Laughing at Laffer


Image from R&G Brenner Income Tax Blog


Apparently, Republicans share one belief. That belief is that math does not matter. Only in the fantasy world they inhabit can they believe the failed mathematics of the Laffer curve, where reductions in tax rates magically foster geysers of growth in the economy, thus generating more income for the government than was present before the tax rates were cut. Despite the history of the last 36 years, where this experiment was carried out multiple times and failed to deliver each time, this commandment of the Republicans to cut taxes has surfaced its head once more out of the murky swamp of Washington. Donald Trump’s desire to make his mark on the presidency as the “Greatest of Them All” has led him to sound the processional trumpets announcing the Greatest Tax Cut of All Time.

And so, the political party that decries deficit spending appears poised to partake in an orgy of increased deficits for as long as the eye can see, all in the name of what? To reduce the taxes on the haves of the nation. Ayn Rand has truly taken over the philosophy of the Republican party nowadays. According to her philosophy, not only should each of us be selfish, but it is immoral to compel us to engage in a process to provide support for anyone other than ourselves and our immediate family. Indeed, it is only through unfettered capitalism that mankind can achieve its highest capability.

Well, the supremacy of selfishness has sure stuck, and with it, the philosophy of “I got mine, you must get your own” is omnipresent within the Republican party. There seems to be a lack of recognition within the Republican officials that we live in a society with a wide range of capabilities and limitations. Let this quote from Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KAN) speak for itself: “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves. He added that “morally, spiritually, socially,” the poor, including the homeless, “just don’t want health care.”” And the comment from Rep. Jason Chaffetz about the poor giving up the latest I-phone to invest in health care, as if the costs were comparable, is as tone deaf as I’ve ever heard.

When you hear over and over that the only reason why people cannot afford health care is because of their own moral failings, and those words are coming from elected representatives, you realize what a gaping gulf there is between the reality facing millions of hard-working Americans who cannot afford this irrational health care system, and the plutocratic class they’ve elected to represent them. So the first pass of the tax reform plan reported this week does provide limited relief to those in the bottom two quintiles of the income distribution. But it delivers major income gains to those who have already won the economic lottery in this nation. And it further exacerbates the income inequality within this nation, without addressing the fundamental problems of the economy.

Those problems include the decades long deficit in infrastructure investment. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s (you know, the time when America was great), Federal grants for infrastructure averaged about 0.5% of GDP. That has declined over time to about 0.3% of GDP. And with the decline in the spending on infrastructure has paralleled the decline in the condition of the national investment. I do not know what spending rate is correct for a nation, but 0.5% should serve as a starting point for Federal investment in infrastructure commitment.

So if we have a deficit in spending that grows at a rate of about $40 billion a year, and the deficit is now decades old, you quickly come up to the trillion dollars that is being bandied about as a fix. So far the plans for infrastructure investment have not been released, but the information that has seen the light of day indicates that private/public partnerships with significant tax credits will work to leverage the minimal amount of Federal money that would be spent. I would agree that there are some large-scale projects that could use this approach, and that the public would be willing to support being charged through tolls or other cost recovery methods. But the bulk of our deferred maintenance involves fixing rusting bridges, repaving existing roads, safeguarding and modernizing the electric grid, replacing leaky water mains and sewer lines, and making sure our dams are not ready to collapse and flood us. Very little of that lends itself to a private/public partnership. No, what is needed is a true commitment to a long-term increase in spending and grants to local and state governments to tackle the backlog of deferred maintenance. I for one do not enjoy worrying whether the bridge I drive across will pull an I-35 and collapse on me.

This is what is truly worrying about the political divide and the non-functioning of our legislative institutions. No one is thinking strategically. No one is coming up with a proposal that will work to restore this country to what it should be, and get people back to work in the heartland of the nation doing honest labor fixing these problems. No, what we get is proposals that will widen the deficit and enrich those investing in private/public partnerships, but will barely scratch the surface of the needs we have.

We built the infrastructure of this country. It catapulted us up into the status of the wealthiest nation on earth. But for most of the last 40 years, we have coasted on past achievements. Meanwhile, entropy keeps attacking our achievements in the form of rust, erosion, and potholes. Let’s use the opportunity of tax reform to include securing funding for a significant increase in funding for infrastructure repair. This is not something that you can throw an unlimited amount of money at, because the capability in the private sector is limited to do the work. That is why we must insist on a logical long-term plan and carry it out over a decade or more in order to fix our problems with the infrastructure, and just maybe solve some of our problems of providing jobs outside of the urban centers where much of the work needs to be done.

Emporer? What a Tailor!

Panmunjon 1976

North Korean border building circa 1976. Credits: Wikipedia

And so it continues. The national nightmare is approaching its second hundred days. Just released Monday is an unbelievable transcript of an interview that the President had with the AP. To say that the interview was extraordinary would be the understatement of the decade. It seems that the interview was an opening into the soul of one Donald Trump. You could see the neural net firing away in random fashion, traveling from one subject to another while neither leaving the old subject nor engaging with the new subject.

