Sunday, December 5, 2010

U.S. Federal Debt, Part III, Expenses and Income

In Part I I laid out our debt problem. The short story: $13.7 trillion and growing fast. In Part II I discussed ways to give the major players incentives to eliminate the debt, reversing current incentives. In the current section, Part III, I discuss ways to reduce expenses and increase income. The ground rules are: everything gets cut and everyone pays more taxes. The scale of the problem is much too large for any other approach. I break this rule once because overall economic costs should go down significantly although government costs go up. It should be noted that most deficit reduction proposals boil down to: cut stuff I don't like and tax other people, i.e., everyone else hurts but not me. This is not serious. Serious debt reduction means cutting things you like and paying more taxes.

Note that I do not put dollar figures on these ideas. That's because I do not have the resources to make realistic estimates. However, in all cases brief reflection will show that costs will go down or income will go up, often by a lot. Now for the proposals:

  • Each year, eliminate all tax breaks. This will raise a lot of revenue. Allow Congress to put tax breaks back in, but only associated with tax rate increases to pay for them and only by a separate vote for each tax break. This would reduce the complexity of the tax code and, therefore, implementation costs. It would also substantially level the economic playing field and contribute to economic growth. It will probably be necessary to reduce tax rates to avoid over-taxation.
  • Eliminate all government subsidies except
    1. Research and development, which the government is very good at and pays for itself handsomely (consider the Internet, which began as a government project).
    2. Purchasing. The government buys a lot of stuff, and this can be used to boost important emerging industries. For example, it would make sense for all government buildings and military bases to be energy self-sufficient so as not to be vulnerable to attacks on the power grid. This would justify covering all buildings with solar cells and installing wind generators where appropriate. This would enhance national security directly and develop permanent domestic energy supplies.

    Eliminating subsidies would substantially reduce government expenses and level the economic playing field.
  • Change our military grand strategy from global military domination to self-defense. While we call our military the Department of Defense, it is neither designed nor deployed to defend America -- as we discovered on 9/11/2001 when our multi-hundred billion dollar military failed totally and a few passengers on United Flight 93 provided the only effective defense [reference]. If you do not think we seek global military dominance, consider:
    1. We can completely destroy any nation or combination of nations with our nuclear stockpile. Only Russia has similar capabilities.
    2. We can destroy any building in the world within a few hours with our precision guided munitions, and we can do that to thousands of buildings within hours or days. No other nation has this capacity.
    3. We can deploy hundreds of thousands of troops to the furthest reaches of the Earth, for example, Afghanistan. No other nation has this capacity.
    4. We spend more on the military ($680 billion -1,300 trillion this year, depending on what you include) than the rest of the world combined, even though many of the other powerful militaries are our allies and America is extraordinarily easy to defend: two borders are large oceans and both neighbors are friendly, small, and weak.

    Defending America is pretty easy and should be fairly cheap. Global military dominance, on the other hand, is infinitely expensive. Although we have more than doubled expenses since 9/11, we have failed to destroy tiny al Qaeda. Indeed, al Qaeda is probably stronger today than it was then. The expense of global military dominance feeds into al Qaeda's strategy, which is to trick America into spending ourselves into bankruptcy. This strategy is working very well.

    Of course, global military dominance is nice to have. One can push small nations around at will and even intimidate large ones. However, it is bankrupting us. We will either abandon it gradually, under control, or we will spend ourselves into default and the system will come crashing down in a completely uncontrolled manner with disastrous consequences. Choose.

  • Get rid of the mercenaries. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the first in which America made extensive use of mercenaries, euphemistically called 'contractors.' These are also the longest wars America has ever fought and neither is headed for decisive victory. This isn't an accident. There are many reasons mercenaries are a particularly bad choice for counter-insurgency warfare, but there is a more fundamental issue. Mercenaries don't benefit from winning, they lose their jobs. Mercenaries benefit from the longest, most drawn-out war possible. Mercenaries are also very expensive. Get rid of them.
  • End the war on drugs. Portugal did so and ten years later the number of heroin addicts was cut in half. Not only can whole government bureaucracies be eliminated and policing and court costs reduced, there will be hundreds of thousands fewer inmates in jail sucking up tax dollars rather than paying taxes. Legalization would put an end to funding criminals and terrorists with this illicit trade. The Taliban, al Qaeda's ally, receives substantial drug money (see Seeds of Terror by Gretchen Peters) and countries like Mexico and Columbia have been destabilized by drug wars. Finally, done properly, legalization can destroy the drug trade entirely using the civil court system. See How to Actually Win the War on Drugs for details.
  • Social Security can help a little, but not much. Unlike the federal government, social security is currently paying all its bills and has $2.7 trillion of government bonds in the bank. In 20, 30, 40 years, depending on who you believe, social security will run out of money. There are several ways to deal with this, the simplest of which is to raise the retirement age for people under 30 or 40. However, this will do nothing to help with the current fiscal crisis. Indeed, little can be done since even if social security generated a surplus again it would only replace outside debt with social security bonds. These bonds are very low interest so it would help a little. There are two ways to provide social security money to the general fund: increase income or decrease benefits. Income could be increased by raising the cap on income subject to social security taxes. If the cap were eliminated, one could even lower the tax rate on 85% of Americans as so much of America's income goes to those at the top. The other way, reducing benefits, can be done in two ways: reduce everyone's benefits -- and put millions of grandmas into poverty -- or means-test benefits so those with ample funds will get smaller social security checks. Choose.
  • Medicare is the exception. The American medical system is, by far, the most expensive in the world; and the results are among the worst in the industrialized world (see here for this and other supporting info). America also has, by far, the most complicated health care system and the only one in the industrial world where basic health care is profit driven. The government already pays something like 45% of all health care costs. For something close to that we should be able to provide basic health care to everyone. I suggest "Medicare for All." It's simple, people on Medicare usually like it, and we understand it. For those who want more extensive coverage, a lightly regulated for-profit sector should work fine. While this would probably increase government expenditures somewhat, if the experience of every other industrialized country is any guide, total health care costs could be radically reduced and Americans would, on average, get better health care.
  • Cut back the mission of government agencies. There are many, many government agencies that could have their mission cut back, but I don't know enough about them to suggest anything specific. NASA I know a bit more about, having worked there as a contractor for 30 years. NASA's current goals are very ambitious -- appropriate for a wealthy nation. However, we are no longer really a wealthy nation. We are nation mired in debt. As with the military, we need to do less, or face financial collapse. The things to drop are those that are less important for day-to-day practical life. Thus, human travel beyond Low Earth Orbit should be dropped until our finances are in order. As implemented, the human space flight program is mostly for prestige, a luxury we cannot afford at the moment. Much of the deep space science program could be dropped as well and for the same reason: they are nice, really nice, but they are not necessary and don't contribute as much to 'the general welfare' as they could. NASA should be trying to spawn space industries that will eventually pay for themselves and increase the tax base. This is exactly what happened with communication satellites and, more recently, Earth observation satellites. Further possibilities include space tourism and space solar power. Space tourism may get some very important support from Obama's new initiative to purchase flights to the International Space Station (ISS) by developing a private, commercial human launch capability. Space solar power is getting nothing, which is silly while vast sums are spent on prestige.
  • Tax pollution. Pollution shifts costs from those producing it to those harmed by it. For example, polluting the air and water can lower production costs, but drives up medical costs for those poisoned by the pollution. Taxing pollution provides revenue and reduces pollution, a win win. Setting the right taxation level is difficult. One approach is to identify an acceptable level of a given pollutant and, over time, raise or lower taxes until that level is reached. Ideally, pollution taxes could provide the bulk of government revenue, eliminating income tax for most.
  • Tax financial speculation. The capital markets in the U.S. are very well developed and provide an important function: generating funds to create and expand business. However, the financial markets are also rife with speculation that provides no benefit except to transfer money to and from the speculators. Speculation, particularly computerized speculation, also creates bubbles and other financial pathologies; sometimes on very short time scales (seconds for computerized trading). Speculation cannot be eliminated, but it can be substantially reduced by taxing it. Specifically, add a time-based tax on financial transactions. Financial assets, such as stocks, held, say, a year or more would not be subject to this tax. Financial instruments sold more quickly would be taxed more and more for shorter and shorter times between acquisition and sale, culminating in a, say, 1% tax for assets held less than one hour. A tax of this nature would cost real investors nothing, but short-term speculators that buy and sell on literally a second-to-second basis would be hit hard, and hopefully eliminated. Exceptions could be made for certain technical brokers who are simply managing a market. This tax would also generate a lot of income, possibly allowing a reduction in the income tax.

