So! Much! Winning!

Trump's world

The Rubicon was crossed on July 11 in Brussels. Donald Trump laid bare the façade about the ambitions of the United States. We have officially become an imperial power, exacting tribute from those whom we enfold within the protection of our magnificent arms. Acting unilaterally, and against the advice and wisdom proffered by those in his administration who possess a brain, he demanded that NATO members not only meet the level of a 2% defense spending level, but instead that needs to be doubled to 4%. One can only assume there will be a Paypal account set up to forward delinquent accounts to US coffers.

I can understand “shaking things up” as being a necessary step in order to bring about a change in behavior. We may agree that some sort of action was needed in order to prod reluctant allies to meet their commitment to fund the common defense. But the behavior of bullying that was on exhibit in Brussels goes far beyond what a prudent person would do in order to maintain workable relations with our allies. What we have is a belligerent toddler who is sadly in need of a nap, berating Germany for maintaining a commercial relationship with Russia for natural gas that they’ve had for 45 years, including 15 years before the reunification of Germany.

Everything is transactional for Donald Trump. He does not even seem capable of recognition that true trade deficits consist of both merchandise and service balances. He continually bewails the merchandise trade deficit as exemplifying unfair practices. I have yet to hear him complain about the trade surplus we run in services with most countries in the world. The economic knowledge of Donald Trump could be condensed into the following points.

  1. We are the best nation in the world. Everyone should be grateful that we buy other countries products.
  2. Every other country manipulates the value of their currency so that their products are cheap and ours are expensive.
  3. Screw this idea of economic interdependence. We must maintain domestic manufacturing capability for all products because our national security depends upon our ability to manufacture Depends©.
  4. There are no unforeseen consequences in trade wars. Once our trade adversaries see that we’re serious, they will lay on their bellies before our alpha dog posture. These wars are easy to win!
  5. I’m doing all of this for you, the American worker who has been deprived of his rightful position in this global economy, by all of my predecessors, who negotiated the worst deals ever in the history of history, just because they hated America!

It is amazing, but I must finally say that Donald Trump has exceeded my own expectations. I expected him to be a disaster. But as time rolls on, the brazen attempts at imposing the will of his overgrown colon (his gut instinct!) upon the world make me incredulous. The utter failure at doing any sort of planning for the implementation of his zero tolerance policy at the border, thus leading to the inability to reunite parents or guardians with children. The childish attempts for Nobel notoriety in Singapore, enabling the North Korean leader to play pat-a-cake upon the drum of Donald’s extended stomach. The ongoing denigration of the allies of the US, allies we earned through the blood sacrifice of the US military through two world wars in the 20th century. The completely incompetent attempt to alter trade balances through the imposition of broadening tariffs. This is only the first tier. The book has yet to be written that encompasses all of the incapability of this administration at accomplishing any significant goal (other than naming judges from the list provided by the Federalist society).

And through all this, the sycophants in Congress who bear elephant tattoos are silent. The once great Republican party, one that stood for liberty and balanced budgets and accountability in government, now is mute in the face of the personality cult of the current inhabitant of the Oval Office. They sold their souls for their tax cut, now they wander aimlessly, sending delegations to visit Russia and saying, “After all, both sides can make recriminations.” They are mute in the face of all of the descriptions of the inhumanity of their forced separation policy, now bearing fruit in the inability to reconnect families. They are silent in the face of the trade war escalation, apparently uncaring about the collateral damage being done to our economy, all in the name of “being tough.”

And yet, there is still a significant minority in this nation who sing this man’s praises, who believe that his actions are totally consonant with that of a man who is acting on behalf of the interests of the people of this nation. Those who would not deviate from their support should their leader start to machine gun the pedestrians walking down Fifth Avenue by his eponymous tower. After seeing episode after episode of his incompetence and venality laid bare, I wonder what world his supporters live in. Clearly, they do not seem capable of self-reflection or analytic thought.

I guess Fox News is proving to be a better mind modifier than even I had considered possible.

