Hello world!

I see the funny — and not so funny — side of current events and politics. This blog records my observations and opinions. I welcome comments if they are well-reasoned and informative. And of course, by all means point out an error if you see one.

Nothing is out of bounds. I don’t subscribe to any political party, finding all to be consistently amusing when they aren’t doing actual damage. My motto in this endeavor comes from my favorite author, Douglas Adams. “Don’t Panic.”

And so we begin …


A Political Epiphany

Yesterday, the surprising Congressional election result in Pennsylvania was all the talk on TV news outlets. Perhaps prematurely, there is a growing belief that this portends a wave election in November, quite possibly throwing the House back into Democratic hands. So their spokespersons in particular were all over the TV happily discussing their prospects. But as I watched, a bit skeptically I must admit, I had a bit of an epiphany.

I remember surfing to Hillary’s web site when she was the Presidential candidate to see what policies she was promoting. Adopting a progressive viewpoint, these seemed fairly sensible and the usual fare. There was a long list of ideas, policies and program proposals. Very long – and therein lies the epiphany.

Think about those having financial problems or fearful about the future for themselves and their families. They could scan down this list and find something to latch onto at, say, item 12 and perhaps items 31 and 32. But there was all this other “stuff” about things that seemed nice but not on point. Can you blame them from coming away from this feeling that their issues were just not that important to Hillary?

Having an abundance of great ideas is actually a failure to focus!

Candidates and their party leaders need to take a risk. They should identify perhaps 4-5 main issues and hit them hard, relentlessly and virtually exclusively. That will omit some things that are important to portions of their base, but that is essential to having discernible clarity and purpose. Failure to follow this rule afflicts both parties, but I think Democrats tend to be the greater transgressors.

If you think about it, isn’t that what Donald Trump did? I think this contributed mightily to putting him over the top.

Of course, all the other issues will come up from time to time in interviews and on the stump. There’s nothing at all wrong with promoting your campaign’s ideas when this happens. But everything can’t be a big deal. It’s possible to have a big tent without having a section marked off for every special interest in it.

“Two madmen walk into a bar …”

One can never tell when Donald Trump is joking or not, or even if it is unintentional humor. As one example, after his recent State of the Union address, he said that Democrats who didn’t clap for him were “treasonous”. As has happened many times before, his spokesman responded to the resultant furor by saying that the President was of course just joking. Do we really know? I certainly couldn’t tell from his facial expression on TV at the time.

Well, on Saturday evening, the President attended the annual Gridiron Dinner, which is an old tradition where journalists and the President trade tongue-in-cheek jabs before a constellation of Washington’s elite. One would certainly expect humor and a good time to be had by all.

But this President has often chosen off-beat stages and unusual methods for making substantial policy statements, so I am sure the press attending the dinner had their pencils sharpened and ready. And right on cue, in the midst of his joke-filled monologue, the President suggested that he was open to a meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Said without talk of preconditions, this is a big policy change. Or was it a joke? Hmm …

The President – and many others to be sure – have called Kim a madman. So the natural question was whether Trump was worried about meeting with a madman, and he responded, “As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine.” Is this clever repartee or some revealing and unintentional self-deprecation? Honestly, I don’t know. He has me as confused as the next person.

Founded by geniuses … run by idiots!

Last month President Trump sent up a nominee for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court who had never tried a case at law in his entire life. At his confirmation hearing, one Senator – a conservative Republican – completely demolished his candidacy. This Senator’s questions were delivered gently and in a friendly manner but they probed like a surgeon’s scalpel. And the blood flowed freely. Shortly thereafter the candidate withdrew his name from nomination. Out of consideration for his family, I won’t mention his name.

I recall thinking at the time, “Now if we only had more Senators like this ...”

Of course, the true culprit is Donald Trump, as it has been innumerable times before. By now anyone not blinded by party allegiance knows that Trump is totally unsuited for his job – by knowledge of its functions, by temperament and by inclination. His list of failed or flawed appointments is disturbingly long. That doesn’t mean that none of his appointments are well-qualified nor that he can’t accomplish valuable results in general. It simply means that he is often more a hindrance than a help in his floundering endeavors. If, unaccountably, you doubt this, watch what he tweets the next time an important issue arises. His mind is an open book for those who choose to read it, and these tweets are an unexpurgated excerpt.

