank car outside of the plant. Tank cars for peroxide were made of about 1/2″ thick aluminum. One night, a tank car essentially exploded, opening up the top like a pop can. The thought is that someone playing with a rifle, shot the tank car. There is a little organic material that sits atop commercial grade H202, which reacted to form organic peroxides. The energy from a rifle shot caused the organic peroxide to detonate, which triggered the release of the oxygen from the decomposing peroxide. I saw the car on a trip back to the plant. It clearly showed that there is a lot of energy available with 70% H202. I have searched diligently on the internet but I can find no on-line evidence of this incident.  One can only imagine what would have happened if this incident occurred after 9/11.

The process for making H202 is complex. An organic solution called working solution is the key to creating the H202 molecule, which then recycles to begin the process again. The working solution first enters the hydrogenators, where hydrogen gas contacts a catalyst of palladium chloride coated out as palladium metal on alumina particles. The palladium chloride comes in a solution form in 5 gallon pails, costing multiple thousands of dollars per pail. After the catalyst is filtered out, the working solution goes into the oxidizers, where air is blown through the solution. Hydrogen grabs onto the oxygen, and forms H202, which then is extracted with water, and concentrated in distillation stills. The working solution then returns and is ready to run through the loop once more.

That is a highly simplified version of the process. In practice, there is art involved. The active chemicals in the working solution can degrade over time. Therefore it is necessary to divert a side stream of working solution to flow through alumina, where the impurities that form in the hydrogenation step absorb onto the alumina. The whole process with the catalyst and the hydrogenation step is labor intensive, and it is always necessary to withdraw a portion of the catalyst and replace with fresh catalyst. To prevent that expense, and to achieve higher yield, the plant I worked at had invested in what is called a fixed bed hydrogenation system. This had shown impressive results in lab-scale testing, and in pilot plant testing, where 5-gallon sized vessels were used to prove the effectiveness before you built a 1000-gallon facility for commercial production. The new commercial facility was commissioned, and put in service.

But problems developed very rapidly. Even though the pilot plant testing did not show it, the commercial scale facility developed some hot spots inside the hydrogenator. This caused the active compound in the working solution to degrade much more rapidly than inside of the fluid bed hydrogenators. Since the investment in the working solution was several million dollars, it became imperative to find some way to reverse the damage. Lab work was expedited, and a solution was identified. They needed some engineer to manage the project and get the equipment ordered, installed, and functioning. I was plucked from the cyanide unit(see  Chemicals I have made – Hydrogen Cyanide ) and put in charge of the project.

It was a true baptism into project management. I got to travel to see the vessel that we were buying in the fabrication shop, up in the extreme northwest corner of New Jersey. There you were more likely to see a black bear than to see a Joisey girl. But the best part of the project was that I got to install and program a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC). Now this was back in 1980, and these were brand new toys  tools that used all of the advances in semi-conductors that were available. You could replace a whole rack of single-function logic switches, with a single unit that could do nearly unlimited functions. I had a lot of fun learning the ladder logic that went with this, and getting the system to work as intended. We started up our treatment unit – and it didn’t solve the problem. The working solution was still getting degraded, even when the fixed bed unit was operated at only a fraction of its intended production rate. The equipment I installed was abandoned, and the large fixed bed unit was shut down and eventually dismantled. But I had learned valuable skills and had managed a significant project by myself.

The manufacture of H202 is not different by chemical manufacturers. At the time I worked to make H202, all manufacturers used the process I described. Eventually, the unit I worked at was sold to another company in exchange for one of the other companies processes. I left H202 when I got a promotion to be a process supervisor for the manufacture of acrylonitrile. But that’s another story for another time.

 

US Senate Race – West Virginia

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You can’t make this stuff up. The West Virginia Republican Senatorial campaign has three leading candidates. One is the current State Attorney General, who put down roots in West Virginia in 2012 just long enough to qualify legally for election. One is the current third district Representative, who changed from Democrat to Republican in 2013, after having served in the State Legislature for over 20 years as a Democrat. And one is — Don Blankenship.

Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Coal who inspired fear among his corporate subordinates when they dared to place safety first before coal production, he who was imprisoned for a year for a misdemeanor offense of violating Federal mine safety regulations, he who was the head of the company when 29 miners died in a totally preventable coal dust explosion, this person is making a serious run for the US Senate.

You would have to have lived in this section of Appalachia for decades in order to gain a full perspective as to the true nature of Don Blankenship. In 1985, while he worked for a Massey coal subsidiary, a bitter strike against Massey roiled the hillsides of West Virginia and Kentucky. Violence was common, as union supporters fired guns at replacement drivers and workers, and replacement workers struck miners with their coal trucks. In the end, the miners agreed to go back to work, but under the terms of the old contract, not the new nationwide bituminous coal miner contract that the union was trying to get Massey to adopt. During the strike, armed guards and replacement workers were housed in barracks at the mines, reminiscent of mine conflicts in West Virginia of the 1920’s. Don Blankenship became the voice of management, decrying “union terrorism” as he justified the measures Massey took to ensure continuity of operations.

Once the strike was over, Massey evolved into a company that kept buying up union coal mines, shutting them down, then reopening them as non-union mines. The power in the mines swung back firmly in management’s direction. Blankenship’s fortunes rose as his stature as a union-buster grew. He became CEO of Massey and gained a reputation as someone who disdained the regulations imposed upon his industry by the government. Within Massey mines, code phrases such as “red pens” would alert miners when government inspectors came to conduct inspections. That enabled the miners to pretend to be obeying all requirements while the inspectors were present, then get back to “running coal” once the heat was off.