    There you have it, ideas to cut federal spending and increase revenue, sometimes radically; and something radical is needed. The federal government borrowed $1.7 trillion in the last year. That's about how much we must cut expenditures and increase taxes just to avoid increasing the interest payments we must pay on our $13.7 trillion debt. We need to cut expenditures and raise taxes more than $1.7 trillion just to reduce the bleeding. Right now interest payments are about $400 billion. Over the roughly 80 year life of an average taxpayer, $32 trillion in taxes is needed just to pay the interest. What do you get for that $32 trillion? Nothing. After paying $32 trillion in taxes you still owe $13.7 trillion and your grandkids can pay another $32 trillion to get nowhere. We need to not only eliminate the deficit and stop borrowing; we need to pay down the debt. That requires serious spending reductions and tax increases.

    Lots of people will tell you they are serious about the deficit and the debt, but are unwilling to cut anything they like or pay more taxes. Real fiscal control will require cutting pretty much everything and involve pretty much everyone paying more taxes. The alternative is massive financial collapse. Choose.

  • Friday, November 26, 2010

    Protect Your Country and Save Money: Contact Your Sentator

    Russia has thousands of nuclear warheads that can reach America in an hour or so. If they are launched, for whatever reason, even a simple mistake, America will be destroyed. Al Qaeda can do damage, Russia can kill most Americans in hours. Fortunately, we can substantially reduce that threat and save money at the same time.

    Following in Reagan's footsteps, President Obama recently signed a new START treaty with Russia. Like the previous START treaty, this will

    • Substantially reduce the number of Russian warheads that can reach America.
    • Put American inspectors on the ground in Russia to make sure the treaty is observed.
    • Reduce the number of American warheads we have to pay for, leaving 1,550 -- more than enough to deter any aggressor.

    This treaty is a complete no brainer. It increases America's security and saves money. Opposition is limited to those who don't understand the facts and those playing stupid political games with our survival.

    To go into effect, the Senate must vote for the treaty. Contact your Senators today and urge them to do so.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    U.S. Federal Debt, Part II, Incentives

    In Part I I laid out our debt problem. The short story: $13.7 trillion and growing fast. In that piece, I noted that all the major players: powerful people, Congress, federal managers, taxpayers, federal employees etc. all have strong incentives to increase the debt. Part II, this essay, is devoted to exploring ways to change that.

    Let's start with an easy one: Congressional earmarks. For many years, each Congressman has been given a quota of money that they can spend in their district more-or-less as they please. Congressmen use these funds to get votes by giving voters stuff. Consider a new rule: earmarks are only allowed if total federal debt shrank the previous year. This would give each Congressman a powerful incentive to stop borrowing.

    Now the hard one: a debt tax. This is an additional graduated tax on all income with most of the burden falling on the wealthiest (1), who are generally the most powerful and thus in a position to affect the debt. This tax is cut in half when we stop borrowing, and goes away entirely when the government has a surplus rather than a debt. The exact percentage is not critical, so long as it is too small to sink the poor and big enough to really matter to the rich. I suggest the following rates by income:

    • 1% $0-50,000 (55% of taxpayers)
    • 2% $50,001-100,000 (30%)
    • 3% $100,001-150,000 (10%)
    • 4% $150,001-200,000 (3%)
    • 5% $200,001-250,000 (1%)
    • 6% $250,001-500,000 (all others combined 1.5%)
    • 7% $500,001-1,000,000
    • 8% $1,000,001-10,000,000
    • 10% $10,000,001-100,000,000
    • 15% $100,000,001-1,000,000,000
    • 20% $1,000,000,001 and above.
    This would give a strong incentive to the most powerful people in the country to have the federal government stop borrowing and pay off the debt. Yet even at the highest level, total tax when combined with current income tax would still be far less than the top tax rate of the 1950s and 60s; which was 91%. If the debt tax creates too much government income, damaging the economy, then other taxes can be reduced. I prefer taking people on the bottom off the tax roles entirely but there are other sensible approaches. For example, for the vast majority of Americans -- those earning less than $250K -- reduce the current income tax by the amount of the debt tax leaving taxation levels the same.

    Right now federal managers are severely punished when they do not spend all the money they are responsible for by the end of the fiscal year (October 1). This is why the government goes on a buying spree every September -- managers are desperately trying to spend all their money. Instead of punishing managers who are fiscally responsible they should get awards, their projects should keep at least some of the money, and their budgets should not be cut. Those who over-spend should be cut. This could make a very big difference.

    Finally, consider rank and file government employees. Their incentive is to increase their pay, which increases government spending. There is no way around this. However, federal employees are civil servants. Civil servants have strong job protection. Before the civil service was established it was normal for a new president to fire the entire government and replace them with campaign supporters. Laws to prevent this require a RIFF (reduction in force) to fire civil servants in any significant numbers. Usually the firing is by seniority -- the youngest, least expensive employees get canned. Civil servants could be given an incentive to reduce the debt if RIFFs were only allowed when the debt is increasing. As a general rule civil servants make less than those in private industry doing the same job, but they are compensated by job security. This would make job security contingent on reducing federal debt, a powerful incentive.

    There you have it, ways to give the major players significant incentives to reduce rather than increase the federal debt. There may be better ways, but these would almost certainly work. It's also safe to say that as long as the incentives stay the same, and all the incentives are to borrow more rather than pay off the debt, the debt will increase until default and disaster (see Part I for details).

    Part III: reducing government size and expenditures is next. Stay tuned.


    1. Small states, such as New Jersey, have raised taxes on the wealthy only to see them leave the state. However, leaving the U.S. is a much bigger step than moving from New Jersey to New York, and the U.S. has low levels of taxation compared to other industrialized countries. Not only are income taxes at the top brackets generally higher elsewhere, there is often a very large VAT (Value Added Tax) on everything purchased. Thus, flight of the wealthy to avoid the tax is unlikely.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    U.S. Federal Debt, Part I, The Problem

    Today, the Federal Government of the United State owes $13.7 trillion. In the last year alone we have borrowed $1.7 trillion (source: TreasuaryDirect) on an income of $2.1 trillion (source). Worse, we have been borrowing huge amounts of money, almost every year, since the early 1980s. No one, not even the U.S. government, can borrow this kind of cash (1) without eventually being unable to make the payments. Indeed, there is already speculation that our creditors are getting nervous about being repaid. Without a major change in course, default is inevitable. When default happens the government will no longer be able to borrow; requiring us to immediately cut expenditure and/or raise taxes by roughly $150 billion per month if it happened today, more if later. This will almost certainly mean:

    • Most of the U.S. military will be demobilized and all foreign bases abandoned. We will lose whatever wars we are in.
    • Social security checks will be substantially reduced or eliminated.
    • Poor and elderly people will not get medical care.
    • All federal research will end: NASA, National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, etc.
    • Most federal employees will lose their jobs.
    • The states and cities will lose all, or almost all, of their federal funding. Many teachers, police, firemen, etc. will lose their jobs.
    • All government bonds ($13.7 trillion today) will lose much of their value, throwing the economy into a deep dive, probably much worse than the Great Depression.

    The borrowing must stop, and the debt must be paid off (2). It will be hard and painful, no part of the government can be spared and taxes must be raised, but the alternative is disaster.

