30 April 2011

On Royalty and the Wedding

I got a somewhat negative reaction from a couple of people to my admittedly snarky attitude towards, especially, the media hype surrounding the "Royal Wedding." Of course I have nothing against Mountbatten or Windsor or whatever his name is (they changed it to conceal its German origins)... and Ms. Middleton; I hope they have a very happy life and successfully fulfill the expectations of their adoring public.

But my attitude towards all the media is of two sources, and it is a serious issue, to my mind. First, I'm disturbed that the media... and indeed many people... in America seem to think this social event of the overprivileged is so very important. Where is the wall to wall interest and coverage in the debate over whether we should eviscerate our social systems and continue down the path of our own return to a system of hereditary wealth and privilege controlling all aspects of our society? I am more and more convinced that Chris Hedges, author of Empire of Illusion and other well thought out screeds on the subject of the growing ignorance and distraction of the public as a harbinger of doom for democratic societies... is right.

The other source of my attitude is my deeply ingrained small-r republican philosophy. I've studied history, only a little, but apparently more than most people who call themselves educated. The triumph of the ideas of Locke and Jefferson were never guaranteed. The basic idea of government deriving its sovereignty from the people is a serious principle, that we can't afford to let go of. In a time when our democratic society, to the extent it still exists at all, is threatened by forces of plutonomy and inherited wealth and power, I look upon the institution of monarchy and aristocracy in England as, on the one hand, amusing (I watch Downton Abbey and enjoy it thoroughly), and on the other, rather repulsive. At a time when Britain is being subjected to massive cutbacks and public sector layoffs, it is downright vulgar for a symbol of hereditary privilege and class like the monarchy to throw itself a giant party at public expense. (And please don't say the £20 million was just for security... the entire British Royal Family exists at public expense). It smacks of bread and circuses.

But, that's their country, and they can do what they want. What I find weird, and rather distasteful, is the fawning and frankly excessive interest of so many Americans. OK, I'm taking it too seriously, if you like... but it's unseemly.

29 April 2011

British Royal Pageantry Claptrap and the Loony Fringe Birthers Can't Give Up

Today I just want to make two quick, unrelated comments about the fluff that's floating around right now, and then a comment about that phenomenon itself.

1.  Look, I know some people just love all that pageantry and such. But come on! Why Americans fawn over, as Ian Masters put it, the fantastically expensive nuptials of two over-privileged and unexceptional people just because they are members of a hereditary monarchical system that we, as a republic, saw fit to do away with well over 200 years ago, is utterly beyond me. After all, one of the intellectual authors of our revolution, Tom Paine, (in a surprisingly modern witticism) said it best: there's no more reason behind hereditary rulers than hereditary dentists. Were I a Brit, I'd be a republican, i.e., someone who favors abolishing the monarchy (thereby saving the new constitutional Republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland a ton of money). But, as I'm not, I just shake my head in disbelief that American television is wall to wall with this fluff.

2.  Sure enough, on the very day that the president felt he had to put to rest this "long form birth certificate" nonsense, the creepy crawlies (including the odious Matt Drudge) came out of the woodwork with a ridiculous theory that the document was a photoshop forgery. Fortunately, even among the Far Right Press, that nonsense was put to rest PDQ: here.

It's pathetic, really, that with all the false propaganda being put out by the Rightists in this country, and all the really serious issues facing us as a nation, people spend real time in the marketplace of public discourse even talking about either of these nonsensical matters. The Royal Wedding deserves a thirty second clip towards the end of a news show, after the fact. And the birther nonsense should've been kaiboshed years ago.

Sometimes I think we as a nation are literally distracting ourselves to death with fluff and nonsense.

27 April 2011

Harry Reid: Let's vote on Medicare Killer Bill

I admire Sen. Reid for making the damn Republicans in the Senate go on record yay or nay on the hideous Paul Ryan Medicare Killer Budget.

Now if only he'd do the same thing and make Democrats go on record on the People's Budget... but that'll never happen.

24 April 2011

Conservative Republican David Stockman acknowledges taxes must go up, and military expenditures must be cut

David Stockman, OMB director under Reagan, has criticized the Republican Budget as totally unrealistic and ineffective (while also criticizing Obama's plan as little better) in an op-ed in today's NYT.

