The Amateur Hour

transformer

Amateur – 3. A person inexperienced or unskilled in a particular activity

The United States is conducting an experiment. An experiment that affects each and every person inside of the country, and many others around the world. This experiment involves turning over the operation of the executive branch of government to a group of amateurs, and observing what happens when amateurs are turned loose upon the gears of diplomacy, economics, and the military.

So far, the results have not been catastrophic. Taking the issue of the economy for example, the trends established since the economy bottomed in 2009 are continuing to result in gains in employment, and in measured economic growth. Despite claims of exceptional performance under the current administration, GDP growth averaged 2.2% from 2010 through 2016, while GDP growth during the current administration has been 2.6%. Using the statistical t-test, the two sets of data (past administration vs. current administration) are equivalent. There is not a statistically significant difference between 2.2% and 2.6% growth. But the one knob that this administration has turned, the tax cut, has yet to factor into the performance of the economy. The tax cut does have the potential to increase the rate of GDP growth significantly. However, the tax cut comes with a cost that has yet to be reckoned. The estimated deficits will increase greatly due to reduced tax revenues, and if there is an economic downturn in the next few years, the normal response of loosening fiscal policy to boost the economy will likely not be available. So we are at the mercy of the amateurs in the administration who believe it to be prudent fiscal policy to significantly cut taxes at a late stage in an economic recovery that has entered its ninth year. But what do experts know, anyway?

If you consider diplomacy, there is certainly a mixed bag to date. It does appear that twitter tirades and brazen bluster did result in at least enabling an initial meeting between North Korea and the US, with a generic agreement being signed. If this is indeed a first step towards a ratcheting down of tensions on the Korean peninsula, then this administration will have accomplished a worthwhile and noteworthy goal. But if the North Koreans continue playing Lucy with the football to the US’s Charley Brown, then relations may end up worse off than if there was no meeting.

That is the good news on the diplomacy front. Elsewhere, it is evident that this administration has zero respect for, and zero admitted need for diplomatic experience and expertise. Witness the exodus of State Department veterans over the first year of this administration. As of last November, 60% of the top management of the State Department had left government service, according to the American Foreign Service Association. A hiring freeze instituted under Rex Tillerson has been lifted by his successor, but nothing will replace the institutional memory and experience of those who were driven out by the bias of the current administration against subject matter expertise. The supporters of this President would say that this reduction in long-time employees is “draining the swamp”. What they do not realize is that this world is complex, and the diplomats at the front line in embassies around the world are essential in preventing US interests from being damaged. There will be costs, some of them severe, in the years to come due to the sabotaging of the diplomatic corps.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic style of this President was fully on display at the recent meeting of the G-7. The petty nature of the response to Prime Minister Trudeau’s press conference, replete with the denunciation of Trudeau as having “stabbed the US in the back” by declaring that Canada would not be bullied by the US, shows how much of this President’s actions are guided by his personal perception of slights. The threats unfurled against the strongest allies and trading partners of the US show that he has a vanishingly small knowledge of international trade and the risks to the economy of the world, by insisting on retreating to an era when America may have been great, but by imposing tariffs, we helped to drag the world into depression shortly thereafter.

Militarily, we are repeating the follies that have bedeviled military planners ever since military technology began changing year by year. That is, we are fighting the last war, not the next war. Thus the huge increase in the military budget over the coming years is earmarked for more ships, more fighters, more bombers, more in-air refueling capabilities, and keeping older hardware systems running. Meanwhile, the funding for cyber security ends up with a scant 4% increase when all of the ups and downs of spending by department are added up. Undoubtedly, there is a need for building ships to replace those that are near the end of their useful life. Likewise, replacement aircraft are needed. But the budget funds multiple generations of new weapons systems with no apparent overall strategy on what the military force of the future should look like.

The wars of the future will increasingly be economic or cyber in nature, and seeing funds spent on hardening the electric grid, purchasing large numbers of replacement transformers that could quickly be put in service should a grid disruption occur, these funds would be well invested for our economic and physical security. In fact, just as we used to have strategic metals reserves in case our supply got cut off, we should have a strategic transformer reserve, where these substation-level transformers that will be fried in an EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) event can be quickly replaced. The best way to provide such a reserve was investigated by the Department of Energy and the report was issued to Congress in March of 2017. It does not call for a Federally owned reserve, but calls instead for increased coordination across utility companies. It does call for an increased reserve but one that is maintained and controlled by utility companies. Will such a program work when it is called upon? No one knows. But we do know that the huge increase in military spending is not going for what can happen in the present or future. No, it is going to the weaponry of the past.