Eventually, this culture of corporate evasion of regulations came to a head, on April 5, 2010, when the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine was enveloped by a coal dust explosion that killed 29 miners. Coal dust, like any organic material, is capable of generating an explosion that will follow through mine chambers as long as there is dust to ignite. Apparently, there was enough dust to cause the explosion wave front to extend for thousands of feet underground. That is a lot of coal dust.

Don Blankenship refused to accept responsibility for the disaster. He evinced a theory that a sudden and massive influx of methane at the mine face overwhelmed all of the safety efforts that Massey used, and caused the explosion. Not only that, but he insisted that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) required Massey to use a ventilation plan that significantly contributed to the damage of the explosion. All through the investigation where it was conclusively shown that poor dust control was the primary reason for the size of the explosion, Blankenship railed against the investigators, claiming that Massey and Don Blankenship were being railroaded.

I was amazed that in late 2014, Don Blankenship was indicted for Federal crimes associated with the UBB disaster. There were two felony charges relating to security fraud and issuing of false statements. These charges were related to misleading statements that he made after the explosion to minimize the impact of the disaster on the Massey stock price. There was one misdemeanor charge pertaining to conspiring to violate mine safety regulations, the actual charge that pertained to the accident and the lives lost. He was convicted of the misdemeanor, acquitted of the felonies, and in 2016, he was sentenced to a year in Federal prison on the misdemeanor charge. It is an indictment on our judicial sense of priorities that the securities fraud was viewed as more serious than the charges related to the actual killing of 29 miners, but I was happy to see any semblance of justice against the prevailing corporate culture of the mining industry.

In a world that retains a sense of morality, this would have been the end of Don Blankenship as a public figure. He would have served his time, then lived his life at his home in Las Vegas with the millions of dollars he received during his decades at Massey. But this man lived for more than money. He wanted revenge, and exoneration in the field of public opinion. During his imprisonment, he paid for the publication and mailing of a booklet describing what really happened in UBB, and how it was the political enemies of Don and those who hated the coal industry who were really to blame for the deaths of the 29. We received one of these pamphlets in the mail, but barely glanced at it before placing it in the recycling bin. As it turns out, the propaganda in the mail was only the first blast in Don’s redemption tour. He kept appealing his conviction up until the last week of his imprisonment. Then, in 2017, he announced that he was running for Senate from West Virginia.

When I saw the first of his campaign commercials late in 2017, I was convinced that he was using the vagaries of campaign finance to enable him to use unlimited funds to continue his crusade to clear his name. Don was by far the first West Virginia Senate candidate to place ads on TV. As time went on, however, I sensed a change in the tenor of the campaign ads. The guy actually thinks he can win. This from someone who has the charisma of a toad. Check out one of his last-minute ads if you dare:  Blankenship campaign ad

Don Blankenship has his primary residence in Las Vegas. He has long had a home situated on the Kentucky side of the Tug Fork river from West Virginia. His residency credentials for West Virginia are tenuous at best. But this example of human excrement is trying to convince enough voters of this state that he has always been misunderstood, and under-appreciated for all he has done for the hard working coal miners of the state, offering them a pathway to black lung disease, or if they are really lucky, immolation in one of his under-maintained mines. I am hoping that this Tuesday will represent the absolute repudiation of Don Blankenship, and cause him to crawl under a rock out in his Las Vegas hacienda, never to be seen in this state again.

Cognitive Dissonance? Riddikulus!

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In music, dissonance refers to two notes that are very close to each other. On a piano, the notes would either be right next to each other, or only one key apart (it can also be two notes separated by an interval of a seventh as well. We could digress into music theory but won’t.). Dissonance causes tension in the music, and those who are hearing dissonance want it to resolve towards a more consonant sound, where the harmonies are more pleasing. Composers often use dissonance to propel their music, giving a sense of forward motion when tension emerges through dissonance, then resolves.

There is another type of dissonance that helps in understanding the paradox represented by Donald Trump receiving the support of the Evangelical Christian community, and keeping it through all of the foibles and missteps of the Trump Presidency to date. That is cognitive dissonance, the psychological condition occurring when an individual holds two conflicting concepts, or cognitions, in their mind at the same time. The mental tension that this causes tends to be resolved in one of three ways, according to psychologists.

First, if there are two beliefs of nearly equal weight, one response is to reduce the importance of one of the beliefs by discounting it. As an example, assume one belief is that leaders are called to be moral exemplars and demonstrate their faith by adhering to the 10 commandments and living a life of piety and overt faith. Another conflicting belief is that Donald Trump is being used by God to return the nation to greatness under God, even though his actions during his life have been the antithesis of a moral man. How do you reconcile those two concepts? By going back into the Bible and dredging up examples of ungodly people who were used by God to advance God’s purposes on the earth. David is perhaps the best known example of a sinner who used his earthly power to manipulate his enemies to achieve his lustful goals, yet was blessed by God both before and after David’s deception of Uriah in order to claim Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba. Since God could even use a man as base as David for his purposes, then anything that Donald Trump had done, is doing, and will do in the future doesn’t matter, as long as Donald Trump’s actions further the kingdom of God on earth. There are a lot of personal sins that get overlooked, as long as the actions of this administration are seen as being hostile to the status quo that allows abortion.

