High-Speed Rail

It seems to me….

We are also ignoring and underfunding high speed rail which is one of the best ways to move citizens and improve congestion on our highways.”  ~ Corrine Brown[1].

All aspects of the U.S. infrastructure need immediate repair and modernization.  The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) grades the current state of various categories of the U.S. national infrastructure on a scale of A through F[2].  It has determined that the U.S. infrastructure has persistently earned low grades since 1998, currently a D+, and has failed to close the investment gap with needed maintenance and improvements.  Rail transportation does considerably better with an overall grade of B but also faces challenges, primarily in passenger rail, due to aging infrastructure and insufficient funding.

Railways were the first form of rapid land transportation and had an effective monopoly on long-distance passenger traffic until development of the automobile and aircraft in the early-mid 20th century.  High-speed rail (HSR) is a type of rail transport that runs significantly faster than traditional rail traffic and while it is part of everyday life in many parts of the world, remains a low priority in the U.S where the private automobile very much remains the dominant mode of transportation.  HSR systems have been constructed by a number of countries including Belgium, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Morocco, The Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan but not in the U.S.

High-speed rail typically exceeds speeds of 250 kilometers per hour (160 mph) for new lines.  The French Euroduplex TGV trains, currently the fastest conventional wheeled train, holds the speed record of 574.8 km/h (357.16 mph).  HSR typically outperforms both flying and driving in almost every measure: capacity, mobility, convenience, speed, safety, efficiency, energy consumption, cost, profitability, national security, carbon footprint, physical footprint, economic development, smart growth, and more[3].

While HSR is primarily cost effective in high-density areas and distances under 800km (500 mi); in general, the longer the journey, the better the time advantage of rail over highway if going to the same destination[4].  However, high-speed rail can be competitive with cars on shorter distances, 0–150 kilometers (0–90 mi) for example, for commuting, especially if the car user experiences road congestion or costly parking fees.  High-speed rail is also able to accommodate more passengers at far higher speeds than automobiles.

Train stations are typically located closer to urban centers than airports so although air transit moves at higher speeds than high-speed rail, total time to destination can be increased by travel to/from airports, check-in, baggage handling, security, and boarding which may also increase the cost of air travel.  Likewise, air travel needs longer distances to have a speed advantage after accounting for both processing time and transit to the airport.  Airports typically tend to be located far out of the city due to land scarcity, runway length limitations, building heights, as well as airspace issues.  While airplanes spend significant amounts of time loading and unloading cargo and/or passengers as well as landing, taxiing, and starting again, trains only spend a few minutes stopping at intermediate stations often greatly enhancing overall efficiency at little additional expense.  Trains can also accommodate intermediate stops at lower time and energy costs than planes though this applies less to HSR than to slower conventional trains.

There are inefficiencies with HSR when compared to point-to-point transit by air.  Where air routes are largely unaffected by geography, cities normally are not arranged in a straight line so routing includes bends and turns which can substantially increase the length and duration of rail travel.  It can be costly to cross mountain ranges or large bodies of water requiring expensive tunnels and bridges or else relying on slower routes and train ferries in addition to requiring earthquake and other safety systems.  Railways also require the security and cooperation of all geographies and governments involved; political issues can make routes unviable whereas an airplane can fly over politically sensitive areas and/or be re-routed with relative ease.

HSR corridors have the capacity to move a large number of passengers in a safe and reliable manner.  Depending on the design, a high-speed rail corridor can carry up to 400,000 passengers per day.  They can mitigate congested road and air infrastructure, particularly for short to medium distance trips.  They are also much less impacted by adverse weather conditions (e.g., storms) than road and air transport and can continue to offer services in conditions that would cripple road and particularly air operations.

The U.S. experiences congestion in every major metropolitan region of the country costing €102bn ($124bn) per year in wasted time and fuel.  High-speed rail is transformative delivering rapid efficient transportation with every train, every day without delays or congestion, and providing fast, reliable service when it most counts, during rush hour and holiday travel.  It is able to provide large passenger capacity transporting more people than a 10-lane freeway plus 2 airports.

HSR is the world’s safest form of transportation proven by decades of safe operations.  Japan was the first nation to build high-speed rail in 1964 and has since transported 10 billion passengers without a single fatality.  France has a similar record with their 30 years of high-speed rail operations as also is true in most other countries.

High-speed trains also have a comfort advantages since train passengers are allowed to move freely about the train at any point in the journey.  Since airlines have complicated calculations attempting to minimize weight to save fuel or allow takeoff at certain runway lengths, rail seats are less subject to weight restrictions than on planes, and as such may have more padding and legroom.  Technological advances such as continuously welded rail have minimized the vibration found on slower railways while air travel remains affected by turbulence due to adverse wind conditions.

Transportation is responsible for producing nearly 30 percent of all U.S greenhouse gas emissions.  HSR can be 100 percent renewable energy powered consuming less energy per passenger-km than road and air transport making it the world’s greenest form of transportation and the only viable transport solution capable of simultaneously reducing carbon, congestion, costs, accidents, and energy consumption.  A network of high-speed trains can carry more passengers than both cars and airplanes combined using a fraction of the energy without delays and reducing the number of carbon-intensive airplanes from the skies and cars from the roads.

A high-speed light-freight system would substantially lower the cost (and increase reliability) of shipping light-freight goods and perishables throughout the country.  It could provide a super-efficient, electrically powered, light-freight shipping system infrastructure in combination with high-level passenger transport.  Light-freight (not to be confused with “heavy-freight” like lumber, oil, coal, etc.) transported by big rail freight operators like BNSF, CSX, etc.) includes everything transported by FedEx, UPS, Amazon, USPS, etc. mostly in long distance trucks and/or airplanes.

Rail travel is also less weather dependent than air travel.  A well designed and operated rail system can only be affected by severe weather conditions such as heavy snow, heavy fog, or major storms; flights often face cancellations or delays under less severe conditions.  HSR does not need to spend time deicing like planes, which while critical is time-consuming, and can impact airline profitability as planes remaining on the ground pay hourly airport fees, occupy limited parking space, and contribute to congestive delays.

On particular busy air-routes where HSR has historically been most successful, trains are also less prone to delays due to congested airports or airspace.  A train that is late by a couple of minutes will not have to wait for another slot to open unlike airplanes at congested airports.  Furthermore, many airlines see short haul flights as increasingly uneconomical and rely on high-speed rail in some locations instead of short haul flights for connecting services.

High-speed rail, metros, and light rail systems can re-densify sprawling regions by focusing more dense development around rail stations.  Rail stations with HSR services frequently becoming transport hubs with an associated reliance on urban transport systems, particularly public transit.  A national HSR system would create millions of good paying jobs building the infrastructure and system components, managing the rail systems, and operating the stations.  It also could create a real estate boom creating millions of jobs in development, construction, and property management while revitalizing cities and communities.

Airlines frequently and aggressively add and drop routes due to demand and profitability (there were over 3,000 new or changed routes in 2016).  HSR may add or drop services but the rail line itself represents a significant sunk cost and cannot be as easily modified in response to changing market conditions.  For passengers, however, this can present an advantage as railway services are less likely to be withdrawn.

HSR projects tend to come with extremely high up-front price tags, usually require land acquisition, and are prone to cost overruns.  The UK’s HS2 system being built from London to Birmingham and then on to Leeds and Manchester, was originally expected to cost £56bn ($77bn), but that figure has since almost doubled to £98bn ($135bn).  HSR is subject to land subsidence such as in Taiwan where expensive changes sent costs soaring.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is responsible for planning, designing, building, and operating the first HSR system in the U.S.  Currently under construction in the California Central Valley, it will be 100 percent powered by renewables and eventually hopefully connect 8 of the 10 largest cities in the state contributing to economic development, a cleaner environment, job creation, and preserving agricultural and protected lands.  Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San José already rank among the top five most gridlocked cities in the nation.

Unfortunately, construction has been substantially delayed due in part to problems that have plagued the project since the first construction contract was awarded for segments of the route through the Central Valley almost eight years ago in mid-2013 including an extremely slow rate of progress acquiring the land needed for the rail right of way in Fresno, California, where it became embroiled in legal paperwork finalizing agreements with adjacent railroads, utilities, and local governments in addition to construction errors and other factors.

A revised spending plan now reflects a reality related to available financial resources for construction including paring back on what will be put out for construction bids for track and related systems on a drastically scaled back Merced-Bakersfield route.  Instead of building the two tracks necessary to operate trains in both northbound and southbound directions, bids are currently being sought for only one track making the system impractical as a meaningful HSR transportation system.  This could potentially setback further HSR project approval elsewhere in the country.

A key source of funding for California’s HSR efforts date back to the Obama administration 2010 allocation of almost $1 billion in federal rail improvement funds.  In 2019, the Federal Railroad Administration under Trump terminated grant agreements for that funding and “de-obligated” the funds from the program threatening to seek repayment of another $2 billion in federal stimulus funds already largely spent by the state.

High-speed rail travel will most likely never provide a financial return to the developers and operators.  Similar to the Interstate Highway System, it mostly is about delivering better services and economic growth for the broader community.  Instead of the currently planned Merced-Bakersfield route, the California HSR authority should construct the two-rail system from San Diego to Seattle and then extend it to urban centers to the east.  Expensive, yes, but so was the Interstate Highway System and those who objected to its original cost have long-since turned into supporters.  The same would be true for High-Speed Rail.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Corrine Brown is a former U.S. politician who served as a member of the House of Representatives from Florida.

[2] Infrastructure Report Card, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/, 2021.

[3] Top 10 Reasons To Bring HSR To America, US High-speed Rail Association, http://ushsr.com/benefits/top10reasons.html, 2021.

[4] High-Speed Rail, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-speed_rail, 10 February 2021.

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A Commencement Address

Something a bit different this week.

My oldest grandson graduated from high school last week.  It initially appeared there would only be a virtual graduation ceremony rather than a real one.  Not wanting him to miss the requisite ordeal of sitting through a succession of less than memorable graduation speeches, I contributed one of my own.

As it turned out, they had an actual though somewhat abbreviated socially distanced ceremony with only a minimum number of thankfully brief speeches by three students and the school principal but sans additional guest speakers.  The past academic year has been less than ideal for almost all students and his ritual of graduation was in keeping with adaptation necessary in response to the virus.

I would like to offer my sympathy, thoughts, and prayers to all who have lost someone or personally contracted COVID.  Hopefully, something beneficial has been learned that will enable us to avoid future occurrences of such illnesses.

Dear Connor,

Given that we are only now beginning to move on following the worst impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not clear if you would be able to have an actual high school graduation ceremony or if it would be virtual as has been much of your last year and a half.  Not knowing, and not wanting you to totally escape the time-honored ritual of sitting through a seemingly endless duration of speeches, I thought it best to provide at least one such speech so you would not completely miss out on the experience.

A virtual ceremony cannot in any way compensate for the actual experience of a high school graduation as most ceremonies are held for an audience of robed students ignoring the speakers in favor of smuggled-in smart phones trying to figure out how to escape – diplomas in hand – so they do not have to sit through the rest of the ceremony.

Graduation ceremonies encompass many of the more objectionable aspects of life: extended sitting in uncomfortable chairs, hot uncomfortable gowns, long lines, listening to less than inspirational speakers (including faculty and fellow students)….  Most attendees would prefer to skip the ceremony altogether and get to the party.

That said, I was glad to learn that you will have an actual graduation ceremony.  How ever you care to rate that experience, probably not as one of life’s more memorable experiences, at least you will have had it!  And that ceremony – hopefully short and sweet – will demark an important passage in the stages of your life.  Rest assured, you will attend others very similar in the future.

You have done well.  Congratulations.  You should be proud of your accomplishments (The rest of the family is).



Good morning.  Let me express my congratulations to the 2021 graduates, their parents, and faculty of Technology High School, and a warm welcome to them and their friends and guests here today.