Ah, but then we have the Congress. Let’s ignore for the moment the current fuss over whether to keep its doors open or not. Do you know what the most important responsibility of that august body is? It is to define necessary federal governmental activities and then to appropriate the funds required to accomplish them. In theory, this is kicked off by a budget request from the President, but the common practice has evolved to ignore that request and for Congress to create its own budget, expressing its own priorities. The crucial aspect is a set of twelve bills that make up the entire federal budget. This is supposed to be completed by October 1 of each year. Would you like to guess when was the last time this task was successfully completed?

Well, the last time a full set of appropriation bills were passed on time was 1994. The practice that has evolved is for all of these laws to be cobbled together into a massive omnibus spending package, and to do this either very late in the process or long after it is supposed to be in effect. Often many of these crucial decisions are defined without public hearings and without significant Congressional debate. I can assert with confidence that not a single one of the 535 members of Congress reads even a significant part of this prolix compendium.

All of this leads me back to the Senator I mentioned in the beginning. He is Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La). Last Friday he told reporters, “Our country was founded by geniuses, but it’s being run by idiots.”

Amen to that!

Is another mass extinction looming?

No, this has nothing to do with Donald Trump. My topic is the bigger picture. Over the millennia the Earth’s biosphere has endured repeated mass extinctions. Somehow life has survived and recovered, but these events can be catastrophic. It is generally accepted that there have been five major extinctions, each of which became an evolutionary turning point, causing virtual elimination of at least 70% of all living species. Of course, life always finds a way, as the fictional mathematician in the movie Jurassic Park wryly noted. Usually different life forms assumed dominance after each catastrophe, and while evolution stuttered it nevertheless continued.

None of these events has happened since our species evolved, but that may be about to change. In fact, on a geophysical time scale, this threat may be imminent. And don’t be so sure that we will be among the survivors. This ominous prediction arises from an analysis of concentrations of oceanic carbon over time. The ocean, in case you didn’t know, typically retains fifty times as much carbon as the atmosphere, and variations in its concentration have correspondingly larger impacts on climate. Results of this study are summarized in the figure below.

The use of logarithmic scales in this diagram highlights a key point. The crucial discriminator is not the amount of carbon. Rather it is the rate of change. When carbon concentrations rise or fall very quickly, then this seems to be correlated with the occurrence of mass extinctions. This isn’t a perfect correlation and it certainly doesn’t prove causation. Rather it is a statistically meaningful indicator. Over the time frame covered by this study, there have been 31 oceanic carbon variations that exceed the margin of error, shown by the yellow band. Of these, only 10 were extreme, and the worst 5 of these closely match the major extinction events. In particular, all of the 4 excursions showing sudden increases match such events. Keep that fact in mind.

Of course, you might scoff at this correlation as a chance relationship deriving from how the data were analyzed, but there is a plausible scientific explanation for why it could be valid. Describing this requires more time and expertise than be profitably expended in this blog, and only those of you with deep scientific training would understand it anyway. So, let’s just stipulate that the threat may be real.

Now comes the good part, using that adjective very loosely. An analysis by geophysics professor Daniel H. Rothman of MIT shows that since 1850 there has been a very significant acceleration in oceanic carbon content. Recent measurements are quite precise and the data can be confidently extrapolated for coming decades. At the predicted rate of change, the world will enter the mass extinction zone in about the year 2100, give or take a decade or so. If you remain skeptical, have a look at this article.

Now remember the fact that I highlighted above. Looking again at the diagram, note that there have been no circumstances going back hundreds of millions of years when a sudden rise in carbon concentration didn’t coincide with biological disaster. None! If another such event is happening now, this will be the first for our species, and thus the first time when an extinction subject might conceivably alter or prevent it. Personally, I suspect we would survive, but the post-extinction world would be very different from what we now know.

In case you wondered, the MIT scientists ran out a number of scenarios to see if it is possible to change the threat vector sufficiently to avoid the extinction zone. Only one showed any promise at all. It requires a dramatic change in human activity starting no later than 2020. And even this only barely avoids catastrophe. Want to bet on how likely that is?

Climate Change: Sense and Sensibility

In a recent Scientific American interview, renowned physicist David Deutsch answered a question thusly:

SA: “Do you think concerns about climate change and other environmental problems are excessive?

Deutsch: “Resource-depletion and overpopulation worries are fundamentally flawed. Climate change worries are fundamentally misdirected. Geoengineering is essential, unavoidable and is being downplayed and delayed because of the ‘moral hazard’ that people will be distracted from reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The latter should be the third most important response, after geoengineering and mitigation of the effects of climate (changed and otherwise) on people.