A second way that people reconcile cognitive dissonance rattling around in their psyche is to develop new ideas, new cognitions, that help to displace the offending belief. Using our example of Donald Trump’s morality, someone who is bothered by Trump’s behavior will adopt a new belief that Donald Trump will appoint God-fearing, Constitutionalist judges who will bring this country back to core Biblical principles. Therefore, Donald Trump is good, and his moral failings and personality traits do not matter. The end more than justifies the means.

The final way in which people choose to deal with the troublesome conflict in their heads is to ignore the offending information. People will choose to ignore inconvenient facts, or refuse to accept them, or just surround themselves in an environment where they don’t encounter these data points (Fox News / Conservative Radio Talk Shows). This works especially well when the leader spends a great deal of emotional energy disputing the validity of any facts contrary to the desired script. In other words, its fake news, folks. It is obvious that this method of reducing internal conflict is the preferred method for many who are firmly ensconced in the Trump camp. This method works exceptionally well since it conditions the practitioner to discount any information that, if internalized, would cause cognitive dissonance. Avoid the problem by refusing to accept the validity of any contrary information. And this method has the added benefit of not only discounting the current flow of information, but also discounting any future flow of information from the same source. How many times during the past few years have you heard the disparaging term of lamestream media? Many are immune to those cries, but to those who are susceptible to the onslaught of right-wing propaganda, it serves to close the mind to any contraindication to their current beliefs.

This helps explain why those who steadfastly support Donald Trump are willing to overlook any sin or error of judgment that he has committed. Given clear factual refutation of Donald Trump’s statements, or being shown evidence of significant misdeeds in the past or in the present, supporters are able to rationalize all of the bad information away. It (bad behavior) either wasn’t important, or wasn’t relevant to the larger goals enabled through Trump, or (na-na-na-na-na-na) didn’t happen at all. Who can believe the MSM anyway? Donald Trump has recognized this phenomena. He stated it clearly and explicitly in his campaign. In a campaign appearance in Sioux City Iowa in January 2016, he said “You know what else they say about my people? The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.”

So for those who are opposed to the ongoing diminution of the nation’s morality and intellectual capital, how can we proceed given the immutable nature of Trump’s supporters? First, it is necessary to recognize that those who support Trump may eventually be worn down if enough facts pile up that are contrary to the fantasy being peddled by the right-wing media agglomeration. Some cracks in the Fox news monolith are encouraging, in that it appears that even that organization is having difficulty in swallowing the repeated lies laid out at the all-you-can eat buffet of the Trump communications office. But the disease of discounting any contrary evidence is too tightly woven into the psyche of Trump supporters, thus necessitating another mode of communication. My recommendation is ridicule and satire. Only by presenting images of Trumpism as being so outlandish as to call forth the image of Hogwarts students pointing their wand at Trump and calling it “Riddikulus“, will those who are captured by Trump ever be able to break their addiction to a false savior.

This post was assisted by an excellent description of Cognitive Dissonance in the following link.      Barker, Phil. “Cognitive Dissonance.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/cognitive-dissonance>.

Tumbling Tumbleweeds

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Photo copyright of the Huffington Post

Up until about 100 years ago, human entertainment meant being in the physical presence of the person or people providing the entertainment. From the ancient days where stories of survival and of origins were shared around fires that kept wild animals at bay, to times where a bone was drilled and put to the lips to create a flute, to times when an animal skin was drawn taut across a surface and a drum was made, early humans had an extremely personal relationship to their entertainment. Over time, as villages grew into cities, and amphitheaters served as gathering places for crowds to be entertained by specialists, entertainment began to be distanced from the audience. Still, the urge to provide entertainment within the family was strong, and helped in ensuring that a common culture bound the inhabitants of a nation together.

With the advent of commercially available recorded music, it became possible for performances to be shared across space and time. No longer was it necessary to be physically in the theater to hear a master perform, you could play a piece of music in your home, and no one in your family needed to have the skills to actually make music. And since artists could leverage their talents across a commercial audience, they had financial incentive to make their recordings attractive.

Radio was the next intrusion in the brain / entertainment interface. Now it was possible to share an evanescent moment that came into a house over electromagnetic waves. Voices could share a symphony, or a popular tune, or a news bulletin, or a Presidential speech, to an audience undreamed of only a few years before. Humanity became used to hearing voices and other coherent noise coming out of boxed enclosures that ran on electricity. You could listen to something as you did something else – maybe a dance tune while you washed the dishes. It became possible to multi-task.

Television was the next intrusive medium. It replaced the one-sense media input of radio, and substituted the two-sense audio and visual input of television. Once it was possible to share a presentation across a nation, the need to provide your own entertainment diminished further. We turned to passive imbibing of the media and its entertainment, and the piano in the corner of the living room sat idle more often than not. No longer was there a common language of music, from folk songs shared across a nation, but the new medium allowed for the balkanization of culture. The images of heathen dancing, reminiscent of tribal pagan dances, were blasted through the TV screen into houses across the nation, and the messages of young lust resonated with the youth generation ascending after World War II.