Once again, the amateurs determining the strategy for national defense are insistent upon spending large to procure the weapons of the past, while ignoring the needs for the defense of our nation and our lifestyle from the real threats that we face.

The concept of amateurism is good. In athletics, we maintained the façade of amateurism for many decades, but eventually it was broken down. In tennis, in the Olympics, in all sports, it is recognized that if you wish to have excellence in performance, it is necessary to have people who can dedicate their lives to the sport by being paid for their efforts. We followed the same principles in our government. Those who were willing to sacrifice much larger private sector paychecks for the limited compensation of government positions were recognized and honored for their expertise and their service. But in this misguided administration, we have sacrificed those who developed their expertise over decades, in order to promote the agendas of the amateurs who struggle against the current of events in their fields. The problem is that there are real consequences that come from having amateurs deal with issues that can cost real money, and real damage to international relations, and cost lives when dealing with the military.

 

Three Degrees of Separation

colosseum-601763__340

I claim to be only 3 degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. I make that claim due to a play I did 29 years ago this summer. The Charleston Light Opera Guild always had a summer show, and that year the show was “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. The summer shows were an opportunity for some of the high school dancers who were in our director’s dance studio to have roles on stage, and see if they wished to pursue dancing and acting further. Well, one of the high school dancers played a courtesan, and I remember her distinctly as she had a blue jewel in her belly button. Her name? Jennifer Garner. But I cannot bring many other memories of her back over this time period (btw – that gives you a good idea how old she is now as you see her on the Capital One ads).

No, this tale is about another of these high school dancers, who contributed to the single best moment I ever had while either on stage, or in an audience watching a play. First, a bit of background on Forum, as it was known. This was a slapstick musical comedy set back in Roman days, where a cunning slave named Pseudolus was continually plotting to gain his freedom. He belonged to my character, Senex, an older man who was dominated by his wife Domina (subtle this play ain’t). Meanwhile, my son Hero was in love with a courtesan-in-training who was owned by the brothel owner Lycus, who just happened to live next door to me. The play is a series of comic scenes ending up with a family reunion, Hero being able to marry his love, and Pseudolus able to gain his freedom. On Broadway and in the movie, Zero Mostel played Pseudolus. It was the funniest show I’ve ever been in, even without the events I am about to relate.

Now, of the courtesans, Jennifer already was decently endowed. But another of the courtesans needed a bit more augmentation in the breast area. This was accomplished through the means of two water balloons strategically placed in her upper costume. We had done many rehearsals, and several performances, and the water balloons served their purpose admirably.

Except, for the one night, where one didn’t. Our dancer (whose name will remain anonymous to protect her), was out shaking her booty as she displayed her wares for a potential buyer. That night, one of the water balloons escaped its bondage, and bounded on down to the floor.

Now odds were that the water balloon was going to burst once it hit the floor. This being Forum, of course that didn’t happen. What did happen was that the water balloon bounced, then rolled to a stop halfway across the stage. When it stopped rolling, one of the eunuchs pranced over to the water balloon, went “Oh! Oh!”, scooped it up in his hands, and presented it back to the unbalanced courtesan. I can’t remember exactly what she did, but the audience and most of the cast broke up, eventually leading to the show going on.

If we ever could have been assured that the water balloon would not burst, we would have built that into the blocking and it would have been the funniest thing ever in a scene. So it is ironic that in my one legitimate attempt to be a name dropper on one of my acquaintances, it was her friend, who never made the trip to Hollywood and became a big star, who left the greatest impression on me. As it turns out, that was the last big play I’ve been in, as I had just gotten married, and life in the form of children interrupted for a long time. But if that was my swan song for the musical stage, what a way to exit.

 

Sustaining the Swamp

algae-1578953_960_720

I was sitting on a bench next to the Tidal Basin when bubbles erupted in the water before me. Slowly, my old friend Slimey, the slime monster emerged from the water, dripping from the moss and algae clinging to his arms and scaly torso. I noticed he seemed a little heavier than when I saw him last fall. He nodded to me and motioned at the other end of the bench I was sitting on. I motioned my arm to say, “Come on.”

He waddled over and plopped down on the bench. I could feel the balance shift slightly as his mass pushed down on the far end of the bench. I said, “You look like you are doing well lately.”

He looked at me and in his sibilant hiss, he said “You don’t know how good things are going for me in the DC swamp. All my fears about them draining my environment – they’ve vanished. I’ve never had it so good.” He paused to brush a strand of algae from his left eye, then continued. “I mean, Pruitt is everything we could wish for. He’s let loose a huge slug of rulings that are helping to feed me and my family. Thanks to him, all of the sludge from mountaintop removal is still flowing downhill to the Potomac, and let me tell you, that selenium is mighty tasty. But it’s not all Pruitt and EPA.” He paused.