I am Lew Bornmann – PhD in Computer Science, professor (retired) at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado.  Having worked with computers since 1960 – while not one of the original pioneers in the field – I consider myself extremely fortunate to have met and known many that were.  I also happen to be the grandfather of one of your fellow graduates: Connor Wilde.

Sitting through commencement speeches is a somewhat ritualistic part of time-honored traditions associated with graduations.  Over the years, I have attended many commencements and have heard numerous speakers including Presidents, various other politicians, corporate executives, entertainers, and athletes.  While they offered good advice, there is only one thing I have taken from each address: I do not remember a single thing any of them actually said.  With that thought in mind, my remarks will therefore be relatively short.

Your life is like a book and high school commencement is merely the end of another chapter.  Up to now, your path through life has largely been determined by your parents and other adults, but now, it is you who will progressively determine the direction your future will take.

Take a look around you at those with whom you have shared much of your life over the past few years.  You will seldom, perhaps never again, see many of those who have been your friends and acquaintances up to this point.  Good friends.  Close friends.  Never to speak to them again.  The path forward will take each of you in a separate direction.

No one can promise that your path through life will be smooth.  There are no road signs on the highway of life.  It will take you over mountains, through valleys, and the trail will be strewn with numerous boulders and other obstacles.  The road is not clearly marked; it is not paved or even obvious in most locations.  You will endure many disappointments.  Since you can never be sure of your destination, the best advice is to follow your aspirations and get back up whenever you stumble or fall.  While the path you follow is uniquely yours, be assured that others have traversed similar routes.  Everyone experiences hard times, and you will not be an exception so expect them.  When your climb seems too steep, just remember better times await if you keep going.  The only way to ever fail is to stop trying.

Schools teach you today what was known yesterday so as to – hopefully – prepare you for tomorrow.  Much of what you have learned, along with many of the skills you have developed, will be obsolete in only a few years.  Learn constantly.  Innovation and change will occur at an ever-increasing pace.  Try to spot the next oncoming wave and surf it.

Be open to new opportunities – say “YES” more often than “no”.  YES, I can.  YES, I will.  Always be willing to try that which is new.  Choose the challenges and never be afraid of failure.  There will be disappointments – some painful – but this is the way you learn and develop.

Dream.  Never be afraid to think big.  Set lofty goals – if you achieve them, they were too low.

College is the next destination for most of you.  Grades are important – very important – as they determine where you can do your graduate studies.  But academics are only part of what you gain from college.  Many of your most important lessons will be what you learn outside the classroom.  Too many become so involved with the minutia of life and realize only as they approach their final days that they never took time to actually live.  Always try to have balance in your life.  Though you attempt to select the best option, hindsight frequently proves the superiority of another choice.  Still, live your life without regrets knowing you attempted to do what appeared best at the time.  There isn’t any benefit in looking back with regret.

Take that path less travelled.  When you are young, life seems to stretch out endlessly before you; it is difficult to perceive just how quickly it will pass.  Consider how disappointing it would be to reach the end of your life and realize there was much on your list of things to do that will forever remain undone.

And always consider that when you are old and looking back at your life, whether you will be able to truthfully say you have left the Earth just a bit better for having been here.

I wish you much success in life – whatever “success” might be and however you decide to define it.  While intelligence, hard work, and perseverance are important, being open to new experiences, being conscientious, and actually seeking success is at least equally important.

“Live long and prosper”.

Posted in Colorado, Colorado Mesa University, commencement, Connor Wilde, Graduation, Grand Junction, grandson, High School, Life's Lessons | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Doing What Is Right

It seems to me….

I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress.”  ~ Ronald Reagan[1].

Freedom and affluence come with a price[2].  The U.S., essentially a demilitarized nation on the eve of the Second World War, never stood down following victory and U.S. troops are currently deployed in 150 countries.  Just for comparison, since the 1970s, China has not once gone to war; the U.S. has not spent a day at peace.  President Jimmy Carter noted that in its over 240-year history, the U.S. has enjoyed only 16 years of peace, making it, as he wrote, “the most warlike nation in the history of the world[3]”.

Since its inception[4], the U.S. has invaded about 70 countries and just since 1945 intervened in 50 others[5].  There also were over 40 so-called Indian Wars waged against what at the time were actually independent nations.  While no one in the U.S. likes to admit it, reduction of the North American Native American population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 represents a vast genocide, the most sustained on record.  This was the worst human holocaust the world has ever witnessed roaring across two continents non-stop for four centuries consuming the lives of countless tens of millions of people.

Members of Congress should be reminded of the many times when that august body has egregiously failed not only the citizens of our own nation but also those throughout the rest of the world.  Failure to provide support to the Afghan mujāhidūn following their defeat of the Soviets in 1992 opened the door for the Taliban leading directly to our involvement in what is now the longest war in U.S. history.  Major reductions in space research funding dismantled the team responsible for successfully landing on the Moon resulting in over a half century hiatus prior to any return visit.  Refusal to join the League of Nations following World War I ultimately led to World War II (though the actual causes were much more complicated).

The Fourteen Points recommended by then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson on 8 January 1918 at the conclusion of World War I included a number of forward-looking proposals, including formation of the League of Nations, some of which are still worthwhile considering today; e.g.,

IV.   Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest level consistent with domestic safety.

The U.S. was among the nations that participated in the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which took place from 1974 through 1982 and resulted in the international treaty known as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  The U.S. also participated in subsequent negotiations of modifications to the treaty from 1990 to 1994.  The UNCLOS came into force in 1994.  Although the U.S. now recognizes the UNCLOS as a codification of customary international law, it has yet to ratified it though 167 countries and the European Union have now joined in the Convention.

Any program’s success normally becomes apparent only in hindsight.  The wars in Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq initially had broad public support while other programs such as the Marshall Plan, tax reform, or welfare reform faced broad initial opposition but ultimately were considered extremely successful.

There are lessons which, unfortunately, need to periodically be retaught.  All members of Congress should be encouraged to watch the “American Experience” documentary on the making of the Panama Canal.  Just over one hundred years ago, the U.S. completed what then was the most expensive, complex, and ultimately successful government program in human history.  (The final excavation ended in December 1913 and the canal opened in 1914.)  In his book The Path Between the Seas, historian David McCullough put the bill at $352 million, which was about five times the total cost of all the country’s land acquisitions until then: California, Florida, New Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii….

The French had tried to build the canal a few years earlier but, despite putting the builder of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, on the job, they left in total failure.  The U.S. project’s first chief engineer quit after the first year.  His replacement left as well.  Only with the third did the project start moving.  Yellow fever killed thousands of workers and caused others to flee in fright.  The engineering challenges were immense and often seemed insurmountable.  Media reports about the project were largely negative.

Then, in November 1906, Theodore Roosevelt visited the canal.  It was the first time a President had ever left the boundaries of the U.S.  Roosevelt, a Republican, was determined for the project to continue and be adequately funded.  He turned his visit into one of the first great Presidential photo ops.  The journalist William Inglis wrote

“…now that the President has gone to Panama, has seen that the work is progressing … the people are slowly awakening to the fact that our engineers and mechanics and laborers are making a success of the greatest and most difficult engineering feat in the world.”

Through sheer perseverance, the dream of connecting the world’s two great oceans became a reality.  The practical result was reduction of travel time for goods and cargo between the east and the west by an order of magnitude igniting an explosion of trade.  Today more than 14,500 ships, and 244 million tons of cargo, pass through the canal annually.

While many sins are more apparent in hindsight than in foresight, they remain no less egregious.  Since 2001, the U.S. has spent over $6 trillion on military operations and war; money that might have been invested in other higher priorities; e.g., infrastructure, healthcare, education, research….  China, during that same time frame, concentrated on building its nation pouring more cement every three years than the U.S. did in the entire 20th century.

Democracy is to some extent inherently inefficient.  It has always been tempting for national leaders to avoid the group-decision messiness of parliaments, congresses, and assemblies – all the more so today due to the increasing complexity of our globalized society.  Mass migrations, terrorism, transnational criminal activity, and international economic upheavals bring a longing for order that can play on false memories of simpler times.

Democracy is not perfect and its failings must be forgiven, constantly improved, and its core institutions, including civil rights and the rule of law, subjected to the will of the people.  Democratic governments, such as we prefer to believe ours to be, supposedly gradually learn through experience how to resolve their most vexing problems.  The U.S.’s success is attributable to its ability to change.  Democracy will prevail not because of individual leaders but because it is better than authoritarianism at meeting the challenges of governing.  There will be losses, corruption, misbehavior, and pressure on the courts and media in all nations as well as our own.  Challenges will only grow as change in this century continues at an unabated pace.

There are many aspects contributing to current U.S. political dysfunction, one of the most severe in the Senate is the treat of filibuster.  In four years under Trump’s Presidency, McConnell and the Senate GOP held roll call votes to break a filibuster and end debate on nominees 314 times[6].  All previous Presidents combined faced only 244 roll call votes to advance nominees over a filibuster.  When one chamber of Congress approves a bill, the other should be obligated to at least vote on it with any changes, modifications, or additions that chamber approves.

The current world system was created following World War II but much of today’s world is characterized by an erosion of trust.  There are extreme imbalances in trade, society, and equality.  Additionally, many people feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with the accelerating pace of change but regardless of any populist leader’s promises to “bring back the good old days”, those days no longer exist (and actually never did).  The world is transitioning not only from a unipolar world but to one that is multi-conceptual and multipolar where the U.S. no longer is the only dominant superpower.  The U.S. and several other advanced nations are also becoming postindustrial societies shifting to adjust to a fourth industrial revolution increasingly dependent upon robotics, automation, and computerization.  A key challenge is preparing people with the means to fit into this world through education, training, and retraining.

The rule of law should always prevail in an advanced society and the U.S. must accept that not all judgements will be determined in its favor.  In any disagreement between two parties, the more powerful is normally able to impose its will upon the weaker though in the process garner either a blackeye or the enmity of those observing for having been the aggressor.  If the disagreement is left to arbitration, the more powerful might lose and reject the judgement but be weakened politically and more subject to criticism or condemnation for its nonacceptance of the rule of law.  Still, leading by example creates a precedence others will be more willing to follow when once established.  If we expect other nations to abide by decisions of international courts or tribunals, we also must be willing to do so.

Just as most business-startups fail, so also do the majority of new ideas or reforms.  Likewise, most inventions quickly become obsolete.  Still, the anarchical forces of change are too powerful to withstand.  Those forces might be shaped or exploited but, ultimately, our only option is to adapt and live with them.

Likewise, our elected leaders must have faith in the general principles embodied in our Constitution by visionary founders: of human rights, equality, freedom, and the esoteric pursuit of happiness.  They also must consider the many differences wrought by the passage of time constantly recreating our country requiring adaptation to those anarchical forces of change.

In presenting his reasons for U.S. involvement in World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated “four freedoms” symbolizing the U.S.’s war aims and gave hope in the following years to a war-wearied people because they knew they were fighting for freedom.  Two of FDR’s four freedoms are framed as freedom to do something: freedom to speak one’s mind and freedom to worship as one sees fit.  The other two freedoms are framed in terms of freedom from something: freedom from want and freedom from fear.

Much still remains a dream but given a dream, great works can be realized.  By working together, rather being guided by irreconcilable ideologies, much can be accomplished.  We remain capable of laudable achievements even in the face of overwhelming odds.  There is talk of “Moonshots” but President John F. Kennedy’s goal of going to the Moon was not the U.S.’s first difficult accomplishment.  Let us not let it be our last.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Ronald Wilson Reagan was a U.S. actor and politician who served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, the 33rd governor of California, 40th U.S. President, and a highly influential voice of modern conservatism.

[2] Davis, Wade.  The Unraveling Of America, RollingStone, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/covid-19-end-of-american-era-wade-davis-1038206/?fbclid=IwAR2g4crbtzGPQDBq-B72pq_Da8LiE8H7QhxI5zwXrTBcz-oKEHm3SWLILLw, 6 August 2020.

