Past Performance Is No Predictor of Future Performance

 

Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins. This adage has meaning beyond its original intent when considering our current world. Like it or not, since the earth is now crowded with billions more folks than it had 50 or 100 or more years ago, and thus the free range of motion of our own arms has shrunk. We no longer can pull our nation’s head and legs into our own shell and exist on our own island. The fallacy of this isolationistic perspective is being tested with the self-defeating policies that the Trump administration is attempting to implement.

According to the Trump doctrine, in order to make America great again, it is necessary to reverse decades of stitching together the nations of the world in greater interdependence so as to allow American exceptionalism to reign supreme. The world we knew when everyone who wanted entree into the middle class could walk into the nearby factory and punch their timecard in a manufacturing plant, that world no longer exists. We can mourn the absence of the world that existed when the US served as the only intact manufacturing entity after WWII, and thus held an immeasurable competitive advantage for decades. Those were the decades of greatness that the America First agenda wishes to bring back.

It is always foolhardy to craft national policy on the basis of nostalgia, but that apparently is what is motivating the America First crowd. Instead of looking behind us for inspiration (Immigration Act of 1924, Leave It to Beaver, Homestead Works of Pittsburgh belching sparks and smoke), I prefer an attempt to steer our country and its economy towards the future. What does the future hold? Where are the opportunities for new jobs that can provide a true middle-class lifestyle?

First, let’s acknowledge that many of the jobs of the future look a lot like the jobs of the past. In particular, skilled craftsmen and women have a bright future ahead of them. Manufacturers cannot get enough skilled welders. An industry trade group projects that the nation will need 290,000 new welders by 2020 in order to accommodate those welders who will retire, plus handle the new jobs being created within manufacturing and the energy industry. There will always be opportunities for plumbers, and electricians, and for skilled carpenters. These professions also offer the chance to become an entrepreneur, since most opportunities in these fields are local. The demographic wave of the baby boom generation crested long ago, and that wave is withdrawing from the shores of the labor market. The vacuum in the labor market must be filled, and for those who have desires to work with their hands, there are opportunities. What is needed is strong vocational training and/or apprentice programs to transition folks from novices to skilled craftsmen and women.

Next, let’s talk about energy. This field runs the gamut from solar panel installation, to wind turbine construction and maintenance, to electrical grid modernization, to drilling rig worker, and to pipeline construction worker. In my state of West Virginia, where the coal industry has scalped the tops of our small mountains, leaving behind ground denuded of topsoil, but a relatively flat surface, we have the opportunity to develop large-scale solar farms. These farms can be integrated with small scale agriculture intended to take advantage of the shade provided (ginseng, anyone?), and can serve as a career option for the last generation of coal miners and those who currently have no hope and are surrendering their future to oxycontin and heroin.

Now let’s address the elephant in the room – the Republican-led conspiracy to deny that changes in energy policy are necessary, in order to mitigate a warming environment due to burning fossil fuels. I’ve seen the entire range of beliefs of those who refuse to acknowledge that atmospheric effects from anthropogenic emissions are changing the thermometer setpoint of the earth. Some of their stated beliefs are possibly correct (example – we may be entering a solar minimum period that may overwhelm any changes from atmospheric composition). Some of their beliefs are simply incorrect (temperature records are invalid since they represent a change from rural to urban temperature measurements, and besides, climate scientists have fudged their records, and besides, you know, thermodynamics is just so wrong). Some of their beliefs are based upon religious claims, like mankind has no capability of overruling God’s control over our environment. And some are purely conspiratorial in nature, such as the belief that claims of global warming are a tool of the one-world agenda deep state that wishes to impose political control over each and every aspect of life in our country, causing us to cede our sovereignty to a one-world government.

To refute each of these beliefs would take more space than my blog normally uses, and besides, my argument is that in order to transition away from fossil fuels, it is actually necessary to use one version of fossil fuels more extensively than we have in the past. Of course, that fuel is natural gas or methane, which has the virtue of emitting much less carbon dioxide per kilogram of input than any other hydrocarbon. Simply put, displacement of a high carbon fuel source (coal) with methane is the main reason why the US has reduced CO2 emissions over recent years. According to the US Energy Information Administration, CO2 emissions in the US decreased 12% between 2005 and 2015, and the drop is mainly attributed to replacement of coal by natural gas in electric power generation. So if we are waiting for renewable energy to take its place as the primary power source , or if we are awaiting for advancements in either fusion or fission (see thorium reactor cycle) in nuclear energy, then methane serves as a reliable bridge fuel.

Methane also offers many opportunities for jobs. Since much of the methane resources available through fracking are not in areas with pipeline infrastructure, it is necessary to build new pipelines, and that is a key source of job opportunities. Fracking also requires many more drill rigs due to the rapid depletion of fracking hydrocarbon reservoirs. I know that there is much dispute over environmental damage done by pipelines and by fracking. But it is not realistic to transition directly from dependence upon coal, to a totally green energy solution. Methane offers a transition period that enables maintenance of the living standard we enjoy that relies upon intense consumption of energy. Those who rely upon and believe in the moral superiority of coal and oil will not give in easily, though. In West Virginia, one of the bumper stickers used by the proponents of coal is “Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark”. Those stickers are often affixed to the bumpers of diesel pick-ups that have been fixed with special combustion controls that dump excess fuel into the cylinders, causing a cloud of black smoke that they use to obscure the visibility of Prius drivers, like myself. I’ve been coal rolled a few times.

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Photo of rolling coal from Jalopnik.com. Justin Westbrook credited on story.

Jobs in agriculture have been decreasing for generations. Many city dwellers are now several generations removed from the farm and from rural life. Yet amazingly, farming is now coming into the cities. High technology hydroponic farming is making it possible to use some of the urban real estate that used to house factories, and convert it into high-yielding produce farms. In the suburban/rural interface, high-tunnel greenhouses are allowing intensive cultivation on small plots, enabling small-scale farmers to supply the local produce markets for cities that want organic produce sourced locally. As western diets move away from corn and soy based food chains to more vegetables, look for the number of people making a living growing food to increase steadily.