I asked something that has been bothering me. “Do you get anything from the changes on the finance side? I know for us humans, the swamp is more than just what’s in the water.”

Slimey tossed his snout up in the air, seeming to laugh. I’d never seen his kind laugh, but the snortle was unmistakable. “Oh, my yes. I never wanted to admit this before, but when all of these tax changes support trickle-down, quite often the trickle-down misses all of the humans without money, but the trickle is a torrent by the time we get it. I mean, once that Dom Perignon is filtered through the kidneys, it gives a kind of rush to us when we taste it. And I’ve got to say, there’s been one heck of a lot more of it in this area since December. Live the good life, that’s what I say.”

I pondered on his statement for a while. “So for you, it all comes down to what’s going on with the water.”

Slimey shook away a dragonfly that was flitting around his head. “You might say that we notice things here in the water a bit more intensely. That’s why I’m so happy about getting rid of all those horrible programs aimed at slowing global warming. You don’t know how uncomfortable this place can get in January. I remember those times when ice would cover most of the water, made it damn hard to find a place to grab a breath. But now, we’re not shivering as much in the winter, and in the summer, it’s like we’re in a hot tub. I’m getting older now, and it feels so much better when I lay back and soak.”

I found I had another question that had bothered me since our first meeting last fall. “How is it that I’ve never heard of any other sightings of you, except for me, and now twice?”

Slimey dragged his long tail back and forth in the water, not ready to answer. Then, he admitted “Not everyone can see us. The way everything is polarized now, folks only see what they want to see. What they’ve been conditioned to look for. Now, look at me.” He pointed to himself with one immense claw. “What is it that you see?”

I weighed my words carefully. Though he had not given me any cause for alarm during our two encounters, he still was a massive reptilian figure with claws capable of instant evisceration and teeth capable of instant decapitation. I did not want to draw his ire, as I sensed I could not outrun him either. I finally said, “I see … someone we’d have had as a movie star in the 1950’s.” Slimey actually looked like he was honored by that, though it was hard to discern the exact expression on his face.

“You know,” I said to him. “You know, I think you might have a future in this administration. I think if you liked, I could float your name to him as an undersecretary of the Interior for wildlife management. What would you think of that?”

Slimey smacked his lips as he thought of the possibilities the position would provide. Unlimited snacks! But then he slowly shook his head back and forth, and he said “Thanks, but no. I don’t know if I could stand the cold-blooded nature of the folks I’d have to work with. You see, we never learned how to lie out here in nature. It seems like that’s a job requirement for anyone in this administration. No, I’m better off on the outside.”

Our conversation dwindled away. Finally Slimey got up, waved to me and started to slide down into the waters of the Tidal Basin. Just before his head was ready to go underwater, he turned back to me and asked. “What happens if he loses the House in the mid-terms?”

I thought for a brief moment before replying. I said “I don’t think it’ll make a bit of difference for those in the swamp. I think their fate is safe.”

He nodded his head, then slid under the murky water once more.

 

Where the Wild Threats Are

meteorite-1060886_960_720

What are the real problems facing society? I’m not talking about the issues that take the most space on cable news channels, or in the remaining newsprint options available, or on internet boards. No, I’m talking about the issues that face humanity across the globe, issues that threaten our well-being and the health of the planet that we share as a species. This post is a discussion of what I consider to be the 7 most critical problems that we face, with a little explanation as to why they are so critical. They are posted in inverse order. That is, the least important is presented first, and the most important is last.

7. Celestial billiards. With increased sensitivity, we are now learning how many objects out there in space may have Earth’s name engraved on them. It seems that almost monthly we hear about an object of substantial size that will pass, or has passed within a few 10’s of thousands of miles of Earth. Efforts are being made to catalog all objects that may be an existential threat to life on Earth, and we will likely see an attempt made on some object in the future to alter its orbit, just to prove that the capability works before we need it. But space is huge, and we are small, but just large enough to serve as a target in the ongoing game of celestial billiards.

6. Infectious Diseases. This problem has two main causes. First is antibiotic resistance. Having been given the magic bullets of antibiotics in the 1940’s, we applied them everywhere. Go to the doctor for a viral cold? Ask the doctor for an antibiotic. Learn that antibiotics lead to faster meat animal growth? Apply low dosages of antibiotic to animal feeds, ensuring the maximum exposure to antibiotics in the environment. And now, 80 years later, resistance to antibiotics is emerging everywhere, and it is doubtful that new antibiotics can be developed at a fast enough rate to compensate for the loss of effectiveness of standard antibiotics. We may later look upon the brief period of antibiotic effectiveness as the golden age of human longevity. Add to this the possibility of viral diseases such as Ebola becoming global pandemics due to the increased interconnectedness of our society, and we face potential crises of infectious diseases in the future that are intractable.

