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.

 

And the livin’ is easy

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First tomatoes before the end of June. For me, in West Virginia, that sets a record. Salad tonight from the last crops of lettuce and radishes, and the first green beans will be this weekend. Summer time has burst forth in its lazy glory, with cats stretched out in their 90° pose, as elongated as their bodies will permit on the concrete.

Even for those who have retired, summer brings on another level of indolence. Time is not as critical, since lessons aren’t being held, rehearsals have all been put on hold till the fall, and the front porch beckons. Our outdoor living room is our front porch, complete with most of our indoor plants enjoying their exposure to completely natural light. We sit and watch the hummer wars play out in front of us. A hummer will be slaking its thirst when suddenly it is forced to retreat at warp speed due to the return of the alpha male hummer who has claimed our yard to be his territory.

I see our string of apple trees alongside the driveway begin to shake. Looking over, I see that once more, my hope of having a pie or cobbler made of our own apples will likely not happen, since the squirrels are already taking the green apples long before they would be ripe enough for my taste. I watch as a squirrel holds a McIntosh apple in its mouth, the apple just beginning to blush red, and the squirrel runs across the grass to the nearby poplar where it climbs up to enjoy its feast. At least I get entertainment value from watching them. I just wish they’d eat the crab apples. I’ve got tons of them, and they won’t even touch them. The crab apples have weighed down the branches so that they are leaning down, nearly touching the car below.

Nothing is better than sitting out in the morning on the porch, drinking coffee and reading the physical newspaper. Yes, we still receive the paper each morning, and savor it. Especially in the summer when the morning is still cool enough to enjoy sitting out on the porch. Watching the rest of the world go by and feeling so blessed to not have to leave each day to do my bit to move the economy along in my job. My part of the economy now is to consume, and drinking vanilla/coconut flavored coffee is a wonderful way to do that.

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One thing that keeps on growing are the weeds. Since I use herbicides only for poison ivy, removing weeds is a labor-intensive operation. Just about the time that I complete ridding all the flower and vegetable beds of weeds, it’s time to start again. The other day, I was out weeding our brick walkway, being assisted by the cats, when all of a sudden our neighbor’s cat burst out of the Lenten rose in front of our house, swiftly followed by both of our cats. I had no idea that the cat was there, but it certainly caused excitement when it ran off. Fortunately, our cats didn’t follow across the street to the neighbor’s house. Turf wars are tough.

Looks like we have two does that had fawns this year. One has a single fawn, and one has two. Yesterday both of those families came down the hill and through our yard, along with a spike buck who went the opposite way back up the hill. To say that we are polluted with deer would be an understatement. We are now working on upgrading the landscaping of our sunny sloped garden in front by trying to find and grow deer-resistant perennials. Last weekend I put out about 10 new plants, and so far only one has been munched on by the deer. We can be hopeful.

It’ll be another month or so before I’ll start to look for bulbs to thin out. The old foliage has died back and I’ve pulled most of it out with the weeds. Probably the next time I’m out there weeding, I will see clumps of bulbs that have migrated all the way to the surface. Then I will dig out the cluster, taking 30-50 bulbs out and leaving about 10 in the original hole. The extras will go to other folks who want bulbs, and then I’ll plant the rest in some of the remaining places where we don’t have daffodils in the spring. Often that means going further down the hill to keep expanding the spring flower explosion.

This evening we will be enjoying some frozen concoction (that helps us hang on) on the porch while listening to the Pirates game on the radio. May you all have as great of a time enjoying summer as we do.

Nuclear Energy Doesn’t Have To Be Scary

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Quick – can someone tell me what potential source of energy could single-handedly provide all of the energy requirements of the US for the next 1000 years? And at the same time, foster independence in rare earth materials that are mainly sourced from China? And would not generate carbon dioxide as it is consumed?

No, it’s not coal. Coal can provide a significant portion of energy needs, and coal ash is a prospective source of rare earth metals that may be harvested, but it creates a huge amount of CO2 and has other detrimental effects, like the mountain top removal that is a blight in my home state of West Virginia. (Point of personal perspective – over 40 years ago, I had a part-time job as a chemist for a concrete company. There was a new coal fired power plant coming on line in Nebraska, and the concrete company was considering using coal ash as an extender for cement in making concrete. I performed wet chemical analysis of fly ash, going through most of the metals by reacting with reagents, then precipitating out various compounds and evaporating them to dryness in platinum crucibles. The reaction stream went all the way to sodium, which had to be precipitated with some uranium salt. I had fun doing that work, but the one thing I remember is that if you hit a fly with a stream of acetone used to dry dishware, you would cause the fly to drop out of the air instantly, and a dehydrated fly husk would be all that was left behind.)