One area where the job demand is increasing is also one where the wages earned do not reflect the value provided to society. That is in the personal care industry. Whether we are looking at home assistance provided to the elderly, or the labor needed for assisted living facilities and nursing homes, these workers provide a service that our society should value. The low wages provided for these workers shows that the current job market does not value these workers, and as a result, those who are in the field are often overworked. Abuse (either intentional or not) can result, since in our society we do not properly value this form of labor.

What should we not look for in the future job market? We should not look for low-value manufacturing to return to this country, regardless of the tariffs imposed on those exporters who are accused of manipulating their currency to hurt us in the US. It is unlikely that we will ever see inexpensive metal implements to be manufactured in the US again. It is also unlikely that we will see basic garment manufacture to be sourced domestically again – unless the manufacturing processes are automated to such an extent that the number of jobs associated with the manufacture is reduced by an order of magnitude from the old garment mills. US manufacturing jobs will increasingly be focused on huge, high-tech machinery, or on processes that can be completely automated. Either way, the new manufacturing worker must be educated and trained well beyond the existing labor forces capabilities.

What we will find as we swing our nation’s fists wildly in an attempt to protect ourselves from the rest of the worlds increasing integration, is that our fists are as likely to strike ourselves in the nose as we are to rain blows down upon our perceived adversaries. The world’s economies are too tightly interwoven to enable one country to extricate ourselves from the tentacles of commerce without ripping our own economy to shreds. Beware the effect of unintended consequences as we try to make America great again.

Misguided Priorities? You Decide

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Photo posted on Wikimedia commons. Photo by Aerial Photography, Inc. Allen Texas High School.

Compare and contrast the priorities of two adjacent states. In an AP story today, we learned about how Oklahoma’s conservative approach toward taxes has resulted in teachers becoming eligible for a house from Habitat For Humanity, and their children becoming eligible for reduced price school lunches. See the story here:

http://wtop.com/business-finance/2017/08/charities-try-to-help-oklahoma-teachers-survive-pay-collapse/

Meanwhile, in a CNN story, we learn about the ongoing arms race in Texas football stadiums, where new high school stadiums cost as much as $70 million dollars. See the story here:

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2729443-72-million-for-a-high-school-stadium-in-texas-its-only-up-from-there

I can think of nothing that displays the misplaced priorities of the US better than these two examples. In one state, teacher’s pay has stayed stagnant for a decade, while its GOP-led legislature maintained extremely low tax rates on oil and gas extraction, and in 2014 passed legislation to cut the personal income tax in the state. This has resulted in Oklahoma per pupil spending on public education to decline by a quarter from 2008 to 2016. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Continental Resources, an oil extraction firm, says “We don’t have a revenue problem in Oklahoma. We have a spending problem.”

Across the Red River in Texas, things are full speed ahead for funding for worship spaces for the Texas state-sponsored religion, high school football. Katy (a Houston suburb that is probably now just wanting the rain to stop) has just completed work on their $72 million dollar facility, replete with luxury boxes and a $2 million dollar video replay board. Granted, Texas does support its teachers better than Oklahoma does, with their average teacher pay about 32nd in the nation as compared to Oklahoma’s position at 48th. Still, the excess public funding for athletic facilities, and the excess adulation given to young male athletes is out of all proportion to the true value of high school athletics.

Can you imagine what it would be like to work for a school system where they passed bond issues to improve the chemistry labs for their high schools? Or one where they upgraded their biology laboratories with modern microscopes instead of using manually focused machines that were obsolete in the 1970’s? Indeed, over and over again we see that the priorities of this nation are to prevent funding for new school academic facilities, preferring instead to cut taxes once again in order to stimulate economic activity. Ask Kansas how that’s working out for them?

We suffer in this country from a surfeit of selfishness. Republicans proudly commit to the principles of Ayn Rand, advocating full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism as the only valid moral code. We no longer recognize a collective need for action and spending unless we ourselves directly benefit from such spending. How many comments on message threads state “Why should I support spending on schools? I have no children going to school.” Such flawed reasoning holds that since I have mine, and have already benefited from common societal spending, I have no duty to the rest of society to enable others to potentially gain the same benefits as I already accrued.

Indeed, you see many screeds in the blogosphere about the unfairness of being taxed at all, that all taxes represent a taking from someone who has earned everything they have. If our entire society thought and acted like that, then we would live in a world of constant violence, where only those who could spend for defensive capabilities would be allowed to hold on to their own hard-earned assets. Taxes are necessary, and the belief that lowered taxation will always result in increased economic activity, so much so that it will lift the entire society out of poverty, has been proven demonstrably false. State after state has attempted that as a prescription for stagnant economies, and in each case, the results have not met expectations. See Kansas and Oklahoma and their growth rates vs. that of California, who chose a different path.

The issue of spending on schools, both teachers and facilities, is symptomatic of the direction that this nation has taken over the last four decades. At the national level, we grew tired of a congressional appropriations process that resulted in infrastructure spending only where it benefited powerful congressmen and women. So we banned earmarks, and now have included all infrastructure spending within the discretionary spending caps which are falling further and further behind in meeting critical needs. Meanwhile, attacks on unions have created the image of the Teachers Union slackers, living high on the hog on our largesse while simultaneously shirking their responsibility to adequately educate our children.

It is certainly true that the past method for allocating infrastructure spending was fraught with manipulation and waste. That is not an excuse though for letting all of it rust away and collapse like the levees did in New Orleans. We need civic-minded politicians who are willing and able to accept the recommendations of experts, who can assign priority to the critical infrastructure upgrades that are needed. These experts must also assess the capabilities of our construction contractors. Since we have neglected necessary funding for so long, we cannot scale back up immediately with 2x or greater spending on roads and bridges. We need to ramp up the spending rate over time, and we need a plan that is longer than that of a continuing resolution in order to provide contractors with the confidence that they can procure additional equipment, and hire trained workers, and receive an adequate return on their investment. Not to mention that we need some sort of training protocol for those who would benefit from infrastructure jobs. I know, I referred to the ultimate oxymoron – civic-minded politicians. In this day and age of polarization and political fratricide as practiced by President Trump, it is nigh unto impossible to conceive of a civic-minded politician. Put your disbelief away for a while, and just imagine a congress packed with such critters.