    Right now the short term interests of all the players is to increase spending and reduce taxes, hastening the catastrophe. For example:

    • Congressmen get votes and money by reducing taxes and giving people money (or tax breaks, which, for all practical purposes, is the same thing). They lose votes by increasing taxes and cutting off the federal money spigot.
    • Republicans win elections by cutting taxes and increasing military spending.
    • Democrats win elections by increasing social service spending.
    • Government managers are severely punished if they do not spend all the money allocated. I've talked to multiple mid-level government managers who proudly came in under budget their first year, and got clobbered. They all say they will never do that again.
    • Taxpayers do not want to pay for the government.
    • Government funding recipients, including everyone on social security, everyone on medicare or medicaid, everyone using a tax deduction, and all government employees, which means all military, almost all teachers, all police, almost all firemen, almost all researchers, etc., want their income to increase.
    Everyone in this country has a choice: either increase your taxes and reduce the goodies you get from the government, or go off a cliff. In the near future I will lay out one approach to accomplishing this, including changing the incentives of the major players -- particularly the most powerful, which will increase revenue and reduce the size and cost of government.

    However, no matter how we wiggle and shake, we owe $13.7 trillion, which means someone is going to pay at least $13.7 trillion in taxes. There is no way around this. It won't be the poor, they don't have any money. It will be the middle class, the rich, or some combination. How we allocate these taxes will determine what kind of country we are to become. Get the $13.7 trillion from the middle class and America will be a country of a few wealthy and many poor. Get the $13.7 trillion from the wealthy and the middle class has a chance to prosper and there will be fewer extremely wealthy individuals. Choose.


    1. Note that I do not use the term 'deficit.' This is because the official deficit is artificially manipulated to look much lower than it is. For example, until recently most of the cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars were not included in the deficit. Also, until last year the social security trust fund loaned hundreds of billions of dollars a year to the treasury but this was not included in the deficit. A truer measure is the total debt, which is used here.
    2. If we continue to borrow, the interest on the national debt will hit $1 trillion per year within about a decade. Regardless of the size of the interest payments, those tax dollars won't buy one gun, fund a single research project, build a single road, pay a single teacher, or fund a single social security check. The only way to stop bleeding interest is to pay off the debt.

    Sunday, October 24, 2010

    What has the Democratic Congress Done?

    One can argue that this Democratic controlled Congress has done the wrong thing, but if you know the facts you sure can not argue that they haven't been hard at work. Consider this very partial list of legislation passed:
  • The first comprehensive health care bill ever.
  • Credit card reform protecting the consumer.
  • Financial market reform.
  • The largest middle-class tax cut in history.
  • The largest investment in green energy in history.
  • Making college loans more affordable.
  • The Cash for Clunkers program to help the auto industry.
  • Making it easier for women to challenge pay discrimination.
  • Increasing federal regulation of tobacco products.
  • Cracking down on waste in Pentagon weapons acquisition.
  • Reform of the ITAR trade regulations making US aerospace corporations more competitive.
  • Funding for the first private, commercial human space launchers.
  • Making attacks based on sexual orientation a federal hate crime.
  • Giving businesses tax incentives to hire unemployed workers.
  • Tax credits for first-time homeowners.

    They also passed legislation to reverse massive job losses and forestal another Great Depression. All this in the face of literally hundreds of Republican filibusters.

    If you think this work took the country in the wrong direction, if you liked where we were going before Obama became president, then vote for Republicans. They say they haven't changed and I'm sure they haven't. If you think the legislation of the last two years is headed in more-or-less the right direction, then vote for Democrats, you'll probably get more along these same lines. Otherwise, expect a hard right turn.

    I would have liked more here or there, but by and large I think the Democrats have taken us in the right direction, and we should keep going.

    I coach youth soccer. When the kids are playing defense I tell them: don't give up. If you don't get the ball right away, keep after it. To those angry that in two years the Democrats have not fixed all the ills they inherited, I say the same thing. Don't give up. The second thing I tell my soccer team is trust your team mates. Even if they lose the ball, keep passing to them. When times get tough, there is a tendency to turn on your friends and allies. This is a mistake. Don't be a fool, support your friends and go after your opponents. If your favorite legislation didn't pass, don't attack the people that voted for it, attack the people that voted against it.

  • Sunday, October 17, 2010

    How I'm Voting and Why

    Here's a list of most of the propositions and positions that I can vote for this November (2010) along with my choice and a little bit about why. Note that I'm not voting for the Green, Peace and Freedom, or Libertarian parties. With a few exceptions, these folks are not serious. They all had a free opportunity to send a paragraph to every single voter in California in the voter information guide. Most of them didn't bother to write more than a line or two. Serious candidates take advantage of such opportunities.

    In any case, here's how I'm voting and why:

  • Sam Farr for representative. He mostly votes they way I want him to and he takes care of the district. Also, his opponent doesn't want the people to elect U.S. Senators, he wants the state legislatures to do that. More important, over the last two years the Democrats under President Obama have turned this country around. It's not steaming ahead very fast, but at least we are creating 50-70,000 private sector jobs a month rather than losing 750,000. I think they've done a fairly good job in the last two years and deserve another two before it's reasonable to expect great things. See Have the Democrats Delivered? for details.
  • Barbara Boxer for senator. I like Senator Boxer. She's smart and capable. She mostly votes the way I like. I'm not at all impressed by her opponent, who seems to be clueless as to how to win counterinsurgency wars. Also, Boxer is a big champion of President Obama's space program, which, in my personal and professional opinion, was terrific (see Obama's Brilliant Space Policy). Barbara Boxer's worked hard to get the best possible version through Congress, although it was significantly watered down by others.
  • Jerry Brown for governor. I remember when Brown was governor in the 1970s and I think he did a good job. He's very frugal, refusing to live in the expensive governor's mansion and renting a small apartment instead. His opponent has some promise but has two great weaknesses: 1. She's an inexperienced outsider with little knowledge of government. She didn't even bother to vote for many years. We tried an inexperienced outsider with our current governor. It hasn't worked well. I think we should try a seasoned pro who really knows the details of how state government works (and doesn't work). 2. She thinks being a CEO teaches you how to create jobs. For a company that's simple: sell product, make money, hire folk. The equivalent for government would be: raise taxes and hire people -- probably not what we want. CEOs can spend company money as they see fit, governors have to put every penny of expenditure through a legislature. CEOs can fire and hire on command, governors cannot. Government isn't a company. It doesn't work the same and it shouldn't. Government, for example, isn't about making money.
  • Gavin Newsom for lieutenant governor. I've been impressed by Newsom every time I've heard him speak. He also stuck his neck out on Gay Marriage. That took some guts, even in San Francisco.
  • Yes on Proposition 19, legalizing Marijuana. It's not really the government's business if adults take recreational drugs, prohibition didn't work for alcohol and is a disaster for other drugs, and then there is Portugal. Ten years ago Portugal decriminalized all drugs. The result: a 50% drop in the number of heroin addicts. If you're serious about really reducing drug use, see How to Actually Win the War on Drugs.
  • Yes on Proposition 20, take redistricting away from the legislature. Having the legislature set district boundaries is a gross conflict of interest, is used to create safe seats for incumbents, and is inconsistent with real democracy. Almost anything else would be better.
  • Yes on Proposition 21, vehicle license fees to pay for state parks. I like parks and I like the honesty of the proponents in saying exactly where the money is to come from.
  • No on Proposition 22, prohibits certain kinds of funds transfers by the legislature. I'm not too sure about this one. I'm voting against it for two weak reasons: 1. I don't understand what will really happen, and it's unwise to vote for something one doesn't understand. 2. This tries to tie the hands of the legislature to keep them from doing something. The corrupt legislators will usually find a way around these sorts of rules, and those trying to do a good job will be hindered. I see this sort of thing in the government all the time: rules are made to try to prevent bad behavior, fail in that but keep the good people from getting anything done. Better to not have the rule and live with the bad behavior, which you'll get in any case.
  • No on Proposition 23, suspending environmental regulation. Without air you will die in five minutes. WIthout water you will be dead in a week. Both are more important than oil or economic development. Find another way to make money. There's lots.
  • Yes on Proposition 24, repeals certain business tax breaks. Again, I'm not too sure about this one, but it seems to eliminate certain tax breaks used primarily by large businesses. Also, the opponents use a lot of ALL CAPS, a sign something's fishy.
  • Yes on Proposition 25, simple majority for the legislature to pass a budget. California has a terrible time passing a budget every year because a 2/3rds majority is required. This means a fairly small minority can hold up everything the state does. It's a mess. This legislation preserves the 2/3 requirement to increase taxes, but is otherwise a blow for majority rule and the simple ability to get stuff done.
  • No on Proposition 26, 2/3 vote required to increase certain fees. I'm not hard over on this one, but I like majority rule. There are times when the minority should prevail, but not at this level. 2/3 majorities for this sort of thing induce paralysis.
  • No on Proposition 27, eliminates the redistricting commission. This is a ploy by the legislature to continue to control their own districts so they can carve out safe ones for themselves. It's corrupt.
  • Debra Bowen, Democrat, for Secretary of State. She is the current secretary of state and seems to have done a good job. It turns out Republican Damon Dunn didn't bother to vote until 2009, which is a little weird for the state's chief election officer.
  • John Change, Democrat, for Controller. His statement was pretty good and most of his opponents, including the Republican, couldn't be bothered to write a statement (Karen Martinez, Peace and Freedom, wrote two measly lines).
  • Bill Lockyer, Democrat, for Treasurer. As current treasurer he apparently got through the crash without losing any money for the state -- a very good piece of work. That said the Republican Mimi Walters has a reasonably good statement.
  • Kamal Harris, Democrat, for Attorney General. The Republican is a strong supporter of the death penalty, which occasionally kills innocent people. Possibly quite often as dead folks don't get DNA tested to discover they are innocent, as has happened with dozens of death row inmates wrongly convicted. If you jail someone and find they are innocent, you can release them. Hard to do from the grave.
  • Larry Aceves for Superintendent of Public Instruction. His opponent seems to have no administrative experience.