Give up on the original question? It’s thorium, the radioactive material that has a 14 billion year half life. Thorium, along with uranium, was looked at by the US government when nuclear power and nuclear weaponry were uppermost in the minds of the government. But one factor weighing against thorium, turns out to be now a very beneficial factor. See, it is nigh unto impossible to obtain any nuclear weapon grade material out of the thorium fission reaction process. Uranium reactors will create plutonium as one of the natural byproducts of fission. If U238 (the most common uranium isotope in reactor fuel) absorbs a neutron, it becomes an extremely unstable isotope U239, which eventually transmutes into a plutonium isotope. Since U238 is the primary isotope in a pressurized water reactor, the spent fuel rods from a reactor will always contain plutonium. That is one reason why fuel rod security is required, since plutonium can be chemically separated from the toxic mix of radioactive stew found in a fuel rod.

Thorium, though, does not create plutonium. It does create the uranium isotope U233  which is the active fuel for a thorium reactor.  It also creates small quantities of another uranium isotope U232 which acts as a poison against creating a fission bomb out of U233 . So the issues of nuclear weapon proliferation by segregating out fissile material from thorium fuel are not of concern.

(Paragraph of translation. If you understand the concepts of isotopes, please skip over this paragraph.  Now, the last paragraph used a bit of physics jargon that is necessary to understand this post. I mentioned Uranium 232 (U232)  and Uranium 233 (U233).   Both of those refer to the element uranium, which has 92 protons. Where they differ is in the number of neutrons. Uranium 233 has one more neutron than does uranium 233. An element may have many different numbers of neutrons, and that is especially true in the heaviest (by atomic number) elements. These different isotopes have remarkably different characteristics, especially when dealing with nuclear reactions. This is important in the discussion below.

In order to appreciate the difference between a thorium reactor, and the current pressurized water reactors (PWR) using uranium, it is necessary to discuss PWR’s. The current nuclear power industry takes fuel rods and inserts them into the core of the reactor. A reactor contains control rods of neutron-absorbing materials. These control rods are raised and lowered in order to moderate the nuclear fission occurring in the fuel rods. If the control rods were raised totally out of the core, the fuel rods would not be able to hold the runaway nuclear reaction that would ensue. The zirconium cladding of the fuel rods would melt, and the contents of the fuel rods would pool at the bottom of the reactor. This event would not be good, putting it mildly.

When a PWR works properly, it heats water which is kept pressurized in the primary coolant loop. The water is circulated into a steam generator, where the steam is created which runs the electrical generators. Fuel rods in a PWR have a limited lifespan, and once they are no longer useful to generate electricity, these rods must be pulled out and stored in water to handle the immediate heat generated from nuclear reactions still continuing in the fuel rods. In some cases, the rods are held in water pools for 10-20 years. Then the rods must be kept secure and eventually stored somewhere where they will be able to stay segregated from the environment for geologically significant periods of time (hundreds of thousands of years). It is only after that much time has gone by before the spent fuel rods no longer pose a threat to health.

So, with uranium as the source fuel, you can generate enormous amounts of energy without CO2 generation, but with huge potential issues. You have extremely complex systems operating at incredible pressures and temperatures that must keep operating in order to prevent a runaway reaction. Then, if all works right, you have to take the fuel rods out after only a few percent of the potential energy is released, since the fission byproducts work to poison the reaction long before all of the uranium has fissioned.  And then you must isolate the fuel rods for hundreds of thousands of years, or else there is a risk of radioactive contamination of the environment. No wonder nuclear power is viewed with disfavor.

Thorium would be significantly different, though. Thorium reactors can use a molten salt as the liquid that would carry the thorium, the U233, and all fission products coming from the nuclear reactions. This means that the operating pressures of the system are far lower than in a PWR, reducing the potential for leakage or cracking of the containment system. And if the liquid salt does leak out, what would happen? It would freeze in place. Indeed, the possibility of a reactor core meltdown disappears with a thorium-fueled reactor.

It is essential to separate out the fission products and radioactive isotopes generated in this type of reactor. This can be done by taking a small side stream of the circulating salt solution, and using standard chemical separation techniques to return the unburned U233 to the salt solution. Other radioactive isotopes can be removed using this method. Because the fuel can be recycled indefinitely until it is burned, the remaining daughter fission products (the lighter elements remaining from a uranium nucleus that has fissioned) have a much shorter half life. Instead of hundreds of thousands of years for spent fuel rods to become harmless, it will only take a couple of hundred years for the fission byproducts from thorium to decay to a harmless state.