5. The Rise of Willful Ignorance. This is different than denial of scientific truths, although many who are willfully ignorant also deny findings from science. This is a recent phenomenon, and it manifests itself by deriding subject matter experts as “elitists” who are out of touch with the human experience. Its adherents find solace in anecdotal evidence, and evidence shared second and third hand via the internet. It includes those who decry fake news while sharing the latest conspiracy-laced rumor without a shred of physical evidence. Why? Because those shadowy figures who control the mass media are trying to foist their elitist world view down the throats of the normal hard-working silent majority, and thus we cannot trust anything that they say. Those who follow this practice will ignore all real evidence against their beliefs, up to the point where their ignorance costs them their lives.

4. Sea level rise. Regardless of the source of the warming, it is abundantly clear that ice is melting, especially in the arctic, the surface ocean waters are also warming and expanding, and that will result in sea level rise. Since so much of humanity’s population is settled on or adjacent to the ocean shore, ongoing sea level rise will cause massive human displacements in the underdeveloped world, and will cause unimaginable damage to infrastructure in developed nations. The local communities on the front lines of the struggle are trying to deal with the issues, but unless and until we recognize that sea level rise is inexorable, and that we need to deal with it both on a national and trans-national level, then we will incur excessive costs due to our intransigence at denying that there is indeed a problem. And the refugees that are flooded out of their subsistence farms in Bangladesh and other countries will dwarf the number of refugees that came from the Syria conflict.

3. Tribalism and Denialism. These two items are strongly linked, since there is evidence that the political movements most identified with tribalism and nationalism and isolationism, are also the political movements most engaged in the denial of demonstrated scientific principles. Tribalism is troubling since it assumes that all of our problems are the result of “others” encroaching on our borders, or serving as a fifth column within our borders. It denies that there are problems that are trans-national in nature, that can only be addressed effectively by multi-lateral efforts. Thus any effort to reduce the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is ridiculed, since all true tribal believers know that CO2 is a fertilizer for plants, and besides, 400 parts per million is too small to affect the thermodynamics of the atmosphere, and besides, whatever we do in our country will be overwhelmed by the developing countries increasing their emissions, and besides, who are we to think that we are as powerful as God. You can go through any series of logical sequences for any of the problems that are fostered by tribalism and denialism, but the bottom line is that a tribal world sees others as a threat, and focuses non-productive energy on preventing incursions from others, while excluding any problem that is truly global in nature from being worked on.

2. Human-induced extinctions. Ever since humanity learned how to craft weapons and hunt creatures larger than ourselves, we have served as agents of extinction. During the last two centuries, the pace of extinctions has grown exponentially, so that now the rate of extinction is estimated at 10 to 100 times the natural rate of species extinction. Whether it is through habitat elimination, or overfishing, or introduction of non-native species, or through unintended effects of herbicides and pesticides, all of these conditions are removing species from the Earth. We do not know what effects there will be by changing the composition of the web of life. But the fact that we appear to be such poor stewards of the Earth that we believe we are the only species that matters, is one for concern.

1. The number of people on Earth x the resource consumption per person. In higher math, it is often the cross-product that is the variable of interest. Here we have a cross-product that represents the amount of resources that we are extracting from the Earth at a given time. Both factors are increasing, and we are finding physical limits on what we can do to address this problem. This problem exacerbates other critical problems, such as anthropomorphic global warming, plastic pollution overwhelming the oceans, creation of dysfunctional mega-cities, and increasing the risk of the collapse of natural systems.

This represents my own list of concerns that can develop into existential crises for life on Earth. As such it is an extremely arbitrary list, and others should work to develop their own lists. Some of the things I excluded from the list include the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and its effect on employment. Also, I excluded scientific terrorism, like developing a super virus and unleashing it on the world. Even basic terrorism failed to make the list. Nuclear engagement is not on the list, although many of the problems I describe could have a nuclear engagement as a likely outcome if they are taken to extremes. Later posts may tackle some of these concerns and discuss potential solutions for them.

 

Social Security – the Personal Option

money-1012599_960_720

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

nazi_party_rally_grounds

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

hydrogen peroxide

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

miner

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!

music-932097__340

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

Tumbleweeds

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.