[3] Brennan, David.  Jimmy Carter Took Call About China From Concerned Donald Trump: ‘China Has Not Wasted A Single Penny On War’, Newsweek, Jimmy Carter Took Call About China From Concerned Donald Trump: ‘China Has Not Wasted a Single Penny on War’ (newsweek.com), 15 April 2019.

[4] Polya, Gideon. The US Has Invaded 70 Nations Since 1776 – Make 4 July Independence From America Day, CounterCurrents.org, http://www.countercurrents.org/polya050713.htm, 05 July 2013.

[5] Grossman, Zoltan.  From Wounded Knee to Libya: A Century of U.S. Military Interventions, The Evergreen State College, https://sites.evergreen.edu/zoltan/interventions/, October 2001.

[6] Legislation & Records, United States Senate, U.S. Senate: Cloture Motions.

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Processing Complexity

It seems to me….

Fools ignore complexity.  Pragmatists suffer it.  Some can avoid it.  Geniuses remove it.”  ~ Alan Perlis[1].

While admittedly a techno-optimist, I still have concerns regarding the direction in which technology is heading.  We are constantly stoking the furnace continuing to drive innovation at an ever-quickening pace toward some unknown destination.  The rate of change continues to increase though societal and technological development and adoption are occurring at a more rapid pace than to which many people are able to adapt.  Additionally, while always impossible to predict the future, it is relatively safe to assume the next totally unanticipated transformative innovation will appear within a relatively few years.

A technological inflection point around 2007 altered employment, manufacturing, social interaction, communication…; much of how we work and live.  Computation not only became more capable but also pervasive.  Everyone now walks around with a powerful networked computer in their pocket.  As computerization becomes more effectual (some might say invasive), human skills not taught in schools: cooperation, empathy, flexibility…; become more vital.

Digital technology is ubiquitously being embedded everywhere possible: everything, every person, every aspect of life is being fundamentally shaped by digital technology – it is happening in our homes, our work, our places of entertainment.  Nine billion microcontrollers are being shipped every year embedded in every piece of equipment imaginable.

Some societal changes, such as mobile phones, are relatively easily accommodated into our daily lives while other less apparent changes; e.g., loss of privacy; are more difficult.  Regardless of conclusive proof, many remain reluctant to even fully acknowledge the anthropomorphic sources of climate change, much less technological changes, many far less apparent.  Many dark clouds remain visible on the horizon and being far less understood, most constitute threats difficult to access.

Transformative technologies are hardware and software-based tools and applications designed to enhance human physical and psychological well-being, cognitive function, and physical capabilities.  There currently are numerous emerging rapidly proliferating innovative technologies potentially able to significantly affect previous knowledge and abilities altering interactions among actors and institutions in important socioeconomic environments.

Digital innovations currently underway affect all economic sectors, characterized by such attributes as almost universal connectivity and ubiquitous computing, able to draw on the ability to generate and utilize vast amounts of data.

As artificial intelligence (AI), intelligent apps, and analytics become increasingly embedded into our way of living, we are beginning to create technologies that now are enhancing human lifestyle.  Developers are integrating and augmenting everyday activities such as seeing (facial recognition), reading (semantic and sentiment analysis), listening/speaking (conversational interfaces), and emotions (affective computing).

It is estimated there currently are about 50 billion connected devices which will increase to over 125 billion by 2030[2].  These devices will not only be connected but cooperating as part of an intelligent ecosystem.  While not readily apparent where located, the average number of connected devices per private household in 2020 was estimated to be about 50 with Google Home having the largest number at 48 percent, followed by Amazon Alexa at 37 percent, and finally Apple HomePod at just 12 percent.

These devices are constantly gathering, connecting, and sharing data for a multitude of applications.  As AI and Internet of Things/Internet of Everything (IoT/IoE) devices multiply, there will be a rapidly expanding swarm of intelligent agents collaborating and replicating interactions in the real world.

With the proliferation of IoT/IoE and intelligent apps/agents, the need for distributed computing with related connections to analytics and decision-making[3] will correspondingly increase.  IoT edge and fog computing will spawn entirely new infrastructure markets.  The dependency of IoT infrastructure for near real-time results will require solutions to current connectivity, latency, and bandwidth constraints.  Greater functionality at the end points will require adoption of scalable and failsafe distributed network and storage architectures.

As it has throughout history, innovation will drive demands for new norms and legal statutes at both the domestic and global level providing an opportunity to improve welfare and address pressing social issues in healthcare, education, and the environment[4].  There also will be serious challenges in addition to potential benefits as digital transformation will change the basic nature and structure of organizations and markets; jobs and skills, privacy, security, personal interaction, formation and composition of communities, and notions of equity and inclusion.  While adjustments are inevitable, they will necessitate sensitivity and foresight so as to support more inclusive growth and improve well-being.

Social adaptation to technological innovation is difficult partially resulting from concurrence with the law of accelerating returns.  The pace of technological progress, especially information technology, speeds up exponentially over time due to the commonality of forces driving it – each advance builds on those preceding it.

Intelligent processing is being pushed outward toward grid edges to bring computation and data storage closer to the location where needed so as to improve response times and save bandwidth.  Seemingly independent processes and applications become interdependent.  There always is an increased need for data validation at each node in distributed processes as otherwise random errors proliferate upwards.

Unfortunately, even basic arithmetic lessons learned over fifty years ago have apparently largely been forgotten[5].  Edge devices frequently have 8- or 16-bit word lengths which traverse upward and mapped into 64-bit words for further processing.  This can result in faulty computations, especially those involving polynomials and matrix operations, that no longer seem fully appreciated.  Fortunately, some recent application development attempts to identify such problems[6].

Multiple distributed applications running in parallel attempt to coordinate over network links where arbitrary delays are inherently problematic.  System failures, such as from power disruptions, can result in either corrupted data or metadata.  Any data duplication will at some point unavoidably result in an instance of that data not being correctly updated.  Additionally, if any database is not properly normalized to at least its 3rd or 4th normal form, data redundancy will require extra storage space in addition to probable insertion, updating, and deletion anomalies.  To ensure data stability, data values must remain unambiguous regardless of location or from where accessed.

While cloud services are economically advantageous, sharing hardware can also result in unintentional information sharing.  So called side-channel attacks are an attack based on information gained from the implementation of a computer system rather than on weaknesses in implemented algorithms.  They are indirect attacks on a computing system exploiting physical and logical side effects.  Such attacks are complex and difficult to prevent.

Numerous additional problems proliferate with increased complexity.  A lesson to remember, paraphrasing Albert Einstein, is that everything should be made as simple as feasible but no simpler.  There is considerable that remains to be learned regarding the direction of current development.  It is obvious that simplification and optimization are not obtaining appropriate attention as additional levels of dependency are constantly being added.  One of the problems involving computational processing is that regardless of the amount of testing performed, it is only able to identify problems; it never can verify their absence.  Hopefully, the price to eventually be paid will not be overly high.

Care must be taken to avoid the precipices which we have created with our house of cards increasingly dependent upon multiple layers of fragile technology.  The accumulated doubling of Moore’s Law, and the ample doubling still to come, gives us a world where supercomputer power becomes available in toys just a few years following introduction, where ever-cheaper sensors enable inexpensive solutions to previously intractable problems, and where science fiction becomes everyday reality.

Nothing this complex with so many interconnections and dependencies has ever previously been attempted.  Sophistication and complexity will push limits of processing and control whose predictability is determined only with chaos theory – and it is only the next step.  It is unclear where the path will lead.  It will be difficult and for now remains only a dream.  It can be done, must be done, and I believe will be done.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Alan Jay Perlis was a U.S. mathematician and computer scientist known for his pioneering work in programming languages and the first recipient of the Turing Award, the highest honor in computer science.

[2] Nick G.  How Many IoT Devices Are There In 2020?, Techjury, https://techjury.net/blog/how-many-iot-devices-are-there/, 13 October 2020.

[3] Patrick, Stewart M.  Transformative Technology, Transformative Governance: A New Blog Series On The Future, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/blog/transformative-technology-transformative-governance-new-blog-series-future, 25 January 2019.

[4] Transformative Technologies And Jobs Of The Future, Background report for the Canadian G7 Innovation Ministers’ Meeting, http://www.oecd.org/innovation/transformative-technologies-and-jobs-of-the-future.pdf, 27-28 March 2018.

[5] Wilkinson, James H.  Rounding Errors In Algebraic Processes, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., https://trace.tennessee.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.bing.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1053&context=utk_harlan, 1964.

[6] Asuden, Abolfazl.  Scalable Signal Reconstruction For A Broad Range Of Applications, Communications of the ACM, Scalable Signal Reconstruction for a Broad Range of Applications | February 2021 | Communications of the ACM, February, 2021, pp 106-115.

Posted in 3rd Normal Form, 4th Normal Form, Affective Computing, AI, AI, AI, Albert Einstein, Amazon, Amazon Alexa, Apple, Apple, Apple HomePod, Apple HomePod, Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Intelligence, Communications, connectivity, conversational interfaces, Digital technology, distributed applications, Edge Computing, Employment, Facial Recognition, Fog Computing, Google Home, inflection point, Infrastructure, Innovation, Innovation, Innovation, Internet of Everything, Internet of Things, Internet of Things, IoE, IoT, IoT, Manufacturing, Manufacturing, Moore’s Law, Moore’s Law, normalization, semantic analysis, sentiment analysis, side-channel attacks, social interaction, techno-optimist, Technology, Technology, Transformative technology, ubiquitous computing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Thinking About Retirement

It seems to me….

The trouble with retirement is that you never get a day off.”  ~ Abe Lemons[1].

Retirement is the tradition of leaving one’s job or ceasing to work after reaching a certain age that has been around since about the 18th century.  Prior to then, the average life expectancy was between 26 and 40 years and only a small percentage of the population reached an age where physical impairments became an obstacle to working.

After decades of employment, retirement is a time to ease off the gas pedal.  As always true, maintaining a balance in life remains important: it should be healthy, fulfilling, and open to change.  The average person has roughly 20 years of life remaining after retirement, time enough to write a masterpiece, run a marathon, or become a mentor to those younger.  There’s even time to do nothing though studies[2] have shown that having a sense of purpose can add years to one’s life.  It is a critical phase of life and planning needs to begin around the age of 25.

Despite deep divides, Americans are united in their concerns about their financial security as they age.  Three-fourths of Americans believe the U.S. faces a retirement crisis, including 80 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans and Independents.  For Americans facing chronic economic inequities, the retirement struggle is especially difficult for minorities as they typically have median household incomes substantially less than their White counterparts and consequently are more reliant on Social Security.

For many Americans, retirement is a mixed bag[3]. Many factors affect people’s retirement decisions though adequate retirement funding is the dominant consideration determining the satisfaction of one’s retirement experience.  While countless seniors enjoy the flexibility and freedom retirement offers, finances, or lack thereof, remains a major concern for many older Americans, especially since so many go into retirement totally unprepared to live on a fixed income.  This is particularly relevant as the U.S. population ages: one in four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90 while one in 10 will live past age 95.  These percentages are only expected to increase in the future.

Many people fail to adequately prepare financially for that time when they no longer are working.  It is an unfortunate fact that one out of every three Americans has not saved anything for retirement.  Many essentially live paycheck-to-paycheck.  Calling it either retirement or permanent unemployment does not matter to someone who no longer has a job.  While difficult for many, planning must begin sufficiently early to accumulate adequate investments to enable some semblance of lifestyle continuity.

Today, about 40 percent of single seniors 65 and over are dependent on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income.  Only 51 percent of Americans are confident they are saving enough for retirement and more than one-third now expect to work following retirement.  60 percent of older Americans fear they will outlive their savings.  30 percent of workers 55 and over have not even started saving for retirement.  Many who retire will continue to work though possibly not in the career they had for the majority of their life.

Many who do attempt to prepare for when no longer able to work experience some serious illness and forced to spend whatever savings they have accrued.  The average healthy couple will spend $377,000 on healthcare in retirement and this amount could increase considerably if there are any changes to Medicare.