    There you have it. Now go out and vote!

  • Sunday, October 3, 2010

    The Economy, Deficit, and Republicans

    The Republicans are aiming to take control of Congress this November. They say they will do a better job of reducing the deficit and growing the economy. Their stated approach is to lower taxes and reduce regulation. It is reasonable to ask: What does history say?

    The Republicans have controlled the executive and legislative branches simultaneously three times in the last 100 years.

    • The 1920s, which ended in the Great Depression.
    • In the 1950s, but only for two years.
    • And in the 2000s, which ended in the deepest recession since the Great Depression.
    Is there reason to believe the Republicans have new ideas and approaches that would lead to something other than another economic collapse? They say no, they will follow exactly the same policies: tax cuts (mostly for the wealthy) and deregulation.

    Before 1980 the federal government rarely ran large deficits, the exception being during relatively short wars such as World War II. Then,

    • Republican president Ronald Reagan asked for and received large tax cuts, which were closely followed by the largest peace time deficits in our history. These deficits continued under Republican George H. W. Bush.
    • Democrat Bill Clinton reversed these policies and the deficits were eliminated; handing 2000 election winner Republican George W. Bush a large surplus.
    • Large tax cuts, primarily for the wealthy, were passed and by the time Bush left office in January of 2009 the fiscal year deficit was estimated at $1.2 trillion.
    Republican solutions led to huge deficits twice in my lifetime; so do they have a new approach, new ideas? They say no, they will follow exactly the same policies.

    If you like economic collapse and huge deficits, by all means vote Republican. That's what they've delivered and they promise more of the same.

    Sunday, September 5, 2010

    Successful Conservative Disinformation

    If you say something over and over again, a lot of people will think it is true. This is being used incredibly successfully by conservative media. A couple of examples:

    Recent polls show that over 20% of Americans incorrectly believe President Obama is a Musliim. This is up substantially since he took office! President Obama has attended church for decades, and has been filmed leaving church with his family in DC. During the primary campaign, video clips of controversial statements by his pastor (pastors are Christian, imams are Muslim) nearly cost him the election -- yet over 20% of Americans believe he is Muslim. Incredible, but very helpful for Republicans in an election year.

    The community organization Acorn was destroyed by a video, played endlessly on Fox News, seeming to show two conservative activists dressed like 1970s-exploitation-film pimp and hooker being assisted by Acorn staff in prostitution and human trafficking activities. When the California DA subpoenaed the full film, a different story emerged. First, you never see the outlandish costumes and Acorn workers in the same clip, because they were never in the same room. The outlandish costumes were used to generate footage then removed before interacting with Acorn personnel. There was one slip on the hidden camera where the 'pimp' showed his sleeve -- of a pin striped dress shirt. Footage of Acorn employees 'helping' in human trafficking turned out to be a fraud as well. In one case the Acorn employee pumped the activists for as much information as possible then maneuvered them into using Tijuana for their transmit point. As soon as the activists left the office he called his friend on the Tijuana human trafficking squad who contacted his counterpart in San Diego. Had this been a real pimp he would have gone to jail. The actual result, the Acorn employee doing exactly the right thing lost his job.

    The final example has a happy ending, sort of, and points the way towards combating these lies. Again, Fox News played a heavily edited video endlessly, but this time got caught. The video was of a black government employee giving a speech to the NAACP talking about not helping a white farmer. The employee was fired that day. The next day the whole tape came out and it became clear that she was actually setting the scene for an object lesson in inter-racial harmony. In fact, she did help the white farmer and they became friends as well.

    There are two lessons:

  • Never fire anyone because of a video you see on Fox News.
  • When you hear lies, counter them quickly. Otherwise they fester and we bleed.
  • Sunday, August 29, 2010

    Have the Democrats Delivered?

    After six years of Republican rule and two years of stalemate (the Democrats barely controlling Congress and a Republican president) the Democrats came into firm control on 20 January 2009. The country was in terrible shape:

    • 750,000 jobs lost a month
    • two long running wars, one going very poorly
    • a $1.2 trillion dollar deficit
    • over $10 trillion of debt
    • a deep recession
    • an auto industry teetering on the brink
    • a financial system in existential crisis
    It was obvious we needed to change direction and the Democrats promised to. Two years later it's ridiculous to think all our problems should be solved, but in an election year it's fair to ask if President Obama and the Democrats have made enough progress to warrant another two years control of Congress. Have the Democrats delivered, to a reasonable extent, on the promises candidate Obama made?
  • Iraq Candidate Obama promised to bring the troops home. The last combat troops left on schedule this August and the rest are due to return next year. Democrats delivered.
  • Afghanistan Candidate Obama promised to focus attention and American power on the destruction of al Qaeda, especially in Afghanistan. Obama tripled the troops on the ground and appointed General Patraeus, who turned the Iraq war around, to the Afghan command. Democrats delivered what they promised, but not what the Left wanted.
  • Health care Candidate Obama promised comprehensive health care for all Americans. This spring, over strenuous Republican opposition, Congress passed the first comprehensive health care bill in U.S. history, dubbed ObamaCare by the Right. While I believe this bill needs significant improvement, nonetheless Democrats delivered as promised.
  • Help the middle class Candidate Obama promised to focus on supporting the American middle class. To this end, the stimulus bill contained the largest middle-class tax cut in history. Much of ObamaCare supports the middle class as well. For example, adult children up to age 26 may now be on their parent's health plan (that one helps me :-) Democrats delivered, but more is needed.
  • Don't Ask Don't Tell Candidate Obama promised to end the military's discriminatory policy towards gays and lesbians. Legislation ending Don't Ask Don't Tell passed the the House and a key Senate committee. Democrats have partially delivered.
  • Nuclear Threat Obama has undertaken a number of initiatives to reduce the availability of radioactive materials and negotiated a significant reduction in the world's supply of nuclear weapons. Democrats delivered
  • Global Warming Candidate Obama promised to create a cap and trade system to help with Global Warming. This is stalled in the Senate. Democrats did not deliver. They can't break the Republican filibuster.
  • Green energy Candidate Obama promised to invest in green energy initiatives. The stimulus bill included $90 billion for solar, wind, electric car batteries, smart grid, and home weatherization -- the largest such investment in US history. Democrats delivered.
  • Open Government Candidate Obama promised to make government more open, in large part by putting information on the web. A number of steps have been taken in this direction. Democrats are delivering, but there's a long way to go..
  • Financial Reform Candidate Obama promised to reform the financial system. A sweeping financial reform bill was recently passed. Democrats delivered..

