Do we have a disaster recovery plan?

Last week, a deranged gunman opened fire on Republican congressmen practicing for a friendly baseball competition with Democratic colleagues. Casualties were light, given the circumstances, but now some congressmen are pushing for open-carry permits so that they can defend themselves. The only reason that there weren’t many more victims in this shooting is that one of the players, Rep. Steve Scalise, has a full-time security detail as Majority Whip. And these brave officers successfully intervened, at great cost to themselves. But sad as this all was, it reminds us that far worse threats are lurking.

On 9/11, United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked but crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. Its intended target, believed to be the US Capitol, was saved by the intervention of passengers who took matters into their own hands. There are many lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, not the least of which is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things given the means and the opportunity. It makes me think that arming at least some qualified, sensible people might not be as bad an idea as it is generally portrayed.

A second lesson is that we came very close to mass casualties on Capitol Hill. So, what if we lost many members of Congress, killed or injured, in a terrorist attack? You might think, given the situation and past experience, that we would have a plan for continuity of government, but you would be mistaken! There are certainly plans for the Executive Branch, with a clear line of succession, a protected safe facility, and rules for assuring there is at least one eligible survivor. The Senate is assured of rapid recovery because Senators who cannot perform their duties can be replaced with interim successors by the Governors of their states. At most a few days would be required to restaff a diminished Senate. But the House of Representatives is another matter entirely.

Our founders believed strongly that our two Houses of Congress should be vastly different in their members and how they conduct business. The Senate was designed as a wise, senior check on the winds of public sentiment. In fact, originally, Senators were not even chosen by popular vote at all. Rather they were selected by state legislatures, presumably from senior political figures, not unlike the framers themselves. There remains a faint memory of this approach in how replacements are still chosen when needed.

The House, however, has no such mechanism. It doesn’t permit unelected members. Indeed, House members pride themselves on the fact that no person has ever voted in their chamber who wasn’t first elected by the residents of their congressional district. States have fairly restrictive rules about conducting elections, so many months might pass before a decimated House could be reconstituted.

What if Flight 93 had caused mass casualties on the House side? Take a worst case, where perhaps only a dozen members were among the uninjured. What if they happened to be all members of one political party? Isn’t it possible that some fairly extreme bills might be passed? Of course the Senate and President could take their normal role as balancing forces. But that assumes they are also able to function. And there’s the rub.

If many House members survived but were incapacitated, they would all still be counted for the purpose of a quorum. So it is possible that the House would be virtually unable to function. If this isn’t enough to raise your hackles, the condition of the Capitol Building after an attack could also be crucial. If it is so badly damaged that it couldn’t be used, and if the House were crippled through lack of a quorum, then even the Senate would be out of business too. That is because meeting at an alternative site requires formal concurrence of both Houses.

I suppose there are some today who might rejoice if we had no federal legislative branch at all, at least for a while. Remember Mark Twain’s cynical quote, “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” But be careful what you wish for. The wheels of our economy would grind to a halt quickly without prompt and effective reaction to a shock of this type.

So why does the House let this threat go unanswered? It isn’t for want of attention. Efforts to develop contingency plans have foundered because they all abridge fundamental principles of the House that distinguish it from the Senate. Thus we remain a hostage to providence. We can hope, as Bismarck is said to have remarked, that “God protects fools, children, and United States of America.” Apocryphal or not, this seems to me to be a slender reed.

Trump and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Donald Trump is driving almost everyone crazy, even some of his supporters. The media are rife with pop psychology purporting to explain his odd behavior, outrageous tweets, and conflicting statements. It varies from deep conspiracy theories to pure psychobabble, even by observers who one might expect to know better.

But now I believe that some academics have hit on the real answer. Trump’s actions and thoughts are clearly a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This describes a syndrome in which people who are the least competent at a task rate their skills as exceptionally high because they are too ignorant to know what it means to have the skill.

Not only do sufferers of this disability fail, they don’t even learn from their mistakes. Their misplaced confidence causes them to attribute all failures to others. It is always either incompetent associates or a vast array of enemies who are responsible. Think about it. Listen to Trump the next time he stumbles or misjudges the problems every President faces.