When young and still working, personal investments should be in more risky growth stocks.  Following retirement, when investments become one’s primary source of income, they should be more conservative favoring necessities.  There always will be a need for the basics; e.g., soap, toothpaste, toilet paper…, food items, and utilities.

Almost 60 percent of retirees do not consider budgeting for leisure activities when planning for retirement.  46 percent of seniors spend more on such activities during their first two years of retirement than during their working years and 33 percent of households maintain this spending pattern for at least six years into retirement.  It should be obvious why seniors have become the fastest-growing group in the country filing for bankruptcy.

To estimate how much will be needed to live for 25 years without working, estimate the amount currently spent in a typical year and multiply it by 25.  Subtract any pension or other guaranteed annual income (Social Security might be less than totally dependable).  This is the minimum investment required assuming someone will live less than 25 years on retirement.

Financial considerations of retirement are only part of the transition from employment to becoming responsible for one’s own personal time.  Many people get their identity and social interaction from their work so while aging well and gracefully in retirement may be the goal, for some people getting there can be a challenge.

Something I can attest to having been retired for almost twenty years is that there is still a lot of life following retirement and it can be one of the most enjoyable phases of life.  There are admitted financial and physical constraints associated with advancing age but those usually can be accommodated with only relatively minor adjustments.

The paradox of retirement is that while there is so much time, there is so very little of it and it comes at a time when one contemplates their mortality.  We always know intellectually that life is short but never just how short until it actually hits us.

Similar to any major life transition, retirement is a time of shifting priorities.  When young, sitting on a beach sipping pina coladas might seem appealing but that normally has lost any enticement when older; most people lead relatively healthy lives, routines, and patterns.

Many people fail to adequately take advantage of their new freedom.  When the options become unlimited, some fail to consider their possibilities and do nothing.  Whatever one does, it need not be expensive.  Staying home and just doing the regular chores, gardening, or fishing never requires huge sums of money but also does not provide adventure or variety.

For some, loneliness can be a part of aging but it need not be.  Some choose to move from a larger family home to either smaller quarters or relocate to a retirement destination.  Either way, it might be necessary to develop a new circle of friends and find new stores, restaurants, or medical providers.  Regrettably, as time passes, so do family and friends.

While most people do not choose to partake of frequent world tours, there usually are national parks or recreational areas within reasonable distances from one’s home.  Just taking the car or bike out for a long drive along back roads to enjoy both their scenic beauty and seeing some place new can seem like an adventure.

Research indicates that those who are happiest in retirement tend to be those “giving back” and discovering a sense of purpose.  Giving back does not necessarily involve charitable financial contributions; for a growing number of retirees, it often comes in the form of a more meaningful volunteer position or even a second career in a totally different field.

While the new world of working from the comfort of one’s home has made employment a touch more tolerable leading many to stay in their current jobs indefinitely or accept new offers for part-time or temporary work, for others, the loss of employment and lack of adequate healthcare coverage can be financially devastating.  Though political divisions persist, economic security remains a high priority for the vast majority of Americans and the COVID-19 recession has impacted their retirement forcing many on a path to early retirement and an unfortunate but predictable outcome where they no longer will be able to meet their basic financial needs.

Employment terminations and/or furloughs, wage reductions, and overall uncertainty, especially for the more diverse population including parttime and temporary employees, self-employed workers, and informal workers, has created setbacks to accumulating adequate savings.  With many employees possibly needing to tap into their retirement savings, 71 percent of Americans fear the pandemic is having a negative impact on their retirement plans.  For those dependent upon investments, rising government deficits and falling bond yields are creating sufficient uncertainty that many people still able to work might need to do so longer than previously planned.

The pandemic has also more clearly illustrated the substantial hole in our welfare safety net.  About half of Americans receive health coverage through their employer and with record numbers filing for unemployment insurance, millions find themselves without health insurance in the midst of the largest pandemic in a century[4] at a time when they are facing substantially increased healthcare expenses.

Three policy actions that would have a significant impact are addressing long-term care costs, creating stronger tax provisions, and strengthening and expanding Social Security.  Unfortunately, conservatives have traditionally opposed anything which might be beneficial to the majority of people.  Hopefully the pandemic has sufficiently demonstrated the overwhelming need for change that adequate reforms can finally be enacted.

For many people, a truly rewarding retirement is the result of accomplishing something of importance to them.  It might be learning a new language, starting a new business, or volunteering at a favorite charity.  At the end of the day or the end of the year, everyone would like to leave a mark, create a memory, or make someone happy.

Retirement might be the end of one of life’s accomplishments but it is one that opens the door to many others.  One retires from a job, not from life so retirees should make good use of their remaining time.  With adequate preparation, life after retirement is when one realizes that though they might never have a day off; they always can be busy doing that which they love.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] A.E. “Abe” Lemons was a U.S. college basketball player and acclaimed coach.

[2] Hill, Patrick L, and Nicholas A. Turiano.  Purpose In Life As A Predictor Of Mortality Across Adulthood, Psychological Science, Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood – Patrick L. Hill, Nicholas A. Turiano, 2014 (sagepub.com), 8 May 2014.

[3] Backman, Maurie.  10 Retirement Stats That Will Blow You Away, The Motley Fool, https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/retirement/10-retirement-stats-that-will-blow-you-away/ar-BBzTYVz?li=BBnb7Kz&ocid=edgsp, 28 April 2017.

[4] King, Jaime S, J.D., PhD.  COVID-19 And The Need For Health Care Reform, The New England Journal of Medicine, Covid-19 and the Need for Health Care Reform | NEJM, 17 April 2020.

Posted in Aging, COVID-19, COVID-19, economic security, Economic Security, Financial Security, Financial Security, Healthcare, investments, leisure activities, Pandemic, Social Security, Social Security, Social Security, Social Security, Social Security | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What Divides Us

It seems to me….

We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”  ~ Associate Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis[1].

Three of the more serious problems the U.S. faces are political polarization, economic inequality, and social unrest.  When facing any problem, the immediate reaction is to remedy it rather than considering if it actually is only a symptom of some other more fundamental problem.  While difficult to prove, some degree of commonality might possibly exist between each of these problems currently confronting us.

Admittedly, correlation does not prove causation, especially when the correlation might be considered somewhat weak, but if two independent items are demonstrated to be related to a third item, those two initial items share that dependency.  Problems arise when misinterpretation of a correlative relationship either leads to a false cause fallacy where it is wrongly assumed that one thing causes something else or when the relationship between the variables is misunderstood leading to confusion as to cause and effect.  For example:

The faster that windmills are observed to rotate, the more wind is observed.
Therefore, wind is caused by the rotation of windmills.

When ice cream sales increase, so does vehicle theft.
Therefore car theft is caused by the sale of ice cream.

Unless a dependency is relatively strong, it is easy for critics to deny its existence.  This is especially true when the problems are ideologically viewed differently by each political entity attempting to address the challenge.

While the Geni Coefficient provides a uniform method to judge economic inequality, a comparable numerical quantity does not exist for either political polarization or social unrest complicating establishment of any relationships.  The best that can be done is to consider each of the identified problems individually and attempt to show correlation.

The U.S. is exceptionally polarized relative to other Western nations due to unique aspects of its history, culture, politics, legal institutions, religious attitudes, race relations, and foreign policy.  It currently is irrevocably fractured along political and ideological lines: Republican/Democrat, liberal/conservative, red/blue, etc.  The partisan divide over political issues related to racial discrimination, immigration, international diplomacy, and government aid to the needy has significantly widened since the early 1990s and is seemingly continuing to do so.

At the root of political divergence lies an ever-widening chasm between Americans who have and those who have little or nothing[2].  Such economic disparities exist in most nations creating tensions that can be as disruptive as the inequities are unjust.  In any number of settings, however, the negative forces tearing a society apart are mitigated or even muted if there are other elements that reinforce social solidarity; e.g., religious faith, the strength and comfort of family, the pride of tradition, a sense of nationalism, a spirit of place….

The U.S. is unique among nations in that its somewhat bourgeois ideals are based on the Enlightenment value system – Western open societies are culturally pluralistic but have limited social cohesion owing to the hierarchical structure created by their political capitalistic economic systems[3].  Symptomatic of the market economy, social differentiation and exclusion are permanent fixtures regardless of what the social contract promises about social integration.  Founded as colonies of immigrants who conquered the lands of North America and used Africans as slave labor, the U.S. carries the legacy of contradictions from the Age of the Enlightenment promising egalitarianism and integration but in practice institutionalizing social exclusion and differentiation that precludes social cohesion.

Some economists infer inequality is beneficial overall for stimulating growth, improving the quality of life for all members of a society, and is a necessary part of social progress.  Other economists claim wealth concentrations create perpetually oppressed minorities, exploit disadvantaged populations, hinder economic growth, and lead to numerous social problems.  Both perspectives are accurate.

This would result in some degree of social unrest under any circumstance but magnified when economic inequality exceeds acceptable levels.  The U.S. Geni coefficient is currently at 0.485[4], the highest of any G7 nation.  Among OECD nations, only Bulgaria, Mexico, Chile, and Costa Rica score higher.

In 1990, the U.S. Gini coefficient was 0.43, indicating an overall increase in income inequality over the last 30 years.  The top 1 percent of earners in the U.S. average 40 times more income than the bottom 90 percent.  Poverty is an increasing issue in the U.S. with about 33 million workers earning less than $10 per hour putting a family of four below the poverty level.  Additionally, many low-wage workers do not have sick days, pension, or health insurance.

In countries with high levels of economic inequality, political elites are more likely to disproportionately represent the political attitudes of affluent citizens.  This is the case in the U.S. where politicians have increasingly become more responsive to the political preferences of affluent citizens than to poor and middle-class citizens.

If economic and political inequality are linked and politicians are overly responsive to a small affluent group, this implies that each process feeds into the other.  Policies directed toward promoting the interests of the affluent are likely to further enhance the political influence of this group, and on the opposing side, citizens who are not members of the affluent group may become less engaged with politics.  Each process can lead both types of inequality to proliferate[5].

There is a strong relationship between economics and politics as economic performance is one of the key political battlegrounds.  Many economic issues are inherently political because they lend themselves to different interests.  The unbalanced pattern of political donations conforms to the disproportionate nature of representational inequality; under typical circumstances, even citizens at the 70th percentile of household income have little influence over policy outcomes when their preferences diverge from those at higher income levels.

The ideal of political equality is perhaps impossible to fully achieve when confronted with the reality of economic inequality—in every democracy, citizens with greater resources are better able to shape government policy to their liking.  When preferences of low- or middle-income Americans diverge from those of the affluent, there is virtually no relationship between policy outcomes and the desires of these less advantaged groups.  Under conditions of extremely strong party control when one party or the other dominates the federal government, even preferences of the affluent take a back seat to the parties’ core activists and interest group allies.

Given the political importance of wealth, it would be somewhat surprising if a correlation between economic inequality and social unrest did not exist.  A similar correlation between economic inequality and political divisiveness, while seeming obvious, might not be quite as apparent to some or easy to confirm.

Feelings towards those who affiliate as either Democrat or Republican as well as attribution of negative stereotypes (e.g., close-minded, hypocritical, selfish, mean…) of the opposing party have become increasingly negative since the late ’80s.  It is the social identifying role of ideological affiliation that’s paramount in guiding our negative emotional responses to those on the other side of the political fence.

The more potent predictor of social distance is identity-based ideology – how we identify ourselves as Democrats or liberals as opposed to Republicans or conservatives – not where we stand on the issues.  The polarizing consequences of Ideological Identities are primarily either “issue-based” (defined by what one believes about the issues) or “identity-based” (defined by one’s social identity of party affiliation).

Confirmation biases facilitate citizens’ ability to seek out information sources they find agreeable and tune out others that prove dissonant increasing polarization and serve to amplify political division.  Confirmation bias is one of the most powerful determinants, if not the most powerful determinant, of how we consolidate beliefs when consuming information.