I wish he'd examined the People's Budget, not from an ideological point of view (he is a conservative Republican, after all), but a pure numbers point of view.

I question whether Stockman's prescription for means testing Medicare and Social Security is really logical or based on realistic projections. He dismisses major savings in health care costs out of hand. I think to achieve them, we will have to enact a public option and make the hard choices of taking profit out of health insurance and health care, as Europeans have done; and I have to admit there seems little prospect for that in the near future. He also fails to mention the plan to balance the cost of Social Security by raising the cap on income subject to payroll taxes.

When you're in prescriptive mode, as Stockman is in this piece, it's dishonest not to acknowledge alternative major policy proposals that would resolve the issues you're discussing. The usual cop out that an idea is "politically infeasible" doesn't cut it here... many of the ideas he's talking about are at least equally politically infeasible, such as means testing Medicare. Ideas only become politically feasible when a critical mass of people are informed enough to start thinking that they just might work.

But I do agree with him that, while he advocates increasing marginal tax rates on the rich, and eliminating the unjustifiable low rates on capital gains (noting that the whole original rationale for that no longer applies), while wonderfully welcome coming from a Republican, that is just not going to be enough. Taxes on more moderately well off people, like me, will have to go up as well. I probably favor much higher taxes on the richest than he does, but I do think that even those in the $80,000+ category should see significantly higher taxes. If we want a functional society, we have to be prepared to pay for it.

I also don't think he was nearly specific enough, while acknowledging that military spending... (he calls it "defense" spending, as most do, but I reject that propaganda euphemism) ...will have to be cut. In my view, restoring some semblance of fiscal balance and policy mix that serves the interests of the majority of Americans will require drastic cuts to military expenditures over the next decade. The good news is that those drastic cuts are called for for a whole host of policy reasons anyway: as Chalmers Johnson has persuasively argued, the restoration of the American Republic will require the dismantling of the American Empire.

23 April 2011

Ford to build Focus plug in hybrid, and the future of green automotive technology

Seems Ford is going to, er, focus on the Focus platform. As early as the end of this year, they plan on rolling out four versions:

Normal drivetrain, available with 6 speed manual or 6 speed automatic

All electric version a la the Nissan Leaf.... limited range, will require 240 V charing station, and so prob. not too competitive except niche treehugger market

Hybrid version using the same technology as the Escape and Fusion hybrids already on the market, which are heavier and less fuel efficient than Insight and Prius

Plug in Hybrid, (also requiring 240 V charging station), which will compete with the Volt. 500 mi. range on a tank of gas, but they haven't announced the expected "all electric" range yet. One thing about plug in hybrids: if you run the wipers, the air or heat, the lights, the sound system, etc. all at once, they all use the same juice, and the motor can come on as soon as 20 miles out in the Volt in very hot or very cold weather, especially if you also want it to jackrabbit from every stoplight, which uses a lotta juice.

Still, the plug in hybrid Focus is the most interesting of Ford's plans. GM spent a ton of money developing the Volt as an integrated system, and it's a great car by most reviewers' estimations, but it's very expensive for a small space constricted and not exactly luxurious car. Ford seems to have decided to try to build the near equivalent using more off the shelf and third party componentry, and to sell it for closer to the cost of the regular car. It will be interesting to see how that works out. 

One difference already out there between the Ford technology for plug in hybrid and the Volt is that the Volt uses pure electric power to drive the wheels, using the generator only to provide electric power when the batteries are depleted to a certain level. The Ford design will kick over to something more like a so-called conventional hybrid, where the engine partly drives the wheels and partly charges batteries. I believe in the long run the GM design has certain advantages. 

GM Volt-type plug in hybrids have a potential you hardly see anything about in the media: the long term prospect of running the generator charging engine on almost anything. There's really no need for the engine to run on gasoline. These are small engines, designed to run at constant speed. They could easily be biodiesels, hydrogen or methane turbines (expensive but very efficient), or engines designed to run on exotic biofuels if that industry gets going soon, as there are some signs it might. It's not clear to me that the Ford design would have this same potential; if the engine is used for actual motive power, it would have more design constraints that might make the use of a small biodiesel engine or other greener fuel design less feasible.