 

And the Living Is Easy (2018 Version)

2018 fawn

And the living is easy. This is a follow-up to my post a year ago when I evoked the bucolic aspect of my summer environment during the height of the summer season. Well, it is that time of year once again. As you can see, the new generation of hooved rat has been born, and is doing its best to persuade me that all members of the species are cute and adorable. So I find myself conflicted, deciding to not use my slingshot to poke at the mothers of the fawns that I find in my backyard. So far, I’ve seen one doe with a single fawn, and one with two. Since I don’t keep track of each deer around, I have no idea if that is the population growth for the year, but I’m good with that.

A week ago Sunday, we had just returned from a trip to NY late on Saturday. Accordingly, we decided not to make it to church on Sunday morning, and thus I was outside on my front porch, perusing the paper and sipping coffee, when it began to rain. It was not a normal rain, it was pouring down rapidly, so I looked at the drain in our driveway to ensure that we weren’t getting flooded. No problems. But then, the culvert across the street got blocked up and all of a sudden, all of the water from the hillside above us was cascading across the street and towards our driveway and drain.

 2018 flood

The street drains rapidly plugged with the same vegetable matter that had plugged the culvert, and muddy water inundated our driveway and blocked the grate in front of our garage door. It knocked down my simple paving block retaining wall, and ran across the yard, both above and below my car in the driveway. Having lived in the house for over 25 years, we had taken preventive action to keep water from infiltrating our garage and our lower floor. This was the first test of our new earthworks and we were pleased to find that no water made it inside of the garage except for a minor irritating amount that could be washed out with a hose. None of this 6″ of water soaking all of the miscellaneous material found inside of a garage. No mud coming into the lower floor of the house, requiring commercial assistance to prevent mold formation. I was pleased that I only had to move a bit of dirt and replace blocks in the retaining wall to return to pre-flood status. The picture shows the flow overwhelming the culvert across the street.

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The tomatoes and peppers are in their peak pre-BLT days. Lots of foliage, lots of small tomatoes set on the vines, but nothing ready to eat yet. Tomatoes got set out late this year because I had to do the deck cleaning and waterproofing before I wanted to set out the plants. Thus it was late May before I managed to get the plants out on our deck. The deer have still not figured out how to climb up the steps of the deck to get to the plants. Speaking of our deck, we moved into our house in 1992. At that time we had a deck made out of cypress that had clearly not been taken care of. We figured the deck was built sometime in the 1970’s, but it was nearly at the end of its useful life. We replaced the deck in 1996, and now our “new” deck is probably about the same age as the one we replaced. It really shows the advantage of ongoing maintenance – our deck has no wood rot or pitting problems, and the wood looks nearly like new. At this rate, the deck will outlast us.

 

We have our hummingbird feeders out, and they receive a lot of attention. It is too early in the summer for the alpha male hummers to set up ownership of the feeders, as they are still content to take their turns. But what was surprising to me is that another species loves the hummingbird feeders. The flickers are opportunistic feeders, and they will slowly draw nigh to the feeders, assessing the behavior of the humans who are sitting outside where they live. Eventually they start to suck the sugar syrup from the feeders, gaining sustenance from the red and yellow flower imitations. Flickers are omnivores. I have seen them on the ground, stirring up insects to munch upon. They also seek insects like other woodpeckers. Their ladderback feather patters and their clear call remind me that we are but trespassers in their turf. The other species we have a lot of this year are mockingbirds. They perch on the various wires leading to the house, and share their soliloquies of all other bird speech. I’ve often wondered what evolutionary advantage it is for mockingbirds to duplicate the sounds of the birds around them. That wonderful on-line source, Wikipedia, says that the birds sing the songs of others in order to convince rivals that this turf is already overpopulated with birds, and it is not to your advantage to stick around. My thought is that mockingbirds can be seen as lounge singers, doing cover songs of other birds, and it is up to you whether you think their act is good enough to stay for another round of drinks.

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Speaking of birds, in the summer one of my favorites is the finch family. It’s really family groups, as 5 or 6 finches come to gather around our feeder full of thistle seeds. You can hear them coming from far off as they chatter flying up to the multiple perches available to them on the feeder. Occasionally a chickadee will share a perch, but mostly it is the red and yellow finches who take turns on the feeders. Since they are messy eaters, they spill as much as they eat, which spawns a whole ecosystem of other animals cleaning up the spoils. Mourning doves and sparrows hop around on the ground, and chipmunks scurry about, finding the whole seeds that have fallen from the feeder. It’s a good thing that our two black cats have gotten older and are not much interested in going outside, because chipmunks are definitely one of our cats favorite prey. Right now, the chipmunks are catching a break instead of being caught and eaten.