Likewise, public school education has suffered from waste, and a lack of accountability. It is unacceptable to have incompetent teachers protected from losing their jobs due to bureaucratic procedures. We need to enable the system to eliminate those teachers who do not perform, while increasing the pay so that the profession attracts more capable applicants who would actually be able to pay off their student loans. But it also needs to be acknowledged that we have failed our education systems by systematically refusing to upgrade facilities, voting down bond issues repeatedly until the very roofs start caving in on the poor students caught in the public school system. The solutions identified by the head of the Department of Education involves increasing the profit potential for investors in charter schools, affecting only a fraction of the total school population, instead of offering real assistance in enabling our school systems to succeed. We don’t need curriculum mandates and charter schools, we need assistance for teacher salaries and school facilities.

America was great when we had a firm commitment to public schools, and to public infrastructure. That we have meandered so far away from that commitment speaks to our failure to reinvest in our future. Are we that selfish that we opt for a fragmented and failing society just so we can retain a few more percent of our income? But the philosophy of conservatism since the days of Reagan keeps insisting that prosperity is just one more tax cut away. Sad. So sad.

I Read The News Today, Oh Boy!

The story in the paper finally explained to me why I feel like an alien in the land of my birth and an alien in my chosen religion. Dr. Robert Jeffress, who had previously escaped my notice as a pastor of a megachurch in Dallas, explained to me how it is that Donald Trump is God’s weapon of choice to take out the evil exemplified in the North Korean government. “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.”

That statement and the belief system underlying that statement are so alien to me that I am seeking vainly to forge any type of reality-based connection to someone who would make such a horrendous statement and issue it as speaking with the authority of God. How to begin? Well, first I would say that anyone who would defend the taking of military action resulting in the deaths of millions of humans is not speaking with the authority of God. Those who take the name of nuclear holocaust in vain share the unimaginable consequence of being responsible for the immense loss of life and the innumerable lives that will be changed due to the detonation of nuclear weapons. To think that such a consequence would be due to someone just demonstrating to Vladimir Putin that he has cojones makes the potential devastation just that much more sickening.

I have wondered how the group of folks associated loosely as evangelical Christians could ever have supported such an overt sinner as Donald Trump. Yes, I use the biblical term sinner to define his existence prior to seeking the Presidency. Donald Trump revealed himself to be a sinner as he failed to pay multitudes of small contractors what they were owed for services to his multiple properties. Why? Mainly because he could and it would be too expensive for a small contractor to demonstrate harm from the behemoth that was the Trump empire.

Donald Trump revealed himself to be a serial adulterer and as someone who used his position of power to extract sexual benefits during his association with the Miss Universe beauty pageants when he ran that obsolete version of an event aimed at objectifying women. For evangelistic Christians to overlook the multiple adulteries of Donald Trump while they crucify his predecessor for imagined sins of, well, I’m not sure what sins Barack Obama was actually accused of. I never heard an accusation of womanizing as he has been faithful to his only wife throughout his marriage. I never heard of an accusation where Barack Obama admitted to taking liberties with women because it was overlooked for those individuals who were blessed with power and status. Even taken from the biblical perspective of “he who has not sinned, let him cast the first stone” does not seem to apply to Donald Trump’s predecessor. Although Donald Trump certainly lobbed many paving stones at Barack Obama accusing him of being a less than 100% American born citizen.

Donald Trump demonstrated his ability to steal from his lessers when he established his ersatz Trump University. Can you imagine someone audacious enough to attempt to cash in on his bogus reputation as a master real estate developer by offering a cascading offering of real estate courses, each level purporting to reveal more and more secrets from the man himself (of course for a much higher price), only to reveal itself as a fraudulent enterprise aimed at preying on the dreams and aspirations of those who had been damaged beyond redemption by the financial crisis and the subsequent financial collapse. That Donald Trump was ever required to provide financial reparations for his rapacious greed is a miracle of contemporary jurisprudence.

Donald Trump demonstrated that he has no concept of the term of bearing false witness. Through innumerable statements he has made, he continues to bear false witness even against himself, due to the volume of falsehoods

he has made that he subsequently contradicts in a later statement. Or tweet. We haven’t even gotten into the issue of him using a new media offering as his unfiltered access to his base. Well, if he has a base, it is pure sodium hydroxide solution, and his credibility is softening into mush as it soaks in this solution.

No, what I realized when I saw the comments from Dr. Jeffress, is that Donald Trump is a manifestation of a phenomena that first revealed itself when I was a teenager. At that time, a Presidential candidate by the name of Richard Nixon invoked the Silent Majority as critical supporters of his bid for office. He was able to convince enough voters that his view of America as being intolerant of dissent, insufficiently strong to withstand opposing viewpoints, and convinced voters that he alone held the secret answers to solve the external problems that plagued America in the era of Vietnam and hippies.

The same divide that was enunciated in our culture in the 1970’s TV show All In The Family still shows up as fault lines in our current society. We are still divided into the hard hats and the hippies of those days. You either support Archie Bunker, or you support Meathead. The difference is that now both sides of the cultural divide have our own media environments to reinforce our biases with the 24/7 proclamations of our chosen media service. Since we can inoculate ourselves against exposure to opposing viewpoints, let’s do so now and therefore prevent us from ever considering that we may be wrong in our beliefs.

As I reflect upon the comment from Dr. Jeffress, I realize that indeed, the perspective he espouses could be found in the Bible – deep in the bowels of the Old Testament, where the sexploits of the leaders of the Israelites are documented. Where the cruelties inflicted upon the enemies of Israel are celebrated throughout the books of Judges and Kings, where the will of the Lord is reflected in an angel slaying one hundred and eighty-five thousand Syrians, leading the sons of the King of Syria to slay their own father. This is the mentality that is reflected in someone saying that it is the will of God to bring untold misery into the world by unsheathing the nuclear sword once more upon the world.