    More generally the ObamaMeter web site shows that of Obama's promises 121 have been kept, 39 resulted in compromise, 22 were broken, 81 stalled, and 240 are in the works. While purists may despair, this is pretty good for the real world.

    If it's important to you that politicians deliver on their promises, then it would be wise to reward those who do so by reelecting them. The Democrats have hardly been perfect in this regard, but they've been pretty good. Vote for them.

  • Saturday, August 7, 2010

    Campaign 2010

    The Republicans are hoping to wrest control of Congress from the Democrats this year, and they have a decent chance of succeeding. Their basic strategy is to make the election a referendum on Democratic rule. The country is hurting -- 9.5% unemployment, $1.4 trillion deficit, a weak recovery, two wars dragging on -- making this a politically sound approach.

    The Democrats need to make the election not a referendum but a choice between the two parties. Their question is: do you want Republican or Democratic rule? This works because Republican rule ended just under two years ago and it was a disaster: the last month of Bush's term lost 750,000 jobs, the deficit was $1.2 trillion, the economy was in the deepest recession since World War II, the financial system was on the brink of total collapse, and the Republicans started and failed to win both of the wars that are dragging on. The Democratic story is: yes times are tough, but things have improved as a result of our rule (which is true), two years isn't enough time to turn around the mess we inherited (which is probably true), so give us two more to show we can not just make things better, but makes things good.

    There is a second message the Democrats can use in some races: some Republican candidates are extremists. The Senate candidate in Nevada wants to end Social Security and Medicare, which an awful lot of Tea Party members live on. She has also hinted at turning to violence if conservatives don't win at the ballot box. Rand Paul, another Senate candidate, thinks hanging a 'Whites Only" (or for that matter "Blacks Only") sign in a public restaurant should be legal. Several candidates believe rape victims should be forced to bear their rapist's baby. These candidates will do everything they can to avoid attention to these position. The Democrat's goal is to get extreme past statements on the airwaves and try to force these candidates to restate their positions.

    President Obama came up with a great image for the Democrats while in Detroit talking to auto workers: everyone knows you put the car in "D" to go forward and "R" to go backward.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010


    As the conflict between Palestinians and Israel is in the news, I thought it would be a good time to point out some of what shapes my views, which is not the normal fare. I view the conflict as fundamentally simple: two peoples want the same land and are fighting over it.

    [NOTE: if I've got any facts wrong, please correct me.]

    Thought Experiment

    Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose the Isreali Jews destroyed all their weapons and absolutely refused to fight at all, starting tomorrow. What would happen? My prediction: within a month or two there would be very, very few living Jews in Palestine. Why? Because many, many Palestinians hate the Jews, and for good reason. Their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents lost their land as a direct result of the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, not to mention oppression, occupation, and humiliation since then. For example, some years ago a couple Israeli reservists took a wrong turn, ended out in the wrong part of town and were killed. I saw a picture in the press of two well-dressed young Palestinians showing the photographer their blood drenched hands. They were beaming with pride and joy. Another example, Afafat's wife was once quoted as saying (paraphrased), "I get invitations to parties and events from Jewish women all the time. I refuse all of them. I hate the Jews."

    Now suppose the Palestinians destroyed all their weapons and absolutely refused to fight at all, starting tomorrow. What would happen? My prediction: within a year or two there would be a Palestinian state with, more-or-less, the pre-1967 boundaries. Why? If the Israelis wanted to kill all the Palestinians they have the firepower to do it. The don't because they don't want to, either due to moral considerations or all but certain international condemnation. Furthermore, the Israelis have repeatedly traded land for peace and removed settlements. A vigorous Palestinian non-violent protest movement would, I believe, be more than sufficient to gain a Palestinian state, although not one from the river to the sea, an unlimited right of return, or control of Jerusalem. For that, only violence has a chance of success.

    Why Create Israel?

    Here's a story. It is supposed to be true, but I don't really know. Shortly after the 1948 war a pregnant Jewish woman was killed in a kibbutz near the Egyptian border. The tracks of the killers led straight to an Arab village in Egypt. A young Israeli officer was sent to follow the killers. It's not clear what happened, but by the next day a lot of the villagers were dead. There was a storm of condemnation for Israel in the international press. The officer went to the prime minister, Ben-Gurien, and said (paraphrased) "This is terrible. We are being portrayed as monsters." Ben Gurien said, "Not at all, this is great." The officer was aghast, "What do you mean?" Ben Gurien explained: "For two thousand years killing Jews has been easy and painless. The international press is telling the world those days are over, from now on killing Jews will be difficult and very, very painful."

    The March Towards Peace

    Many people despair of the Jews and Palestinians ever living peacefully side by side. These people are either ignorant of the major facts or aren't seeing the pattern. The fundamental pattern is simple: one by one Arab countries and other organizations are giving up trying to destroy Israel and making peace. Consider:

    1. Israel was created by the U.N. in 1948. On the day it was created, five large professional Arab armies invaded the new nation. The Jews had no army, navy or air force; only a couple of terrorist/guerilla organizations and some veterans of the British Jewish Brigade that fought in World War II. Almost all knowledgeable observers believed the Jews would be wiped out, and they nearly were. Only a shipment of Czech arms enabled them to push back the Egyptian army marching up the coast. By the end of the war the Jews had defeated all five armies and established what are now called the pre-1967 borders. These borders are very hard to defend. Israel was only 17 miles wide at one point and nearly all of pre-1967 Israel is within artillery and/or rocket range of Arab land. After the war, Jordan annexed the West Bank and Egypt put Gaza under military rule.
    2. In the days leading up to the 1967 war Arab leaders claimed they would destroy Israel. However, the 1967 war demolished the Arab armies, established Israel's military superiority, and gave Israel physical control of the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights (high ground in Syria on 1967 borders). Israel subsequently annexed the Golan Heights. The new borders were far, far easier to defend.
    3. By 1979 Egypt, which had done most of the fighting and dying in the Arab-Israeli wars, not only in '48 and '67 but also in '56 and '73, had had enough. They made peace with Israel. Israel evacuated the entire Sinai peninsula (an area much larger than Israel proper) and dismantled the settlements they had established there. This peace has held without major incident for over 30 years.
    4. In 1964 the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) was created to destroy Israel ("prohibit... the existence and activity" of Zionism), but not to create a Palestinian state, presumably since Egypt controlled Gaza and Jordan the West Bank. It wasn't until 1974 that the PLO began calling for a Palestinian state. In any case, by 1991 the PLO had had enough and recognized Israel's right to exist in exchange for partial control of parts of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel also dismantled a number of settlements. Eventually, the PLO removed the clause in their charter calling for the destruction of Israel. The 'peace' between Israel and the PLO has been marred by frequent violence, but after the death of PLO leader Yassar Arafat this seems to have pretty much petered out. Today the PLO controls much of the West Bank and there isn't a lot of fighting, at least at the moment. This is, in part, because Israel built a very long wall between most of the West Bank and Israel and around Gaza, which seems to have mostly ended the previously frequent suicide bombing.
    5. In 1994 Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel. This is the only peace treaty Israel signed that did not involve giving up physical control of land, although the previous peace treaty with the PLO, which did involve land, was an important precursor. As part of the treaty, Jordan gave up their claim to the West Bank. Since the peace treaty, there has been little or no violence between Israel and Jordan.
    6. In recent years most Arab nations, which once clamored for the destruction of Israel, have indicated they might accept a permanent Jewish state within the pre-1967 borders.

    Note that between Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO, most of Israel's borders are, more-or-less, at peace. Today, Israel is still at war with Lebanon (including Hezbollah), Syria, and Hamas, which controls Gaza all the way to the pre-1967 borders. After 6-7,000 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, Israel invaded Gaza with great destruction and loss of life. The frequency of rocket attacks has subsequently been greatly reduced. There was a similar fight with similar results in Lebanon (Israel invaded and controlled much of Lebanon for years). Although Hamas' charter still calls for the destruction of Israel, they are de-emphasizing it at least when speaking in English. It would be interesting to analyze Hamas' statements in Arabic to see if the same pattern holds. In any case, there are signs that Lebanaon, Hezbollah, Syria and Hamas are all at some point on the path Egypt, Jordan and the PLO have already completed: giving up on the destruction of Israel as too hard and too painful, and making peace. The problem for Israel is to determine if they are really ready to give up; or will they use the territory Israel typically concedes in these deals to try, once again, to destroy the Jewish state?