Divisions fostered by the ease of media consumption drove cultural differences. In the 1960’s, rock music with its message of rebellion and freedom, drove popular culture into new directions. The older generation was able to still enjoy the ballads and big bands they were comfortable with. Look up “Sing Along With Mitch”  if you wish to watch the last remnants of the popular culture for the Greatest Generation before it was swept away. Finally, another strain of popular culture emerged, with roots back in Appalachian music, as country music found an audience that did not share the hedonistic beliefs embodied in rock and roll. While the Who cranked out “Won’t get fooled again” to demonstrate the desire of the rockers to reshape society, Merle Haggard repudiated this movement with “Okie From Muskogee.” Battle lines formed during the late 1960’s still play out today in politics.

After the explosion of media input from the 1950’s through 1970’s, the fragmentation of the culture continued, but at a slower pace. Musically, reggae and disco battled for prominence. It was not until the advent of rap and hip-hop that a new entry into the culture wars really took hold. Rap and hip-hop provided a cultural perspective from the viewpoint of the minorities who never felt comfortable sharing in the larger culture. Even though their parents and grandparents created jazz, and R&B, those offerings were co-opted over time. But the raw energy of rap artists, enunciating their discontent with society, managed to rub many of the mainstream culture inhabitants the wrong way. The urban nature of these new offerings was alien to the experiences and beliefs of fly-over country. Yet another division was created in the muddled cultural landscape of the nation.

Television did not stand idle during these decades, either. A new genre of TV shows were created, where unknown personalities were coached to go through situations and create drama and comedy. These shows were inexpensive to make, and surprisingly popular with the viewing public. Reality TV became a new category for the networks, and the cable television providers. Now, more than ever, it became possible to gain unprecedented fame simply by being famous. Content and substance no longer was even important to the consuming audiences. The increasing passivity of the audience kept growing over time.

Into this environment, the smart phone was released and the internet blossomed. The new tools and toys embedded in these devices exacerbated the balkanization of the culture. But one thing new did result from the smart phone era. Now, more than ever before, the consumers of culture could become producers of culture. The bar to entry of needing expensive electronic equipment along with an entire network to make images available, no longer existed. Anyone had a chance at creating a video, uploading it to You-Tube, and having the lightning of viral success strike.

The use of smart phones though, comes at a significant price. That price is concentration. Now for the first time in human history, it is possible to eschew the need to concentrate on anything in order to enjoy the fruits of the culture. Selfies posted on Instagram fulfill the need for self-aggrandizement. Myriads of games enable those who are addicted to pick up their phones for mindless play, rather than have to partake of the moment they are in, and maybe actually reflect and think. Twitter survives and thrives because we all have to kibitz in the moment, and insert our own limited link thought pattern into the public sphere. Those rooted in the past abhor the conduct of diplomacy via tweet, yet given the descent of the culture into shallowness, it was inevitable.

Those of us who bewail the decline of concentration have few options. Some find it beneficial to use the tool of the internet to create their own blog, where they can expose their souls through words (guilty as charged). Others may self-select to stay rooted in the “higher” culture of the past, whether that be classic books, or Broadway productions, or symphonic music, but the median age of those who partake of this keeps climbing. Soon, the audiences for these forms of cultural expression will fade away as they die off. Then all that will be left is the chaff of a culture, rooted so shallowly that the first storm will tear it out of the dirt and all we will be left with is torrents of Tumbling Tumbleweeds , piling up around the relics of our society.

Thermodynamics? Its Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

oil well

For millennia mankind relied upon energy sources that were diffuse. We burned wood, which grows in energy-concentrating organisms called trees. We could only gather the wood if it had fallen, or if we could use our stone-based tools to break wood apart. Some folks were fortunate in that their environment held a form of turf that would burn, one we call peat. And once we domesticated animals, we discovered that we could burn their feces, if we could stomach the smell. But that was it. We could not leverage our power by harnessing energy sources to supplant muscle power.

Over time, we mastered the manufacture of metals. This made it easier to harvest wood, and made it easier to use it for heating and cooking. But only after we recognized as a species that we could use energy to create steam, and then harness the steam to do work, only then did we gain the possibility to advance society through the use of machines. Since that time, we have worked diligently to use ever more concentrated sources of energy in order to do our bidding. Coal was the first concentrated source of energy used to leverage man’s muscles, and entire regions rich in coal soon were honeycombed with tunnels where coal had been extracted.

Coal has its own problems, though. It is dirty, dusty, and burning it causes a sulfur stink to cling to the landscape where it is used. It also bears a human toil in the death and disabilities of those who work to mine coal. Oil has long been used by man for lighting, but the sources of oil were either vegetable in nature, or for a short time, based on blubber. This type of oil is a concentrated source of energy, but it is gathered by diffuse energy sources. It was only when man discovered how to extract virgin pools of petroleum oil from below the surface of the earth that it became possible to create a liquid fuel that could propel individual transportation vehicles. Once the miracles of fuel oil and gasoline were unleashed, the automobile age was enabled.

Concentrated sources of energy were viewed as inexhaustible in the earth, and man grew to believe it was his birthright to exploit these sources in perpetuity. Indeed, man even harnessed the second most concentrated source of energy known, that of atomic fission, and controlled it to convert mass into electricity. That source of energy creates its own problems, with long-lived radioactive waste, and with the narrow line separating safe operation from catastrophe. Still, the energy future for man looked bright.