Much ink has spilled over the differences between conservatives and liberals. It seems to this follower of Jesus that the conservative position is for those who long for the Old Testament vengeful God, those who believe that strength defines right, those who believe in subjugation of the individual to the majesty of the government. The liberals favor the wisdoms revealed in the words of the Gospels, where the government is addressed as having authority (render unto Caesar), but the kingdom defined is not mainly of the government. Instead, the entreaty is to treat the stranger as a friend, to share with those who have the least, and to express righteous indignation at evil being done even in the house of worship. Of all of Jesus’s faults in the eyes of the Pharisees, the one that was unforgiveable was interfering with commerce in upsetting the tables of the moneychangers in the temple.

Maybe just gaining this perspective for myself can help me to deal with having to coexist with a segment of the population who share few of my values. At least I can understand their frame of reference, and maybe that is a start in trying to bridge the gap between two diametrically opposed perspectives. That it took referring to texts from thousands of years ago to gain this perspective, is indicative that the differences in perspectives has always existed, and we as a species are no closer to closing the gap between us. Only now, the stakes are higher since our tools of destruction have grown immeasurably more deadly.

 

Is This Sentence Too Long For You?

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One hundred and forty characters. That is the new delineation between acceptable political discourse, and incomprehensible gibberish, according to the new world order. Twitter me this: Are we so limited in our attention span that we can only understand concepts described in 140 characters or less?

The simple answer is, yes, we have regressed back into simplicity. We are so immersed in the shallowness of thoughts induced by our addiction to our electronic devices, that we now find it uncomfortable to concentrate for longer than a single tweet. And, appropriate for a nation addicted to fluff, we have selected a celebrity leader who epitomizes our shallowness.

When did we begin to worship “the cult of the celebrity?” Certainly in the 1800’s, the emergence of celebrities began. Fostered by the development of mass media (newspapers and magazines), and the growth of cities, a critical mass coalesced whereby people could become familiar with famous people, even if they never had the possibility of seeing these people perform. Think of Jenny Lind (supported by one P. T. Barnum). Think of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show. Think of Samuel Clemens and his touring lectures. Certainly in the late 1800’s, it became possible for individuals to become famous for being famous.

By the early 1960’s, the cult of the celebrity was well established. In 1961, Daniel Boorstin wrote in his seminal book “The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream”, “The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness”. At the time he wrote those words, it applied to a much smaller group of people. Zsa Zsa Gabor comes to mind as exemplifying celebrity culture in the late 1950’s, and even then she did have some accomplishments as a movie actress. Boorstin was definitely prescient in foreseeing the direction of the culture.

America has also harbored a strong anti-intellectual bent. One of my favorite movies, Bringing Up Baby (and it’s ’70’s remake, What’s Up Doc), personified the attitudes towards intellectuals and scientists in popular culture. Cary Grant is the hapless paleontologist who inexplicably becomes the pursued object of the alpha female Katherine Hepburn. It is Hepburn as the mob moll, spitting out the end of a cigar, who rescues the scientist from incarceration. Small point, maybe, but except for film biographies of noble scientists struggling against society, movie culture rarely pictured scientists at all, and if they were pictured, more often than not they were objects of ridicule. They were the Nutty Professor instead of the rugged individualists portrayed in hundreds of westerns.

Today, anti-intellectualism is worn as a badge of honor by many in our society. In our schools, those who excel academically are derided and bullied by those who do not value scholastic achievement. In government, our politicians state, “I am not a scientist, but…” just before they explain why they are against scientific consensus on an issue, usually climate change. Anti-vaxxers who couldn’t describe the functions of vaccines in stimulating the immune system, claim that the cost / benefit ratio of vaccines has been miscalculated ever since the invention of the smallpox vaccine. And since the latest Presidential election, the scientists of the Federal government have been demeaned, threatened with slashed funding, and have been removed from any position of power and influence. Indeed, as of early July, no one has been nominated for the position of National Science Advisor.

Science and scientists have taken the brunt of the anti-intellectualism of the Trump administration, but other intellectuals are the victims of his misguided philosophy of dismembering government as a ruling strategy. Why rely upon professional diplomats who have spent decades studying issues and learning about regional and global political issues? Let’s just go to a meeting of world leaders and wing it. What could possibly go wrong?

So now we have the Tweeter-in-Chief using stream of consciousness to posit the latest birth of a thought (A cyber-security cooperative between us and Russia!), only to come back 12 hours later saying, “Not gonna happen!” My question is who is going to end up running the Trump empire once all of the key players end up imprisoned due to their actions during the campaign and subsequent time in power. Maybe we can get a remake of the First Wives Club (or first and second and third wives club) with Ivana, Marla, and Melania? I’d pay to see that.

Back to 140 characters. It is so deeply ironic that when NPR decided this year to not only recite the Declaration of Independence, but to tweet it, that many in the twittersphere took the words of our founding fathers as disrespect against the dear leader. Can you imagine that happening in any time other than the present, that such profound ignorance would display itself in a public medium?

I am reminded of the wisdom of the National Lampoon back in the early 1970’s for their parody, Deteriorata. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey6ugTmCYMk ). They, too, foresaw what was happening, and where we were headed. One of my favorite lines in this piece is: “Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls would barely get your feet wet.” What an appropriate metaphor for government of the tweet, by the twit, and for the twitted.

Obstruction, Thy Name Is Grover

It started with an effort in California to rein in property tax increases. With the enormous growth in population and property values in California reflected in the 1970’s property assessment rates, Howard Jarvis was the organizing force that enabled Proposition 13 to succeed at the ballot box in California in 1978. Proposition 13 froze real estate taxes in California and greatly limited the potential rate of property tax increase allowed. Thus began the revolt against any form of increased taxes that became the mantra of the Republican party since that time.