    I recently sang in the choir at a concert. One of the songs, a call for peace, was originally recorded by Arab and Jewish musicians. It smokes. Watch the video ( It will be awhile, but peace is coming. Hang in there.

    Sunday, April 4, 2010

    Want to win the war with al Qaeda? Read this book.

    In "An End to Al-Qaeda" Malcolm Mance tells us how to win, not fight, win, the war with al Qaeda. He thinks it can be done in 24 months. I think that might be a little optimistic, but then Mance knows a lot more about the Islamic world, al Qaeda and Islam than I do (or pretty much anyone else for that matter).

    Al Qaeda is still with us almost nine years after successfully attacking the greatest power the world has ever know. American firepower has won every battle, but al Qaeda is winning the war of ideas, and the war of ideas is decisive.

    Mao said “The guerilla must move among people as a fish swims in the sea.” Al Qaeda has survived and prospered because they swim in the sea of Islam, a world of over one billion people. This is possible because al Qaeda has convinced much of the Islamic world to see them as Holy Warriors defending the Faith against the infidel. They have succeeded because America has been almost completely AWOL in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab Street, incompetent on those rare occasions it has tried anything, and, worst of all, until recently treated al Qaeda like Holy Warriors defending the Faith, and acting to confirm al Qaeda's framing of America as an evil empire out to destroy Islam.

    Fortunately for us, al Qaeda is actually a criminal, heretical cult. Al Qaeda will be destroyed when they are viewed as such by the Islamic World. They are a criminal, heretical cult because they kill Muslims, kill innocents, and encourage suicide; all of which are explicitly forbidden by the Koran.

    In the Sunni areas of Iraq, al Qaeda came to be viewed as criminal and suffered a terrible defeat when the local people turned against them and allied themselves with the American army. This is why the surge worked. In Afghanistan NATO is still fairly popular after over eight years of occupation in an area that hates foreign intervention because the people know how awful the Taliban/al Qaeda were when they were in power. Even with frequent annihilation of wedding parties by the US air force, many Afghans have still not turned against us. This is astounding.

    Mance's approach to defeating al Qaeda is a full scale, well-funded, all-media assault on al Qaeda conducted primarily by Muslim-Americans and our Muslim allies, framing al Qaeda as what they are, a criminal, heretical cult. This will sever their connection to Islam without which they cannot survive. Mance suggests several specific policies to accomplish this. These include (from chapter 9):

    1. Denounce al Qaeda as Heretics
    2. Publicize al Qaeda's Atrocities
    3. Play up former al Qaeda Members' Renunciations of the Group
    4. Back Islamic Political Movements, particularly democratic movements
    5. Playing up Internal Disputes
    6. Start a Social Epidemic of Rejection
    7. Identify the Criminality to al Qaeda's Target Audience
    8. Make al Qaeda Answer Publicly for Killing Innocents, Particularly Children
    9. Make the Terrorists' Community and Families Fear for the Spiritual Safety of Recruits
    10. Make People Remember They Can't Depend on Terrorists
    11. Reframe al Qaeda as Political Opportunists
    12. Encourage Positive Ideological Fitna (Fitna is ideological civil war, which is occurring between former and current al Qaeda members)
    13. Use the Same Viral Media Techniques They Do (particularly the use of YouTube)
    14. Organize Counter-Extremist Message Swarming (drowning al Qaeda web sites with our activists)
    15. Help Stand Up and Support De-radicalization Programs and Plans (for example, Saudi Arabia sends Imans to argue religion with captured terrorists, often converting them to more main-stream Islam and thereby getting complete and full cooperation in fighting al Qaeda)
    16. Do No Harm and Do Know Harm

    Mance also stresses the importance of killing bin Laden and other senior leadership. Cults are dependent on charismatic leaders, and al Qaeda is no different. Kill bin Laden and it will be very difficult to hold al Qaeda together. Interestingly, "One of the first acts of the Barack Obama presidency was the signing of the executive order to capture or kill bin Laden."

    It is also important to reframe America, which al Qaeda has successfully labeled as an enemy of Islam. Fortunately, America effectively defended Bosnian and Kosovo Muslims against Christian Serbs, defended religious Saudi Arabia against a secular Saddam Hussein, and helped Islamic Afghan warriors defeat the Soviet Union. We need to point this out to the Islamic World loudly and often.

    This reframing has been immeasurably aided by electing a President with a (non-practicing) Muslim father, who lived in Muslim Indonesia as a child, and, best of all, has the middle name "Hussein." This is a political liability in America, but the last election rocked the Muslim world's negative perception of America. Al Qaeda's view of us is incompatible with Obama becoming president. This opened a window of opportunity to reframe America in Islamic eyes. Unfortunately, a number of critical domestic issues have taken most of Obama's time and has prevented deploying him in Islamic media as much as he should be.

    Many conservatives want to treat captured al Qaeda members as 'enemy combatants,' in other words, Holy Warriors Defending the Faith. Until recently, we've fought the war that way, but notice we haven't won. If we treat captured al Qaeda members as criminals, trying and convicting them like any other criminal, we send a clear message that, once accepted, means al Qaeda is beaten. Then it will just be a matter of mopping up.

    There you have it, how to defeat al Qaeda. Notice that this will take a small fraction of the $700 billion we spend on the U.S. military each year which, after nine years of trying hard, has failed to win. It's not their fault. They can't. This war cannot be won by firepower and maneuver, it can only be won in the minds of Muslims. We'd better start fighting there.

    Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    New Space Policy Targets Launch

    I'm very impressed by President Obama's visionary new commercial space policy. This policy, among other things, is directed towards developing a private, commercial human space launch industry and efficient, reliable heavy lift launch vehicles. Thus, the new policy directly addresses the key problem that limits everything we do in space: launch.

    Today, transporting a pound of anything from Earth to orbit costs thousands of dollars. Worse, in fifty years of development this cost has not come down. The high cost of launch makes everything we want to do in space too expensive, be it sustained human activity on the Moon or Mars, Space Solar Power, Space Tourism, Mining the Asteroids, or Space Settlement. Launch is expensive because it is so rare, there were fewer than 100 launches last year and only a handful carried humans. Imagine the cost of a single trip by car if the whole world only took 100 car rides each year.

    The new policy allocates $2 billion/year not on a mission, not on a program, but on building an industry that can eventually stand on its own without taxpayer support. How can it succeed where so many have failed?

    NACA, Solaren, and SpaceShipOne.

    NASA's predecessor, NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics played a huge role in developing today's robust aircraft industry. How? By using technology development, subsidies, and purchasing flights to deliver the mail. The new space policy calls on NASA to repeat this history, with launch vehicle technology development, subsidies, and purchasing flights to the International Space Station (ISS).

    Solaren is a small company in California with big ideas and a contract to sell 200 megawatts of electrical power to PG&E, a major energy utility, starting in 2016. What's remarkable is that those 200 megawatts will come from space. Solaren plans to launch a huge satellite into space, collect energy from the sun, and send it wirelessly to Earth. If they or their competitors succeed we will have a vast source of extremely clean power for the next few billion years. Space power can easily supply 10% of our needs. While Solaren may need only three or four launches to meet their PG&E contract, for space solar power to supply 10% of our energy needs might require as many as 75,000 launches -- enough for economies of scale to kick in. Not surprisingly, the number one problem Solaren and others face is the cost of launch, and the President's policy is exactly what they need. Solaren, of course, may fail, but that's the beauty of building an industry not a program, Solaren has competitors.

    In 2004 the privately developed SpaceShipOne flew a test pilot into space twice. On March 22, 2010 SpaceShipTwo made its first test flight. If all goes well, it will follow SpaceShipOne into space, this time with paying customers -- over 300 of whom have already deposited a total of $45 million for a ride into space. Better yet, Virgin Galactic, which will operate a fleet of SpaceShipTwos, has competitors.