The actual extent of inequality and polarization prior to the 1900s is difficult to ascertain due to a lack of sufficient data.  It does seem apparent, however, that U.S. inequality in the Revolutionary era was dramatically lower than it was in England or most of Europe due to the abundant opportunities (partly at the expense of the Native Americans) and of the types of people who immigrated to the new colonies.

The U.S. was obviously extremely politically polarized both preceding the Civil War era (1860-1865) and for some time afterwards.  Some of which; e.g., systemic racism; still remains problematic today.

The Gilded Age of the late 19th century (c. 1870-1900) is considered to be one of the most politically polarized periods in U.S. history with open political violence and highly polarized political discourse.  The rise and fall of the 1 percent can be traced back to the early 1900s when robber barons ruled and Jay Gatsby partied.

The 1950s and 1960s were marked by high levels of political bipartisanship, the results of a post-World War II “consensus” in U.S. politics, as well as ideological diversity within each of the two major parties.  This ended as a result of two unrelated occurrences: forced desegregation in the South when many so-called Dixiecrats changed their political party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and the Vietnam War era which closely followed.

A trend of stark divergence among political elites, who increasingly depend on extremist donors, and who, beginning with Newt Gingrich and his followers in the 1980s and 1990s, often relied on “the rhetoric of moral outrage” to gain support.  The result has been that the last thirty-five years have been disproportionately favorable to the wealthy.  The associated greater income inequality is highly correlated with elevated levels of crime, stress, mental illness, and other social disorders.

History can be a helpful guide that government policies can tilt the balance of economic compensation between the rich and poor.  Campaign finance reform might help by eliminating huge contributions from the most extreme donors and fixing partisan gerrymandering would encourage more competition in the marketplace of ideas.

A high Geni Coefficient closely corelates with countries experiencing political polarization and social unrest: Brazil – 0.488, Guatemala – 0.551, Honduras – 0.577, El Salvador – 0.469….  Countries with a low Geni Coefficient are comparatively politically united:  Denmark – 0.248, Finland – 0.268, Norway – 0.268, Sweden – 0.249.

Whether there actually is any correlation between political polarization, economic inequality, and social unrest is difficult to prove but reducing economic inequality would in itself be highly beneficial.  While a correlation of inequality to social unrest is easily proven, reduction of political polarization, while essential, is more difficult to prove but political financial dependence on affluent interests strongly suggests the existence of such a relationship.

Unfortunately, the inability to achieve political consensus prevents any mitigation of either inequality or social turmoil.  The most effective method of reducing economic inequality is through increasingly progressive taxation but the primary mantra of conservative ideology is “reduce taxes”.  Their only response to social disturbance is use of force to quell any display of protest.  Failure to recognize and respond to the fundamental cause of disorder only increases mounting pressure which most likely will repeatedly explode with increasing vehemence.  The problems can only be resolved by addressing their fundamental cause.  At this time, this is unlikely to occur.  Hopefully, we are not in for another long hot summer.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Louis Dembitz Brandeis was a U.S. lawyer and associate justice on the Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939.

[2] Davis, Wade.  The Unraveling Of America, RollingStove, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/covid-19-end-of-american-era-wade-davis-1038206/?fbclid=IwAR2g4crbtzGPQDBq-B72pq_Da8LiE8H7QhxI5zwXrTBcz-oKEHm3SWLILLw, 6 August 2020.

[3] Kofas, Jon.  Divided America: Root Causes And The Road Ahead, Countercurrents, Divided America: Root Causes And The Road Ahead | Countercurrents, 17 January 2017.

[4] Gini Coefficient By Country 2021, World Population Review, Gini Coefficient by Country 2021 (worldpopulationreview.com), 2021.

[5] Rosset, Jan, Nathalie Giger, and Julian Bernauer.  More Money, Fewer Problems?  Cross-Level Effects Of Economic Deprivation On Political Representation, Taylor and Francis Online, More Money, Fewer Problems? Cross-Level Effects of Economic Deprivation on Political Representation: West European Politics: Vol 36, No 4 (tandfonline.com), 20 May 2013.

Posted in bourgeois ideals, Brazil, Bulgaria, Causation, Chile, Chile, Civil War, Correlation, Costa Rica, Denmark, Dixiecrats, economic inequality, El Salvador, El Salvador, Enlightenment, Finland, Geni Coefficient, Gerrymandering, Guatemala, Honduras, Honduras, Immigration, international diplomacy, Mexico, Mexico, Mexico, Newt Gingrich, Norway, partisan divide, political equality, political polarization, racial discrimination, Social Unrest, Sweden, Vietnam War, World War II | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Man On The Moon

It seems to me….

In the coming era of manned space exploration by the private sector, market forces will spur development and yield new, low-cost space technologies.  If the history of private aviation is any guide, private development efforts will be safer, too.”  ~ Burt Rutan[1].

During the principal period of spaceflight in the mid-twentieth century only nation states developed and flew spacecraft above the Kármán line, an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles; 330,000 feet) above Earth’s mean sea level, the nominal boundary of space.  Thanks to rapid advancements in the field of aerospace technology, commercial space travel no longer remains the sole domain of nations.  In less than ten years, space travel on a commercial scale has become a viable alternative for government funded space exploration.

The U.S. Congress passed its first law, the Communications Satellite Act of 1962, pushing back prohibition on private involvement in space as the first step toward privatization.  Though the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 required encouragement of commercial space ventures, one of NASA’s early actions was to effectively prevent private space flight through excessive regulation: NASA effectively kept private space flight illegal until 2004.

With then Senator Biden’s support, Congress passed an authorization bill establishing the commercial crew and cargo program[2] in 2008.  Since that time, NASA and the private sector have become close partners in keeping the International Space Station (ISS) staffed and supplied.  It was one of the major signature achievements of the Biden Vice Presidency.

As a Presidential candidate, Biden said almost nothing about space, breaking his silence only to celebrate the SpaceX crew launch.  The topic did not come up in either Presidential debate and was never a staple, or even a topic, of Biden’s stump speeches.  Even less known are Kamala Harris’s convictions regarding space research which will be crucial as it typically is the Vice-President who chairs the National Space Council, the executive agency tasked with guiding U.S. space policy.

Biden has inherited more than a few debacles left by his predecessor – not least the pandemic and its devastating economic consequences.  On the less urgent but more positive side, he also inherited a viable 21st century space program enjoying a mini-golden era.  Trump and Pence were surprisingly space friendly.

Biden will likely continue robustly backing the commercial crew and cargo program as it was initially passed with his support and has been a clear and so-far unalloyed success.  The Space Force might be a different matter.  The same could be said about the Artemis lunar program, especially since the 2024 target date which never was realistic given that none of the flight hardware needed for a lunar landing has yet been flown or is even fully built.

Much of the other hardware, however, is being built and way too many years have gone into developing it for a new Administration to now throw it away.  Plus, NASA recently announced the signing of the Artemis Accords, an international partnership to get to the Moon with partner nations who will provide other hardware such as habitation modules and cooperate to launch and maintain them.  Biden spent no shortage of campaign-trail rhetoric condemning Trump’s flouting of international agreements like the Paris climate accord and the Iranian nuclear deal to make one of his first acts in office walking away from even a modest pact like Artemis.  What is all but certain to change is the 2024 landing date which never was logistically possible.

Earth science missions, which often involve climate monitoring, will likely be in for a funding boost under a much more climate-friendly Biden Administration.  Less knowable is if NASA will continue seeing the steady funding increases under President Biden that it did under Trump.

Whatever a Biden space policy turns out to be, it is likely to be a lower priority item, with the pandemic and the economy, as well as rejoining the Paris climate deal and repairing international partnerships consuming much of his first year in office.

That said, no reliable way has been found to make any large-scale, expensive space program entirely politician proof.  The Senate cut funding for the Apollo program shortly before JFK was assassinated and then quickly restored the funding following that fateful morning in Dallas, TX.  The Artemis Alliance simply provides an argument for keeping the return-to-the-Moon program going.

Everyone realized the U.S.’s level of space expenditures following successfully landing and returning men from the Moon were unsustainable but many also thought that when it became apparent just how economically beneficial that program had been, logic would prevail and funding would be restored though possibly at a slightly reduced level.  Congress instead treated the windfall as a golden goose and proceeded to greedily sacrifice it.  Even the Space Shuttle program was prematurely cancelled embarrassingly leaving the U.S. without any alternative other than to pay Roscosmos for flights to the ISS – but politicians are rarely considerate or afterwards remembered as having been “wise”.

While 1969-71 were the harvest years – four missions that put men on the Moon and the safe return of Apollo 13 after its breakdown in space – they were not so kind to Kennedy Space Center and the men who worked there.  Congress cut the NASA budget, NASA cancelled remaining Apollo missions, the Kennedy Space Center and its contractors laid off thousands of employees – not in one fell swoop but in a succession of smaller blows.  Space enthusiasts had hoped to go on to a manned landing on Mars in the mid-1980s; it was not to be.  NASA budgets marked the contour intervals of Apollo’s descent.  Yearly appropriations had exceeded $5 billion in the mid-1960s; Apollo research and development funding declined from $2.9 billion in FY 1967 to $2 billion in FY 1969.

While NASA will continue to fund most space-related activity for at least the near future, it should continue increasingly do so through commercial contracts.  Rather than total mission definition, NASA should only define intended outcomes.  Rather than stating how to deliver an item to the lunar surface, only the delivery itself should be stipulated leaving the details to the contractor; e.g., It is not necessary to provide shipment details to UPS or FedEx, only the destination needs to be specified.

Commercial space transportation today primarily consists of only launch services and cargo delivery to the ISS.  Two companies are now offering commercial space transportation services; one to the Moon and one to higher orbits from the ISS or launch vehicle release points.  Commercial space tourism trips could also soon be available for adventure travelers and astronauts on suborbital flights and to the ISS.

By 2024, according to NASA’s Integrated Landing System Broad Agency Announcement (BAA), transportation from the lunar Gateway to the surface will be a commercial service.  Several companies are developing concepts for commercial transportation in cislunar space and throughout the solar system.  An integrated cislunar transportation architecture that separates Earth-to-orbit launch, orbit transfer, and lunar surface access, using reusable in-space vehicles and propellant depots in low Earth orbit and near the Moon are necessary to provide sustainable, operable, and effective transportation between Earth and the Moon.

So far, the most direct benefit comes from technologies used on Earth that were first pioneered in space exploration.  In the future, everything we hold of value: metals, minerals, energy, real estate; exist in near-infinite quantities in space.  Mining equipment could be sent to asteroids to extract minerals in short supply for use here on Earth.

Space exploration is admittedly expensive and uncertain economic returns are anathema to profit-seeking companies.  The current role of government in space exploration is therefore to do those things that the market cannot support but people agree are beneficial.  Knowledge has value for its own sake; it cannot be predicted how that knowledge may have additional value at some later date.  Pure scientific exploration is not practical for the private sector as there isn’t any way, in the near term, to make a return on the investment necessitating continued public funding.

There are areas of space utilization that will be best fulfilled by the private sector and there are areas that are and will continue to be best fulfilled by the public sector.  The government has needs the private sector can fulfill and through those needs subsidize the research and development those private entities need to develop their technologies to the point where they can affordably meet the appetites of a sustainable market.

Within the next several decades, privately financed research outposts will be a common sight in the night sky.  The first one-way missions to Mars will be launched.  Mining operations will spring up on the Moon.  More opportunities we have yet to even comprehend will come out of the frontier.  One thing is certain: It is starting to seem fairly probable that the next 50 years will be when we establish ourselves as a space-faring civilization.  Yes, as probable as it now seems, we also thought that true fifty years ago but it was not to be.  Let us not once again repeat that mistake.

Space exploration is almost like science fiction.  What sort of value can you place on better understanding the universe?  It has the ability to resolve some of the mysteries that enfold outer space.  It has the ability to satisfy the human desire for adventure.