President Reagan in 1981 assumed the mantle of the outsider who decried and denounced the government in his inaugural address. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” He then took the lead in the passage of two significant income tax reductions during his two terms. Yet he wasn’t totally committed as an anti-tax ideologue, since he also oversaw several tax increases that affected social security taxes, and broadened the taxable base, exposing formerly exempt forms of income to the new lower tax rates.

This inconsistency from the leader of the Republicans led a 29-year old veteran of anti-communist battles across the globe to create an organization that has hobbled the US ever since its founding. Grover Norquist established Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) in 1985 as requested by President Reagan, and shortly thereafter became the chief evangelist for the philosophical position that all government spending is bad, and that it should become an existential crisis if a Republican politician ever supports a tax increase. Thus began the saga of the pledge, the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, that an overwhelming number of Republican legislators have affixed their signatures to, stating that they will “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and to oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates”.

So much of the polarization in Congress flows directly from the pernicious effects of this pledge, and from the personal crusading of Grover Norquist against any attempt to increase tax revenues, either at a federal or a state level. Indeed, the state of Kansas attempted to follow the guidance of Norquist and fellow economic guru Arthur Laffer by slashing their income tax rates in order to unleash a supply-side revolution at the state level. Five years later, with the state hobbled by the unforeseen consequences of the tax reductions, the legislature of Kansas overrode their governor’s veto of tax increases in order to restore the functioning of the state government at a minimal level. Governor Brownback is not chastened, though, and still champions the same tax slash and burn strategy for the Federal government.

Grover Norquist’s penchant for bullying recalcitrant Republicans is straight-forward. As the Washington Post quoted Norquist in a July 12, 2011 story, “There are times,” he boasted, “when we’ll call everybody in the congressional district and let them know that one guy signed the pledge and one guy didn’t.” Indeed, the reluctance of Republicans to seriously address needed fiscal remedies stems from the likelihood that ATR and other political organizations spawned from ATR vitriol will cause the emergence of a well-funded primary opponent in the legislator’s next race. It is well known that the influence of Grover Norquist and his pledge was one of the main reasons why the bipartisan effort to address deficits and spending in 2011 through the super committee came to failure. See this 2011 editorial from the New York Times for a contemporaneous perspective:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/opinion/republicans-are-endangering-national-security.html  Thus came into effect that blind ax swinger called the sequester that has run amuck over the past few years, slicing both defense and discretionary spending.

In less partisan times, the two parties could actually work together to have a legitimate debate about the true size and function of a government. We could make longer term plans to address the deferred maintenance of our US infrastructure. We could discuss ways to reduce safety net spending by improving workforce participation rates and labor skills. We could discuss how to encourage entrepreneurship and reducing artificial barriers to entry caused by state licensing requirements for many trades. But the hyperbolic partisan wrangling wrought about through generations of adherence to a flawed political philosophy means that the worst threat that Senator McConnell can issue is to force the Republicans to work with the Democrats on health care legislation. After all, as Grover has said, bipartisanship is “date rape”.

There are many areas where legislative efforts involving both parties should bear significant fruit. Indeed, overregulation has become a problem, although the wholesale shredding of environmental regulations will only bear toxic fruit. We desperately need a longer term program of infrastructure repair and replacement. We do need to simplify the tax code and reduce the nominal top business rate in order to improve our competitiveness in a global economy.

But with the political discourse from one side beginning and ending with the phrase, no additional taxes, we cannot move forward. I put forth the proposition that Grover Norquist is one of the most dangerous people in politics, and that the culture of absolutely no compromise allowed has poisoned political discourse. Only when politicians are able to overcome the siren song of simplistic solutions like the Taxpayer Protection Pledge will we be able to begin to fix the myriads of problems we face in this nation and in the world. Look at what 30+ years of adherence to this pledge has achieved! You tell me if we are on a sustainable path given the childishness we face in our politics.

There are indeed legitimate roles for a government that cannot be met by private sector solutions. And taxes, instead of being viewed as money stolen from individuals, represent the price we incur to live in a civilized society, rather than living in an anarchic world where strength is the only security available to men and women and children. I worked in the corporate world for 40 years. I do not want totally unfettered capitalism where there are no rules and anything goes, because in such an environment, we all lose.

 

Let the Games Begin

 

Let’s get ready to rrrrruuuummmmbbbblllle! The Senate Republicans have now laid down the gantlet, and it is now time for us to have a complete and thorough discussion and debate about government involvement in the health care system. One where open suggestions and ideas may be freely floated, and where hearings will bring forth legions of experts, putting forth the benefits of the case for both parties.

Oh. You mean that’s not going to happen? We’re going to barely have a week to discuss and debate this immense change being proposed to our already dysfunctional health care system, then a vote will be forced through? No other alternatives except for what 13 white male Senators came up with will even be considered?

I am truly disgusted by the spectacle of our legislators working hard to craft a bill aimed at causing the greatest amount of harm to the greatest number of people. The old adage was that the legislative and bill drafting process was akin to making sausage. That may still hold true, but it seems that a new step is added whereby the sausage has to pass through the digestive system before the new legislation is laid, steaming fresh, at the feet of its admiring partisan supporters.

It has come down to this. Both parties repudiate any notion of working across the aisle in order to craft a thoughtful comprehensive approach to dealing with the huge problem we have with excessive costs and maldistribution of health care services. Instead, one party works diligently behind closed doors to create a tax cut that only affects those who have income greater than $200,000 per year ($250,000 for joint filers). True, it also removes $19 billion in taxes imposed on medical insurers, pharmaceutical firms, and medical device manufacturers. The removal of these taxes shows the value of campaign contributions to the Senators who drafted this legislation. I saw today on TV that over the past few years, these Senators received about $0.5 million in campaign contributions from these entities. $19 billion / $0.5 million = $38,000 in tax benefits for each dollar in campaign contributions.

