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.

Time to Find the Better Angels of Our Nature

Politics in America have become too tribal – more like rooting for a sports team that crafting national policies. In sports, if my team fouls but gets away with it, I’m happy. But the other team? They’re evil – and the refs are biased. Go Red. Go Blue. It makes for fun on Sunday afternoon, but it’s not good for our country.

And we are a single country. My fellow citizens are my brothers and sisters (and we all know how annoying siblings can be.)

It’s hard to find eloquent words, so I was pleased to recently run across this site.

Making us what the Constitution calls “a more perfect Union” – won’t happen until thousands and ultimately millions of Americans are willing to take a stand.

lincoln.svg.medAs one article notes

[The site takes] its name from a line from President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This is what I grasp for in my own way – what I’d like to see from my nation’s leadership. But we don’t have to wait for Congress or the State House. We are, after all, The People.

Another article captures me: an angry moderate centrist.

Being moderate is not a political description; it is how one understands the motivations of others and how one solves problems. A moderate is a realist, accepting how people are, not how we would like them to be. A moderate is open to listening to the truths of others. It is a personality trait, not a political ideology.

If we become trapped in echo chambers, we only hear exaggerated caricatures of what “the other side” believes. If we lose the ability to find facts our decisions cannot succeed, because reality has a way of winning despite our best efforts to believe it away. If we cast our political opponents as the enemy, we live in a needless state of war. – metaphorical and sometimes literal.

I’m starting to explore this site and I invite you to help me. Do they have any good ideas? What do you think? We’ve got to talk.

Russia and Trump

I  decided to do this commentary after reading Gzep’s recent commentary about his disheartening experiences with the FBI associated with the government raid of the Rocky Flats Plant. His point, as I understand it in relation to his personal experience, is about current political turmoil in the U.S. based on hatred of Trump. I agree there are many who are interested in nothing other than destroying Trump. I’m submitting a different scenario, and that is that the Russians, who developed skills during the Soviet Union days in creating turmoil in governments of opponents, have won a major victory in the attacks on the U.S. because of the election of Trump!

I’m working on publishing a book about how Nuclear Deterrence prevented World War III and the role of the Rocky Flats Plant in providing that deterrence. One of the things that I’ve learned in researching information for the book is that the Soviet Union invested heavily in resources to disrupt anything positive with the West. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that the Russians now have allies in the U.S. government who have no agenda other than preventing anything positive during the Trump administration. The Democrats are desperate to prove Trump “colluded” with the Russians. In my opinion, Democrats are “colluding” with the Russians by doing everything possible to shut down government operations with the exception of Trump and Russia hearings and investigations.

My book presents evidence that the Soviet Union spared no expense in interfering with anything positive for its Western enemies during the Cold War. Examples are the billions they spent supporting anti-nuclear protests in Europe and the United States. They recognized that the only thing that was preventing their massive advantage in conventional military forces from easily taking over Western Europe was the nuclear arsenal of the United States and the belief that American leaders were willing to use it to repel an invasion. They therefore invested, unsuccessfully, about $2 billion a year in efforts to curtail the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The book also includes reference to the huge “disinformation” organizations in the Soviet Union and its Iron Curtain Allies. They were skilled at producing forgeries that supported their agenda. They produced a flood of forgeries after the U.S. embassy in Iran was taken over by revolutionaries, which provided a wide variety of State Department official stamps and stationary. My favorite example is how the Soviets created a false scenario when they set up a television expose that filmed recovery of forged Nazi documents from a lake. The forged documents targeted West German officials unfriendly to the Soviet Union by labeling them as Nazis.

Continue reading

When Morals and Markets Align, Worlds Move

WindFarm_Fluvanna_2004Life’s too short to constantly revisit decisions made long ago, and it’s easy to root for your favorite team or stick with familiar – comfortable – old enemies.

It’s been noted before that people know some things are noble and pure, others are degrading and tainted. You don’t need a steeple-topped building to figure this out- we each have a spiritual side.

Unfortunately, we don’t all agree on what that means in practice, and it’s easy to label others as misguided, evil, “them.” Even when people do agree, it can be hard to sacrifice today for a (possible) improvement tomorrow. “You should” is always a hard argument to win.

Which is why this recent nationalgeographic article is so encouraging.

Falling prices for renewable [energy] and a growing sustainability movement from the bottom up have changed the global picture…

Solar and wind are now so competitive that they are crowding out coal in many countries. In the U.S., electric generation from coal dropped by more than half in the last decade. Utility scale solar, meanwhile, rose 5,000 percent during that same period… The pace is quickening because the transition is now driven by economics.

Government support, including tax incentives, helped get the ball rolling, but the market is taking over. Government still plays a role – California, for example, is pushing for electric cars and paying to retrofit buildings to be more energy-efficient, while demonstrating that curbing greenhouse gases doesn’t bust the economy.

But from China to India to Texas, people are discovering renewable energy is economically sound. It doesn’t matter if you’re Red or Blue when the Green makes sense.

Falling prices of renewable energy have dramatically improved the global outlook. Just two years ago in Paris, the world’s top two polluters outside the U.S. insisted they’d need lots more coal. That was especially true in India.

Today, entire regions across India are seeking 100 percent renewable power. India’s new plans for meeting future energy needs now call for far fewer coal-fired plants. China, too…

[America] withdrawing from the world stage on climate could also cede new markets, industries, and leadership on everything from international trade to geopolitics to China. That could be costly.

