About Gzep

Zep, like the other contributors to this site, is a Rocky Flats alumnus. He worked as an illustrator, model builder and technical writer/instructor. He also worked in the Communications/Community Relations group. He contributed articles to the site newspaper and edited the community relations newsletter. He retired from the site in 1996. He lives in Denver.

Are You Ready for a Real Shutdown?

Sometime in the next few weeks Congress, as divided and intractable as ever, will begin its annual (or is it monthly?) confefe over increasing the Federal debt limit, bringing with it the usual hand-wringing over the possibility of a government shutdown.  In spite of a barrage of dire warnings from Congressional leaders and media pundits, the reaction of most of the public seems to have been a collective raised eyebrow.  Perhaps this has to do with the thick layer of unconcern that we have built up over the years regarding Congressional gridlock and media wolf-crying.  But there is also the inordinately small ripple of national disruption that occurred the last time the government ostensibly ran out of money.  Remember the year?  Me neither, so I looked it up.  It was 2013, during the fight over funding for Obamacare.

Why the blank in our memory banks?  Maybe because, for the 95% of Americans who neither work for the government nor were trying to get into Yellowstone National Park that week, this shutdown, like the 18 previous ones, had almost no immediate effect.  There are several reasons for this, the principal one being that the government didn’t really run out of money and most of it didn’t really close down.  Tax revenue continued to come in and Social Security checks continued to go out, as did welfare payments.  Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements were a little later than usual – no big deal, doctors and hospitals are accustomed to such.  Some Federal employees were furloughed, but none lost a dime of pay.  So-called vital services were unaffected.  On the scale of imminent disasters soon to befall the Republic only the Y2K Bug has been a bigger flop.

True, an extended shutdown (or an actual government bankruptcy, such as might happen unannounced on, say, next Tuesday) would have some dire consequences. Luckily, the 5% of Americans (the ones Congress really pays attention to) who are most directly affected when the Feds stop answering emails have always managed to scream loud enough to keep shutdowns brief.  The longest so far, during the Clinton Administration, lasted three weeks.  Apparently tourists upset at being turned away from the Smithsonian have a lot more clout than those silly economists worried about our existing $20 trillion obligation.

This time, however, the string of abbreviated interruptions may be broken.  President Trump recently mused that “what the country needs is a good shutdown”, which taken literally (as almost everyone loves to do with Mr. Trump’s pronouncements) is like saying somebody needs a good heart attack.  But there is occasionally a particle of sense in the President’s blatherings, and what he might be trying to say here is that a prolonged absence of government assistance (as well as the absence of government interference) might prod citizens to recognize what elements of the Federal bureaucracy we might be able to do without.  Or he might just be flipping a Tweet at Chuck Schumer.  What is certain is that if he is serious about confronting Congress over the debt ceiling, the 21-day Clinton/Gingrich shutdown record will be in real jeopardy come September.  Because when it comes to intractability, nobody in Congress is in Trump’s league.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that cities and states don’t need the Federal government to fight climate change, that they can do it on their own.  This Fall we may get a hard look at what else cities and states can, or can’t, do on their own.  It will most certainly be a learning experience.

The FBI and Me

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been chasing down criminals of all stripes for 109 years. It was created, with vigorous bipartisan support, under President Teddy Roosevelt as the Bureau of Investigation (the “Federal” was added in 1935), the first national law enforcement agency.  Fighting crime might once have been thought of as a bipartisan enterprise, but in our nation’s Capital, nothing stays apolitical for long.

Crime and politics have intersected far too often in the century plus since the FBI came to be, and they may have crossed paths again recently when President Trump did his Celebrity Apprentice bit on FBI director Jim Comey.  Already loathed by half of Washington as the person most responsible for Trump becoming President, Comey had then managed to incur the wrath of the other half by refusing to give up on the investigations of Trump’s inner circle.  Seeing no love from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Comey may have felt compelled to resort to some political intrigue of his own simply for self-protection.  He is not the first FBI director to do so.