But after centuries of exploiting concentrated energy sources, the problems resulting from their use have grown exponentially. In Appalachia, we no longer delve under the ground for rich veins of organic rock. The best veins are gone. Instead, we blow the top off of mountainsides in order to free up the 2′ and 3′ veins of coal that were left in bygone geological times. Excess dirt and rock is pushed over the sides of the former mountain, leaving behind a scar on the land where ground cover is grown to regenerate the soil that is long gone.

Standard oil wells have gone dry in many regions. The decline in oil production in the US, coupled with the expanding use of oil, led to over dependence upon foreign oil sources, particularly from the Arabian Gulf. In the 1970’s, this dependence led to the use of oil as a political weapon, as the Arab countries withheld oil from the US to protest Israel’s seizure of Arab lands after a failed Arab war on Israel. It was only with the advent of enhanced oil recovery through fracking that the long decline in US oil production was reversed.

But even with the impressive increase in oil and natural gas generated through fracking, there are other issues that need to be dealt with. This does not concern fracking wastes or earthquakes from waste fluid injection. No, it has to do with the depletion rates of wells drilled using fracking. Whereas a conventional petroleum reservoir has a depletion rate measured over decades, with fracking wells, the rate of production from a fracking well may decrease by over 50% in the first year. The depletion rate of a fracking well shows an exponential decrease in production, and the economic lifetime of a well may be less than 10 years. Thus it is necessary to keep drilling, inserting pipe into the ground, and dealing with all of the fluid handling for any oil or gas fracking well.

The net result is that it takes more and more energy to extract fossil fuels through fracking than the old method of production. Fewer and fewer BTU’s of useful energy is available from the well once all of the energy inputs of the well are subtracted. Subtract the energy used to make the steel pipe, the energy used to move all of the fluids and sand for fracking, the energy used to separate the fossil fuel from the comingled water, and the energy costs for pipelines and compressor stations for natural gas. One begins to come up against thermodynamic limits for obtaining useful energy out of fossil fuel extraction. For a link that you may find useful in pursuing this further, please check out http://peakoil.com/geology This website has many different perspectives on oil – either we are swimming in it, or the last big discoveries have already been made.

Note that this discussion has not mentioned carbon dioxide’s role as a greenhouse gas. Any solution to humanity’s energy issues needs to take greenhouse gases into account, but the underlying demise of the oil economy may happen despite all of the efforts to keep the oil flowing. No, what is needed is that we must realize that we need to go back to the older methods of harvesting diffuse energy sources. And all of the diffuse energy sources we have are tied to the sun. Whether it is solar electricity, or wind power, or biomaterials generating hydrocarbon liquids, all of them use the sun as the ultimate energy source. If we are to avoid a crisis over the next decade due to depletion of fossil fuel sources, we must commit to harvesting diffuse sources of solar energy to keep our society running.

Much of the blowback against global warming refers to the “globalists” imposing their control agenda upon the brave and valiant people who fly the fossil fuel flag. They are insistent that it is their right to live as their (most recent) forefathers lived, and keep buying the biggest SUV or pickup that they may ever need to have, simply because oil is cheap, and will always stay that way. Those people will be the first to be blindsided when oil prices keep climbing inexorably, year after year, and they will not understand that even though more oil is being harvested, only a small fraction of that oil is truly available to keep their profligate lifestyle afloat. If we truly do enter a world where it takes more energy to extract a barrel of oil than that oil will release during combustion, then the end for our life of ease will come, and we will retreat back into the life of the past, where all of our energy was consumed just in order to survive.

Inevitable?

Tantrum

In retrospect, it was inevitable. The very first time he encountered limits imposed upon him by systems he could not control, he regressed into the infantile emotional state that always existed just below the surface. For someone who never had to answer to others until he was hired to be President, he was woefully unprepared emotionally to face opposition and rejection. Thus now we have the spectacle of Donald Trump, arms crossed tightly around his torso while he expectorated his disgust about the actions of the US attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York.

He’s never had limits. As a child, he was fractious enough that his wealthy father enrolled him in military school to teach him discipline. While there, he began to exhibit his predilection for delegating responsibility while enjoying the privileges of rank. As documented in a story from the Washington Post in January 2016 , a dispute about whether a change in Cadet Trump’s assignment as a senior represented either a promotion, or a lateral move due to a failure in Trump’s ability to control his command, still drew a vitriolic response from Donald Trump decades later. Supposedly Donald was reassigned from a direct command role in his academy to a support staff role because he had overly delegated his authority, resulting in hazing of a younger cadet, who complained. As the reporter for the Post requested comments for the story in 2015, Donald Trump vehemently denied that his reassignment was due to a fault of his own, and he insisted on contacting his then 89 year old instructor from military school and asked him to refute what the Post reporter had discovered. When I saw that story and realized that here was a man running for the office of President, yet so incredibly insecure that he had to refute a story from military school days over 50 years ago, making multiple calls to the Washington Post to refute these allegations, I realized the boy was still firmly in control of the man.

Look at the business career he so proudly wears around his ego. Rules obviously were meant for others, not him. In the 1970’s, the real estate management company he shared with his father was sued by the US Justice Department (see, he’s had reason to not like Justice for a long time) for racial discrimination. His response to the complaints, made years later, was that they didn’t rent to any welfare cases, black or white. He didn’t like the new rules imposed from without, and thus did not deign to follow them.