Just try to parse this linguistic gem: ” So the Republican Party has various groups, all great people. They’re great people. But some are moderate, some are very conservative. The Democrats don’t seem to have that nearly as much. You know the Democrats have, they don’t have that. The Republicans do have that. And I think it’s fine. But you know there’s a pretty vast area in there. And I have a great relationship with all of them.”

I defy anyone to be able to give a coherent translation of this set of words masquerading as eloquence from our elected leader.

Out of this mental miasma, Trump’s supporters see vindication of their selection of him as their choice to lead an American renaissance. Certainly, in those departments where Donald Trump has actually deigned to name individuals to enact policy, minions are attempting to affect change. In ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), changes brought into effect have unleashed the agents to take a much more confrontational approach to enforcement. It now appears that instead of focusing exclusively on immigrants with violent criminal activity, ICE is also focusing on those immigrants whose criminal history is solely based upon status crimes (falsified documentation as an example). This increased enforcement activity is resonating with Trump’s core constituency, as visible evidence of him keeping his pledges.

In cases where campaign rhetoric could be easily converted to policy positions, and where the flexibility to change direction is within the purview of the administrative branch of government, it is possible to begin to implement the public face of the Trump agenda. But where the campaign rhetoric leaves open what the specifics of policy will be, and the cooperation of the legislative branch is required for success, the inexperience of the Trump administration is showing. Combined with the Republican’s approach of not bringing up legislation to the House floor without assurance of majority support solely within the party, and the stage is set for yet another legislative quagmire. One can only hope!

It is in the foreign policy sphere where the chief danger exists going forward. When you have a leader of the nation and its armed forces who is so blatantly ignorant of all historical context, and who becomes a tabula rasa willing to change policies based upon the images he receives from the television, the danger for the world rises exponentially. Combine these thoughts with the propensity to adopt a bullies swaggering persona, and the risk of a flashpoint within the world igniting and creating an uncontrollable wild fire is magnified.

I actually was at one of these flashpoints 30 years ago when I visited my brother who was stationed with the Corps of Engineers just south of the DMZ. I took a tour where you were able to see the North Korean building housing the guards, a wonderful marble facade of a building presenting an imposing sight for those on the southern side. But in looking at the building, it became obvious that the building may have been hundreds of feet long, but was at most 15 feet thick. It was quite literally a facade, and with the loudspeaker coming from the northern border proclaiming the glories of the socialist paradise, presented quite an image for those of us on the tour. It was when we actually got to go into the room where negotiations were held, and were able to cross over the border line into North Korea that the reality of the suppressed conflict became evident. I have never seen naked hatred in facial expressions, but while in that building I could see pure hatred emanating from both the American and North Korean soldiers facing off across the border. Now, 30 years later, and the risks of a blowup grow ever higher. Since the rhetoric has heated up with Trump’s term of office, and the North Koreans growing ever more desperate with ever more powerful weaponry, it does not bode well.

So the dichotomy of the US electorate continues. The Trumpian supporters who think that he’s done just fine, just needs a little more time to implement his plans, vs. those who see only a parade led by a naked leader. I am one of the latter group, and I am screaming about the nakedness as loudly as I can, but I am losing hope that the scales will ever fall from the eyes of the Trump supporters. I only hope that it does not take an existential crisis to disabuse his supporters of believing that the Trump presidency is a good thing.



Sprung Spring


The digital switch for the trees flipped from 0 to 1 in the last two weeks. Trees that were barren of leaves, now wear the unique chartreuse of spring. Views are now attenuated since leaves block sightlines. Once the leaves return, it is difficult to remember how the trees looked with their wooden fingers extending from their massive trunks.

The daffodils have come and gone already. The first daffodils showed up in late February, weeks earlier than normal. We normally have the littlest daffodils bloom first, coinciding with the late crocus bloom, then the normal daffodils unveil their yellow sunbonnets. But the warmth of February induced both to bloom simultaneously. They held sway until the first of April, but when their grace faded to brown, the white of the jonquils with their multiple heads turned on. We have fewer jonquils, but since they have 2-4 flowers per stalk, they appear to have as many blooms as the daffodils. But now, since the 20th of April, all of them have turned brown and shriveled. Now we have only the greenery of the daffodils remaining, using photosynthesis to feed the bulbs below ground getting ready for next year.

We are in the midst of replacing a hemlock tree that shielded our porch from the street ever since we moved into the house. This is a tree that got topped by a derecho back in 2012, and spent the next several years slowly dying from the top down. If we were sitting on our porch, the branches appeared lush and green, but above that, the branches were slowly dying. So we paid to have the tree removed and to have the roots shredded. It finally was time to gather up the remains of the roots, and use them for mulch on our sloped garden. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to rake up and shovel multiple wheelbarrows of mulch, then spread them onto newly weeded slope. Now new topsoil has been placed, and I will actually attempt to grow a section of monoculture grass. We will come back with some small decorative trees to replace the graceful hemlock at least in spirit.