The day will come when these technologies are cheaper than gasoline engine cars, if not to buy, then over the life of the car. And when that tipping point arrives, we will see a near complete conversion to green automotive technology in a surprisingly rapid period of time.

I saw recently where among factors affecting whether a qualified adult in the United States has a job or not, having a running automobile is much more of a determiner than education level. We're not going to get Americans out of their cars anytime soon. Sure, in some areas, more public transportation could reduce highway miles (and congestion), and I'm all for it... but we need to concentrate, with public as well as private investment, on developing solutions for carbon neutral (i.e. nonfossil fuel) affordable automotive technology. The development patterns in our country during the 20th century mean that we are, for the foreseeable future, a nation of the automobile, and we have to learn to make cars that don't burn oil. There's just no way around it. 

22 April 2011

Writing to my congressman in support of The People's Budget

Dear Congressman Berman,

I am writing to urge your strong support for the Congressional Progressive Caucus's PEOPLE's BUDGET. While the truly terrible plan put forward by the Republicans would increase the deficit over ten years, and not bring the budget into balance until 2030 (even if its preposterous projections were taken seriously), while KILLING Medicare and Medicaid and granting extravagant additional tax cuts for the richest Americans and big corporations, and doing nothing about giveaways to agribusiness, big Oil, and other Corporate Welfare, the People's Budget is the ONLY truly fiscally responsible budget proposal out there.

It would decrease the deficit by 5.7 billion by 2021, and would bring down the debt to about 64% of GDP by the same time. To do this, it would create a public option and allow the government to really control medical costs. It would strengthen and guarantee Social Security by raising the cap on income subject to payroll taxes, and would strengthen and preserve Medicare and Medicaid, as well as investment in infrastructure, education, and other vital programs. It would reduce outsize military expenditures (which have doubled since 2001), and end the unpopular and unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and big Corporations, while including programs to encourage job growth in America. It would end unfair corporate subsidies, tax havens, tax loopholes, and other gimmicks which allow big corporations like GE to pay no taxes on billions in profit.

Please stand with your constituents in their desire to see a restoration of fairness in fiscal matters, and a policy that wants to live within our means, but not by creating a mean-spirited and plutocratic society in the process.

Thank you.

Whose is the fiscally responsible budget plan? Support the PEOPLE's BUDGET put forward by the Congressional Progressive Caucus

I just don't understand how the likes of Jacob Weisberg writing in Slate, and the editors of the Economist can tout the Republican Medicare Killer Budget plan as "brave" and "responsible," when, by its own numbers, it adds $6 trillion to the debt over ten years (more than in any previous decade in American history), while killing Medicare and Medicaid as we know them and slashing taxes still further for the wealthiest Americans and  big corporations. This is supposed to be fiscally responsible?

At the same time, to read the mainstream media, you'd think that the only alternative is the Centrist Democratic budget planning of the president and the so-called bipartisan "Gang of Six" in the Senate.

Nary a word about the genuinely fiscally responsible "People's Budget" being proposed by the House Progressive Caucus.

This, in fact, is the only comprehensive budget proposal that actually is fiscally responsible. Here's what it does:

• Eliminates the deficits and creates a surplus by 2021
• Puts America back to work with a “Make it in America” jobs program
• Protects the social safety net
• Ends the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
• Is FAIR (Fixing America’s Inequality Responsibly)

What the proposal accomplishes:
• Primary budget balance by 2014
• Budget surplus by 2021
• Reduces public debt as a share of GDP to 64.4% by 2021, down 16.9 percentage points from a baseline adjusted for the "doc fix" and alternative minimum tax patch
• Reduces deficits by $5.7 trillion over 2012-21
• Both outlays and revenue equal 22.3% of GDP by 2021

The People’s Budget would balance the federal budget within a decade and place debt held by the public on a sustainable trajectory. Specifically, the budget would move to a surplus of $30.7 billion (0.1% of gross domestic product) in 2021, and debt as a share of the economy would trend downward to 64.1% of GDP in that year. The budget would reduce deficits by $5.6 trillion over the next decade relative to the CBO baseline (adjusted for current policies regarding the “doc fix” and a patch to the Alternative Minimum Tax).

The People’s Budget would finance $1.7 trillion worth of public investment over the next decade, most of which is front-loaded over the next five years. The budget would strengthen Social Security by lifting the cap on taxable earnings. The budget also would accrue health savings of $308 billion over the next decade, primarily by creating a public option for health insurance and negotiating prescription drug prices for Medicare Part D.

