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.

How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Climate Change

Photo by John Englart (flickr.com)

Photo by John Englart (flickr.com)

My Facebook feed has been abuzz lately with postings from a Progressive friend about climate change. As one might expect, the view from that side of the political street is not looking good.  One particular article put forward the ultra-gloomy contention that human-caused global warming is likely irreversible and most of the world will soon become unfit for human habitation even if we exceed the most ambitious goals proposed in the Paris Accords to curb our carbon emissions.  The crux of the authors’ hypothesis is that present CO2 levels are already so high that vast areas of permafrost in the sub-Arctic are starting to melt.  Permafrost contains huge amounts of methane, a gas with almost ten times the heat retentive capacity of CO2.  Release of even a small portion of this entrained methane will cause a warming feedback loop which will raise global temperatures at an exponential rate, melting more permafrost and releasing more methane.  The result?  Catastrophic warming that may very soon and very quickly progress beyond our ability to slow it down, let alone reverse it.

As is usually the case with climate change literature, the dire outline of the scientific problem is followed by a proposed political solution.  Our slim chance of survival, say the authors, hangs on humanity  suddenly acquiring the wisdom to reject the nationalist, capitalist economic/political model that has landed us in this frying pan and put Big Government in control of, well, everything.  The Ship of State needs to make a sharp turn, and we mean right now!

Hmm!  Putting aside the obvious inconvenience that ships, especially the State variety, are seldom capable of sharp turns no matter how urgent the need, what exactly would this course correction look like?  A possible answer comes from another Facebook post, from the same source.  It linked to a group calling itself The Climate Mobilization.  Their stated goal: To transition the US to 100% renewable energy within the next 10 years, by whatever means necessary.  I paid a visit to their website for a look at these  “means” and found they are right out of the Radical’s Handbook; boycotting and blockading businesses and whole industries, general strikes, massive protests and other “non-violent interventions”.  Their timetable warns of their intention to “escalate until we win!”  Does this sound like anarchy itching to be unleashed?  I thought the idea was to turn the Ship, not sink it. Continue reading

Let’s Try Something Else.

No-major-partyTired!  That was all I could feel the day the Senate released its plan to replace Obamacare.  Not only had Senate Republicans formulated their bill in virtual secrecy, they had somehow seen fit to leave out nearly every free market cost control idea that they had promised to include.  No negotiation on Medicare drug prices.  No interstate competition for insurers.  Nothing to force hospitals to publicize their price structures.  No tort reform to protect doctors and hospitals from spurious lawsuits.  Nothing but a mildly saner version of the House’s previous work; in short, nothing to make their newly acquired blue-collar voters happy or to actually make the Affordable Care Act affordable, either for the country or its citizens.

It was as if Congress had determined to live down to its single-digit popularity rating.  After facing for months the stiff and steady verbal breeze coming from Senators Warren and Sanders, et. al. about how the only real solution to the healthcare conundrum was complete capitulation to Big Government and Bigger Debt, I had hoped the GOP would counter with a remotely defensible alternative.  Nope.  All they did was infuriate half the nation and disappoint the other half.

And so it goes. Democrats and Republicans, apparently dedicated only to the preservation of their respective tribes, each more  interested in blaming the other for the woes befalling the Republic than in fixing them.  The political landscape has become a living civil war battle site; one army led by a clinically demented megalomaniac seemingly devoid of empathy and the other rendered virtually leaderless as its sclerotic old guard struggles against semi-anarchic newbloods for whom no amount of empathy is enough.  As the war of words escalates with every rant and tweet, the temptation among the general populace to hunker down and disengage becomes stronger. Does anybody really want either of these two crews of zealots running things?

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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