Spring is when you take stock of what needs to be done for this year’s projects. A few weeks ago, I was outside on our porch when I heard the unmistakable sound of a tree beginning to give way. I was in the right position to see a giant hemlock take its death plunge across the narrowly incised creek bed, and onto our property. It took with it a second smaller hemlock, and a beech tree. The beech tree shattered onto our property about 30′ down the hill. That immediately became my first priority for a long-term project. In the 25 years since we’ve lived here, I bought firewood exactly once, and that was the first year when we moved in during the fall. Ever since I’ve been able to maintain a 1-2 cord stash of firewood either from trees fallen on our property, or from trees felled within the neighborhood. There was one year when I saw evidence of a microburst on our property, with multiple trees down pointing in different directions from the same storm. Cutting and storing and burning your own wood is satisfying. Splitting logs with a maul is a wonderful way to vent frustration. It’s funny, but ever since I’ve retired, I haven’t had the visceral need to split wood. Still, it is fun even if it is a lot of work.

It looks like we’ve been successful this year to gain tenants out in our birdhouses. A chickadee couple has taken residence in a small house at the edge of our porch, while a bluebird couple has resumed residence in the birdhouse we have on our beech tree in the front yard. The electric blue of the male bluebird is a tint that is unmatched in nature on an animal. This is probably the same pair that built a home two years ago in the same birdhouse. I’ve already seen our hunter cat out there by the tree, looking up at the sounds emanating from the house. We will do our best to allow the fledglings to survive the close proximity with our hunters.

We made our pilgrimage out to the lawn and garden department of our local Lowes today. Flowers will soon be gracing our flower baskets where last year’s shriveled corpses remained after the fall and winter. We have a little more birdseed and suet to put out, then we will retire the feeders until the fall, leaving only a thistle seed feeder for the summer bird rush. And within a week, we will hang out the hummingbird feeders, completing the transition from winter to spring / summer.

The first radishes of the year will be harvested this week. I am finally learning how to space these early season crops out so as to lengthen the harvest season and not be overwhelmed with produce at one time. There is nothing quite as good as the first produce of the year. Of course, with our chives, we’ve been harvesting them all year. The chives overwintered and are now in beautiful purple bloom. I’ll try to harvest the seed, then plant another crop for this year in our herb baskets. Cilantro and basil are emerging from their seed cases, and the oregano has awakened from its winter dormancy.

Retirement is good especially when you can spend the time and effort to keep after the growth of spring when the green can outpace your ability to corral it. I am behind on my lawn right now and will wait for the dry weather of next week to allow me to catch up. Then I will need to get right out on planting the remaining vegetables and get the peppers and tomatoes started. Back before retirement, I had to try to squeeze the time in after work and on weekends. It is so nice to not have to rush things, but work on all of the tasks in their own time, and be able to take the time to watch the bluebirds as they begin to feed their hungry nestlings over the next few weeks.

Entropy and Energy

Mountaintop removal


We live in a universe that favors disorder over order. Ever since the big bang, matter has been assembling itself into stars and galaxies, then blowing the stars up into clouds of stardust, spreading heavier elements into the ether. Even for stars that are not big enough to blow themselves to pieces, they will go through a life cycle where they end up as dwarf stars slowly cooling down after their nuclear furnaces are extinguished. Disorder keeps increasing over time.

Earth is an anomaly. Matter has assembled to form self-replicating versions of itself. We call that life. Carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen from earlier stellar explosions combine with primordial hydrogen to form the chemistry I studied in biochemistry class. Amino acids, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and deoxy- and ribonucleic acids somehow get combined to form organisms that can create other organisms like themselves. Alone among these organisms, humanity has developed the abilities to manipulate all other forms of matter, and manipulate all other organisms on this planet. We have developed ever more complex forms of what we call society, and we have grown this society into an interconnected web that is capable of affecting our entire planet. Humanity relies upon order for its progress.

As we have grown in our abilities and our influence, we discovered how to use stored forms of energy to leverage our limited muscles. Indeed, what we call the industrial revolution depended upon containing water vapor, using its power to move metal and enabling us to move faster than any animal could transport us. Wood, coal, whale oil, petroleum, natural gas, and uranium all have served humanity by providing convenient concentrated energy sources during the last few centuries.

We have also discovered the problems with extracting and using these energy sources, though. Each form of energy we use causes undesirable side effects. Excessive use of wood has caused deforestation in many locations. Whale oil spawned an entire industry, and nearly drove many species to extinction. Petroleum contaminates everywhere that it touches when it escapes confinement. Natural gas seemed a relatively clean source of energy, but as new methods of extraction through fracking have shown, it can contaminate groundwater if the extracting wells are not sealed properly. And all of the new piping and equipment used to transport the gas increases leakage of this potent greenhouse gas. Uranium? Though it does not cause gaseous pollution, it has huge potential to cause massive contamination of the ground for thousands of years if there is a loss of containment at a nuclear facility.