So we have a bill nominally posited as a health care bill, but in reality it’s a tax cut favoring the top 1% of income earners, and favoring those whose businesses greatly benefited by the increased demand attributable to the Affordable Care Act. And in order to frame this as a win for the average person, we will enable states to allow for limited insurance products, much like it was prior to the ACA’s implementation. Can’t wait to see the expression on the face of some poor schmuck who grabbed on to one of the new cheap health care insurance plans only to find out it pays a total of $400 per day for hospitalization expenses when they have to cover a heart attack hospitalization.. But it’s all good, since the health insurance consumer could have chosen a better plan (but couldn’t afford it).

Let’s have a real debate as the outcome of this faux discussion. Let’s make a determination whether we believe the US is an outlier from the rest of the civilized world, and make health care an independent responsibility, or whether we wish to join the rest of the world and enable a single-payer system to provide health care for all citizens.

My confidence that this type of discussion will occur in the hallowed halls of Congress? Less than the square root of negative 1. My reasoning? There is zero incentive for members of Congress to reach across the aisle and actively involve the opposition party in legislative negotiation. As the French have said, La Plus ça Change, la plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same. It sounds better in French.

Whatever happens with the current health care bill negotiations, I sincerely doubt whether the outcome will improve the situation for the majority in this country who are dependent upon either government policies directly, or dependent upon the structures set up by the ACA.

I call for the creation of a brand new party that is no beholden to the existing power structure. I call for a Macron-like entity to take over US politics from the completely corrupt and compromised party structures that we are burdened with. Part of our problem in the US is that we do not have a parliamentary structure. If we did, then Nancy Pelosi would have been driven from her leadership position in disgrace over the last few election cycles as her position would have been exposed as having a fatal flaw. Meaning, the vast majority of voters in this country do not agree with a San Francisco liberal.

Nothing will happen unless enough of us speak out and demand change. Even then, there is no guarantee that we will see significant change. But I do know that if no one speaks out, there will be no change. I am speaking out, here and now.

Pay Me Now, or Pay Me Later! Guess What? It’s Now Later!

Computer desk IBM 360 Desk Console

Want to cut down on the size and ineffectiveness of the Federal government? If so, then you will need to shell out significant dollars to replace the decades-old IT systems that the government uses for many of its programs. And you will need to rework many of the procurement practices and political machinations that have hamstrung efforts to update IT systems in the past.

It is not a secret that the IRS is at the rear of the organizations that are updating their IT systems. Two of the main systems for the IRS are IT antiques dating back over 50 years ago, running on IBM mainframes, with programming that is written in assembly language code. There have been requests to modernize the systems involved, but since the IRS is viewed as anathema to the Republicans dominating Congress, the trend over the past decade has been to cut IRS spending, not upgrade the systems. I actually remember IBM mainframes – the IBM 360 was the workhorse of the university computing systems at our school. The fact that essential government functions still run on a similar system now should bring shame to any who care about efficient government services. Indeed, it appears that up to $60 billion per year across the Federal government is being spent trying to nursemaid these antiquated systems through yet another day.

Not only does the government incur substantial costs for keeping these antiques running, it cannot achieve the efficiencies in service delivery that are possible if we use modern computer systems. I worked for over 20 years for my company installing and upgrading our business enterprise software. Our system was SAP, and in the early 1990’s I began work at a chemical plant implementing the mainframe version of this system. Beginning in 1999, I worked full time on SAP implementation for our department, and I understand the complexity involved in uprooting existing systems and implementing brand new business processes. The period immediately before and after go-live was always traumatic and stressful. But it is only after going through these efforts that it is possible to reap the benefits of improved IT. The increase in direct IT support costs is greatly outweighed by the reductions in support staff at the plants and in central offices. Not only are overall costs lowered, but the information that comes from such a system is up to date and accurate. When I began working at a plant, it took a clerk in each process in a plant multiple days to assemble the information needed for monthly cost reporting. These reports were circulated in a preliminary form among the management of the process, and eventually they were issued. Then the plant accountant would assemble all of the overhead cost sheets, and the allocated costs would be figured. All of this meant that cost information was never current, always subject to significant revisions, and provided only a snapshot once a month.

By the time I retired in 2015, cost data was available instantaneously for all products, including labor costing and allocated overheads. The manpower was greatly reduced at a site, the information was better, and managers could focus on factors within their control instead of trying to manipulate the reports to put their operations in a better light.

The Federal government cannot achieve the efficiencies that private industry has achieved, because the impetus to upgrade IT systems has not been sufficient to enable the departments to get the funds to implement the upgrades. In fact, lately this effort has gone in the opposite direction. According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), Operations & Maintenance spending on IT systems has been rising year by year since 2012, while spending for modernization and development has declined. From fiscal years 2010 to 2017, such spending has decreased by $7.3 billion.

Even when funds are appropriated for upgrades, current procurement practices preclude efficient implementation. I am aware of an effort to implement a portion of business enterprise software for the army. Supposedly the contract for this project was approved in late 2016. However, due to the nature of government procurement, a competitor who was unsuccessful in the bidding process appealed the awarding of the contract. It has been six months, and there has not been any update on the resolution of the situation. Meanwhile, those employees who would have been assigned to the project are awaiting actual productive work at the government contractor. Such delays lead to projects running behind schedule and much above budget.

One reason why the funding has decreased for modernizing IT systems has been the sequester process for budgeting. With funding for discretionary spending flattened by decree, it has been increasingly difficult to gain support for funding for IT improvements. But for fiscal conservatives, it should be a primary goal to ensure that if the government must spend tax dollars, they should do it in a cost-effective manner, and in such a way that overall government employees could be reduced. Unfortunately, this approach has not reached the top 10 list of the Grover Norquist acolytes who view any increase in expenditure from a government agency as sacrilege.

Since the current administration is full of folks with business experience, maybe these types of modernization efforts may finally gain traction. This is one area where I do find agreement with the priorities of the Trump administration. This past week’s gathering of tech business executives with the administration did discuss IT modernization. My fear is that in this administration’s pogrom against discretionary spending, once more we will fall further behind the IT curve. Future archeologists will excavate data centers complete with mainframes and tape drives intact, and will marvel that these relics maintained their usefulness long after they had been abandoned by the world of business.