He never had to answer to anyone else other than lenders during his family company’s existence. He touts his business acumen, but since his companies are private, not public, he never had to answer to shareholders, or a board of directors, or the SEC. No, he was able to shield the public’s eye from the internal financials of the Trump empire, except for those six times when he was forced to restructure debt from his real estate dealings through bankruptcy court. Of course, looking back, it does look rather foolish to have purchased two casinos in the limited gaming market of Atlantic City, then building the Trump Taj Mahal in the same market. Since Donald has never demonstrated an ability to think strategically, who could have foreseen that his new trophy to his ego would cannibalize revenues from his other two Atlantic City casinos? And who could have foreseen the growth in gambling facilitated by states throughout the nation, thus dooming Atlantic City properties to gambling irrelevance? Actually, just about any developer who had an ounce of common sense would have realized that doubling down on Atlantic City was going to generate only fool’s gold. But somehow, even with these failures, the Trump brand grew in status.

Donald hit his stride when he realized the value of his name exceeded his own ability as a developer. By using his brand name, he could leverage his influence by allowing him to manage properties without running the risk of financing these properties. Then came the breakthrough that solidified his status in the eyes of a gullible nation. “You’re Fired” evoked the image of a forceful leader who dispensed his wisdom in boardroom settings without his ever having to get his hands dirty. He had it made! He had the highest rated show in TV history! Women kept fawning over him – and all he had to do was begin to kiss them, he couldn’t help himself. Everywhere he looked, people were deferential to him, people worshiped him, people surrounded him to bask in his charisma.

Except, sadly, it was not enough. It was not enough that only those who watched his TV show paid him the homage he was due, he wanted his wisdom and wit to grace everyone in the nation. Nay, everyone in the world must recognize this super genius who could solve the world’s problems by himself, if only he could grasp the reins of power. The new tools of social media allowed a way for his brilliant thoughts to flow directly to his followers. He used Twitter since 2011 to expound his fantasy that President Obama was not born in the US, keeping himself in the public spotlight. And then, the fateful escalator ride in 2015 where he announced that he was inflicting himself on all of this nation, he made his Presidential announcement. He was grasping for the brass ring that would fulfill him. Life was good.

Be careful what you wish for. You just may get it. So it was with Donald Trump. Despite all odds, his spoken thoughts resonated with a nation that was desperate for a reversal of economic trends that had been in place almost all of Donald Trump’s adult life. There were enough people who believed in the man despite (and in many cases, because of) his bluster and take no prisoners style during the campaign, to elect this man to the office he sought. And now, for the first time, Donald Trump discovered limits imposed upon himself.

He swiftly learned that the Justice Department worked for the nation and under the Constitution, and didn’t serve as the President’s legal arm. Recusal by Jeff Sessions against any investigation of malfeasance in the campaign was taken as a personal slight, that to this day has not been forgiven. concept of an independent judiciary chafed at him, as legal challenges to his travel bans prevented his signature policy goal from taking effect. Then Congress pushed back, and the vagaries of party politics prevented passage of the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act.

And then, horror of horrors, an independent counsel was appointed. Someone outside of the control of Donald Trump, whose charter was to pursue illegal activities through the campaign, and even before the campaign should these activities be found relevant. Soon, targets of the investigation began to be charged, yet still Donald Trump kept chanting his “No Collusion” mantra. But pressure kept mounting as more and more of his colleagues and appointees either were drawn into legal jeopardy, or demonstrated administrative incompetence through petty purloining of public funds.

Now, this week, with raids by the FBI on Michael Cohen’s residence and office, the next to the last line of defense for this President has been breached. All the sins of the past are about to surface, and the truth will be revealed to the American public. Only, will the American public believe truth once they see it? Has the relentless campaign by Donald Trump to diminish and demean the press and the institutions of the Justice Department succeeded sufficiently where even if clear evidence of misdeeds is revealed, not enough of the base of this man will care? And this Congress, while it still resides in Republican control, will it exonerate Donald Trump before his high crimes and misdemeanors are given a full and just hearing before the eyes and ears of the nation? I hope not, but in this post-truth environment, I fear the worst.

Whatever Happened To The Door-to-Door Refrigerator Magnet Man?

Magnet 1

He called on us in our old house, back around 1991. A slight, stooped man, with hollow cheeks and limited teeth, bringing his wares. He peddled little refrigerator magnets, made out of popsicle sticks, colored felt cut into seasonal shapes, and accented with sequins. He spoke up apologetically, deferentially. “I’m selling these magnets. My daughter is disabled, she makes these, and I go around and sell them. Could you help us out?”

His plain clothes were well-worn, but clean. It was impossible to tell his age, but he looked well over 70. Around here in West Virginia though, people sometimes age at an accelerated rate, so I never knew his age the first time he came around. I bought one of his magnets, a bright yellow felt Christmas tree, and paid him a few dollars that I had in my wallet. He said “Thank-you” and left.

A couple years later, we had moved from Charleston to South Charleston. The same man appeared at our door one day, with his stock of felt magnets. This time, it was a rabbit since it was spring, and Easter was around the corner. The same story about his daughter, and saying how he didn’t want to ask for help, but if we wanted one of his magnets, he’d love us to have one. Again, we bought one for our refrigerator.