Then there’s coal. Residue of the geologic ages where abundant vegetable life sank down into murky mires, eventually to be compressed by sediments over millions of years into veins of carbon. Those veins underlay many places on this earth. And in order to fuel the industrial revolution, it became profitable to extract this concentrated energy. My state of West Virginia drew its lifeblood from the veins of coal over the years, as generations of miners risked both sudden death from explosions and rock falls, and slow death through dust exposure in order to make a living from a landscape inhospitable to farming. Mining was the honorable profession that fostered equality across the races, since all who entered the mines wore the makeup of the black grit of coal dust.

So pervasive was the mining culture that much of this state surrendered itself to its power. The coal camp with its company store enabled many families to live in this mountainous terrain, but at the price of subjugation to the mine owners. They may have seemed beneficent by providing housing to their workers, but if the workers ever crossed the owners, that beneficence would be withdrawn in an instant. Still, young men could always count on getting a job in the mines. This certain knowledge meant that there was little advantage to becoming educated.

So it came to pass that in the last decade of the 20th century, a new method of mining was developed. The very mountains that formed this state would be dismembered by the use of explosives. Only in a state that was co-opted by an industry, would this method of mining be deemed as reasonable and desirable. That is, unless there was a desire to fulfill the prophecy from Isaiah: Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.

Order versus disorder. In converting an environment from an ordered system to a disordered one, a property known as entropy increases. As the coal veins remaining under the surface of the hills got thinner and thinner, it was not profitable to dig under the earth and extract the energy lifeblood from the veins of the earth alone. Now the only way to remove the coal and make money was to tear off the top layer of the hillside with exploding ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, push the overburden over the edge of the denuded hill, cover up the small streams that had worked to slowly erode the hills over eons. Then the exposed vein could be removed by men in machines, leaving behind a landscape barren of the topsoil and vegetation that formed the mountain ecosystem. A few miners would earn their livelihood during the time that the mountain kept bleeding coal.

One way to gauge the effect of an energy production system is to determine the amount of entropy created to collect the beneficial energy. Using that as a gauge, it would seem that methods of creating electricity directly from dilute energy sources like the sun and the wind create the least amount of entropy. Since humanity depends upon the ordered systems around us in order to sustain our society, these methods would be preferred to produce the necessary energy.

I can think of no method of energy extraction that man has ever created that caused as much entropy generation as mountaintop removal coal mining. We haven’t even broached the entropy that is common to all coal production and use – the fine particulates it produces once burned, and the ash left behind. Coal ash slurry can also unleash unexpected torrents of increased entropy when the dams are breached. Mountaintop removal should never have been allowed, but in this state, with education devalued for generations, it was viewed as the only way to enable people to make a living. Therefore, any attempt to reduce its use, or the use of coal, was viewed with extreme prejudice. This state is reaping what has been sown on and under its surface for generation after generation.

It was 47 years ago that I took part in the first Earth Day activities. As I remember, we went around Lincoln, picking up trash and having fun doing something worthwhile. Since the memory of rivers catching fire, and smog in cities being viewed as intractable, and awareness of the toxicity of chemicals seeped into the national consciousness, I am very pleased to see the progress our society has made in increasing living standards while reducing entropy (excuse me, pollution). Now, however, we are facing an administration that would return us to the days when America was great, and our view was dimmed by particulate pollution. I say fie on thee, Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt. Learn the lessons of history and science. Do not sentence the generations to come to an environment of increased entropy, higher sea levels, and increased suffering for those living on the margins of the sea around the world.

The Uncles Who Fought

We laid a WWII veteran to rest last Wednesday. John Pevarnik, age 92, and a survivor of the Pacific theatre which cost him his right arm, died last week at his nursing home. The services were set up hurriedly so as to avoid conflicting with Holy Week.

I knew John for nearly 30 years, after I married his niece. He was a true crusty curmudgeon of a farmer. To him, the US was always on the verge of the return of the great depression. Since he came of age during the decade of the 1930’s, that period formed the basis for his world view. He enjoyed holding court in the shop of the farm, conducting verbal sparring matches with whoever came by. I seemed to have some credibility with him through my work in agricultural chemicals, since I could talk intelligently about farming issues, and the fact that I worked for a multi-national corporation meant that I was worth something. I always enjoyed talking to him, and seeing him tease our children was fun to watch, since he never became mean to them.

He lost his right arm in Saipan in WWII. When I first met him, it was over 40 years since that defining event in his life had occurred. He was still able then to drive the tractors, and drive the new pick-ups that he bought as probably his only extravagance. Working as a dairy farmer for so long, he internalized the schedule of twice-daily milkings as his own lifestyle. I saw him and his brother slowly wind down their farming career, first moving from dairy to beef cattle, then forgoing the cattle for forage crops, and now finally the only crop on the farm that they produced is the natural gas from the first generation of Marcellus shale wells. A grand-nephew keeps up with some hay and beef cattle on one section of the farm, and the other land is rented now.