Would I choose to go into space knowing I might not return – YES!  It has been my dream for my entire life and remains the source of my greatest frustration and disappointment.  Space travel isn’t just about the going; it’s about the contemplation of going, the imagining of the going – the hope of someday, on some ship, bound for some destination, possibly experiencing the going.  There never should be any doubt or hesitancy as to whether I would have gone.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Elbert Leander “Burt” Rutan is a retired U.S. aerospace engineer and entrepreneur noted for his originality in designing light, strong, unusual-looking, and energy-efficient air and space craft.

[2] Kluger, Jeffrey.  As A Candidate, Biden Said Little About Space.  Here’s What He Might Do As President, Time, https://time.com/5907796/biden-space-program/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=sfmc&utm_campaign=newsletter+brief-pm+default+ac&utm_content=+++20201110+++body&et_rid=21594157, 10 November 2020.

Posted in Apollo program, Artemis Accords, Artemis Project, Biden, Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, Communications Satellite Act of 1962, Dallas, Dallas, Donald Trump, International Space Station, Iranian nuclear accord, ISS, Joe Biden, John (Jack) F. Kennedy, Kamala Harris, Kármán line, Kennedy, Kennedy Space Center, lunar Gateway, Mike Pence, Moon, NASA, NASA, National Space Council, Paris climate accord, Pence, Personal, Roscosmos, Space, space exploration, Space Force, Space Shuttle, spaceflight, SpaceX, Texas, Texas, Trump | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jim Crow Once Again

It seems to me….

Many thought that the abolition of slavery, the end of Jim Crow, and the legislative progress of the Civil Rights Era, among other watershed moments, would have fundamentally done away with the racist structures that have long oppressed black people.  However, we know that has been far from the case.”  ~ Opal Tometi[1].

Georgia passed a controversial election reform bill on 21 March 2021, known as the Election Integrity Act of 2021 on a party-line vote – which immediately came under fire by opponents.  There have been calls by celebrities and activists for state boycotts by businesses; Major League Baseball moved the 2021 MLB All-Star Game, scheduled to take place at Atlanta’s Truist Park in July, out of the state of Georgia.  Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola, and others delivered sharp rebukes of the law.

The modifications are a blatant response to a large minority turnout in the 2020 election selecting a Democrat as President and sending two Democrats to the Senate where the state legislature and governor still remain Republican-controlled.  Though Georgia had reliably voted red in recent past elections, strategic organizing and voter mobilization by Democrats ahead of the 2020 Presidential election, plus Senate Runoff elections, enabled Democratic party wins for the first time in decades.

The changes, obviously intended to preserve a White majority by targeting Black voters’ ability to cast a ballot, harkened back to the Jim Crow era in which Black voters were systematically prevented from voting.

The 95-page law:

  • Requires an ID number, like a driver’s license, to apply for an absentee ballot.
  • Cuts off absentee ballot applications 11 days before an election.
  • Limits the number of absentee ballot drop boxes.
  • Allows the state to take control of what it calls “underperforming” local election systems.
  • Disallows volunteers from giving away food and drink to voters waiting in lines.

This should not imply that Georgia is the only state with restrictive or archaic voting regulations.  The supposed justification for the changes was the supposition that massive fraudulent voting occurred during the 2020 Presidential election.  This is a furtherance of the “Big Lie” claim by Trump to explain his loss – apparently still accepted by many of his supporters regardless of any evidence in support of his claim.  Trump and his allies filed over 50 unsuccessful lawsuits in an attempt to overturn an election deemed as one of the most accurate and secure in U.S. history.

Numerous government officials, judges, and elected leaders – overwhelmingly Republican – publicly acknowledged confidence in the election results.  The nation’s top intelligence and law enforcement agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission – mostly led by Trump appointees – also confirmed there was no evidence of voter election fraud and that the 2020 election had been secure.

That the baseless claim is extremely hypocritical is evidenced by the total lack of Republican complaint in 2016 when massive election interference, primarily by Russia, was clearly established not only by those same agencies but also by special counsel investigator Robert Mueller, appointed to look into election irregularities.  While difficult to verify, given that Trump actually lost the popular vote and won only by a relatively narrow margin in the Electoral College, the intrusion was quite possibly sufficient to provide him the victory.

Typical U.S. voter turnout at around 55 percent is less than most developed countries.  Canada, for example, normally has a voter turnout of about 62.12 percent.  In a Pew Research Center survey, 74 percent of respondents ranked election participation as very important, but many failed to cast their ballot.  This partly results from unnecessary barriers in the voter registration and voting process that prevent would-be voters from doing so.  Nationwide, roughly 6 million American citizens are barred from having their voices heard because of antiquated and discriminatory ex-offender disenfranchisement laws.  Voter suppression tools, including improper voter purges, keep countless eligible citizens from voting.

Rather than attempting to restrict voting, the election system needs to be based on pro-voter policies and practices that drive participation by all eligible voters.  Restrictive voter registration is one the primary methods of voter repression.  Barriers to voter registering and voting must be eliminated and reforms implemented in order to enable all eligible Americans to cast a ballot that would be securely counted.  Since preregistered individuals are more likely to cast a ballot in elections, one of the most effective ways to improve voter participation is to increase the number of people who are registered to vote by making the process more convenient.

Voter registration needs to be streamlined with automatic voter registration (AVR), same-day voter registration (SDR), preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and online voter registration.

Implementing automatic voter registration (AVR) in all 50 states and the District of Columbia could result in more than 22 million newly registered voters in just the first year of implementation.  AVR encourages voter participation by realigning incentives and shifting the burden of voter registration onto the state.  Through AVR, eligible citizens are automatically registered to vote using voter eligibility information that the state already receives; e.g., driver’s license applications; unless the individual chooses to decline registration.

Same-day voter registration (SDR); i.e., Election Day registration; improves the voter registration process by allowing registration to take place at the same time that voters are casting their ballots removing barriers such as arbitrarily early registration deadlines.

Preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds allows them to become a part of a state’s voter file and therefore makes it more likely they will be contacted by campaign and grassroots efforts shown to increase voter participation.  Online registration eliminates the hassle of locating where to register, securing time off from work, and finding transportation to DMVs or other voter registration locations in order to register in person.

Voter registration is only part of the problem.  Once registered, many states place numerous obstacles intended to minimize minority voter turnout.  While online voting would be the most convenient method of casting one’s ballot, security considerations complicate any current attempt until biometric data is available for voters.  This will necessarily have to wait until personal privacy concerns are adequately addressed, but other steps can be taken.

For now, voting can be made more convenient with in-person early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and vote-at-home with vote centers.  Early voting makes voting more convenient for eligible voters by providing them with greater flexibility and opportunities to cast ballots.

No-excuse absentee voting is the process whereby eligible voters are permitted to return, by mail or in person, voted paper ballots prior to an election.  Voters are typically required to fill out an application online or by mail in order to receive an absentee paper ballot from designated election authorities.  No-excuse absentee voting is particularly useful for students, those with conflicting work schedules, and those who frequently travel or are otherwise unable to vote in person on Election Day.

Vote centers are an alternative to traditional, neighborhood-based precincts where voters may cast their ballots on Election Day at any vote center in the jurisdiction regardless of their residential address.  Vote-at-home with vote centers differs from no-excuse absentee voting in that registered voters need not file a request to receive their ballots.  Prior to election day, paper ballots are distributed by mail to all registered voters.  Voters can take their time examining and researching the candidates and issues, and they can vote in the comfort of their own home before placing their voted ballot in the mail or dropping it off at a vote center or collection box.

There are several additional ways to increase voter participation.

Voting rights should be restored for the more than 6 million formerly incarcerated U.S. citizens – the majority of whom are Black – who have been barred from exercising their fundamental right to vote because of ex-offender disenfranchisement laws.  Americans who complete their sentences should have their right to vote and voter registration automatically restored upon release from detention.

Civics education in schools should be strengthened to inform young people – especially for those 16- and 17-years old about to vote for their first time – on how to engage effectively and be responsible citizens in the political process.  It would be advantageous to pre-register them in their civics education classes.

Investing in integrated voter engagement and outreach has also been shown to increase participation.  Groups that incorporate integrated voter engagement – combining issue advocacy and organizing with voter mobilization – have been effective in harnessing voter power and enthusiasm in order to effect positive change in representation and policies within the communities they serve.

Complaints that voting by mail is insecure are unfounded as several states have permitted this for a number of years without any difficulty.  Some states require a valid state-issued ID in order to vote but many older citizens and minorities do not have IDs.  Similarly, some locations require a valid street address but not everyone; e.g., native Americans living on tribal lands, has an actual address.  Several states accept a utility bill or other similar mail envelope showing the recipient’s name.

States need to pass affirmative voter registration and voting policies in order to ensure that all eligible voters who want to vote are able to do so and are not blocked by unnecessary and overly burdensome obstacles such as arbitrary voter registration deadlines or inflexible voting hours[2].

All states need to seriously review their voting procedures as all can be improved.  Some states are overly restrictive on when mail-in ballots can begin to be counted.  Some states do not have a paper audit trail.

An increasing number of states are aware of changing demographics within their state and are attempting to modify their election regulations to preserve traditional conservative White advantages.  Legislation has been introduced in 47 states attempting to restrict voting.  Minority voter suppression in the past has been primarily based on poll taxes, literacy tests, or physical intimidation – all of which are becoming increasingly ineffective as minorities become more socially integrated, better organized, and able to resist such pressure.

Kentucky is currently the only state with a Republican-controlled legislature to have recently expanded voting rights.  Unfortunately, prior to the 7 April 2021 changes, it had some of the most restrictive voting laws and voting rights, but advocates are calling for additional changes.

The Emancipation Proclamation, or Proclamation 95, was a Presidential proclamation and executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln effective 1 January 1863 declaring that all persons held as slaves within the rebel states were free.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnston on 6 August 1965, was intended to increase the number of people registered to vote in areas where there was a record of previous discrimination.  The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the U.S. Senate on 22 March 1972 and sent to the states for ratification (but has still not gained concurrence in a sufficient number of states for final approval).

It is extremely disturbing that endemic bigotry remains so prevalent after all these years.  What will it take to overcome such inherent unfairness?

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Opal Tometi is a U.S. human rights activist, writer, strategist, community organizer, and co-founder of Black Lives Matter.

[2] Root, Danielle, and Liz Kennedy.  Increasing Voter Participation In America, Center for American Progress, Increasing Voter Participation in America – Center for American Progress, 11 July 2018.

Posted in Abraham Lincoln, Atlanta, Baseball, Bigotry, Bigotry, Canada, Canada, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Delta Air Lines, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, DHS, DOJ, Donald Trump, Election Assistance Commission, Elections, Electoral College, Emancipation, Equal Rights Amendment, FBI, FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Georgia, Jim Crow, Jim Crow, Kentucky, Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Mueller, Racism, Robert Mueller, Russia, Russia, Trump, voter registration, Voting Rights Act | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Guns – Just Say Enough!

It seems to me….

For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either federal or state authority to enact gun control legislation.”  ~ John Paul Stevens[1].

I have expressed my beliefs many times in the past regarding excessively easy access to firearms in the U.S.  Too many times and, quite frankly, I am tired of having to do it.  Everyone is very aware of the reason why guns are such a problem: there are too many and they are too easily available.  The massive numbers of gun-related deaths will continue until these problems are addressed.  Isn’t it time for this needless slaughter to cease?

On 22 March 2021, a gunman opened fire at a supermarket in Boulder, CO, killing 10 people including one police officer.  A 21-year-old Colorado man now faces murder charges.  That shooting came less than a week after a gunman opened fire on local businesses in the Atlanta, GA, area, killing eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent.  There were 35 mass shootings in January 2021, 43 in February, 48 in March.  These are only the most recent incidents that have become all-too common.