The plan also would raise the top marginal tax rate, imposed only on the very wealthy, to 49%, still lower than it was before 1986. Taxes on most Americans would not go up.

The budget would reduce conventional and strategic military forces, for savings of $692 billion and end all emergency war supplemental appropriations for savings of $1.6 trillion. Finally, individual and corporate tax reform would ensure sufficient revenue to cover federal outlays by the end of the decade.

  [Source: Economic Policy Institute, www.epi.org]

We progressives need to rally around The People's Budget and demand that it be taken seriously, and that Democrats in Congress, including in the Senate, voice their strong support for it.

20 April 2011

Paul Ryan booed at Town Hall over very unpopular Repub budget ideas

Report: Paul Ryan booed at Town Hall over tax cuts for the rich.

See, it's like this. In America, as opposed to inside the Beltway, cutting or eliminating Medicare and Social Security, and giving even more tax giveaways to the super rich and big corporations, are all really, really unpopular. See this.

Democrats, and especially President Obama, need to wake up and make of this the tremendous political opportunity it is. The reality is that the Crazy Extremist Republican Plan to kill Medicare and give more tax breaks to the rich is a gift to Democrats, if they're only politically adept enough to make hay of it.

To the White House: court Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero

Virg Bernero, Mayor of Lansing and defeated Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate in Michigan, appeared on Rachel Maddow last night. It's a sad case of bad timing that the Tea Party agenda was still in the ascendant last November, because this guy is terrifically articulate and has the moxie and populist appeal that is absolutely the right note for Democrats... including the President... right now.

The Tea Pty is WANING, and there is a terrific opportunity right now to win over Independents not by traingulating and moving towards the extreme Right Wing positions of the Republicans, but by defining a clear alternative, promising not just keeping most of the social contract but moving ahead dramatically with scaling back military spending, preserving Soc Sec Medicare + Medicaid, improving and cutting costs in HCR and these existing programs (including going back and adding a public option), raising the cap on income for payroll taxes, and increasing taxes on the wealthiest, while closing tax loopholes and havens for large corps, agribusiness, + oil. Mr. Bernero would make a great addition to the re-election effort and should be contacted and offered a national role.

Thank you.

19 April 2011

What to do about the Budget?

        Republican policies are the main cause of our national debt. More than 70% of our current debt was rung up under Republican presidents who spent like a drunken sailor on unfunded wars, military expansion, the National Security State, the Big Pharma Giveaway Medicare Prescription Drug boondoggle under Bush, and the $700 billion TARP Bailout (yep, that was Bush). All without paying for any of it. Now we're being offered a choice:

Ryan Republican Budget Plan:
·      Kill Medicare
·      Cut Social Security
·      Kill Medicaid
·      Cut Unemployment Insurance
·      Cut Essential Services
·      Give yet more huge tax breaks to the super rich and giant corporations

Progressive Democratic Budget Plan:
·      Strengthen Health Care Reform by adding public option
·      Preserve and Strengthen Medicare and Medicaid by controlling runaway health care costs
·      Keep Social Security as a sacred trust with the American People
·      Preserve Essential Services
·      Expand Investment in Infrastructure to Create New Jobs
·      Increase income ceiling subject to payroll tax to pay for Social Security
·      Restore higher taxes on those who can best afford them
·      Cut non-essential military spending and end wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya
·      End tax havens and loopholes for big corporations, oil, and agribusiness 
                             AMERICA FOR EVERYONE
Which would you choose?
Tell Your Congressional Representatives 
Vote Democratic
Re-elect President Obama

18 April 2011

Dean Baker's real numbers on Paul Ryan's profoundly irresponsible "plan"

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, talks in an article in Huff Post today about the real numbers behind GOP poster child Paul Ryan's "cause not a budget." He demonstrates beyond any serious argument that it is a profoundly irresponsible proposal, which would add to the already huge transfer of wealth from the Middle Class to the super-rich and giant corporations the Republicans have already engineered, the greatest such wrongway wealth transfers in history.