 

 

Make! America! Great! Again!

Trump's world

 

Let’s make America Great! How do we do that? First, let’s piss off every ally we’ve had for the past 75 years by insisting they all are out to rob us blind, and they don’t have the guts to fight terrorism the way we do. Next, let’s make it way harder for others to come to the US by implementing half-baked bans against certain religions to enter this country (we have to be oh so careful to be politically correct and not call them bans or the namby-pamby courts will rule against us, as if they actually are a co-equal branch of government).

We can make America great by creating our own sense of reality, where only what we say is the truth. And we can convey that sense of reality directly to the American People (We do love the people. They voted for us hugely.) in our tweets. Someday the tweets we make will be the basis for a little red book like that Chinese guy used to have. Everyone will wave a copy around to show how much they adore us.

We can make America great by leaving a lot of these government positions empty. Who needs all of these folks anyway. I can fire all of the US attorneys and not nominate anyone to fill the slots, and no one will notice. And diplomats? Do we really need diplomats, except for our favorite countries?

We can make America great by showing America how great leaders work. Like this guy Duterte in the Philippines. Wonderful how he’s leading by enabling those mobs to kill all of the druggies. Wish we could do something like that here.

We can make America great by cutting back on a bunch of silly spending. Why in the world do we need to invest in scientific research? What has science ever done for us? It’s not like our lives are longer than they used to be because of medical research. Or how is it that we gained anything from research into solid state physics. What a waste of time and money! Losers, all of them. Can’t wait to use my cell phone to post a tweet about not wasting money on basic research.

We can make America great by showing America how fake the media is. They won’t acknowledge our greatness all the time, so they are fake. Fake, fake, fake. We’d be better off if everyone just used my twitter feed to learn all they need to know about the world. Boy, I wish they wouldn’t keep asking those damn questions. Why do they keep harping on all of these things we did with our friends the Russians? You’d think they thought someone out there in the mid-west actually cared about selling out to the Russians. Love the mid-west. They voted for me when no one ever thought they would. Led to my huge electoral college victory. Biggest one ever for a Republican. Did you know I’m a Republican? I used to donate money to Democrats.

We can make America great by passing the biggest tax cut in history. I can get the Congress to do just what I want. Just give them the talking points and they take it from there. That’s Leadership! We haven’t had leadership in this country since Andrew Jackson. Tax cuts. Get rid of that stupid death tax. Do you know how much that would cost my children if we don’t get rid of that? Of course, I plan on living a long time. Did you see how my doctor said that I had the best health of any President EVER! No, we can just keep cutting the taxes and watch the money pour in. I can see 5%, 6% growth coming just because of these tax cuts. Just watch and see.

We can make America great by getting rid of that terrible thing Obamacare. Just get rid of it and we’ll have the greatest health care ever. Costs will go straight down. People won’t have to spend money on insurance since we will get rid of the requirement to have it. Shoot, I’ll just tell the IRS not to enforce the requirement. I can do that you know. I love to sign executive orders. I can get a huge crowd in the office just to hold one of these signing ceremonies. I love ceremonies. It’s like a parade, only just in one room. Did you see the parade for my inauguration? Biggest Parade and the Biggest Crowd ever! And those executive orders. Sometimes I read them before I sign them. Sometimes not. But we’re not going to cut Medicare or Social Security. That’s my pledge to the American people.

We can make America great by getting us out of all of these agreements and treaties with other countries. We never do well in these things. Get taken advantage of bigley. Like that NAFTA thing. Or was that the NATO thing? Both of them – worst treaties ever. Tear them up, start over, we’ll show them that you can’t take advantage of the United States! Did you see about those children over in Syria? I showed them who’s boss. Gave them a dose of Tomahawks! Just wait till that fat little punk in North Korea tries something. I’ll show him. Of course, it’s hard for a young kid to be running a country. I can understand why he’s had to be tough with folks, shooting them with anti-aircraft rounds. I know I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and my supporters would cheer.

 

Whew! I’m sure glad that Donald Trump didn’t get elected as President. What a horrible dream! Can you imagine someone thinking and acting like that? Wait. What’s that you’re saying? All of the things in my dream – they’re real? And all have taken place in less than 5 months? And we have 3 years and 7 more months to go? Where is that alternate reality we were talking about? I think I’m gonna need to live there in order to stay sane.

 

Media? We Don’t Need No Lying Media! (Or Do We?)

hoax-2097361__340

 

And now the coarsening of the political discourse continues. To think that a candidate for Congress, on the eve of his election, would be so easily provoked by a reporter’s request for a response about the CBO scoring of the AHCA that he would physically assault and tackle that reporter. That is amazing, but unfortunately it is part of a long chain of events that show a significant decline in the civility towards political discourse.

This coarsening is non-partisan in nature. Both the right (especially the alt-right) and the left are guilty of these incidents. The series of incidents with provocative right-wing speakers on college campuses where the speakers are prevented from speaking due to organized left-wing opposition, combined with anarchist activists who foment violence, has turned college campuses into no discourse zones. As for the right, we have only to review the footage of Donald Trump’s rallies where he excoriated the press, leading to situations where angry crowds surrounded press representatives, causing them to worry that physical violence would follow. And the reaction of Donald Trump to any protestor at his rallies did lead to protestors being assaulted by “right-minded patriots” as the protestors were being led out of rallies.

So the next phase of this war against free speech and the press has begun to play out across our land. In my State Capital building in West Virginia, a credentialed reporter trying to get a response from HHS secretary Tom Price was arrested and charged with “willful disruption of governmental processes”. As of this date, two weeks later, reporter Dan Heyman is still facing these charges.

In a little-reported incident in April, a cameraman for a Las Vegas television station was arrested for filming a tax-day protest on the Las Vegas strip. His crime? Not knowing that the sidewalk in front of an establishment was private property and thus subject to trespass limitations.