While these attacks sparked national grief and outrage over racism, misogyny, and gun violence[2]., the actual cause of these incidents no longer really matters.  It’s time for common sense to prevail, when the average person no longer has to live in fear of being murdered, when people can do their shopping in safety, when parents can send their children off to school without worrying it might be the last time they will ever see them.  All Americans are entitled to a basic freedom from fear.

Despite a pandemic that kept much of the U.S. at home – with schools, movie theaters, concerts, and other public venues mostly closed – 2020 was one of the U.S.’s most violent years in decades.  Homicides soared in many major cities.  More than 19,000 people were fatally shot, the highest death toll in more than 20 years according to data from the Gun Violence Archive[3], a nonprofit that tracks gun violence incidents.  The nonprofit says there were more than 600 incidents in which four or more people were shot in 2020, nearly 50 percent more than in 2019.  While mass shootings only account for 2 percent of all gun-related homicides, they have 80 times the impact of non-mass shooting homicides on legislation[4].

Police and gun violence experts agree – and warn – that large-scale mass shootings, apart from the gun violence that has plagued U.S. cities throughout the pandemic, are inevitable as the weather warms and more people get vaccinated enabling large gatherings in public spaces[5].  Some worry the attacks could return at a higher frequency citing record gun sales in 2020.  About 22.8 million firearms were sold in 2020 compared with 13.9 million the previous year[6].

For many in the nation, the killings are a solemn reminder that while there is some hope the U.S. can someday beat COVID-19, there is far less optimism our nation’s leaders can bring an end to the nonending scourge of gun violence.  Any publicly notable event such as a mass shooting is quickly followed by public officials’ supercilious expressions of condolence along with their “thoughts and prayers” for the victims offered in lieu of any meaningful response such as measures to prevent such incidents in the future.

This crisis will not be solved with thoughts and prayers or prosecutions after funerals.  While both Republicans and Democrats agree that prevention is the best way to stop mass shootings, they disagreed on how to do so and how far to go.  Democrats call for action, specifically on passing legislation expanding background checks for firearms purchases.  Many also call for banning assault-type rifles and large clip ammunition magazines.  Unfortunately, most gun advocates are not really interested in rational debate.  There apparently are not any facts that make the slightest difference in their thinking (or total lack thereof).

Instead, there are many impractical recommendations from gun rights advocates.  Many Republican call for easier access to weapons, for more armed guards in public places, for arming teachers in our schools, for making it easier to obtain a concealed weapons permit.  They parrot the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) frequent claim that “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”.  This is as totally insane as it sounds.  How can it be more obvious that the only solution is to prevent the “bad guy” from ever even having a weapon in the first place?

The momentum for gun control legislation has been repeatedly blunted by the use of the phrase “now is not the time”, supposedly offered as a defense against what could potentially be hastily drafted laws.  In reality, pro-gun politicians offer their soliloquy of thoughts and prayers, observe moments of silence, order flags flown at half-staff, and then when the demand has passed, legislative efforts are deferred and ultimately derailed.

Recent passage in March 2021 of two pieces of gun legislation in the House of Representatives now face battles in the evenly divided Senate.

The Bipartisan Background Checks Act would expand background checks on people seeking to purchase or transfer firearms.  It would not create a registry or other federal mechanisms for review but would expand the cases in which a background check is required for the sale or transfer of a firearm, including private individuals and groups, closing the “Gun Show Loophole”.  The requirements also would apply to online sales.

The Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 would close the so-called “Charleston loophole”, a gap in federal law that lets gun sales proceed without a completed background check if three business days have passed.  (It is linked to the 2015 shooting in Charleston, SC, where a white supremacist used the loophole to obtain firearms and kill nine Black worshippers during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church.)  The bill would extend the initial background check review period from three to 10 days.

While the Second Amendment and gun control legislation are perceived as politically divisive, many measures have support from Americans on both sides of these issues[7].  93 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans favor background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows.  87 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans favor banning high-capacity magazines.  88 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans favor banning assault-style weapons.

Many liberals believe the Second Amendment does not necessarily provide individual citizens the right to keep and bear arms but allows for the state to maintain a militia (now called the National Guard).  Moreover, they maintain individuals do not need guns for protection as it is the role of local and federal government to protect the people through law enforcement agencies and the military.  Additional gun control laws are necessary to stop gun violence and limit the ability of criminals to obtain guns.  That more guns means more violence.

Conservatives believe the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to keep and bear arms, and that individuals have the right to defend themselves.  They believe there are too many gun-control laws, that these laws do not prevent criminals from obtaining guns, that additional laws will not lower gun crime rates, and that more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens means less crime.  What is needed is enforcement of current laws.

Neither side is totally correct.

The Second Amendment states “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”.  As this obviously is vague and insufficiently explicit, it remains open to legal interpretation.  Most current justices consider themselves “originalists” and attempt to interpret the Constitution and amendments as consistent with the author’s original meaning and intent.  When reading this amendment, contrary to some jurists, many believe the most obvious interpretation is that the right to bear arms is restricted to those who are members of a militia.  The only legal militia at that time would have been a state militia, now called the National Guard.  The primary arms in existence at that time would have been a flintlock muzzleloader.  The valid interpretation of this amendment therefore should be that members of the National Guard are able to keep and bear flintlock muzzleloaders.  The only other interpretation of “Arms” is that any restriction is unconstitutional permitting personal ownership of all weapons including fully automatic assault weapons, anti-tank weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, etc. which is totally untenable.

Previous Supreme Court definitions of this amendment have neither been consistent nor clarified in its intent.  In December 1879, the Court cited a previous decision: the Second Amendment only means that the federal government may not infringe on the rights of states to form their own militia (United States v. Cruikshanks[8]).  The Court in that decision specifically refuted the argument that the right to bear arms is a personal right of the people.

In May 1939, in a challenge to the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Court again ruled (United States v. Miller[9]) that the Second Amendment does not guarantee the right to own a firearm unless the possession or use of that firearm has “a reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia”.

The only decision conferring an individual the right to keep and bear arms was a June 2008 decision (District of Columbia v Heller[10])) where Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion in a very controversial 5-4 split ruling confirming that right – something rejected in all previous decisions.

Since this was totally inconsistent with previous Court rulings, it was very obviously a politically based decision rather than a legal one.  The dissenting opinion criticized the court for attempting to “denigrate” the importance of the preamble by ignoring its disambiguation of the operative clause and asserted it had misinterpreted Miller and neglected the subsequent decisions of “hundreds of judges”, all of whom had taken a collective-right view of the Second Amendment’s meaning.

No law regulating firearms has ever been struck down by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Second Amendment[11].  Many supporters of the current prevailing interpretation of the Second Amendment maintain that any right to bear arms should be secondary to any concerns regarding public safety and that the Constitution need not be interpreted in accordance with a changing society even though the present destructive capability of semiautomatic and automatic firearms was never envisioned by its framers.  There obviously will be still more interpretations yet to come.  The issue remains too contentious not to be further challenged; it needs to be resolved in a reasonable manner.

No one actually needs a gun.  Sportsmen, hobbyists, and gun collectors have a right to their personal penchant but that is quite different from actually needing a firearm.  (Clarification: I own a number of firearms, a couple for over 70 years, but haven’t any objection to registering them.)  The very essence of our democracy is based on the fundamental concept that we have a social contract to ensure the well-being of all citizens – not just those that want to own guns.  Gun control advocates are concerned with the safety of society.  Gun rights advocates are too often only concerned with personal ownership and need to understand that doing what’s right isn’t always what they might prefer.

Everyone in American should not have to live in fear every time they enter a public place, send their children to school, or sleep in their own beds at night – this is ultimately the reason why gun control is necessary.  The time has come to let logic win and to bring common sense and compassion to the dialogue on guns.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] John Paul Stevens was a U.S. lawyer and jurist who served as an associate Supreme Court justice.  At the time of his retirement, he was the second oldest-serving justice in the history of the court, the third-longest-serving justice, and the longest-lived Supreme Court justice ever.

[2] Brown, Matthew, and Savannah Behrmann.  ‘Public Health Crisis’: Senators Debate How To Stop Gun Violence In The Wake Of Boulder Shooting, USA Today, Senators debate how to stop gun violence in wake of Boulder shooting (usatoday.com), 23 March 2021.

[3] Gun Violence Archive 2020, Gun Violence Archive, Past Summary Ledgers | Gun Violence Archive, 23 March 2021.

[4] Al’Uqdah, Shareefah.  Grief And Loss Following Gun Violence, Society of Counseling Psychology, Grief and Loss Following Gun Violence – Society of Counseling Psychology, Division 17 (div17.org), 22 January 2019.

[5] Chan, Melissa.  Mass Shootings: ‘This Is What Normal Has Come To Be Like In America’, Time, Mass Shootings: ‘What Normal Has Come to be Like in America’ | Time, 24 March 2021.

[6] MacLellan, Corinne.  U.S. Firearms Sales: 2020 Year-To-Date Sales Set New High, Small Arms Analytics, 2020-10-03.pdf (smallarmsanalytics.com), 3 October 2020.

[7] Gramlich, John, and Katherine Schaeffer.  7 Facts About Guns In The U.S., Pew Research Center, Facts on U.S. gun ownership and gun policy views | Pew Research Center, 22 October 2019.

[8] United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 23 L. Ed. 588 (1875), Wikipedia, united states v. cruikshank – Bing, 1 March 2021.

[9] United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 59 S. Ct. 816, 83 L. Ed. 1206 (1939), Wikipedia, United States v. Miller – Wikipedia, 4 February 2021.

[10] District of Columbia v. Heller (No. 07-290) 478 F. 3d 370, affirmed, Wikipedia, district of columbia v. heller 2008 – Bing,

[11] Second Amendment, The Free Dictionary, http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Second+Amendment.

Posted in ammunition magazines, Antonin Scalia, assault-type rifles, Atlanta, Boulder, Charleston, Charleston loophole, Colorado, District of Columbia v Heller, flintlock, freedom from fear, Georgia, gun sales, gun show loophole, Justice Antonin Scalia, killing, Mass Shooting, militia, Mother Emanuel AME Church, muzzleloader, National Guard, National Rifle Association, National Rifle Association, NRA, Personal, Second Amendment, Shooting, South Carolina, Supreme Court, Supreme Court, United States v. Cruikshank, United States v. Miller | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

COVID Stimulus

It seems to me….

Clear communication is always important in central banking, but it can be especially important when economic conditions call for further policy stimulus but the policy rate is already at its effective lower bound.”  ~ Ben Bernanke[1].

Joe Biden apparently learned during the financial crisis in 2008 that the stimulus measures attempted at that time were too late, insufficient, and poorly applied.  The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan[2],[3] pandemic aid package approved in March 2021 was a major step toward enacting the first legislative priority of the new Biden/Harris administration as the devastating fallout from COVID-19 left many Americans in dire need of further relief.  The package augments many of the measures in both Congress’ historic coronavirus relief bill and the prior $900 billion legislation approved in December 2020 which was scaled back to gain support from Senate Republicans.

The main features of the American Rescue Plan pandemic-relief bill include[4]:

  • Direct cash payments of up to $1,400 for individuals earning less than $75,000 a year plus $1,400 per dependent.  The amount of the payment decreases for people with incomes over $75,000, phasing out completely for individuals with an income of $100,000 a year.
  • Increasing the maximum annual Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,000 per child between the ages of 6 and 17 and $3,600 for each child under the age of 6.  The increase will last for the next year and payments are phased out for couples making over $150,000 a year and individuals who are heads of households making over $112,500 a year.
  • $300 a week in expanded unemployment insurance lasting through 6 September 2021.
  • $10,200 in unemployment benefits free from federal taxes for households with incomes under $150,000 a year.  States can choose to either follow suit and also withhold state taxes or to continue to require all taxes be paid.
  • $130 billion in funding for K-12 schools.
  • $55.5 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to administer and distribute vaccines, diagnose and track COVID-19 infections, and purchase testing and PPE supplies.
  • $39 billion in funding for higher education.
  • $30 billion in funding for public transit.
  • $25 billion in emergency rental assistance.
  • $25 billion for the Small Business Administration to make grants for restaurants and other food and drinking establishments.
  • $40 billion in funds for childcare including $15 billion in childcare assistance and $25 billion to help childcare providers continue to operate and meet payroll.
  • $15 billion to support airline industry workers.
  • $7.25 billion in additional PPP funding in addition to expanding which nonprofits can benefit from the program.
  • A provision treating any student loan forgiveness passed between 31 December 2020 and 1 January 2026 as non-taxable income.