Comey’s unfortunate brushes with notoriety may make him more memorable than all of his predecessors except one.  James Edgar Hoover, whose name adorns the building the FBI calls home, assumed directorship during Prohibition and spent the next 48 years building his organization into the most fearsome and legendary law enforcement agency the country has ever known.  Hoover served under, and some would say lorded over, six presidents.  By the time he suffered a fatal heart attack during the Nixon Administration Hoover had expanded the Bureau’s reach, and his own influence, into nearly every corner of the Federal bureaucracy.   As his power in Washington grew, Hoover grew more averse to any authority other than his own and more fearful that details of what might charitably be described as his quirky personal life might come to light.  Perhaps to discourage such threats, Hoover assembled dossiers on most of D.C.’s illuminati; general scuttlebutt held that he had dirt on everybody from the President on down, and Harry Truman once remarked that every member of Congress was afraid of him.  This aura of untouchability served to insulate him and his organization from the internecine mud wrestling for which Washington is famous.  Seeing the nation’s capital at its worst also likely solidified Hoover’s cynical belief that everyone was probably guilty of something, that evidence of the crime was out there somewhere, and that if FBI agents just dug deep enough for long enough they would find it.  J. Edgar Hoover was stubborn, insular and relentless, and as one might expect after four decades of his unyielding and suspicious leadership the FBI gradually came to mirror its iconic leader’s worldview.

Hoover is long gone, but the FBI still bears his imprint. The agency has a well-deserved reputation for thoroughness and diligence, and once they are on a case agents seem committed, Hoover-esque, to digging up the evidence wherever it may reside.  This tenacity can lead to very negative outcomes for the guilty and innocent alike.  I speak from experience.

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Destroying Democracy to Save It

I am somehow on the mailing list of Colorado Common Cause (CCC).  This organization is no fan of President Trump, and with each perceived Trump transgression CCC’s fundraising emails have gotten more alarmist.  “Resist Fascism”, the headers read.  “Take Back Our Nation“  And my personal favorite: “Save Our Democracy”.  According to CCC and almost every other progressive group the President represents an imminent and mortal danger to the nation that can only be held at bay by united and unceasing resistance (and generous donations) from Fair-Minded Progressives (many of whom prefer to “resist” by setting fire to buildings, smashing up police cars and assaulting middle-aged Trump voters).  Donald Trump has certainly united and galvanized the Democrat Party, just as Barack Obama did the Republicans.  We may not know what we’re for, but we damn sure know what we’re against.

I can sympathize with the Left’s angst.  So far the Trump Administration is getting a solid thumbs down in nearly all quarters.  But Americans should be troubled by the remedy being floated, and how shaky the legal ground is under it.  Almost every Democrat is at least hinting, if not screaming, that the President should be removed from office.  The only means to that end, short of proving that Mr. Trump was actually born in Kenya (or Moscow), would be for Congress to impeach him.

Here’s the problem:  Impeachment is a very high bar to clear, even if the President’s party is not in control of Congress.  It requires the House of Representatives to formulate and pass articles of impeachment, the charges of “high crimes and misdemeanors”- bribery, treason and such.  Senators then act as the jury (Chief Justice Roberts would preside), and 67 of them must vote for impeachment before the President will be shown the door.  In the history of the Republic no Presidential impeachment has ever gone the distance, and it has been attempted only three times.

The closest call came in 1868 when facile, politically-motivated impeachment articles were brought against President Andrew Johnson, ostensibly because he fired his Secretary of War.  Johnson avoided being tossed by two votes in the Senate, where anger at his refusal to punish the Confederacy more severely ran hot.

The next instance laid bare the demonstrably illegal machinations of good old Dick Nixon, who spared himself the ignominy of being frog-marched out of the White House by resigning the office before his proceedings got under way.  One president a near victim of political infighting, the other a textbook example of a high crime.

The sordid case of President Bill Clinton falls somewhere in between.  A puerile Republican House brought charges which the Democrat Senate dismissed with a collective yawn, that body apparently not overly concerned that the President lied to Congress about getting to third base (the cigar evidently scored) with the lusty Ms. Lewinsky.  High crime?  Maybe.  Politically motivated? Definitely. On that sliding scale the shadowy charges swirling around the Trump Administration have a distinctly Andrew Johnson/Bill Clinton caste to them. Continue reading

Driverless Cars? Not So Fast

Driverless cars (DCs).  The concept is everywhere these days, and according to many futurists the actual cars soon will be, too.  Every tech outfit worth mentioning has a finger or two in the DC pie and several big-name consortiums already have prototypes rolling.  A few cities have okayed test programs, and Colorado legislators, ever alert to the chance to lure more technology dollars to the state, are proposing a friendly set of regulations designed to make our admittedly deteriorating roads more attractive to robot rides.  A bill being considered in the legislature would set state standards for testing of DCs and preempt Colorado cities from enacting more restrictive rules (Boulder, for example, is rumored to favor allowing only electric vehicles; each powered, one might suppose, by its own wind turbine).  The most optimistic press releases have the technology highway-ready in five years or less.