I believe that cutting pollution and greenhouse gases, and preparing mitigations for the changes already underway, are the right things to do for posterity. How wonderful if they become the right thing to do for me today.

And for you.

Rocky Flats Retirement Plans

I was notified by a reader that Rocky Flats was making changes to the retirement plans and attended one of the meetings where the changes were explained. I don’t pretend that the following is an official version of what is going on, although I’ve tried to make it as accurate as possible. The bottom line, as I understand it, is that management of retirement benefits will be transferred to an insurance company and that pension benefits will not be affected. This is being done because of the cost of administering the current plan. I was told when I arrived at the meeting that I had not received a letter announcing the changes nor did I need to attend because I took the lump sum payment when I retired. They graciously allowed me to attend the meeting.

I did hear some discussion that gave me comfort. It was stated there are no plans to change the health or death benefits for retirees. There was also a discussion about recent letters sent to salaried employees about confirmation of Medicare cost repayments. A confirmation letter must be sent to the benefit center by May 30 with documentation of Medicare costs to assure that the benefit continues. The discussion was that the reimbursements will be made quarterly. We have received deposits from the RRAs, but didn’t see any reimbursement at the end of the first quarter. Maybe that is coming at the end of June? It was suggested to call the benefit center to verify they have received the needed documents before the end of the month if you haven’t received a letter of confirmation.

Back to the changes in the retirement plans, the IRS is being asked to approve transfer of the plans to an insurance company. It is expected the IRS will issue a ruling in 12 months or so and, if approved, the completion will be in 18-24 months. Everyone, including those who have not yet reached the age to receive benefits, will be able to decide whether to take a lump sum or an annuity. The lump sum would be based on benefits earned, life expectancy, and interest rates. Spousal approval will be required. Financial advisors will be available to help make this important decision. Wells Fargo will continue to issue payments to those who have a current annuity until the process is completed. There was an appeal to keep the benefit center informed of address changes.

As an aside, I received an email that discusses DOE’s Office of Legacy Management obligations to the pension fund that is pertinent to this message. “At this time LM funds will be needed to meet its pension obligations, but the fund currently exceeds the anticipated liabilities.” The email goes on to state that any requirement to fund retirement obligations “. .  . would likely target DOE’s-USFWS (the Fish and Wildlife) visitor center.  .  .”

Third and Final [?] Phase of America’s Civil War

Phase 1 of America’s Civil War was a horror – the number of soldiers who died from a combination of battle and illness was over 750,000, “far greater than the number of men who perished in all other U.S. wars put together.” Ecstatic Nation

Human beings are complex creatures and many things drove the war, but slavery was at its core – in the new states of the west as well as the old south.

After such a terrible war, the North was willing to turn towards commerce and away from black citizens. Today, we might call the Klu Klux Klan and Jim Crow an insurgency – it certainly was violent enough to qualify.

There was a huge riot in New Orleans, which really turned into a massacre against the black community in 1866, and then there were acts of mob violence against black voters. And in broader Louisiana, you had some of the worst political terror and mob violence committed in all the Reconstruction years, most famously the Colfax massacre of 1873, which was the largest mass killing in American history until 9/11. Isaac Chotiner slate.com

Gradually the violence decreased (though it never disappeared) and a new normalcy settled on the backs of black Americans. Many whites in the defeated South began to “write magnolia-scented history” where Lee was nobler than Grant and Confederates were finer men than Unionists. In an exception to the common view that the victors write history, the South was fairly successful in their efforts. Ecstatic Nation

Phase 2 launched a hundred years later with the Civil Rights Movement– there was more violence but also more progress towards a fair and democratic America. In the mid 1970s, society settled down again – another new normal.

Perhaps we are entering Phase 3 after only forty more years. Continue reading

Society on a Crash Course Over Fetal Rights

Extreme prematurity is the leading cause of neonatal mortality and morbidity due to a combination of organ immaturity and iatrogenic injury. Until now, efforts to extend gestation using extracorporeal systems have achieved limited success.

Here we report the development of a system that incorporates a pumpless oxygenator circuit connected to the fetus of a lamb via an umbilical cord interface that is maintained within a closed ‘amniotic fluid’ circuit that closely reproduces the environment of the womb. [my emphasis] Nature

There have been several articles about this study – I’ve quoted the abstract. Don’t you love science-y phrases? Extracorporeal systems – so specific. Take a look at the pictures on the link – both creepy and fascinating.

As the authors say, in the past “advances in neonatal intensive care have improved survival and pushed the limits of viability to 22 to 23 weeks of gestation,” but at the cost of complications and permanent disabilities.

This current achievement is amazing – using lamb fetuses, researchers got one to survive and grow with normal lung and brain development. Not all the fetuses did so well – there’s a lot of work to do before this device can be used on humans.

But that’s coming.

That’s the report from science – but what about public policy regarding contraception, women’s rights, and abortion?

This issue has been creeping up on us for decades. The once traditional notion that a fetus became a person when it quickened in the womb (an event that the mother needed no technology to discover) has long since been replaced by various measures of viability with various degrees of scientific support. Such hair-splitting will disappear when an artificial womb is developed – if not from the research quoted above, than from others. And soon.

Science may inform the debate, but it can’t solve our policy problems. Now is the time to discuss what we, as a society, should do. I don’t want to chase the threshold for abortion backwards through pregnancy. All that will do is entrench and enrage existing opinions.

There’s a lot to think about: Continue reading