One thing that thorium has going for it is 4 times more plentiful in the earth’s crust than uranium. And it’s primary ore is one that includes rare earth metals and phosphate. So a commercial mining operation aimed at recovering thorium will also produce rare earth metals, and phosphate for fertilizer. All of these materials are essential for our modern economy.

Granted, any process involving radioactive materials has risks, and even though a thorium-fueled liquid salt reactor is simpler than a PWR, there are many challenges concerning the commercialization of this technology. But if we as a society are concerned with trying to develop energy sources that do not produce CO2 , and can serve as baseload power generators, certainly thorium reactors are a technology that should actively be researched. To think, we may have had the answer to our energy dilemmas in hand over 60 years ago, only to throw it away since thorium doesn’t lend itself to making good bombs (an oxymoron of the first degree).  Let’s try to rectify humanity’s mistake and work to investigate and commercialize this amazing resource we have been given from our earth.

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.

 

Not All Archeological Digs Are Below Ground

Attic before

We set up the plastic dust barriers from the attic, down the hallway and stairway, and out to the front door. Plastic sheeting covering handrails, much of the carpet on the steps, and all to prevent the potentially asbestos contaminated dust from escaping into the house. My brother and brother-in-law took the hard tasks of cleaning the initial dust off of the innumerable boxes stored in the attic, then hauling the boxes and bags down the stairs and out to the front yard, where we awaited with dust masks as I would blow the remaining dust off of the detritus from the attic.

My parents moved into the house in 1957. I did not realize it all through my childhood, but the attic was not just the place where Christmas decorations resided in sturdy apple boxes. No, the attic became a black hole that sucked all of the possessions and ephemera of a lifetime into its gaping maw. It was harder for it to serve this purpose for the first 20 years of their residency, since hoisting items to the attic required hauling the stepladder from the garage to the second floor, then up the steps into the attic, and finally finding a place for the new attic inhabitants. But in the late 1970’s, as part of home improvements, a collapsible ladder was installed leading to the attic. After that time, it became much easier to feed the inexhaustible appetite of the attic.

The removal of the attic contents became an archeological dig. As the available space for storage decreased, the recent articles tended to be near the opening to the attic. Thus it was items from the last decade that emerged first. As the excavation proceeded, it was fun to determine which decade we were into. The 1990’s emerged, then the 1980’s, and on back all the way to the early 1960’s and late 1950’s. What emerged? There was luggage. Every piece of luggage that they ever owned was still in the attic. From the metal suitcase that my father used to take his meager possessions to Purdue, to the latest Oleg Cassini suitcase that I claimed for my son’s use in the future. There were the two brown leather sided suitcases I remembered from my youth, along with the blue suitcases trimmed with white that were my mothers. There had to be at least 20 pieces of luggage that emerged.

Did you say clothes? Well, there were huge bags of blue jeans. My mother lived in blue jeans for much of her life, and when they wore out, they would find their way into a plastic bag and take the migratory route up to the attic. Did you need some ties? My father wore ties every day when he worked at the Nebraska Department of Roads, and even though we had already given countless ties away after his death, more bags full of ties came out into the sunlight once more. Mugs? Multiple boxes of mugs came down, along with pottery and figurines and glasses and plates.

Yes, there were the treasures we expected to find as well. The Tonka and Ny-Lint trucks we had used in our sandbox to dig and delve came out, though their bodies bore the dents we had imposed and the rust of ages. We’ll have to see if they are desired by collectors. The multiple boxes belonging to each of us siblings, holding our school memories. I could see my report cards all the way from kindergarten. The pictures of me in the plays in high school where I began my love of the theatre. All of the scholastic honors I got from high school and into college, with my notification of my Regents scholarship that paid all tuition for 16 hours per semester. In the 1972-1976 era, that was worth about $500 per year. Quite a change to now, with tuition continuing to skyrocket.

Other memories surfaced as the dig continued. Old pictures that had been replaced decades ago brought smiles. Chairs that had been superseded by newer seating made their way down the attic stair and out into the light again. The old pressure cooker once used for certain foods was intact, and the boxes of my uncle Bill’s remaining possessions surfaced. There were treats like the letter from Bill to his mother that had to be written so as to pass censor’s requirements.