As a lifelong technophile, I’m usually excited about this kind of forward leap.  But as a pragmatic Dilbert-type, experience has taught me to be skeptical of anyone touting some revolutionary breakthrough that will forever change the way we get around.  After all, I’m still waiting for my flying car.  So let’s take a clear-headed look at the promise of the DC.

State Sen.Owen Hill is one of the sponsors of the Colorado DC initiative.  In a recent interview, Hill hyped the safety angle of going driverless, allowing that DCs could prevent nearly all of the 40,000 highway deaths that occur each year by “removing  human error” from the equation.  This kind of statement could only come from someone blithely ignorant of the level of complication involved in building such a system, one created, initiated – and debugged – by humans.  The human error factor won’t be eliminated.  It will only be moved to another part of the process.  And humans, at least when it comes to driving, are a lot more capable that we get credit for.  Navigating an automobile through the real world is an extremely complex and variable undertaking, but 99% of human drivers handle it well 99% of the time.  The explanation for that is our ability to learn from experience.  Every mile we drive adds to our experiential library, and we have the unique ability to not just remember events but to absorb and reconstitute them to meet and deal with new, unprecedented situations.  It’s called intelligence.  We have it.  Computers, at least for the moment, do not.

So what is called for in the DC is AI.  Yep, artificial intelligence: the Holy Grail of technology, enabling a computer to do what 16-year-olds with learner’s permits have been doing since the 1920’s.  When we drive a car, we (most of us, at any rate) think and reason.  Computers in DCs execute their programming.  Staying in a lane, keeping a safe distance from the car ahead, stopping at red lights (a novel concept), avoiding old ladies walking their Pomeranians, all these actions are relatively easy to program.  Experienced drivers do them reflexively, often while texting, digging a Tic Tac from between the seat cushions, yelling at the kids or applying mascara.  But sooner or later a situation will arrive that demands who or whatever is in control of a vehicle to make a split-second decision based on maybe 10 data variables.  If the programmers have missed even one of these, tragedy will ensue.  A human driver is equipped to take in all 10 and respond effectively.  Computers are not there yet.

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Book Review:  Concrete Economics, by Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong

This isn’t a normal book review, because I’m not going to plug this book.  More the opposite, actually.

Concrete Economics is in most respects a traditional work in that field.  For openers it is literally a cure for insomnia.  I read at night before bed – in bed – a practice most sleep experts say is likely to ruin your nocturnal regimen, and I have had more than a few nights “ruined” by the likes of Michael Lewis and Oliver Sachs.  After a few pages of Cohen and DeLong I was usually more than ready to turn out the light.  At 170 pages, this tome that should have been a one-sitting read for me took nearly a month to finish.  Even by the standards of the Drear Science, this book was a slog.

The authors’ style is heavy with one paragraph sentences, multi-syllable words and overly formal vernacular.  For example: “The East Asian Economies were eager to build up their manufacturing capacity and capability, and our ideologically motivated redesign of the American economy told us that we didn’t really care, because we didn’t really want those sectors.”  Did I mention the mixed metaphors?  “Alexander Hamilton: the only individual who may have been more than the tip of the spearhead of the heavy shaft of an already-thrown, near-consensus view on pragmatic economic policy.”  I nearly fell asleep typing that.

The book came highly touted by Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and oracle of Progressive economics, so I expected to disagree with much if not all of the content.  I was (mostly) wrong.

Lost style points aside, the authors make a fair case that some economic planning by the Federal government is essential to the success of the Republic (italics mine, certainly not Krugman’s).  Early on they discuss the formative post-Revolutionary policies of Hamilton, who pushed the fledgling US government to assume the colonies’ war debt, establish a central bank and, most crucially, pass a series of tariffs designed to protect America’s emerging manufacturing sector.  The only way the country could gain real economic independence, argued Hamilton, was to industrialize. The plan worked well.  US makers were soon thriving and the tariffs protecting them were the government’s main source of revenue until the advent of the income tax.

Hamilton’s protective tariff model was adopted by Japan and, later, China as those countries struggled to join the Industrial Revolution.  Contemporary fans include our current president, who would also appreciate the authors’ use of words like “huger.”  I think they meant, “more bigly.” Continue reading

In Search of Settled Science

The media coverage of last weekend’s March du Jour, this one supposedly a celebration of Science (capitalization mine), portrayed the event as just that – celebratory.  But when Progressives get together carrying signs it almost always means a demonstration, and this gathering was as much a vehicle for the Left to chide conservatives about their refusal to accept the “settled science” of human-caused climate change as it was a paen to Science itself.