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Summer is if nothing else, a state of mind. We have the great fortune to be able to slow down in the summer, and enjoy the late afternoon warmth while enjoying our favorite beverages. It is good to observe the rhythm of life going on around us, knowing that we are doing our small bit to keep things going by providing space free of herbicides and pesticides, allowing nature to coexist with us on our bit of West Virginia.

 All pictures by the author.

 

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses – Yeah, we’ve heard that already

Yankee Stadium

When can you feel a shadow? When the shadow is cast from a team pennant flying over Yankee Stadium in the hot summer sun. I felt the coolness when the flickering flag blocked the sun’s rays momentarily. I went to the descendent of the House That Ruth Built for an afternoon game with Seattle, while the orchestra that I came to see was busy with other tour activities. I braved the NY subway system, trying to find the right side of the platforms to head on out to the Bronx. On the outbound leg, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a group of middle-school students coming onto the train, along with a beleaguered teacher. The energy and interplay of this group of students was intense, and I enjoyed watching it, while I did say to the teacher that I thought she had her hands full. They left on one of the stops in Harlem.

The game itself was exciting, but most of the action happened in the first two innings. By the end of the top of the 2nd, the score was 4-2 Yankees. The game ended at 4-3. I saw three 2-run homers, including one by the Judge. I saw another home run taken away by a remarkable catch in center. And then the game settled into a pitcher’s duel.

Aaron Judge

One of the activities the orchestra went on was a harbor cruise. This tourist staple was complete with a guide who gushed about the history of immigration on Ellis Island, and gave glowing praise to the ideals represented by the Statue of Liberty. We heard about how the nation became a nation of immigrants, welcoming all to our shores, our nation being the embodiment of an open society. The passengers on the cruise represented the diversity of the world, with large groups of Asians, and many other passengers from throughout the world. Our group of 50 West Virginians added to the mélange of cultures on the ship.

Ellis Island

As we cruised on our return past Ellis Island, I was struck by the stark difference between the canned words of the tour guide, with the situation on the southern border of this country. Here was our administration, deliberately causing trauma in families by pulling children from parents, then separating them and keeping them in different facilities, sometimes thousands of miles apart. This administration that has been in control of the reins of government for 16 months, suddenly implementing a drastic escalation of the zero tolerance policy. What was abundantly clear was that the amateurs who are running our government had given scant thought about how to ensure there was a system to link parent to child, so they could be reunited. The amateurs had not built facilities that could handle the huge increase in detentions. Instead, they implemented it and then were incredulous when there was a backlash against the cruelty inherent in this forced separation policy. Even this week, we saw Jeff Sessions attempting to make light of the situation by claiming that all those who objected to the policy were to be found in gated communities, and they would gladly separate trespassers to the gated community from their families. I heard the echoes of “Let them eat cake”.

Statue of Liberty

Whatever your feelings are on the increased prosecution of illegal immigrants, even of those who try to follow the rules and are claiming asylum at recognized crossings, I cannot see how you can be in favor of the splitting of families for what is in essence a misdemeanor crime (first time offense of crossing border illegally). This is not what we as a nation represent. Our national mythology is that we welcome the immigrant, and are willing to evaluate each immigrant’s story based upon well-established principles for admission to this nation. I heard that mythology reflected in our tour guide’s script that she probably repeated 5 or 6 times a day. It is clear, though, that any more it can only be found in mythology, since it no longer represents the present state.

This nation has always had a conflicted history regarding immigration. At various times, it has been the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the southern and eastern Europeans, the Chinese, all of these groups have been savaged as they were allowed into this nation. Each time, the new group came in and established their own civic traditions, and eventually those traditions merged into the national culture with the passage of generations. Now we are in a world where the potential number of migrants greatly exceeds our capability of assimilating them. Combining that with a leader who evokes fear of others, who can only see the bad in those from outside instead of the good, and you end up with a perfect storm for those who were unfortunate enough to have bought into our national mythology and believed they would be welcomed into this nation.