Cantor gleeful about S&P downgrading US debt obligation outlook

Eric Cantor was veritably chortling with glee today over the fact that S&P downgraded the outlook for US debt obligations to a negative rating, in anticipation of the possibility that the GOP Hostage Takers might actually succeed in forcing a default on the national debt. The last time so negative a debt outlook rating was issued was during the 1996 debt crisis, the last time the GOP staged a hostage crisis over the debt ceiling.

Which, to my mind, is proof positive that these so-called leaders in the Rightist party, who have made no secret of their intention to stage yet another hostage crisis over the debt ceiling, are not merely profoundly irresponsible, they are downright unpatriotic. Does it not concern them at all that 1) they are 100% the cause of this; and 2) it is harming the interests of the United States as a whole and individual investors in the millions?

The president and Congressional Democrats should seize every opportunity to say just that.

17 April 2011

Why I agree with Paul Krugman on "fiscal issues:" Core Democratic Principles are a MORAL issue

My e-mail to a friend who wrote to say I shouldn't accept Paul Krugman's ideas as a "final answer" to our fiscal problems (and incidentally accusing him of "name-calling"):
You seem to be saying that you think I'm under some sort of sway of Paul Krugman. Well, I challenge that. And I have given a great deal of thought and read a lot about so-called "fiscal issues," wherein I believe the President and the Democrats have made a huge mistake in accepting the Republican framing of the issue. You notice they never talked about the public debt when it was their guy spending like there was no tomorrow. But, anyway, even if you accept that in a time of 9% unemployment, it even makes sense to cut spending (Roosevelt tried that in 1937 and the Depression came roaring back; it wasn't till WWII that it finally ended)... the ideas of the Republicans and Democrats like Erskine Bowles, Alice Rivlin, and others who have bought into the notion that spending on social services is the main culprit are flat wrong, in my view.

I don't look at Krugman as a final answer, but I don't agree with the Gang of Six either. See today's Huffington Post [here] for where their thinking is going. There is a myth abroad in our country that our long term debt problem is necessarily only or even primarily a spending problem, when it's a simple fact that it was caused primarily by unwarranted reductions in taxes on the very wealthy and corporations. 50% of the existing debt was created under Reagan + Bush I, during which era there was a great deal of deficit spending. And another 1/3 under Bush II, who cut taxes on the rich while spending like there was no tomorrow, on two unfunded wars, almost a trillion creating the Homeland Security state, [the 700 billion dollar TARP bailout, which Rightist propaganda has made most people think was passed under Obama], and an unfunded Medicare "Gift to Big Pharma" Rx benefit. The problem is not spending, but unfunded spending. Which, in times of Republicans in the White House, has been their specialty. Why the beltway media lets them get away with pretending to be the party of fiscal conservatism is just beyond me.

But Social Security, in particular, is not unfunded. Since the early 80s, it took in more than it paid out, and the Social Security Trust Fund holds bonds for that debt. That is owed to future recipients, in just the same way as any other Federal debt is owed. And Social Security would not become insolvent until the 2030s, even if nothing were done. So any Democrat who favors cutting Social Security simply isn't worthy of the name. Every other 1st world country, including the ones who are currently trying out "Austerity" programs, does more for its citizens than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and HCR combined. I do agree with the president that there are major cost savings to be achieved in all the health care programs, which will go a long way to reducing future deficits. But cutting essential services should be off the table.

The reality is that when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid, the Republicans are bound and determined to destroy them. Had they been in power, we never would have had them in the first place, nor would we have HCR. That's just fact. Democrats who want to be complicit in that destruction, again: not worthy of the name.

There is simply no way around it. There must be a significant revenue side solution, in large measure, to our fiscal problems, combined with cuts in so-called mandatory spending, primarily in the military budget (Cold War weapons systems, unnecessary overseas bases, oversize military systems that are larger than all other militaries in the World combined). [Update: Cliff Schecter, of Libertas, LLC, who was a major player in Clinton's re-election campaign, has said that the ~$900 billion military budget could realistically be cut by one-third; it is twice the size it was in 2001 and larger, in constant dollars, than at any time since WWII.]
It simply isn't true that our nation is broke; there has been a huge shift in wealth, AND in overall tax burden, from the wealthiest and corporations to the middle class. Even with the flight of manufacturing, the wealth per capita right now is higher than it's ever been. The financial meltdown showed how transparent all that is: it was the largest transfer of private debt to public debt in the history of the world, and everyone said we have to do it to avoid a collapse (which was true, but it was still blackmail).