Now, these magnets barely had enough strength to hold themselves up, let alone hold any other papers. But the sincerity of this man shone through as he walked the hilly streets of Charleston and South Charleston. Though it was less than two miles as the crow flies between our old and new house, it was several miles further that this man walked, selling his wares and trying to make enough money to support him and his disabled daughter.

This man showed up several more times over the years. Sometimes it was in the heat of summer, and we invited him in and gave him some cool water, as well as buying another magnet. Sometimes, we may have even given him a few dollars without taking one of his magnets, telling him that we already had several. I don’t know how many times he showed up over the years, or how many magnets we bought from him. We still have three of his daughter’s creations gracing our two refrigerators. But just by seeing his face at our door, after months or years of absence, he bore witness to the strength of family, putting himself out on his strenuous walks just to try to make a few dollars.

magnet 2

 

You always notice the presence of something. You notice when a storm comes, or when the sun breaks through the clouds and brings it’s life-giving warmth. You notice the normal traffic on the streets and roads that you drive. What is difficult is to notice the absence of something. In the case of the magnet man, it was probably several years of absence before we brought it up that we hadn’t seen the man for a while. Now, looking back, it has probably been at least 10 years since we last saw the wizened face, with his handful of colorful magnets gracing his gnarled hands. We never saw any mention of him in any local news, although he certainly was known to many of the residents of the Charleston area. No obituary of him caught my attention, although I wasn’t paying as much attention to obituaries 10 years ago as I do now. It will always be one of those mysteries of life that, should we have an afterlife with the ability to form questions and receive answers, one of those questions would be what ever happened to the man who sold us magnets?

 

A Day In The Life Of The King

game-of-thrones-1722710__340 For those who are fans of the Game of Thrones, my condolences on presenting this work. You will need to be familiar with that series to capture the flavor of this post.

The King sat up in bed. Once more, he could see the opponents to his rule taken down by his favorite soothsayers from Weasel. They just demolished the arguments of his opponents in the court by simply saying that his opponents were namby-pamby wusses! Serves them right.

The King decided that he’d had enough time in his royal bed and went instead to his throne room. There he brought out his royal proclamation device and sent his wisdom out to his masses of adoring fans. He thought for a brief moment, “What should I say today?” Then he bent over on his throne as he strained to remove yesterday’s cheeseburgers, and it became clear to him. He proclaimed, “Best movement ever. Economy is reely going now. Only the lame-o’s who are haters can’t see it. SAD!” He dispatched this brilliant thought bubble out to the world, and prepared for his very active day of kinging.

The Queen was off again in the winter castle. She seemed to be staying down there, where the oranges were fresh, more often than not. Maybe it was all of the other noble ladies who kept harping on the King’s indiscretions that were driving the Queen away. Whatever. It did make the King’s daily life easier if he did not need to pretend to care about Queen number 3. The King idly thought about someone who preceded him as a King. Something about six wives. “At least they can’t accuse me of locking her up”, he thought as he saw the photo of the current Queen on the wall.

The King sat down to his breakfast. He was careful to make certain he got fruit with his meal. The apple Danish should suffice, he thought. Washing the pastry down with his first diet Coke of the day, he got dressed in his royal robes. He paid especial attention to his cravat, as it bore his blood red color. Making certain it extended down below his waist, he ensured it created a commanding presence. His servant held out his royal jacket, which he slid his arms through the sleeves, letting it rest loosely upon his fantastic frame. Thus armed, he strode down towards his round room, arriving just after 10.

Scarcely had he sat down when he was consumed by a desire to use the electronic raven. He picked up the voice piece and instructed his servant to contact his counterpart in the Kingdom of the Snows. When the connection was made, he spoke into the voice piece. “Vlad? I just had to let you know, it was not personal when I threw out your jousting party.” He listened for a brief period of time. “Yes, I know they had been looking forward to our tournament later this year.” Vlad apparently was making quite a point in reply, and the King pulled the voice piece away from his ear and his face assumed a grimace, before he returned the voice piece towards his mouth and ear. “I know, Vlad. You know how it is when you have to appease the court, right? If it was up to me, I’d start lopping off some heads, but my advisors have told me some bad things might happen if I did that.” Once more, he waited while Vlad continued with his side of the  discussion. Finally, the King said “I’m glad you understand. You and I, we understand each other. That’s good. I wish I could convince my advisors that it would be better if we just got along”. He hung up the phone, then sat back in his throne chair, leaning back and flexing his fingers against each other while he assumed a pleased expression.

After a brief period of reflection, he flicked on the sound box to summon his assistant. “Send in my jester.” It took a while for the jester to appear, so the King used the time wisely to practice his ball stroke, trying to coax the white ball into the hole on his green carpet he had placed atop the tapestry of power that lay on the floor of the rounded room. He heard his assistant open the door, and say “Sire, Jeff the Jester is here.”

“Good, send him in.” The King laid down his stick and went back to this throne chair behind the desk. Jeff the Jester came in, dressed not in motley but in a subtle blue suit. Only his projecting ears and small stature evinced his true nature as a member of the King’s assemblage. “Jeff, share with me something that will give me mirth,” the King commanded.

Jeff smiled as he cantered up to the desk. “Sire, we just stuck it to California. We told that libtard mayor of Oakland she was an embarrassment to the nation as she warned the alien wildings of the upcoming raids.” Jeff did a quick twirl of joy, then followed with “But what was best, I fired McCabe. I fired McCabe just two days before he was set to become a mooch off of the taxpayers by qualifying for a pension. Sire, I just wish I was around to see his face when he realized that his plans for a comfy life were in vain. I just wish.”