    SpaceShipOne flew 60 miles straight up and glided back down, a quick trip into space. To stay in space, to get into orbit, is much more difficult. This is where the President's policy comes in. It will provide technology development and subsidies to develop private launch vehicles that can service the ISS. These same vehicles could take tourists into orbit, and visit the private space station under development by Bigelow Aerospace. Unlike previous plans, which called for four or five human flights per year (all at taxpayer expense forever), the private market for humans in space is huge, 400,000 people a year if the price is around $100,000. If launch prices can be brought down to these levels, we can do everything we want to do in space. We can have permanent outposts on Mars, mine the Moon, visit the asteroids, build solar power satellites to power the world and even settle the final frontier.

    The administration's new policy does many sensible things, such as using the ISS for materials and drug research, finding asteroids before they hit us, and gathering data on the environment. But the key to space is bringing down launch costs, the President seems to understand this, and the administration has crafted a sensible, intelligent policy based on private enterprise to open the heavens to us all.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010

    Obama's Brilliant Space Policy

    Prologue: I want to build space settlements. I want Life to grow outward from this beautiful but tiny planet and fill the solar system. This is technically feasible but incredibly difficult (for engineers, that's the fun part).

    Yesterday's space program was all about putting a very small number of people on the Moon entirely at enormous government expense. It wasn't doing much for space settlement. For space settlement, we need to put huge numbers of people in space mostly at their own expense. The key is much, much better transportation from Earth to space because today it costs thousands of dollars per pound and the failure rate is a percent or two. Yet another expensive government owned transportation system, as we were developing, can't deliver. We need better technology, a private sector human-rated launch industry so people can buy a ticket with their own money, and, above all, much higher launch volume. Today, the whole world launches less than 100 times per year. At that rate we'll never settle space.

    In Paths to Space Settlement I identified three near term projects that would develop most of the technology and infrastructure necessary to settle the solar system: space tourism, space solar power, and planetary defense. President Obama's new space policy takes a big step for all three.

    Much of President Obama's new space policy, about $2 billion/year, is to develop better Earth to orbit transportation and, especially, develop private sector companies to take people into orbit. After a year of ramping up, the budget provides $1.4 billion per year to help private firms develop human-rated launchers and successful companies will have a core tenant flying government astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). But the real payoff isn't flying to the ISS, it's space tourism. In “Researching the Space Tourism Market,” Crouch estimates that at $100,000/flight about 400,000 people will want to go a year. Even with a 100 person vehicle, and the largest today carries 10, that would pay for 4,000 launches a year. There are many surveys supporting traffic at similar levels and higher if the price comes down. Furthermore, Bigelow Aerospace has launched two small space hotel prototypes and plans to launch a full sized system in a couple of years, but there will be no customers without a private sector vehicle to bring them there. President Obama's new space policy may be just the ticket.

    The other big potential market for launch is space solar power (SSP) -- gathering solar energy in huge satellites with wireless power transmission to Earth. For SSP to supply 1/3 of today's energy needs would require approximately 125,000 launches of a heavy lift vehicle capable of taking 500 tons to orbit (the largest vehicle today can lift perhaps 40 tons). President Obama's budget allocates almost $600 million/year to develop heavy lift launch technology. SSP development is not part of the new program, the policy's biggest deficiency, but vehicle development won't start for a few years giving SSP advocates time to make the case for SSP-related requirements.

    President Obama's policy also quintuples NASA's planetary defense budget, from $4 million to $20 million. This will not only help find asteroids in time to deflect them before hitting Earth, but locate most of the larger near-earth asteroids which will tell us where the materials we need for space settlement are. For example, one of the key problems in orbital settlement development is access to sufficient materials as millions of tons of radiation shielding and structure are needed. Building an orbital settlement co-located with an asteroid solves this problem very nicely.

    The new budget also ramps up to $3 billion/year to develop and demonstrate new space technology, including fuel depots, life support, and space resource utilization, which will help when the time comes to build space settlements.

    President Obama's policy does a lot of other sensible things. For example, the old policy, after spending something like $100 billion to develop the ISS, planned to destroy it five years after completion and had very few plans to actually use it. The new policy extends the ISS's life and provides funds to actually use the ISS for America's benefit. The new policy also increases Earth observation funding substantially so we can understand what is happening to Earth and perhaps avoid creating serous problems.

    President Obama's space policy abandons "Apollo on Steroids," the third attempt to recreate the glory of the brilliant 1960s era program by going back to the Moon and on to Mars. Apollo was great. It ended 35 years ago. Get over it. We don't need "Apollo on Steroids," we need a program that benefits the people of Earth and lets millions of us go to space on their own dime. I doubt that Obama read Paths to Space Settlement before creating his space policy, but he might as well have. Brilliant!

    Saturday, January 30, 2010

    Real Filibusters

    In the recent State of the Union address, President Obama pointed out several important bills that had passed the House, but had not been voted on in the Senate. How has this happened?

    In the U.S. Senate there are no hard limits on the length of debate on a bill. Senators can talk as long as they like, unless 60 out of 100 Senators vote to end debate. This allows 41 determined Senators to prevent a vote, thus preventing a bill from becoming law.

    Before the 2007-2008 Congress the filibuster was rarely used, but when the Democrats won the 2006 congressional election, the Republicans started using the filibuster frequently to prevent bills from passing. Since Democrat Obama won the Presidency in 2008 and put together a 60 vote caucus in the Senate, Republicans have filibustered at an unprecedented rate so major bills can only pass if every single Democrat and Independent votes to end debate. This has significantly limited Congress' productivity. With the recent election of a 41st Republican Senator, the Republicans are in a position to prevent any bill they don't like from becoming law.

    While the Republicans are definitely being obstructionist, preventing the majority from governing, the Senate leadership is making it easy for them. To prevent a vote, Republicans don't actually have to keep talking for hours or days, the Republican leadership just says they will filibuster and a 60 vote majority is required. Thus, filibustering is easy and cheap. A few words and it's done.

    If the Democrats want to pass their agenda, they need to make filibustering costly, not cheap. This can be done in two ways: physically and politically.

    Physically, the Democratic leadership can force the Republicans to actually filibuster, not just say they will. Make them actually stand up and talk for days. The rules say no sitting, no food, and no bathroom breaks. If they stop talking a vote can be taken. Even thought they can tag team, it's still painful and difficult.

    Politically, filibusters can be made costly by broadcasting the debate on CSPAN and taking the best bits for YouTube. To talk for days you have to either repeat yourself endlessly or introduce irrelevant material, for example, reading the phone book. That won't look good on TV and can be incredibly useful in campaign ads.

    If you think President Obama is intelligent and has the best interests of the country at heart, then help him get his middle-class-focussed agenda passed. Contact Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, at and tell him to make the Republicans actually filibuster, not just say they will.

    Sunday, January 24, 2010

    Republicans and Health Care

    Republicans have showed great party discipline in opposing health care reform. With a 41st vote in the Senate provided by Senator Elect Brown, the Democrats cannot pass health care over a Republican filibuster if this discipline holds. The leadership and many senators will oppose any health care bill as they see health care defeat as a way to hurt President Obama and help Republicans regain power. However, there may be principled Republican senators who will vote to reform health care if they believe it is good for the country.

    There are a couple of major items that conservatives want in health care that I, as a card-carrying liberal, am very comfortable with. They are: tort reform to limit pain-and-suffering settlements against doctors and selling medical insurance across state lines. I don't believe these will lead to the cost benefits conservatives expect, but so what? I might be wrong and, properly implemented, neither will have a negative impact. Including them, and cleaning up some of the junk in the current bill, might be enough to get a few Republican senatorial votes.

    Both California and Texas have limits on legal settlements today. It doesn't seem to save any money, but it doesn't seem to do much damage either. Limiting settlements against big companies is a bad idea, they will tend to favor profit over safety, but limiting settlements against individual doctors and other health care providers is not dangerous on any large scale as the vast majority of doctors and other health care workers care deeply about the health and welfare of their patients.