Conservative columnist George Will expressed it succinctly and devastatingly. He wrote that Trump suffers a dangerous disorder not only because he is ignorant and is unaware of his ignorance, but also because “he doesn’t even know what it means to know something.

Trump has very little understanding of the real job of President of the United States, and he is blissfully unaware of this deficiency. He thinks that this is a management position where someone leads the country toward greater prosperity and happiness. This isn’t wrong but it is startlingly superficial. In truth, this is a highly complex job requiring specialized knowledge and skills, in many respects like the job of a physician.

Like a doctor, a President must accurately diagnose problems and prescribe cures. He must recognize when an issue exceeds his expertise and training, seeking appropriate experts to bring about a resolution. He must establish rapport to guide those he serves toward accepting and implementing his remedies. Often he must work effectively as a team member. Most importantly, he must study intensively to acquire constantly evolving knowledge.

Does any of this make you think of Donald Trump and his approach to the crucial office he holds? Face it, Trump is not a real President. As the saying goes, “He just plays one on TV.

The Future of Obamacare

changeahead1-copyTrump’s cabinet choices make it clear that he really does mean to drive a stake through Obamacare. In particular, his choice of Rep. Tom Price to head Health and Human Services puts one of the foremost critics of Obamacare at the helm of its management. But – cliché alert – the devil is in the details. Republicans in Congress can effectively repeal it through a reconciliation process, which requires only a bare majority in each house. (See the postscript below for details.) They have only a two seat margin in the Senate, so caucus discipline must prevail if this is to work. But it seems unlikely that they would wound their new President by resisting. However there is a nuance. This cannot be done quickly. A reconciliation process can only be associated with a budget bill, so this stratagem must await development of a suitable budget. That will take months in the new Congress.

Replacing Obamacare with a plan more to conservative tastes is an entirely different story. This must go through the normal legislative process and would be subject to a likely filibuster in the Senate. However Trump has pledged that there will be no interim period where 20 million people have no alternative for medical insurance. The Senate could of course invoke the nuclear option and change their rules to forbid a filibuster. But that is a slippery slope that Senators would be loathe to risk. So what’s the plan?

Here’s what I hear. When they repeal Obamacare, they will delay its demise for enough time – they hope – to produce a replacement. This will probably push actual termination well into the future. The Republicans believe that given the choice of no plan or one that they don’t much like, Democrats in Congress will cave. But Chuck Schumer, the new Senate Minority Leader, begs to differ. He says he won’t budge on anything that Democrats consider to be minimum health coverage. Sticking points will likely be contraceptive coverage, federal subsidies, expanded Medicaid and the issue of pre-existing conditions, at the very least. And he evidently believes that Republicans will flinch before tossing all those millions over the cliff.

So, we are heading toward a colossal climax that will make our periodic budget battles look like child’s play. I hesitate to predict the outcome given my prognostication record during the election but, never daunted, here I bravely go.

Trump can’t give in on his first big policy fight or else his Presidency is toast. But Democrats desperately need a banner to wave in 2020 so they could be willing to sacrifice some people now for what they see as the greater long-term good. I predict that there will be no replacement at all and we will simply return to the situation before Obamacare was created. Eventually, of course, we will come up with some sort of solution to our nation’s healthcare crisis, but not now and not soon.

obamacare-cartoon-5I am not predicting this because that is my wish, but I am not so sure that it is actually a bad outcome. Obamacare is actuarially unsound and it is headed toward a catastrophic collapse in any case. Moreover, the number cited of those at risk, 20 million, is basically a lie. Many of those “benefiting” from Obamacare essentially have fake policies. If you have a massive deductible, as much as $14,300 for a family under the Bronze plan in 2017 for example, what use is this other than as disaster insurance? It should reduce the number of medically-induced bankruptcies, but for customary medical insurance it is close to useless. For the vast majority their premiums simply lower their standard of living. True, there are subsidies available under certain conditions that mitigate this problem, but they don’t eliminate it. If you live paycheck-to-paycheck, as even many relatively well-off families do, paying thousands of dollars out-of-pocket before insurance kicks in is out of the question.