This is precisely what I believe. The climate is changing, and for the worse from a human perspective. Most of those who deny this do so because they find the consequences of facing reality distasteful. Others are simply scientifically illiterate. There is a somewhat legitimate argument surrounding the degree to which human activity is the driving force for these changes. But that is largely irrelevant to the main point, which is that the most promising and accessible responses have somehow been hijacked by this quixotic attempt to cure the problem simply by reducing carbon emissions. Not that this wouldn’t be helpful, but it is unlikely to be effective for both technical and political reasons. Moreover it diverts attention and resources from more promising solutions. I think this is mostly a consequence of well-meaning amateurs attempting to set scientific policy.

So, by all means let’s stop making it worse by spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But don’t lose sight of our real goal in the process. We must accept the most likely future, even with our best efforts, and stop pretending that we can somehow halt the consequences of an industrial revolution that has otherwise brought enormous benefits to the human race. It is too late for such wishful thinking.

Geophysical changes have enormous inertia. There are estimates that even if we instantly reverted to a pre-industrial world, the climate would inexorably become more threatening before it finally recovered. Some effects are self-propagating. Glacial melt and warming of the vast northern tundra are prime examples. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the ocean basin and continental tundra are emitting this in steadily increasing quantities.

We are at the cusp of real progress in geoengineering and that is where real hope resides. At the same time we must urgently invest vastly greater effort in protecting our resources and population from the most likely outcome.

Keep in mind that commercial interests have caused us to cluster on continental fringes world-wide. Many of our great cities lie beside oceans that will rise and be more turbulent as they grow warmer. They are at great risk. It will take a long time and enormous expense to protect or relocate critical infrastructure. Time is of the essence.

A Footnote to History

In 1949, an up-and-coming young Representative from California, Richard Nixon – not yet Tricky Dick – was running for the Senate. His candidacy and personal philosophy was an odd amalgam of instinctual progressivism and ritual anti-Communism. He was fresh from his personal triumph in unmasking Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy, using the famous “pumpkin papers” from Whittaker Chambers.

One of his key campaign platforms was – wait for it – essentially ObamaCare for Californians! He thus augured Mitt Romney’s program as Governor of Massachusetts many years in the future. Nixon won but never followed through on this, and probably it was never possible in the political climate of the time, but isn’t that a wondrous thing?

My Law of Unintended Consequences

There is a provision buried deep within the tax bill now being negotiated in Congress that I will bet you have never heard mentioned. I have never seen it discussed on TV, and I watch a lot of news programs plus all three CSPAN channels. But in fact it is the most consequential item of all. It disrupts transactions that currently grease the skids of finance and it amounts to about $2.2T per day. Yes, that is a T for trillions and it occurs every single day! If that doesn’t impress you then you are really jaded.

The issue is repurchase (repo) agreements that provide a short-term funding market for banks and investment companies world-wide. Legislators had no intention of disrupting this, of course. What they were targeting is the way multinationals shift profits to offshore entities to exploit their lower tax rates. However, these repos also flow across borders and the bill would make them unprofitable by imposing a punitive tax on them.

No one knows what the consequences of this will be because it wasn’t discussed or modeled by anyone. Of course the banks are now aggressively lobbying to get this provision killed or modified, and quite possibly they will succeed. I certainly hope so.

But that is a bit beside my point. Our tax system has spread its tentacles into every area of the economy and even to other countries. Any attempt to meddle with it in a significant way will inevitably cause unintended consequences. Some may be good. Some may not. This repo issue is a prime example of My Law of Unintended Consequences, which states that any large-scale change in our economy will inevitably result in some effects that were neither desired nor proposed.

Consider, for example, the proposal to drop the tax deduction for home mortgages. Currently, when buyers purchase a home, part of their affordability calculation is this tax deduction. Remove it and some home purchases become unaffordable, with consequences to the buyers, sellers, and finance companies. But that isn’t the major problem. The real impact is that removing this deduction instantly reduces mortgaged home values throughout the nation by an amount proportional to the amortized deduction over time. This is a massive loss of wealth by the largely middle-class home owners, and it certainly exacerbates wealth inequality.

That was an obvious example and, as it turns out, legislators are currently considering these consequences. But there are more such unintended consequences. What are they, you ask? I haven’t the slightest idea, and neither does anyone else. That’s the whole point, and if that doesn’t scare you, it should.