Social Security, it's been calculated in a report I cited to you, [post;
link to report] could be made permanently in surplus, by the simple expedient of a major raise in the income cap subject to payroll tax. Nothing else.

So, no, I think for myself, but, in the main, I agree with Paul Krugman. We must raise taxes on the rich, and the moderately well off... if we were to restore the 1961 tax code, David Cay Johnston has calculated, we would almost eliminate the Federal debt (not deficit, debt) in one decade. (And the simple expedient of Single Payer Medicare for All, and elimination of the profit motive from all health care, would almost eliminate the debt even without that revenue, it's been separately calculated). Neither of those is probably politically feasible right now, but we certainly need to make the case to the American people that there is no free lunch, and, in particular, that it is the very rich, the top 2%, and corporations offshoring assets instead of paying their fair share in taxes, who are primarily getting a free ride. Changes in the whole paradigm of free trade, towards retaining American jobs and disallowing transfer of assets to tax havens, are also needed. But, fundamentally, there does need to be some increase in the taxes of even the  moderately well off, including, for example, me. We as a nation are not overtaxed. Especially the wealthiest citizens and biggest corporations are seriously undertaxed.

Democrats must stand for the proposition that society does not turn its back on the poor, seniors, and the jobless, because it is our shared prosperity that leads to a better life for everyone. Creating demand creates more wealth than hoarding. It's not rocket science.  Somehow, after the Depression and WWII we understood that, but since the election of Reagan in 1980 we've moved further and further from that simple understanding.

So no, I don't worship Paul Krugman. But I do agree with him.

Once before, you accused Krugman of name-calling, but you didn't cite any examples, and I notice you still haven't. In any case, name calling isn't admirable, but it's not as bad, in my book, as advocating policies that cause harm to our country, of, which, for example, I accuse Paul Ryan.  (Who accused the unflappable Pres. Obama of being "emotional" and of "distorting" his program, which was laughable: what the president said about the "cause not a budget" was perfectly accurate). I don't accuse Ryan based on his personality or his background, but based on a what I think are simple facts: that his numbers don't add up, his projections are ridiculous, and his assumptions, that cutting taxes further for the rich will somehow magically cause "prosperity"... are not only preposterous, and repeatedly proven wrong by recent history, but deeply suspect. The interests of the super-rich are all too apparent in every stroke of the pen in these mean spirited policies. Republicans, and, sadly, some Democrats, are much too beholden to crass economic interests of corporations and the Wall Street super-rich, and they use propaganda and deception to sway people to vote against their own interests with not just impunity but gusto. And to the extent that Democrats depart from traditional Democratic principles and embrace any part of it... they lose my support.

I think if the Wisconsin Wave means anything it means that people are getting fed up with having to carry the whole burden on their backs. Household debt is more important than the national debt, but no one talks about that. The people are mad as hell; some are tricked into following the Tea Party, but more just want a fair shake: they want public investment to create jobs, and they want the basic public services that other people in the developed countries take for granted. And the day will be coming soon when they won't take this anymore... from Republicans or fellow-traveler Democrats.

No cuts to social security, dammit... e-mail to White House

Reports that the so-called Gang of Six "bipartisan" group on deficit reduction will recommend ripping off ordinary people who've paid regressive payroll taxes for decades to pay for the promise of Social Security are alarming indeed:

the President must make clear that Social Security benefit cuts or further increases in the Retirement Age are simply out of the question. The ONLY acceptable reform for Social Security is to raise or eliminate the cap on income subject to payroll taxes.

People have PAID for Social Security; it's off budget and it's FLAT OUT immoral to ask people to accept DEFAULT on that debt to them to fix a debt they didn't create.

The national debt was almost entirely created by lowering taxes on the rich under Reagan and both Bushes, and Republican spending on unpaid for wars, unpaid for military buildup, even the unpaid for Pharma giveaway Medicare prescription drug program under Bush II. The president needs to make the point that it was largely the other party that created this big debt, and they did it by allowing the very rich and corporations to go without paying their fair share of the "price of civilization" ... taxes. He should point out that if we were to return to the tax rates of the 1960s we would be able to afford all investments and benefits on the books and proposed, and still pay down the debt.