    Allowing companies to sell medical insurance across state lines is no problem at all as long as the regulatory regime is taken from the state the patient lives in. The problem with inter-state insurance is that companies may move to the state with the cheapest regime, but if the rules in the patient's state apply this is is a non-issue. The additional competition will probably drive down prices, but in any case will not hurt anything. Why not include it?

    If major conservative ideas are incorporated into the health care bill, it is at least possible that some Republicans will come on board. Of course, if all the Republicans are only concerned with hurting President Obama as much as possible, a real possibility, there is no hope. However, I think there are at least some Republican senators for whom country is more important than party and recognize that the present US health care system is an expensive mess in desperate need of intelligent reform.

    Saturday, January 16, 2010

    Obama: One Year On

    I consider the Presidency to be a no-excuses job. If the country does well, the President did a good job. If the country does poorly, the President is lousy. By this measure Clinton was a good president, he inherited a country doing pretty well and left it in excellent shape. By contrast, Bush inherited a country in great shape -- paying down it's debt and militarily and diplomatically pre-eminent -- and left America a mess. Obama inherited that mess, but how is he doing so far?

    Last year about this time I posted an article laying out where we were so that comparisons could be made [see Where We Are]. The ship of state is large and doesn't turn quickly, but after a year it's fair to start crediting or blaming Obama for what has happened.

    The short answer is that the economy is better (except unemployment), our standing in the world is much better, and the military situation is better, but we are racking up debt at an amazing rate and that will sink us if not reversed.

    For the long answer I've copied each of the items from last year's article that could be compared to today. Last year's text is in italic and this year's state in normal text. Note that it is often difficult to find the exact same measures as I did last year, so some of the comparisons must be treated with caution.


  • The federal government is $10 trillion in debt. Today is it over $12 trillion.

  • The projected deficit for fiscal 2009 is $1.2 trillion (not counting the stimulus package). The actual deficit for fiscal 2009 was $1.4 trillion. Estimated deficit for fiscal 2010 is $1.17 trillion. (NOTE: fiscal 2010 goes from 1 Oct 2009 to 30 Sept 2010).

  • The economy is losing half a million jobs a month, a total of three million in the last year. In November, the economy added 4,000 jobs.

  • Total debt, government, commercial, and personal, is about $53 trillion. Total debt is around $57 trillion.

  • The Dow Jones is around 8,000, down from around 14,000 a year earlier. The Dow Jones is at 10,600.

  • The S&P 500 is around 800, down from around 1,400 a year earlier. The S&P 500 is at 1,136

  • Home foreclosure filings in January 2009 totaled 274,399 [Reuters]. Banks took over 92,000 homes in December 2009

  • Major financial institutions have failed completely, others avoided failure only with massive government subsidies, and many more are on the brink of collapse. The major financial institutions have reduced their leverage from 30-1 to around 10-1 and seem to be much more secure, many are making money, and some have returned their bailout money with interest.

  • Two of the three major American car manufacturers require massive government subsidies to avoid bankruptcy. All three major American car manufacturers are alive, although GM now has the government as a majority stock holder and Chrysler was sold to Fiat.

  • The official unemployment rate is 7.6%. The official unemployment rate is 10%, down from 10.2% a month ago.

  • U.S. GDP has been down every quarter for about a year. It was down 6.8% in the last quarter of 2008. GDP increased 2.2% in the third quarter of 2009.

  • The economy is about as good as one might realistically hope given that it almost went off a cliff right as Obama took over. The stock market and GDP are up, employment is higher, but improving slightly, and home foreclosures are slowing. Debt, however, is very high and growing fast. If not curbed, America will go bankrupt.

    Foreign Affairs

  • Iraq is, relatively, peaceful and arguably democratic. Unchanged.

  • The ruling parties in Iraq have very close ties with Iran. Iran also has very close ties with rulers in the Kurdish areas. Unchanged, but the government of Iran has lost legitimacy after rigging recent elections.

  • America has approximately 150,000 uniformed forces and 190,000 'contractors' (aka mercenaries) in Iraq. In December 2009 there were approximately 112,000 uniformed forces and US troops are no longer actively participating in combat operations.

  • The Taliban have the initiative in Afghanistan and are making major gains. The Taliban were recently reported to be clearedfrom Helman province, which is a key area. Later reports suggest that this was only partially accomplished.

  • The Taliban have repeatedly cut NATO supply routes through Pakistan; in one case destroying hundreds of trucks filled with supplies. In another, destroying a hundred foot long bridge. NATO is being forced to develop alternative supply routes. Such attacks have not made the news in the last six to nine months, at least that I've noticed and I look.

  • Major news stories say Kyrgyzstan will close the Manas air base used to support and supply NATO forces in Afghanistan. The base is still in use by the US Air Force.

  • The Taliban control substantial and growing swaths of territory in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban have lost control of substantial territories in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  • The Taliban leadership lives more-or-less openly in Quetta. I've seen nothing to suggest this has changed.

  • The Taliban just cut a deal with local government leaders to impose Sharia on the Swat in exchange for a cease fire. The Taliban were pushed out of Swat by the Pakistan army.

  • The Taliban just launched a successful attack in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The Taliban launched a big attack in Kabul today., all seven assailants were apparently killed.

  • Basically, the Taliban are kicking our butts. These are the guys that harbored al Qaeda at the time of the 9/11 attack. They are still close allies. The Taliban are hurting and may have lost the initiative. It's hard to tell the real situation though. Most important, a recent poll indicated abou 70% approval for the US effort, vs 40% a year ago. As support of the population is the key to counter-insurgency warfare, this is very good news.

  • The Isrealis and Hamas just ended three weeks of major fighting. Rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel have mostly stopped.

  • Particularly prior to Obama's election, much of the world viewed America as a country that tortures people, invades others, and pursues a largely go-it-alone, my-way-or-the-highway foreign policy. Many perceive America as a bully. Obama has turned this around to the point that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. While Obama did not believe he deserved the prize, awarding it is a strong sign that America's image is on the mend. Again, this is key to winning the war with al Qaeda. This war cannot be won without world-wide support, particularly from Muslims.

  • America has suffered major Islamic extremist terrorist attacks in the first few months of the last two presidential administrations. That would make us due for one now. There have been two small attacks, one killing 13 American soldiers and a failed attempt to bring down an airliner, but nothing on the scale of 9/11, the Oklahoma bombing, or the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

  • North Korea tested their first nuclear weapon in 2006. No new tests, but no improvement either.

  • North Korea conducted a number of long range missile tests, including multiple simultaneous launches (important for defeating missile defense). No recent tests.

  • Iran has made major strides in developing the technology and infrastructure to support development of nuclear tipped missiles. Iran has continued on this path.

  • Bottom line, in the foreign policy arena, particularly the war with al Qaeda and their Taliban allies, the situation is much improved in most areas.

    Governing Operations

  • The Republican and Democratic parties are bitterly divided and partisan; so much so that two Republican senators refused an invitation to watch the Super Bowl at the White House and an economic stimulus package passed with only three Republican votes in Congress. Nearly all economists, left, right and center, agree a large stimulus is needed to avert economic catastrophe. The parties are still bitterly divided, particularly over health care reform.

  • Government is generally viewed as grossly incompetent. Little change.

  • U.S. intelligence services regularly spy on American citizens, in America, communicating with others in America, without a warrant. It's not clear if this has stopped or not.

  • The U.S. government operates a network of out-of-country prisons specifically intended to evade the rule of law. Guantanamo being the crown jewel of the network. The network is still intact, but Guantanamo is being closed down, albeit not on schedule.

  • Medical

  • In 2008 there were almost 46 million Americans without health insurance. RWJF. America is the only industrialized country without nearly universal health care insurance. Unchanged, although reform bills have passed both houses of Congress but still need to be reconciled, voted on by Congress, and signed by the President. The primary issue is whether a compromise bill can win 50% plus one in the House and get 60 votes in the Senate to stop a certain filibuster.

  • Bottom line, the country is better off than it was a year ago, by a fair margin, although there are plenty of serious problems. So far so good. President Obama is doing a good, though far from perfect, job.