John had so much in common with my uncles, Bill and Charles. Their experiences were on the other side of the globe, in North Africa, and marching across Europe during the end of 1944 into 1945. My uncle Charles survived a Malmedy-like experience, having had to play dead in order to avoid being shot by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. My uncle Bill came into France on one of the gliders supporting D-Day. Now, my only memento of their service is the compass that my uncle Bill got from a German. I found that while we were cleaning up his house after his death in 1992. Both of my uncles died that year, only about a week apart. It was not a good time for my mother, losing her only siblings so close together.

My wife and I were of the generation just after WWII. It was not our parents who served, it was the older brothers of our parents. The background of the war was imprinted upon us, but not as directly as if our fathers had been in uniform and served in battle. Still, in my family, there were topics that were viewed as forbidden. As an example, we never watched Hogan’s Heroes growing up, because of my parent’s firm belief that POW camps were not a proper vehicle for comedy. POW camps and concentration camps were too close to their memory to ever consider them as a source of humor.

Now the war fades further into memory. All survivors of WWII service are at least 90, and you see fewer and fewer obituaries of service members as their numbers dwindle. When my uncles died, it was at the beginning of the dying of their generation, in their late ’60’s and early ’70’s. Now, 25 years later, it is the tail end of the Greatest Generation that is leaving this life.

When they returned to the US, it was their numbers and their energy that unleashed the tremendous post-war economic boom in the US. During the 1930’s, the growth from new family formation was held back due to the prolonged economic hardships felt by so many. Then the war came, and demographics were put on pause as so many men and women were uprooted from their lives in order to serve and fight and manufacture. When the floodgates were opened in the late 1940’s, the Greatest Generation gave their second major contribution to the US. They lived. They worked. They learned in college. And they gave birth to the greatest number of children that this country ever had. The echoes of the baby boomers continues to be heard today as birth rates swell and fade.

It was this demographic tidal wave that was unleashed after WWII that led to the growth rates now viewed as the time when America was great. It is disheartening to see a simplistic plea to recover a memory of the past becoming the rallying cry of a political movement. But unfortunately, simplistic pleas are what resonate with enough of the populace to allow for the electoral triumph we saw in 2016.

I wish to honor the memory of the uncles, and of all who fought in and served in our nations wars. I wish that our nation would begin to understand that it is not always necessary to engage militarily in order to accomplish our goals as a nation. I wish that we as citizens of the globe as well as citizens of a nation would realize that progress is not a zero-sum game – someone else’s gain is not necessarily our loss. I will do that as best as I can with the voice that I have. This coming weekend, with the marches for science taking place across the country, I will be participating and lending my voice to those who realize that it is only through increasing knowledge and education that we will truly be able to honor those who served before us, and make this country great once more.

Manna From The Ground

Manna meal garden

In the pit of an old sandstone quarry in South Charleston, WV, miracles take place. Miracles of growth, miracles of generosity, miracles of community spirit – all possible through the Manna Meal garden. This level space on the floor of the old quarry has been many things through the years. First, the original quarry. Next, the beloved swimming hole remembered by thousands from the 40’s through the 80’s. Then the putt-putt golf course, and the adjacent building where birthday parties were celebrated with all of the ticket-dispensing games from the late 80’s till 2006. Then, a fallow period after the property was bought by an adjacent church to serve as a fellowship and youth hall.

Now for the third year, the flat space is serving as the host to the Manna Meal garden. Manna Meal, which provides breakfast and lunch to all comers for 365 days of the year, is housed in St. John’s Episcopal church in downtown Charleston. The Manna Meal garden is one way to provide fresh produce during the growing season for the ministry. I did not participate the first year that the garden was established and flooded in the Rock Lake quarry. But last year I participated in the creation of the hugelkultur beds. The City of South Charleston contributed by sending all of the wood chips from their tree trimming into huge piles. I was one of the beasts of burden who would fill wheelbarrows with the wood chips, then work to build up the raised beds and the higher mounds where the soil would be laid. We followed that up with wheelbarrows full of compost that served as the actual soil for the vegetables. Now we have row upon row of fertile soil ready to serve as the home of the vegetables for 2017.

It’s a varied crew who works at the garden. The indefatigable Jean Simpson who leads Manna Meal spends as much time as she can spare from the kitchen at the garden. She brings the 5-gallon buckets of food scraps that get composted in the large compost cells we use. Most of the rest of the volunteers seem like me – older, and either retired or nearing retirement age. For me, after a career spent dealing with chemicals, and computer systems, and endless bureaucracy, it is a delight to spend time hauling dirt, pulling weeds, and whatever else is needed to make the garden work.