There is considerable debate over what should be considered as a “relief”, “rescue”, or “stimulus” package.  This is only part of the concern over whether individual provisions in the bill, such as extending the child tax credit, should be considered under regular order but do not belong in an emergency spending bill and about the compounding effect of past year spending decisions.

In response to the continuing economic crisis, the U.S. federal government enacted a number of policies in addition to those included in the bill to provide fiscal stimulus to the economy and relief to those affected by what is now a global disaster.  The U.S. central bank – the Federal Reserve – also has taken a series of substantial measures implementing the fiscal stimulus dividing stimulus and relief efforts into monetary policy, made by the Federal Reserve, and fiscal policy, made by Congress and the President.

The Fed’s stimulus measures fall into three basic categories: interest rate cuts, loans and asset purchases, and regulation changes.  The loans and asset purchases come in general purchases made as part of quantitative easing and repo operations where the Fed buys assets directly – specific lines of credit that the Fed creates – and programs where it sets entities called special purpose vehicles (SPVs).  It then lends money to the SPVs which use the money to purchase assets.  All these efforts were combined to try to ensure that the U.S. would not suffer a liquidity crisis similar to the one experienced during the 2008 recession.

One measure included in the bill as initially passed by the House was an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15, which has been stalled at $7.25 per hour since 24 July 2009.  While the increase is obviously justified, it was removed from the final measure due to Republican senatorial opposition.  It most likely will be reintroduced as a standalone measure within the near future.

While I personally do not have any objection to any specific provisions in the bill, I agree with some opposing it since there were not any provisions included to pay for it.  At a minimum, all tax reductions approved under Trump should have been rescinded.  Under previous administrations, I also was critical of tax reductions (primarily for the wealthy) under George W. Bush in addition to his having started two unfunded wars.  Obama also relied on deficit spending which initially was justified in response to the economic crisis he inherited but later continued by the Federal Reserve in an unsuccessful attempt to increase the inflation rate to 2 percent.  Purely politically motivated deficit spending by Trump massively ballooned the national debt and was totally unjustified.

Some deficit spending, especially when the Federal Reserve has set the interest level lower than the prevailing rate of inflation, is beneficial as investors are essentially paying the Fed to take their money – but only in moderation.  The current national debt to GDP greatly exceeds a reasonable level.  More on this later.

The second stimulus measure proposed by President Biden, the American Jobs Plan, contains provisions that are long overdue.  Many of the infrastructure provisions included can be consider as critical components of national total-factor productivity (TFP) necessary for economic recovery.  Human resources, infrastructure, and research are long overdue for significant investment.

National economic growth is measured as changes in real GDP per capita and can be either promoted or impeded by government policies or actions.  Federal policies benefitting growth include infrastructure maintenance and improvement, a well-functioning financial system, education availability, and investment in research and development.  Negative influences are political instability, violation of property rights, corruption, and excessive government intervention.

Fixing the nation’s infrastructure has widespread support across the political spectrum because it creates jobs and tangibly improves nearly every community in the nation.  If approved, in both scope and cost, it would be the most ambitious attempt by the federal government to refashion the nation’s economy and social fabric since at least Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program of the 1960s.  The logjam in Congress has always been how to pay for the upgrades: raise taxes and tolls, cut other programs, take on more debt…?  Many Republicans have already indicated they will refuse to support it if it includes tax increases and deficit spending, but this type of total unreasonableness is why our national infrastructure has deteriorated to such an unacceptable level.

Biden is opting mainly for the tax hike option.  The White House is pitching this as an American Jobs Plan and a way for the U.S. to keep up with other nations that are investing heavily in all different types of infrastructure, especially China.  He is proposing to pay for the plan with tax hikes on corporations and high-income earners.  Classic economic theory says that a tax increase will have some negative effects such as less investment or hiring.  There’s already pushback from business leaders who claim this will hurt U.S. competitiveness.  Conversely, without infrastructure improvement, business sales are estimated to lose about $7 trillion by 2025 and each U.S. household about $3,400 every year due to current deficiencies[5].  Considerably more stands to be gained through infrastructure improvements than would be lost through tax increases.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives the U.S. a grade of “C-”, up from a “D+” in their previous report, for infrastructure[6] pointing to roads, bridges, pipes, ports, and airports that are dated and dangerous.  While Biden’s American Jobs Plan would only allocate about $1 trillion to actual infrastructure repair, most estimates for what is needed are closer to $2 trillion with many civil engineers estimating that to fully repair the nation’s roads, dams, airports, and water and electrical systems would require closer to $4.6 trillion with the cost increasing the longer delayed.  This bill is obviously only a down payment on what is considered minimally essential.

The first $1 trillion of the 8-year $2 trillion dollar proposal calls for about $620 billion for roads, ports, and bridges, including about $100 billion to bring high-speed Internet to all Americans.  There is another $111 billion to replace antiquated lead pipes and make drinking water safer and $100 billion for retraining programs so workers can get higher-skilled jobs.

The $1 trillion second half of the bill makes investments to reduce climate change and modernize schools, manufacturing hubs, and eldercare facilities.  It can be expected that these proposals will encounter significant opposition from Republicans in keeping with their usual opposition to anything beneficial to our country.  The transportation funding proposed specifically directs $174 billion to electric vehicles, including sale rebates and tax incentives for consumers to buy U.S.-made cars.  An allotment of $180 billion would go to the biggest non-defense research and development program on record and $400 billion would go to care for the elderly and disabled.

To fund this $2 trillion-plus plan, Biden is asking companies to pay up.  His predecessor, Trump, enacted the largest corporate tax rate cut in U.S. history, slashing the business tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, but Biden wants to increase that rate back up to 28 percent.  The plan also calls for ensuring companies pay at least some taxes by imposing a 15 percent minimum tax on income and by taxing some foreign income of large global corporations to discourage them from moving operations to overseas tax havens.

By only increasing the tax rate to 28 percent, the plan, which is estimated to take 8 years, will take about 10 years to be paid for.  Trump’s entire tax reduction should be rescinded so as to pay for itself as work is completed and in anticipation of remaining and/or additional high-priority projects along with Federal debt reduction.

While still only a proposal prior to any actual measure being introduced, the American Jobs Plan includes[7]:

  • $115 billion to rebuild bridges and highways, cut auto emissions, and reduce congestion.
  • $20 billion to reduce traffic fatalities focusing on walkers and bikers.
  • $85 billion to boost transit and stretch rail and bus lines to new places doubling federal dollars.
  • $80 billion to boost Amtrak, expand intercity rail, and upgrade the Northeast Corridor and other routes.
  • $174 billion to win the electric vehicle (EV) market with refurbished factories, incentives, 500,000 chargers, electric buses, and mail trucks.
  • $25 billion to fix airports, upgrade safety facilities, and make it easier to reach terminals without a car.
  • $17 billion to lessen pollution near ports and improve waterways, freight movement, and ferries.
  • $20 billion to reconnect communities torn by highway construction and advance racial equity in new projects.
  • $5 billion to support tribal transportation and workforce training.
  • $44 billion to spur “transformational” projects seen as too complex or overwhelming for current funding programs.
  • $50 billion to improve infrastructure and community resilience including health, food, and transportation services such as roads and rail.

The bill is widely expected to create a considerable number of well-paying jobs.  The typical wage for construction workers according to the Labor Department is close to $30 an hour which is significantly higher than the median pay of $19 an hour for all U.S. jobs.

My major concern once again, similar to that expressed about the American Rescue Plan, is paying the projected cost of the measure.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that adding another $2 trillion in public debt would shrink the U.S. economy by 0.3 percent (about $100 billion) by the end of the decade, increasing annual debt payments by $40 billion and possibly also increasing inflation.  Some economists say more deficit spending could be the help the economy needs.

The CBO projects that as deficits increase; public debt is set to climb from 100 percent of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2020 to 102 percent by the end of this year and 107 percent of GDP by 2031, the highest level in U.S. history.  CBO said that cumulative deficits over the next decade will be smaller than it previously estimated thanks to projections of a stronger economy.  The more conservative Fitch Ratings[8] however estimate that general government debt will reach 127 percent of GDP in 2021 and surpass 130 percent by 2023.

As of Feb. 2021, the unemployment rate is 6.2 percent, substantially above the 3.5 percent in pre-pandemic February 2020[9].  Labor force participation, however, remains substantially lower than in early 2020, indicating that many workers, while available, were not counted as unemployed as they had not looked for work in the preceding 4 weeks.

It is generally accepted that unemployment cannot be maintained beneath its natural rate; it only can be limited to the extent of fluctuating around that rate.  The unemployment rate should be sufficiently high that the actual inflation rate approximately equals the anticipated rate of the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU).  The Federal Reserve in the past has estimated the NAIRU to be between 5 and 6 percent.  Though some flexibility in the unemployment rate still remains, it therefore is somewhat questionable how much lower it actually should be.

While economic theory holds that the extremely low unemployment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic should have been inflationary, deficit spending provided sufficient fiscal stimulus to support economic stability.  With the current national debt to GDP ratio being extremely higher than advisable, it is unclear what the result will be when once again forced to return to more rational levels and begin to pay back some of the massive debt not only from COVID-related stimulus but from what the Trump administration encouraged for its own personal political benefit.

The current U.S. rate of inflation as of February 2021 is only 0.4 percent[10] which is well below the Federal Reserve’s target of 2 percent.  The economy has a considerable amount of recovery still remaining.  The combination of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan are not only justified but necessary.  The only question is, will they be sufficient or will additional economic stimulus be required to prevent an extensive delayed recovery.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Ben Shalom Bernanke is a U.S. economist at the Brookings Institution who served two terms as the 14th Chair of the Federal Reserve and oversaw the Federal Reserve’s response to the late-2000s financial crisis.

[2] Luhby, Tami, and Katie Lobosco.  Here’s What’s In Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Economic Rescue Package, CNN Politics, Stimulus package: Here’s what’s in Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan – CNNPolitics, 15 January 2021.

[3] CNN Staff.  What’s In The $2 Trillion Coronavirus Stimulus Bill, CNN Politics, What’s in the $2 trillion stimulus package – CNNPolitics, 26 March 2021.

[4] Alpert, Gabe.  U.S. COVID-19 Stimulus And Relief, Investopedia, U.S. Government COVID-19 Stimulus and Relief Measures (investopedia.com), 31 March 2021.

[5] Failure To Act: Closing The Infrastructure Investment Gap For America’s Economic Future, American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE-Failure-to-Act-2016-FINAL.pdf (infrastructurereportcard.org), 2016.

[6] Infrastructure, American Society of Civil Engineers, Infrastructure | ASCE, 2021.

[7] Laris, Michael.  By The Numbers: Biden’s Proposed New Transportation Spending, The Washington Post, By the numbers: Biden’s proposed new transportation spending (msn.com), 31 March 2021.

[8] Seville, Charles.  US Stimulus Will Boost Growth At A Cost Of Higher Deficits, Debt, Fitch Ratings, US Stimulus Will Boost Growth at a Cost of Higher Deficits, Debt (fitchratings.com), 9 March 2021.

[9] The Employment Situation – February 2021, Bureau of Labor Statistics, THE EMPLOYMENT SITUATION — FEBRUARY 2021 (bls.gov), 31 March 2021.

[10] Amadeo, Kimberly.  What Is The Current US Inflation Rate?, The Balance, Current US Inflation Rate February 2021 (thebalance.com), 11 March 2021.

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