The King broke out into a broad rictus smile. “Jeff, I knew there was a reason why I kept you around. You really made me smile.” The King summoned his assistant. “Fetch me another diet Coke, and bring one for our Jester as well.” The King turned to Jeff. “So what will you be working on next?”

Jeff picked up the balls that were in the cup on the floor and began to attempt to juggle. Since he was an incompetent juggler, they soon were scattered all over the room. He looked back at the King. “I’m trying to come up with a way to silence the imp,” he said.

Just at the mention of the imp, the King’s expression totally changed. “Out. Out I say,” and he stood up, pointing at the door. “If you hadn’t said you had no power over the investigation, we never would have had that imp appointed. I should take you out and flay you.”

Jeff the Jester cowered as he backed away towards the door. When he reached the door, he bolted through it, knocking over the servant who bore two cans of diet Coke on a silver platter. The brown nectar fell and soaked the carpets. The King’s rage extended to his servant. “Up. Up you clumsy oaf. Go get something and clean up the mess you made.”

The King strode out of the room and went down the hall to consult with his hand. “Jared, where do we stand on getting the Palestinians to agree to peace?”

The King’s hand stood as the King entered his office. The King had begun bellowing his request while he was still in the hallway, so Jared was not certain he had heard the whole question. Through long experience, though, he knew better than to ask for clarification. Asking for more information was a sign of weakness, and would bring the wrath of the King down even on him. So he gave a non-committal response. “The Palestinians are not talking to us now. But I expect things to be better soon.”

“Hmmph” was all the King said, as he strode out of the room and went back to his round room. Once there, he summoned his assistant. “Go get me that guy with the name like a king, deals with diplomats. I need him.”

The assistant quaked while he dared to deny the King’s request. “Sire, you fired Rex a couple of weeks ago. The Senate has not confirmed his replacement. Do you wish to talk to the deputy?”

The King looked up, with a perplexed look on his face. Then, “Oh, that’s right. I forgot. Ok, then, fetch me my hound. And bring me another diet Coke.”

The assistant said, “Do you mean the Mad Dog?”

“Yeah. Have him come here. I’ve a question for him.” Since it would be a while before the Minister of War made it to the office, he decided to watch his mouthpiece speak for him on Weasel. He’d had several mouthpieces since he became King. Seems like none of them could deal with the questioning throng like he wanted. But this woman, she seemed like she was better than most. The King wondered what this woman would look like in armor, since she had a frame that looked suited better to plate than to Dior. But he soon grew bored listening to the questions that kept coming, even though his mouthpiece parried each thrust away.

The Minister of War arrived in the office. He carried a folder full of illustrations should any of them be needed in order to make the King understand. The King was gracious. “Sit, sit down. How’s the wife?”

The Minister spoke, “She’s do…”

“Good, good,” the King interrupted. “Look, the reason why I called you here was that I keep hearing about these dragons that this King of Poverty has developed. I hear tell that these dragons can even reach our shores. Is that true?”

“Sire, we believe that it is possible that a dragon unleashed from their kingdom could reach our shores. They have hatched several dragons over the years.” The Minister opened his folder to show a map with dragon tracks flying across the open waters. “We’ve analyzed the potential, and here we show…..”

The King interrupted again. “I don’t care about any analyses. I use my gut to analyze. We can’t have this King of Poverty threatening us with his dragons. Why can’t we use our own dragons to neutralize him?”

The Minister was taken aback. “Sire, we would not want to unleash our own dragons, even upon our worst foes. Do you know what sort of damage a dragon would cause?”

The King snorted. “Why do we keep on breeding them if we never unleash them. I want a proposal in two days about how best to unleash our dragons on the Land of Poverty.” He waved his hand, indicating that the audience was through. The Minister of War backed out of the room, and turned to go away through the door.

The King sat back in his throne chair, and drummed his fingers atop the desk. He glanced at his watch, saw that it was already after 4 o’clock. “Not much point in getting into anything else” he thought. He summoned his assistant and said, “I’m going back up to the royal chambers for some sovereign time. Have me paged if there is a matter of great import.”

Once up in his royal chamber, he summoned his meal. Two cheeseburgers today, with fries. And two scoops of ice cream for dessert. He donned his royal bathrobe and awaited his sumptuous repast. He turned on Weasel, but they were blabbering on about some weather emergency that didn’t mention him by name, so he grew bored. He switched to another channel which was showing a story about another kingdom, one where they kept out the alien wildings by means of a 700′ wall of ice. He was tempted to use his royal proclamation device to extol the benefits of building the wall out of ice, out there in the desert. Oh, heck, why not. “Build the wall! Use ice to keep the evil alien wildings out! And it’ll create free air conditioning for the border! SMART!” His last royal proclamation went out just as he finished the last of his ice cream.

The King went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: He hadn’t been sued by one of his now forgotten flings; he hadn’t needed to face the scribes; he’d had an extra scoop of ice cream at dinner … He’d thought of a new way to build the wall and enjoyed doing it… A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy one. There were one thousand four hundred and sixty-one days like this in his term. From the first swearing in to the last turnover to his successor. One thousand four hundred and sixty-one days. The extra day was for the next leap year.