We aren’t in a hurry. If you need to sit a spell to gather the strength to go back to digging or hauling or weeding, please feel free to do that. Soon it will be time to bring out the tomato cages for the plants that will be housed in the raised beds at the back of the garden. A nursery has already donated thousands of plants for the garden, and some of the hardier plants have already been planted. Others will await their turn to be stuck into the rich earth so they can soak in the sunlight and convert photons into calories.

It’s not all vegetables in this garden. There’s a large pollinator garden that will blossom with annuals and perennials during the summer. Along the border grow the iris rhizomes which will soon send flowering spikes into the air. And my own contribution, the daffodils and jonquils, are completing their blooming season. I took pictures of the area this week so that I can know where to plant additional bulbs for the upcoming fall. The bulbs I planted last fall have all bloomed now, and will begin their process of budding and growing new bulbs for next year.

As will happen with a group of like-minded adults, the topics discussed at the gardening sessions can vary wildly. So far this spring, politics seem to be taking a disproportionate share of the conversation. My observation of the group is that the large majority of the gardeners who are giving of their time and energy to feed those who can’t afford to feed themselves, that majority would be classified as liberal. It’s my anecdotal observation that those who actually do things to help society, those who really put their energy and money where their heart is, can be classed as liberal. Those who feel that the poor are leaches whose personal responsibility failings are taking money away from them, are conservative.

I am struck time and time again by the image that conservative commentators try to use to portray liberals. Snowflakes! As if that were a derogatory term. If you combine enough snowflakes, they turn into ice. And enough ice will turn into a glacier. And a glacier will scour over everything in its path on its way downhill, until its water melts and provides moisture for all lands found downhill from the glacier. So the supposedly fragile snowflake turns out to be essential in the nourishment of the earth.

So the followers of Fox news and Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and their ilk go on complaining about the undeserving poor who milk the welfare system for everything they can in order to squander their lives in squalor and dissolution. Meanwhile, those of us who believe in humanity, we spend our time, and energy, and donate our money in order to enable those who happen to live a standard deviation or two below the median, to enable them to at least get enough to eat in order to survive. Thank God for ministries like Manna Meal and those who work tirelessly to enable them to continue during the times that their services are needed.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

I’m confused. What part of the narrative surrounding Donald Trump (ultra-successful businessman, world-class negotiator, able to pick extremely competent assistants) led to the abysmal melt-down of the first 10 weeks of his presidency? How is it that he assured his cheering legions that he would demand a bill to repeal and replace “Obamacare” during his first week in office, then when a bill emerged to accomplish much of this, he was not able to close the deal, and chose to walk away rather than have an official defeat on the record? And the entire process from introduction to ignominious withdrawal took less than 3 weeks!

How is it that his choice for National Security Advisor was so compromised by his dealings with Russia that it forced his departure within weeks of taking office? How is it that his plan to shake up the National Security Council by adding Steve Bannon, has now been reversed with Bannon’s removal? How is it that his dealings with foreign leaders has reached such a point that a story about Donald Trump handing Angela Merkel an invoice for $375 billion was not only credible, but entirely in character?

How is it that his request for proposals to construct “THE WALL” is not expected to receive proposals from major construction firms that actually have the capabilities to do the work? Is it because his credibility is already suffering due to his performance to date?

How is it that someone who continually harped on the excessive expenses of his predecessor’s twice yearly vacations, spent as much in his first months in office visiting his Florida properties as his predecessor did in multiple years? Someone who complained about excessive golfing by his predecessor seems determined to outdo him with his own link adventures.

How is it that his approval rating is plunging faster than a luge sled on an icy track? Now it is only his core supporters who still swear he’s doing a good job, and all of the media attacks on him and his administration are mean spirited and represent false news. At present it appears that Donald Trump has two key constituencies. First, his true believers who clasp hands over their ears while singing LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA whenever anyone says a disparaging word about their anointed savior. Second, those who have prostituted themselves by seeking to benefit  from their unexpected access to power by having a compliant President who would do their bidding.

I’m definitely confused, because Donald Trump assured me that we would end up winning so much, we would be tired of winning. I do have to say that so far, I’m not tired of winning. But then, if winning were to be defined as achieving the goals that he laid out in his campaign, maybe I’m glad that we haven’t seen any winning scripts so far.

BUT! We are still in the danger zone in so many ways. The first lasting achievement of the Trump presidency is only days away as his new Supreme Court nominee awaits confirmation. My only hope concerning Neil Gorsuch is that since he has been a member of a progressive Episcopalian church, some of that progressivity soaked into his psyche, and will emerge at opportune times in his decisions. Even this triumph comes with scorched earth, as the long tradition of bipartisanship in the Senate is torn asunder through the abandonment of the filibuster requirement for 60 votes for cloture for a Supreme Court justice.