The recent history of trying to resolve the immigration system, and the status of those already in the nation illegally, is replete with outlandish partisanship. Especially since the election of the Tea Party fanatics who view any mention of a pathway to citizenship as being traitorous, the well of bipartisanship has been poisoned. Now we have efforts from the House of Representatives at forcing a discharge petition to allow free and open debate upon the House floor. The beleaguered House leadership, not wanting to cede control to the possibility of bipartisan legislation, instead tried to force consideration of two different proposals depending only upon Republican votes for passage. It was heartening to see both of those efforts smashed into bits by the final votes. I can only hope that those who were pursuing the discharge petition renew their efforts, and attempt to develop a bill that can find supporters from both parties. Only then will we take the first steps towards healing the national divide on immigration. Only then can we hope to deal with the root causes of the problem, rather than dealing with the symptoms when they arrive on our border. And only then will we possibly develop a sustainable system for bringing new residents into our country, where their skills and energy can help to revitalize this nation’s communities and economy. Only then can we Make America Great Again!

All photos by author.

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Take a Bus!

Carnegie Hall.jpg

There are locations that are sacred for practitioners of the arts. For musicians, one of these locations is Carnegie Hall (the one in New York, not the one in Lewisburg, West Virginia). It has served as a mecca of music for over 125 years since its opening in 1891. Last week, I had the great fortune to attend an orchestra festival, seated in a box seat just above the main floor, and listen to three youth and community orchestras perform. I came to see the Charleston Chamber Orchestra, which was the last of the three groups to play. They played three pieces, with the centerpiece being a movement from the Shostakovich Piano Concerto #2. The pianist exuded sensuality as she pounded the keys, expressing through her fingers the quintessence of Russian soul music, flinging back her mane of curly hair as she bounced on the bench. And complementing and contrasting the piano, the high notes of the piccolo played on, providing piercing punctuation to the percussion of the piano. My wife was on stage of Carnegie Hall, sounding the high notes that as she says, “Only the dogs can hear.” Well, my high frequency hearing still must be in good shape, because the night before in a smaller venue, those same notes actually hurt my ears.

The Charleston Chamber Orchestra exists due to the vision of its founder, Dr. Scott Woodard at West Virginia State. When the resident string quartet for the West Virginia Symphony was cut loose in a cost cutting measure, Dr. Woodard was able to offer employment, and an opportunity to participate in his dream, a symphony orchestra of the community. Music students at State, high school students from the Youth Symphony, professional musicians both past and present, and members of the community who have the ability to tackle a symphonic repertoire, all are members of this orchestra. This includes a blind flutist who sits next to my wife, who is able to play despite never seeing the baton beat the tempo. The orchestra has existed for fewer than three years, but this year they were invited to a festival in Carnegie Hall based upon an audition tape (we still call them tapes even though no physical media is used to record). The orchestra has a fairly full wind section, is light on strings, but is capable of tackling serious symphonic pieces. Well enough to receive a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall.

Charleston Chamber Orchestra

 

I was able to hear this group’s improvement from its inception. My wife got in on the ground floor, having grown acquainted with Dr. Woodard when she served as adjunct faculty. The group has another performance scheduled early next year in the Kennedy Center in Washington, and a dream about collaborating with an orchestra in Vienna. In my own life, music has allowed me to sing in music festivals in Charleston S.C. It has allowed me to perform on stage with Jennifer Garner. It has allowed me to accompany my sons when they were with the Appalachian Children’s Chorus on trips through central Europe, and to Oahu. And now, music allowed me to have the experience of being seated in a box in Carnegie Hall, enjoying the sounds not only of my friends, but also to hear youth orchestras from Green Bay and from the Bay region in California. You don’t have to be a professional musician to allow music to expand your range of experience in a lifetime. But it does take time and effort, and at least a moderate amount of talent to ensure that you don’t make a fool out of yourself. The musicians in this orchestra? Let me replace the word moderate with the word plentiful, and that comes closer to capturing their performance.

The day after the performance, we boarded a bus back to Charleston. It was ironic that the first movie that was played on the return trip was “The Bucket List”. Many of those in the orchestra had just completed checking one or more items off of their personal bucket lists.

 

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.