But interspersed with all of the good stuff, was the chaff. So many bottles set aside as they were “collectors editions” of syrup. Ancient Windsong perfume dispensers. Old Spice bottles. If the bottles were clean, they were tossed into the recycling bin. Then, there were the magazines. Let’s start with the Reader’s Digests and the National Geographic’s. Decades worth of these magazines filled countless boxes. There were Popular Science magazines, and Boy’s Life from the early 1970’s. Even the most ephemeral of magazines, the ubiquitous TV Guide. I have no idea why these magazines were singled out for retention. At least they didn’t keep the weekly Engineering News Records that were delivered faithfully for years upon years, nor did they box up Newsweek or Smithsonian’s or any of the other historical magazines they loved in their later years. We would do a cursory search through the boxes of these magazines, to ensure that no other worthwhile item had been included in a box, but literally tons of these were either put out for recycling, or delivered directly to the dump in my brother-in-law’s pickup.

Not all of the paper was totally worthless though. My parents must have kept every card, Christmas, birthday, Easter, whatever type of card they received, they kept. Bags and boxes of these held notes and sometimes photos, and seeing the sentiments from many years ago brought back to light was fun. Unfortunately, those were outweighed by the years and years of bank records and tax returns that had to be sifted through to ensure that there was no information that would identify us as the remaining generation. I had forgotten that it was a relatively late development to add the social security numbers for dependents, so even tax returns held no new identity threat to us.

Then there were the work files from my father’s years at the highway department. Why he took so many boxes of records with him when he retired I’ll never know, but if you want the listing of the challenges facing the Nebraska Department of Roads in the 1980’s, we can point you to a section of the dump where it may be found.

The lesson I took away from this 4 day dig was this: If you love your heirs, clean up your stuff now so they don’t have to separate the wheat from the chaff. Leave only wheat that they will enjoy as they review your life well spent.

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

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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?

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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!

Ride the Trump Train

Are you quivering, full of anticipation at the first foreign fling from the Trump administration? Are you waiting to see what follies will emanate from our glorious leader? Will Saudi Arabia recoil in horror after seeing firsthand the shallowness of the gene pool in which our President resides? Will Israel succeed in convincing President Trump of the necessity to hold one’s tongue when one is tempted to share the highest level of classified secrets? Or will the President take affront at being chastised, leading him to take off on a twitter tirade linking Israel to the lyin’ media?

Finally, we will have President Trump showing off his wondrous attention span as he attends NATO and G7 summits. Will his performance at these public venues result in someone finally declaring that the emperor is naked? After all, he’s been running through the rose garden since January without the benefit of a cloak of intelligent thought. I am embarrassed as an American when I see that any presentations intended for our President are to be dumbed down to single Powerpoint page, nine bullet points max, and preferably with illustrations. And for the summits, a request was made to limit all presentations to between two and four minutes. All to enable President Trump to not exceed his attention span. If you wish to see a vivid portrayal of the thought process of our President, look at any of his recent published interviews. This past week, in his interview with the Economist, you could see in full color President Trump’s boasting at being the originator of the phrase “priming the pump” with respect to economic policy.

Do I expect our President to be knowledgeable about macroeconomics, and about Keynesian economic principles? Do I expect our President to have some semblance of a knowledge of history in economic matters? As a matter of fact, yes, I do. I expect anyone who has the audacity to place himself in the role of the savior of the nation to be knowledgeable about the problems he claims to have the ability to fix. In his own words at his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, “No one knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” But knowing the moral consistency of one Donald J. Trump, it is not a surprise to me to see that this was merely boastful bragging.

So enough of the citizens of the US who voted this past fall managed to vote for this charlatan with the attention span of a ping pong ball, resulting in his election via the vagaries of the electoral college. Now we find ourselves at the mercy of an administration careening out of control, with cascading news stories compounding the sense of despair emanating from the White House. Admittedly we have only second hand reports from the press (thank heavens they have not forsaken us in this time of trial), but the picture painted of the mood in the West Wing is reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica.

But my fear over the next 10 days is that this immature, insecure, and egotistical President will wreak havoc amongst our allies and supporters. He has the potential to instigate unimaginable chaos outside of the US borders, where the checks and balances of our constitutional system do not apply. And those who are seeking to do damage to our nation and interests, need only to observe how to push his buttons, in order to make him overreact viciously to any perceived insult or slight. The reputation of the United States has been diminished in this century, but President Trump has the potential to turn a mild decline into the plunge after the first uphill climb of a roller coaster. Be prepared for one hell of a ride.