We are in danger due to the extreme incompetence of the Trump foreign policy team and philosophy. That incompetence will be tested time and time again with the foreign conflicts that exist and will emerge over time. The leader of China is coming this week, and my prediction is that after he takes measure of Donald Trump, he will realize that there is no real cost to his ongoing militarization of the artificial islands in the South China Sea. Look for provocations to step up there, even as the intractable situation in the Korean peninsula continues to escalate in tension.

We are in danger due to the extreme belief that environmental protection is fundamentally incompatible with economic growth. Donald Trump is stuck in a 1970’s vision of the economy. Fossil fuel growth equals economic growth and security in the US. After all, we may have our foreign oil supply cut off from OPEC at any time! Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s severely limited view of economics seems to believe that he alone can resurrect the conditions the US enjoyed in the decades immediately after WWII. That is, we alone emerged among the major countries with our industrial base intact, and were able to not only supply burgeoning pent up demand in the US, but export our wares to the corners of the globe that were recovering from war damage. There is absolutely no recognition inside of his thought processing unit that the world has grown to be multi-polar, and much more economically interdependent than during America’s economic heyday.

We are in danger due to the lack of respect for, and proposed withdrawal of funding for scientific research. This is perhaps one of the most insidious dangers, since it’s effects won’t be felt for years to come. But there is zero doubt that the rest of the world is anxious to fill the void to keep humanity advancing through scientific progress, since they had seen how effective it was for the US pre-Trump.

It seems that during the campaign, many Americans were bewitched with their image of Donald Trump. They built him up into a Roman emperor who would captivate the Senate with his stirring eloquence (I’m giving myself a cheek hernia here). But judging from his falling approval ratings, I’m thinking that many are now bothered by his performance in office. Meanwhile, those of us who have always been bewildered by the appeal of an obvious charlatan, are awaiting his downfall, always hoping that he does not pull the rest of us into the quicksand of his own personal swamp as he sinks from view.

Ants In Your Planets

Ants Have you ever wondered what an ant can sense? It is spring time, and ants invade our living space each year at this time. I am in our den with the computer, far away from any food source, but the ants are crawling over the desk, continually searching for some sort of sustenance. Once they find it, they are capable of bringing the knowledge of the food to their nest mates. Then the rush is on! A steady stream of ants soon emerges, one side marching to the food source, then the return stream marching back to the nest.

How can all of this activity be programmed within the bodies and brains of tiny insects? How can the colony have the capability to transform some members into nurses, taking care of the young, and some into warriors with enhanced jaws who will defend the colony to the death? I can still remember the sight of red ants fighting black ants as they swarmed across a sidewalk when I was walking home from school. Thousands of ants fighting and killing each other. As I examined them from the 40,000 foot perspective (from the ant’s perspective), I realized that warfare was not unique to the human world.

The concept of a hive mind is often used to describe the knowledge and functioning of insect colonies. The knowledge of the entire colony is far greater than the individual knowledge of any single member of the colony. Somehow the genetic programming for the members of a colony is able to define all of the individual roles found within a colony using the same genetic material. And then the entire colony becomes aware of a threat, and comes boiling out of the entrances of the nest. Chemical and pheromone clues help to spread the common knowledge across the residents of a colony.

What would be the view of an alien species, watching human activity from a 40,000 foot perspective? Would they watch the twice daily swarming of vehicles and people across our highways at rush hour and wonder what these small, insignificant beings were doing, and what was driving them? Are we that different from ants if viewed from a remote vantage point?

We as humanity have been blessed and cursed with curiosity. There is a tendency for many to believe that our species represents the pinnacle in life forms. Indeed, we even have the gall to claim that we were created in God’s image. Yet the curious are driven to investigate further, and that is driving the search for extra-solar planets across our galaxy. Our observational capabilities have grown incredibly over the past two decades so that we can now make precise determinations of the numbers and masses of planets that circle stars other than our own sun. I expect that soon we will be able to detect the signatures of gases in the atmospheres of these planets. And one day, we will see the tell-tale sign of oxygen in an atmosphere. The breath of life confirmed elsewhere in the galaxy.

Oxygen is a very reactive gas. If it is not continuously generated, then it will bond to the rocks and soils of any planet where it is found. Therefore, if free oxygen is discovered in an atmosphere, it is a clear sign that life forms similar to those on earth are living, and are generating oxygen. We would know that at least a form of life exists outside of our island home.

Knowing that life may exist outside of earth is one thing. Having knowledge that there is other life with a technological bent, able to communicate using the electromagnetic spectrum, or able to travel away from their home planet, is something else entirely. Almost as soon as radio telescopes were invented, they were used in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Using human experience as a template, we realize that one of the first communication mediums we used was to send broadcast signals out into space, where they would bounce off of the atmosphere and return to earth and be picked up by sensitive receivers, otherwise known as radios. So we use this as a target to detect other civilizations in the galaxy. Now our planet is detectable at a distance by any species who can detect electromagnetic signals. Indeed, we keep scrambling to open up new segments of the electromagnetic spectrum because our need for connectivity keeps growing. The fuzz of noise coming from this planet keeps growing.