Watching the festivities unfold, I thought of a recent commentary by Vincent Carrol in the Denver Post.  He reported that Boulder County Commissioners had just voted to ban the growing of all genetically modified (GMO) crops on land owned by the county.  This edict will be problematic for farmers who have been raising GMO corn and sugar beets for many years on this leased land because, according to Carroll, there no longer are any non-GMO strains of sugar beet.  The farmers will have from three to five years to eliminate GMOs from their rotations. Case closed.

Here’s the Science rub.  There is no scientific evidence – none – that genetically modified crops are harmful to humans, insects or anything living.  The decision to flatly ban them flies in the face of all the research that has been done on the subject, and will do nothing but cause harm and hardship to the affected farmers, many of whom have tens of thousands of dollars tied up in equipment used to grow and harvest a crop which they can no longer plant.

The GMO ban was met with loud approval by liberal Boulderites, many of whom no doubt paraded last week in unwavering support of Science. In fact, Boulder liberals show the same disregard for GMO research that conservatives hold for the study of man-caused climate change.   Clearly science denial knows no political affiliation.

Why this distrust of science cutting across the political spectrum?  Science is supposed to be provable, reliable, the epitome of fact.  Remember junior high science class, where we learned the basics of the Scientific Method?  Start with a theory – what do you think is happening and why.  Then try to dream up an experiment that proves your theory, or disproves someone else’s.  Compile your results.  Then the most important step; submit your findings to others who will try to duplicate them, using your methodology.  If your experiment can be repeated by others, your “peers”, then and only then are your conclusions scientifically valid.  That’s how science works.  Or used to.

Peer review has been the backbone of scientific investigation since Isaac Newton lounged beneath his apple tree, and the science it produced seemed for the most part apolitical.  These days science methodology is becoming bastardized, thanks in large measure to our newfound reliance on computers and algorithms instead of beakers and Bunsen burners.  For example, our seemingly unlimited capability to gather and analyze massive quantities of data has led to the proliferation of often agenda-driven studies that arrive at their conclusions by asking a large number of subjects a long series of questions under the assumption that a small but publishable number of queries will yield a positive result (i.e., the result the authors wish to see).  This statistical alchemy was used in a study released last year which pointed to an increased incidence of certain types of cancer in communities located downwind from good old Rocky Flats.  More traditional studies have found no such link.  More recently, another megadata study found an increase in dementia and strokes in people who drink diet soda.  The researchers relied on data from massive numbers of soda sippers (full disclosure: I drink two or three cans a day) but somehow failed to correct for obesity and several other possible variables.  Another junior high science lesson: Correlation does not automatically equal causation.

Each of these studies was ostensibly peer reviewed.  But that most vital step in the process, according to many in the scientific community, has become sloppy and incestuous, bowing to political pressures and the “publish or perish” dictum so pervasive in academia.  The problem has become so epidemic, according to a study published last year in Nature, that researchers attempting to replicate other scientists’ experiments were failing to get the same results more than 70% of the time.  More than half the time the results could not even be duplicated by the original researchers.  When the supposedly peer reviewed (and widely publicized) study that claimed to find a link between vaccinations and autism was debunked, the British Journal of Medicine in which it was featured took nearly 10 years to publish a retraction.  That study triggered a public health crisis in Britain and the author was eventually tried and found guilty of gross ethical misconduct and fraud.   In spite of the criminal misapplication of science involved, thousands of American parents continue to cite the study when refusing to have their children vaccinated.  Most of these doting parents are well-educated (and liberal).  So much for the robustness of peer review.

Stories like these invite skeptics of all political lineages to dispute the results of what may be credible, critical studies, and contribute to the ideological fog that is threatening to smother the legitimate, rigorous methodology behind the bulk of science research.  They also infer that there are both liberals and conservatives (and evidently some scientists) willing to bend science to their ideology.  So forgive those misguided wretches who choose to take the assertion that human activity is the primary cause of global warming with a grain or two of salt.

We all want and need Science to be worthy of celebration, but clearly the science establishment has some housecleaning to do.  To regain our confidence those who do science right and proper have to be willing to call out the ones who distort its process for their own ends.  The rest of us, meanwhile, need to improve our science literacy so we can recognize questionable science when we see it, even if it means looking past our ideology.  Best that we reach consensus on climate change, among other headline issues, before the research findings become moot.

Events will eventually settle the scientific disputes that bedevil us.  Hopefully we will survive the proof.