Now, with the overt hostility of the Montana candidate towards the press being expressed in a physical takedown of a reporter, the war against the press has taken a sinister turn to violence. It is only a matter of time until someone who feels empowered by the new attitude towards the press takes matters into their own hands and kills a reporter.

Both the right and the left need to step back and cool down. The lack of tolerance shown by the left against conservative speakers needs to dissipate. There are plenty of acceptable ways to demonstrate disapproval against a speaker instead of violently keeping that speaker from talking. And the phenomena of shouting down Republican representatives at town halls does not improve the political climate, as the attitude from the Republicans seems to be that those who protest, must be professional outside agitators paid by George Soros.

I am more concerned though, about the hatred shown by Republicans towards the press. There is a long-standing antipathy towards the press from many Republicans. They view the press as biased towards liberals and Democrats, and thus feel antagonism towards reporters. Then, with the ubiquitous use of cell phones for documentation, there is a paparazzi-like sense that politicians are legitimate targets for harassment from the press. But it is the characterization of mainstream media as “fake news” that is most disturbing. President Trump overtly declaring the media as “The Enemy Of The People!” Trying to delegitimize media as propagating only fake news and being the enemy is very dangerous, since many people no longer have a cultural reference point to distinguish between reality and illusion. The rise in social media as a primary news source for many people is a significant reason for this newfound lack of a cultural reference point. Ongoing balkanization of media sources leads to a lack of knowledge of real facts.

What can be done to reverse this trend towards abandonment of first amendment principles? All of us, regardless of political leanings, need to speak up in public against the war being waged on free speech and the media. This blog post is my own attempt to add my thoughts to the public discourse. I encourage anyone else who believes that we are heading down a dangerous path to also speak out in whatever forum you have available to you. We must stop this before we find that we have lost our freedom of speech and ability to conduct political discourse in public.

To Bee? Or Not To Bee?

insect-dragonfly-vulgatissimus-yellow-dragonfly-80466

 

I read a very disturbing story in Science magazine this month. A German amateur scientific group, the Krefeld Entomological Society, has conducted surveys of insect populations since 1989. These surveys show that the total mass of flying insects collected has declined by almost 80% in this time. Though the story in the May 10 issue of Science (Where Have All the Insects Gone?) does not make an assertion as to the cause for the decline, or whether the decline is limited to the European sites monitored by this society, they do mention the windshield effect. That is, are drivers encountering fewer bugs as they drive in the summer months, and is that symptomatic of a decline in insect populations?

If the monitored decline is widespread, then what does that say about potential effects on wildlife populations and diversity? At this time of year, we are very aware of the insect population, especially as we watch parent birds deliver squirming loads of protein to the next bird generation. If flying insects are in decline, then it indicates a decline in overall insect populations, and that has to be harmful to the species that live off of the abundance of insects in the warmer months.

The story does go into potential causes of the decline in population. Habitat loss in particular is mentioned as a potential contributing factor. But the story implies that a class of pesticides already identified as a factor in bee colony collapse, may also be contributing to the observed flying insect population declines. Neonicotinoid pesticides were developed in the 1980’s and were used for seed coatings beginning in the 1990’s. These pesticides have extremely low mammalian toxicity. But they are mobile in the environment, and are water soluble. Studies have shown that wildflowers adjacent to crop plantings can have concentrations of neonicotinoids higher than on the crop plants.

So this clearly is an issue that requires swift study, and if studies indicate it is justified, then it necessitates new regulations for this class of pesticide. Now let me state something from a personal perspective. I worked for a company that manufactures both herbicides and pesticides. For a good part of my career, the Ag Products division was my work home. I believe that agricultural chemicals provide benefits that outweigh their risks to the environment. I am not one who is chemophobic. And herbicides and pesticides are already among the most heavily regulated chemicals ever manufactured. But occasionally, a class of compounds is commercialized, only to discover decades later that there were unintended harmful consequences to non-target species. This happened with the chlorinated hydrocarbons like DDT. They had low direct mammalian toxicity, but when they accumulated in animals, they caused reproductive harm.

Another series of articles in Science recently discussed the ongoing extinctions that are occurring in the new anthropocene era. The anthropocene is the new geologic era defined by the effects that humanity is causing to our planet, and is now officially recognized by scientists. One of the points of the articles was that the inter-relationships between species are complex, and it is difficult to predict the effects on the system as a whole if one of the pieces disappears (becomes extinct).

What this means is as humanity continues to impose its will on the earth, resulting in the extinction of more and more species, the unexpected effects will continue to grow. At some point, a step-change in the system will show up, and suddenly a large portion of the ecosystem will not work. Bee colonies are a good example of this. Humanity is reliant on bees serving as pollinators for a wide variety of foods. So if we continue to use insecticides that harm bee colonies, then sometime soon we will not have many of our fruits and nuts and oil seeds available as our food sources. We are all related in life on this earth, and we are not immune to the ills of the ecosystem as a whole.

Unfortunately, within the US, the ruling political class has grown hostile to considering the health of natural systems as one of the inputs to making laws or regulations. Since flying insects do not contribute to dark money PACS, they have no advocate in the US Congress or in the administration. Instead, there are efforts to roll back science-based regulations within the EPA. Already the EPA has put a hold on a recommendation from a science advisory committee within the EPA that would have banned the use of the insecticide chlorpyrifos. See, with this administration, money and economic growth are the only things worth considering. All of this science stuff, well, how much money is donated to politician’s campaigns from scientists anyway? Not nearly as much as from chemical companies. So who should we listen to? Those who say that there is statistical correlation (though not proven causation) between exposure to a class of pesticides, and children with increased frequency of ADHD? Or those who donate?

Simplistic thinking breeds simplistic solutions. The natural world though, is complex, and is shaded not in black and white, but in a rainbow of bright hues. When you have an administration that looks at a problem solely in economic terms, and views regulations as barriers to economic growth, then you will develop solutions that cause great harm to the natural systems we rely upon. At some point, the hubris of the human race will cause us to be dashed against the rocks of reality as nature has its way. If only we can recognize our folly and act to reverse it before it determines our fate!