So the search for other planets where inhabitants are sending pictures of their dinners to each other keeps growing. It is now possible to use the planetary search process to identify those planets where we believe life can exist, and direct the radio telescopes to a precise location. We also are uncovering what are described as fast radio bursts. These are bursts of electromagnetic energy of incredible power, that we detect for only fractions of a second. They are gone and don’t recur. One theory about them is that they represent a source of energy being beamed towards a interstellar craft that serves as a propulsion source for these crafts. This sort of propulsion would enable a vessel to travel at near light speeds, so it would make sense that if we are able to detect them, they would flit across our detectors and be gone almost instantly.

The increased connectivity on earth though, continues to increase at an exponential rate. Even though humans do not have the ability to transmit chemical clues except in close proximity, it is now possible for a hive mind to develop via electronic communication. Flash mobs can be generated by social media, and flash mobs can be harmless (groups gathered in a social place to sing and / or dance), or threatening (groups descending upon a store to pillage). We all bemoan the shortness of the news cycle, and the shortening of the attention span for humanity. I can only imagine what War and Peace would look like if written solely in emojis. We all suffer now that Twitter has imposed a 140 character limitation on political discourse.

We now have the means to create a hive mind in humanity. Will we learn from it about our common natures, and use it to solve problems? Or will we form red ant and black ant colonies and swarm out of our nests looking to exterminate our perceived oppenents?

Never Was So Much Owned By So Few Taken From So Many

Look at trends in income distribution in the US. Headlines have screamed about stagnation in wages for the labor segment of the population. Meanwhile, those on the capital side of the equation have made out like bandits, as measured by the share of national income and national wealth earned and owned by the top 10% and 1% and 0.1% of the nation. Those measures have grown exponentially over the past generation. And I am speaking as one of the recipients of this change in income distribution.

It has taken decades for these changes to have entered into the consciousness of the American public, but it does seem as if now, there is a general awareness of how screwed up things have become. Since we live in a society with beliefs split across the political spectrum, it is not surprising that there was a response in the last election cycle from both the left and right. Bernie Sanders reflected this impulse on the left, with his straight-forward declaration of the necessity to permanently alter the income distribution of this nation to be more equitable.

The emergence of Donald Trump as the champion of the comparable movement on the right is not as straight-forward. As his failed experience in trying to convert his electoral victory into legislative success has shown, he is not aligned with the Republican power structure. Yet there is no doubt that he was elected as part of a general movement of revulsion against the elites that rule this country. In fact, he represents the rejection of financial elites, and intellectual elitism. Witness his proposals for decimation of the research budgets for most Federal agencies. Look at the reduction in the budget proposals for the State Department, one of the departments where experience should be most valued. The proposal to reduce this budget by 30% shows a complete lack of respect for the knowledge and experience found within this department.

Donald Trump is the Trojan Horse of populism. He has gained entry into the office of President by playing on the desires of the laboring class to improve their economic status. Meanwhile, he has populated his cabinet with what would once have been called the plutocratic class. The proposals that have emanated from this cabinet are what would be expected from a government of the 0.1% for the 0.1%.

  • Eliminate the estate tax so as to perpetuate the class divisions across generations
  • Attack consumer protection measures by hamstringing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, with a vision to eliminate it completely
  • Roll back environmental protections so as to enable corporations to continue operations without concern for the environmental impact
  • Actively deny any link between scientific consensus with global warming, and strip any measurement capabilities from the Federal budget that could detect increased global warming.
  • Removing the incremental taxes supporting the Affordable Care Act that only affected those who are the winners in the national economic lottery, earning over $250,000/year.
  • Eliminate the alternative minimum tax to eliminate the possibility that the truly wealthy could avoid a minimal tax liability.
  • Removing the tax subsidies for the Affordable Care act that enable many to have health care insurance for the first time.

Donald Trump represents the triumph of the Bread and Circuses wing of American culture over the rest of the electorate. Someone who gained overwhelming fame through his portrayal of a business leader on reality TV was able to parlay that notoriety into front-runner status in the Republican primary process. His supporters believe him to have super-human capabilities to “fix” the system, based solely upon his statements that he alone was capable of applying the fixes. That obviously was enough to overcome any semblance of reality in the 2016 Presidential election. The question is when will his steadfast supporters recognize the disconnect between the rhetoric of the campaign trail (continued with ongoing campaign events), and the reality of Trump legislative action? Given the typical attention span and analytical capability of the American voter, it may take an apocalyptic event before they give up on the capabilities of our President.

Now the nakedness of our Emperor is becoming apparent to more people. There were those of us who were decrying the pale wrinkled skin of our would-be emperor last fall prior to the election. Obviously we were not heard by enough people to sway the decision. I can only hope that the trail of tears being generated by our current leader causes a disruption in business as usual, and leads us to a cumulative coming to our senses before the vagaries of the current administration cause irreparable harm.