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

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.

At the Drop of a Hat

To act with little encouragement or provocation – so I guess red_fedora.svg.meddropping your hat is especially easy.

Phrase Finder says this originated in the American West, where the signal for a fight was often to drop one’s hat.

In the 19th century it was occasionally the practice in the United States to signal the start of a fight or a race by dropping a hat or sweeping it downward while holding it in the hand. The quick response to the signal found its way into the language for any action that begins quickly without much need for prompting. Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers (Wings Books, Originally New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).

The earliest written citation, from Worldwidewords,

is some way from the American frontier: They could agree in the twinkling of an eye — at the drop of a hat — at the crook of a finger — to usurp the sovereign power; they cannot agree, in four months, to relinquish it. Register of Debates in Congress, 12 Oct. 1837, [which] shows that even at this early date the expression was already idiomatic.

There’s little doubt about the matter, despite the regrettable failure of any early user to put its origin on record for us.

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.  .  .”

The Fat is in the Fire

This phrase was easy to track down on the internet. It means “a course of action with inevitable bad consequences has begun. The allusion to fat dropping into a fire and causing a burst of flames was already a proverb in John Heywood’s 1546 collection.” (dictionary.com)

Times of India adds that “in its earliest use (14th century), the expression had to do with failure; only later did it come to imply, as it now does, a crisis or an explosion of anger, recrimination or trouble.”

The phrase originated when fat was valued – I suppose a modern dieter might want fat to burned off!

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.

Continue reading

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