The Wrong Lessons Learned

Republicans apparently have learned all the wrong lessons from 2016. Hillary Clinton spent most of her time and money demonizing Donald Trump and moaning about possible conservative Supreme Court appointments instead of convincing voters that she would make their lives better. It didn’t work. Of course, part of the problem was the messenger, but I believe a major factor was a seriously off-target message.

So, what are Republicans planning for the 2018 midterm elections? In fact, what have they actually been doing in a string of disastrous special elections across the country? I can easily visualize one of their strategy sessions. One leader exclaims, “Look at those attack ads by our opposition last time. They are really well done, aren’t they?” Another vehemently agrees, “Yeah, we need to get some of that!

So here’s the plan, as far as I can see. They are trying to demonize Nancy Pelosi while moaning about the potential for impeachment proceedings in a Democratic-controlled House. See the parallel? Let’s lay aside the obvious fact that this strategy failed for Hillary. It won’t work for Republicans either, for two simple reasons. First, no one really cares that much about old Nancy anymore. Her position as House Minority Leader is relatively low-profile and she hasn’t done much of note for a long time. And second, quite a few real Republicans despise Trump and would happily exchange him for Vice President Pence. They would get the same policies but more effectively managed and without that disgraceful lump in charge.

This is especially true for evangelicals who have been twisting themselves into knots trying to justify their strong support for Trump. They like his policies – a lot – but they are fully aware that Trump is an abhorrent person and virtually the antithesis of an evangelical. As I heard one prominent evangelical leader explain recently, “Life is full of compromises. He is certainly no role model but he is doing many good things.

The lessons of history seem equally obscure to Democrats. I am beginning to suspect that Trump is smarter than he seems. All those crazy tweets provoke his opposition into paroxysms of fear and hatred so that they focus all of their attention on denouncing him personally in apocalyptic terms. What little energy remains is used to attack the perceived consequences of his policies. The problem is that most of his policies actually achieve very little. So really, why should we fear them?

Trump attacks immigrants, both legal and otherwise, and he killed the DACA program. This did have some effect and frightened the targets, but the impact so far is nowhere near what was feared. The federal courts have blocked the worst from happening. He blustered about a Great Wall on our southern border. So, where is it? His Republican-controlled Congress wants none of it. He thundered about disastrous international trade policies. Other than leaving the Trans-Pacific trade pact – probably temporarily, at that – what has he actually done? Not much that I can see. Even his vaunted tariffs are unraveling before they even take effect. He denounced our meddling in the Middle East as fruitless and wasteful, but really, what has substantially changed under his direction? Have we left Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq to their own evil devices? Not yet and probably not ever.

But wait one minute! What about the myriad of executive orders and changes to administrative regulations by the Trump administration? Surely they have had a great impact, haven’t they? Well yes, they have, but even a biased observer must admit that some corrected excesses of an overly-enthusiastic Obama administration. And in any case, these are temporary changes. The next Democratic President can, and probably will, reverse all of these once again. So our economy will gyrate from one extreme to another until it falls exhausted and dizzy to the floor. And while Trump boasts about his Supreme  Court appointment of the far right conservative, Neil Gorsuch, this doesn’t represent a change at all. After all, he is replacing Antonin Scalia, who was the most reliable conservative vote on the Court.

Everyone has seen enough after more than a year to know that Trump hasn’t caused the end of the world as we know it. His tax plan is actually quite popular. Democratic attempts to vilify it as a massive giveaway to the rich have had little impact, regardless of the fact that they are perfectly correct. As I have often noted in my blog, envy is a much overrated target for political persuasion among Americans in general. They admire the rich and successful and mostly would just like to emulate them. Moreover, concern about looming deficits sits awkwardly on Democratic shoulders. Who believes that they really worry about them? They just think we are spending ourselves into bankruptcy for the wrong reasons. They have far better ones in mind if they get the chance next November.

The bottom line is that both political parties misread the lessons of the past, squander the opportunities of the present, and plan ineffectively for the challenges of the future. Yet somehow, against all the odds, we survive and even prosper.

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What’s wrong with the news?

No one would dispute that news media are currently in bad repute. This was not always so, and in fact not that long ago some newspapers and newscasters ranked very high in public esteem. Some of this drop in the opinion polls is a result of extreme politicizing but there is plenty to criticize on a substantive level.

Here, I want to focus on one important failing that is rarely mentioned. Every story, whether on TV, in a newspaper article or an online report, starts in the middle. The beginning of the story is somehow lost or forgotten, and as a result the story is almost certainly misinterpreted by its recipients.

A new kind of ballistic missile is launched by North Korea. A speaker at a city council meeting is drowned out by angry demonstrators. A massive mudslide destroys homes. There is a confrontation between factions concerned with removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans. U.S. warplanes strike new targets in eastern Syria. There are severe outbreaks of measles in several Midwestern cities. Invasive Burmese pythons are changing the ecology of the Florida Everglades. The Cleveland Indians baseball franchise decides to remove its cartoonish mascot but retain its team nickname. Both Russian Premier Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping force legislative changes allowing them to retain power indefinitely. Average rates on individual health insurance policies increased by 12% last year. An unarmed black man is shot by police in a violent confrontation. The Supreme Court hears a Republican challenge to Maryland’s electoral map.

These are the headlines you read and hear. The latest facts of these stories are presented and discussed – sometimes endlessly and repetitively. Interested parties and stakeholders are interviewed. But all of these stories are half-told. What came before that leads up to this? That is absolutely vital to understanding what has happened, why it has happened, and what if anything is a sensible response.

It is fair to answer that it is impossible to flesh out the full history behind each headline. There isn’t enough time or space, and in any case the audience has too short an attention span to tolerate it. But still, much more effort is needed to fill this news deficit. And clever news organizations could do a far better job of establishing context if they wanted to and if that became the new norm.

The Day the World Ends – Maybe

Thursday, September 22, 2135. Put it in your calendar. The scope of the actual event is a bit uncertain at this time but we will shortly know more when our space mission to asteroid Bennu sends back data. What we do know is that Bennu is on its way. The current chance of a collision with Earth, while far from certain, is big enough to be really scary. This is especially true because its orbit is not exactly known at present.

Bennu isn’t large enough to do the dinosaur thing on us, but it could wreak large-scale destruction. Surprising perhaps, this is particularly true if it struck somewhere in an ocean, as the odds favor by about two to one. Bennu is several times the size of the object that struck near the Stony Tunguska River in Russia on June 30, 1908. That event had the estimated energy of a 10-30 megaton nuclear blast and was the largest impact event in recorded human history.

NASA is taking this very seriously. Right now their Planetary Defense Coordination Committee – yes, there is such an organization – is developing the beautifully named HAMMER program. This stands for Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response, at least that’s their story anyway. If it becomes necessary, this will be our attempted defense. Basically it would fly up there and smack Bennu on the noggin, hopefully with a force sufficient to divert this monster. If it were up to me, I would respectfully call this the Bruce Willis Mission.

When the time draw near, defense or not, we should expect the crazies to be out in their multitudes, standing on hilltops flapping sheets or exhorting everyone to make their peace with God. I wish I could be there to watch the fun.

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?