The bottom line is that we will eventually, and for many conservatives reluctantly, acknowledge that a public, single-payer plan is the only workable solution. Most advanced societies have already reached that conclusion and predicted disasters have not occurred. So I finish my foolhardy prediction by saying that the eventual resolution will be something like Medicare for all. In the meantime, expect some pain and conflict.

[POSTSCRIPT] One of my smart followers has pointed out that the reconciliation process cannot achieve full repeal of Obamacare. That is correct. All that is possible is to delete those sections of the law related to taxes and spending. This would include subsidies to buy health insurance, tax credits, the full expansion of Medicaid and penalties for not having insurance (considered taxes by the Roberts Court). This guts the law and makes it even more obviously a financial disaster. True, provisions that allow children to remain on their parents’ plan until age 26 and the popular protection against refusal due to pre-existing conditions remain intact. Actually, Trump has already said he likes those provisions. But this will remove even the currently flimsy financial props of Obamacare, leaving at best a zombie law. Costs would be prohibitive and few insurance companies would even bother to participate.

“Sooner” or “Later”?

Oklahoma is crazy Republican territory. Before we had political parties it was just crazy territory so perhaps it is unfair to blame the GOP.

Here are a few scary facts, for Sooners anyway. In 2007, Oklahoma had one earthquake of magnitude 3, the lowest level that can be generally felt. Last year there were 890. Of the 12 largest recorded earthquakes in Oklahoma history, 10 have occurred since 2011. And it has been 300 million years since this seismic zone was last active. Move over California, in December 2014, Oklahoma won the dubious honor of becoming the state with the most earthquakes.

Now here are some possibly related facts. Last year the state finally acknowledged that water injection involving in fracking might conceivably play some role in these geological occurrences. But not certainly, you understand. If you want to know more about fracking and its consequences, check this discussion. The fracking technique has been in use for decades, but it has only been since the end of the Great Recession that it really surged. Note when earthquakes also surged in Oklahoma in the chart below. At the current rate, they are well on their way to setting new records in 2016. Not incidentally, the proportion of jobs in Oklahoma related to the oil and gas industry is 20%. Oh, and by the way, the number of seismologists currently employed by the state is zero.

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This is yet another of a long line of misbegotten policies of wantonly disregarding scientific data when the consequences might conflict with business goals or threaten jobs. Are we really sure that sucking tubes of lit tobacco causes cancer? I know several people who lived to ripe old ages while smoking two packs a day. And isn’t the evidence of global warming pretty flimsy. After all, in many parts of the country, today’s weather is actually colder than yesterday’s was. And it could just be coincidence that the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases has occurred in conjunction with an increase in human industrial activity. As I’ve often noted, the plural of anecdote is not data, but there seems to be no upper limit to our human capacity for self-deception.

594c6bd7a010544790f24a740bc7a51bThe Oklahoma state bird is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and a beautiful little creature it is. But I suggest that a more appropriate choice would be Struthio camelus, the common ostrich. To be fair, the state government does seem to be belatedly paying attention to this looming threat, but past history suggests that this might be largely window-dressing.

There is a perfectly logical reason that Oklahomans are called Sooners. The name derives from the “sooner clause” of the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889. This stated that anyone occupying the territory that became Oklahoma before its opening for settlement could be denied the right to claim land. In the event, this rule was widely ignored by eager settlers. Perhaps now a better name might be Laters.

The Syrian Refugee Dilemma

There is no denying that refugees from the war, disorder and lawlessness in the Middle East present a practical and humanitarian crisis. It is in our best interest to aid in resolving this crisis, and to do so beyond simply exhorting those in the region to help. But stepping up by accepting large numbers of refugees to our shores presents a genuine dilemma.

First, let us agree that both sides of this issue obfuscate reality. There is little doubt that considerable effort and time will go into vetting candidates for immigration. This will go far beyond typical actions by other countries. But none involved could reasonably claim that it would be perfect. Circumstances in the region preclude effective investigation, and it would not be hard for those intent on harming us from obtaining sufficient documentation and affidavits. The modern technical skills shown by ISIS and the proven reluctance of family and associates to provide warnings are both major risk factors in avoiding a mistake. And it takes but one or two mistakes to lead to events here comparable to those in Paris a few days ago.

So the issue basically comes down to the question of acceptable risk. The administration is confident that this risk is small in the context of our national interest in resolving the crisis. However it is unclear how this trade-off was reached. One cannot help but wonder if they would reach the same decision if it involved personal risk. For example, would President Obama be willing the accept one chance in a hundred that Malia or Sasha would get blown up by a suicide bomber? One chance in thousand? Obviously we don’t know the real odds, but I suspect that very few parents would accept either risk, notwithstanding humanitarian impulses.

We are a compassionate people. Suffering anywhere in the world always brings out the best in us. But political executives, like the President and our state Governors, have one overriding obligation. They must always put first and foremost the well-being and safety of those they serve. Many Governors, and not just Republicans, have expressed this obligation forcefully by rejecting Syrian refugees without assurances that risk has been effectively eliminated.

syrian-refugees-postWhether this has any legal effect is unclear, given the supremacy of federal law, but surely it should influence a thoughtful President.

Puerto Rico Bankruptcy

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Several months ago I posted a warning that Puerto Rico was about to become our version of Greece. Its profligate policies and misguided tax manipulations by the federal government have created a financial disaster. Basically, Puerto Rico is a third-world economy attempting to live like a U.S. state, very much like Greece’s position in the E.U. Just like Greece, Puerto Rico is in a monetary union with the rest of our states but without a common fiscal policy. Now the predictable consequences have come to pass. Within weeks, Puerto Rico will default on its bills and will be unable to provide municipal services. Before long, chaos will ensue unless something is done promptly in Congress. What chance do you think that has of happening?

There is so much wrong that no simple solutions will work, and some possibilities are precluded by their commonwealth status. Under current law, their municipalities and public corporations cannot file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, an option allowed in any of our 50 states. Changing this requires Congressional action, and without this option a disorderly disintegration of public services will eventually occur. But by the best accounting, even that change probably is insufficient as the commonwealth’s public debt is unserviceable. Default will freeze investment, with unknowable consequences.

Belatedly, the Obama administration has gone before Congress to present a solution and it is breathtaking in its concept. Recognizing that only a major action might work, the plan proposes to allow Puerto Rico itself to declare bankruptcy. No U.S. state can do this. In fact some scholars argue that the Constitution wouldn’t even allow that for states, which retain residual sovereignty. Nevertheless, allowing Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy would no doubt impair every state’s fiscal rating, as the suspicion would linger that some might grasp this lifeline in extremis.

The White House has stated that this resolution would be restricted to U.S. territories, so that Guam for example could go bankrupt but not Mississippi or California. However this is just a statement of policy, not law, and suspicious buyers would likely demand higher interest on all state bonds. This administration approach will be very costly, as federal funds in the billions would be needed and the indirect cost from higher interest rates would add immeasurably.

There is a side effect of this resolution that isn’t insignificant. The status of Puerto Rico is odd. Its residents are citizens of the U.S. but they have only non-voting representation in Congress. They have had plebiscites offering the alternatives of independence or application for statehood, but so far neither has achieved the necessary support. In fact, it is not obvious that statehood would be granted. What benefit do we accrue from adding them as our 51st state? But in any case, if this bankruptcy idea were actually employed, that would probably preclude statehood for the foreseeable future. As a result we would have this dependent child to support for decades to come.

Climate Change Is Not The Problem

This is going to be a longer posting than normal, so please bear with me. This topic is important and it cannot be covered briefly.

Climate change is inevitably going to wreak havoc here and abroad, and the impact will be far worse than is necessary because few are willing to face the danger. Stupidity will be its own reward. The Obama administration has been valiantly trying to stem this rising tide – pun intended — most notably with his just-announced more stringent carbon emission standards. However this is more intended to goad international efforts than to mitigate climate change directly. I can’t help visualizing Obama as King Canute commanding the waves to cease. We simply can’t prevent this looming threat, although we could significantly minimize its damage through prudent preparations beginning right now.

But long before this catastrophe strikes something far more ominous is on the horizon, especially here in the United States. Our entire economy predicated upon lives of work is being threatened by technology. People are just as dismissive of this threat as they are with climate change. What they don’t understand must surely be either untrue or overstated. The world couldn’t change so dramatically from what we have known all our lives and since the founding of Western civilization, could it?

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Well, consider this. The best estimates from those who really understand the technology is that 40-50% of all current jobs in the United States will no longer exist in as little as 20 years. Robots and associated technologies are here now and are progressing an order of magnitude faster than the technologists themselves predicted only five years ago. You, or more likely your children, will live in a far different world. Meanwhile our legislators and our education system are blundering forward heedlessly. This picture shows a current factory floor. Can you find Waldo, the sole human operator needed?

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The past is prologue. In 1964, the nation’s most valuable company, AT&T, was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people. Today’s telecommunications giant, Google, is worth $370 billion but has only about 55,000 employees—less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday. Today, that kind of change will take place immeasurably faster.

Don’t believe it? Well it has happened before. The industrial revolution beginning in the mid-18th century replaced human work with machines and processes in massive proportions. It was probably the most important economic event in recorded human history. In that case, however, two mitigating factors reduced the suffering and turmoil. First, many new jobs were created and displaced workers could fairly easily adapt their skills to them. But most importantly, this was a slow-moving revolution that lasted about six human generations.This new industrial revolution of robots, artificial intelligence and inexpensive electronics is moving far faster because it is springing from a much more advanced technology base.

A man puts dishes on robots for delivery at a restaurant in Hefei, Anhui province, December 26, 2014.  The restaurant, with a space of 1300 square metres and a total of 30 robots to cook meals, deliver dishes and welcome costumers, was reported to be the biggest robot restaurant in China. REUTERS/STRINGER (CHINA - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS FOOD SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA

Jobs are at risk across virtually all sectors of the economy: agricultural workers, warehouse and distribution workers, retail clerks, tellers, cashiers, stock clerks, hotel staff, porters, waitresses, barmen, fast food workers, welders, machinists, cabbies, subway operators, assembly line workers, bakers, butchers, clerical staff, psychologists, legal assistants, golf caddies, optometrists, insurance salesmen, investment counselors, pharmacists, tax preparers, and on and on.

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The most-common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk. Together, these four jobs employ 15.4 million people—nearly 10 percent of the labor force, or more workers than there are in Texas and Massachusetts combined. All are at risk.

robot_teachers_3Telerobotics will leverage some professionals so that many fewer will be needed in the legal, medical, accounting and teaching fields. Meanwhile artificial intelligence will replace most computer programmers, researchers, diagnosticians, help desk operators and librarians. The impact will be felt not just across the employment spectrum but up and down the social strata. This is an entirely new aspect, quite unlike the earlier industrial revolution. Oddly, one area likely to be relatively untouched is the scorned performing arts, and people are going to have scads of free time to appreciate them.

The examples I have depicted are necessarily from current technology. No one can confidently predict how this will evolve, other than to say that its impact will be enormous. This won’t happen instantly and there will be moves to restrain it by latter-day Luddites and by those being ground under the wheel of progress. But it is inevitable, and soon.

Robots don’t require health insurance, 401K plans, vacations, parking spaces, motivation and encouragement, pay raises, tips, etc. They don’t get tired and they aren’t distracted by family responsibilities. You can replace a poor-performing robot with the stroke of a pen. In many cases they don’t even need lighting. From a management perspective, what’s not to love? But if you are in the management class, don’t get too complacent. Many managerial jobs are on the line too, in first-level supervision, human resources, accounting, personnel management and corporate planning.

Of course, as before, many new jobs will be created and the robots will need service and support attendants. But few displaced workers will fit these high-tech roles. Eventually, the economy and education system will catch up with this employment revolution, but that will take generations. And never again will we need such a large portion of our population to maintain and improve our way of life. The coming crisis of tens of millions with not the slightest hope of gainful employment will create a tsunami of unrest.

So, put climate change on your back burner. There’s nothing practical we can do to prevent it anyway. At best we might mitigate its impacts, but don’t bet on our legislators to be that farseeing. Many probably believe the millennium will arrive momentarily, so why bother? Nothing else could explain their conscious refusal to believe the science. I wish I could be around decades hence when I could say, “There it is, you imbeciles! Look out of your window. I told you so.”