America is not broke, it's just that too much of the money has gone to its richest citizens and too many corporations have been allowed to offshore assets and otherwise avoid taxes.

The people are waking up to this: we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!

15 April 2011

To the President: Stand up for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, these are winning issues for Democrats

I sent the following to the White House Comment page today:

Two major polls now show that ~76% of the responding public is strongly opposed to the Republican plan to effectively KILL Medicare. The President should tout these polls, and whip up support for the Democratic promise to keep intact Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The president's plan to cut costs, not benefits, if presented well, will be very positively received by the public.

The president should announce a plan to increase the cap on income subject to Social Security... even a partial rise (i.e, not just removing it altogether)...in this income cap would make SS solvent permanently, according to various sources. This, too, would be very popular if sold correctly:

THEY want to privatize and slash MEDICARE, MEDICAID and Social Security. WE will not let that happen: We will control costs for Medicare and Medicaid while retaining the essential benefits to seniors and the poor, and we will strengthen Social Security, by requiring those who can most afford it to pay a little more towards the program, so that Social Security will be there for all working people when the time comes. Which future do you want for you and your family? VOTE DEMOCRATIC. RE-ELECT PRESIDENT OBAMA 2012. 

Like that. 

Thank you.

Private Health Insurers will OPPOSE Evil Republican Plan to Kill Medicare

TPM today has an interesting, and perhaps a little bit counterintuitive, point to make about the Evil Ryan Plan ("ERP," as in the sound one makes when throwing up), as I like to call it.

Which is that private health insurers will almost certainly oppose it. Why? Simple. They like Medicare. They don't want to offer insurance to seniors with coupons from the government. Too many headaches, too much administration, not enough profit.

Now I've made clear my belief that for profit health insurance and even for profit health care providers are essentially legalized rackets that should not be tolerated at all in a civilized society, but if they want to oppose the ERP, we have to accept alliance with them, and welcome their help in shooting down the Evil Republican Plan to Kill Medicare.

President HAS called the Republicans' Bluff

On digesting things a day or two, I agree with Krugman in today's NY Times... the president did indeed, in Wednesday's speech, "call the bluff" of the Republicans and their vicious, deceptive, and mean-spirited plan to shift even more wealth to the very rich while destroying the most important social systems our country has yet produced. See Krugman's op-ed in today's NY Times. 

If this president means what he says, and this is a firm commitment, which I am prepared to take at his word, we have an opportunity to begin rebuilding a real Progressive Coalition, including the mainstream of the Democratic party. This is my hope.

14 April 2011

The President must now sell the values he expressed in his speech

I have expressed my apprehensiveness about the likelihood, as Paul Krugman noted, that the positions the president took in yesterday's speech would be like a "left pole," from which very negative motion to the right was inevitable.

But after noting the reaction of the Republicans, and Paul Ryan in particular, I'm convinced that the more serious problem is that the other side is totally insane. 

What the president laid out was, by the standards of Depression and postwar America up to and even including the years of the 2d Bush administration, entirely reasonable and even moderate fiscal and social policy. Nothing to see here, business as usual; even a little bit fiscally conservative (which is actually more typical of Democrats than Republicans... when they have the White House.

I hope the president realizes that he must not just pursue a strategy of splitting the difference to reach a "compromise." He needs to get out there and convince the American people of the essential rightness of what he said. Of course, as a Progressive, I have many differences of opinion even with the president's scheme. (Why $3 in cuts for each $1 in tax increases ? Should be the other way around. Why nothing about unemployment? A stronger case for public investment as an essential priority? Etc.)

But I believe, and polling consistently shows, that, shorn of the propaganda halo the Republicans seem to be so good at, most of the ideas in the Ryan "Cause Not a Budget" are deeply, deeply unpopular in this country. Now it is the job of the President and the Democrats across the board to communicate this to the American people, boldly and relentlessly. 

Paul Ryan has said that the president's speech was "so partisan" that a budget deal is impossible. I say, take him at his word. Forget about a negotiated budget deal. Appeal directly to the people. Even encourage Wisconsin style demonstrations, in Washington. We need to make it clear that the 2010 election was pure reaction, pure unfocused anger, and the reality is that the great majority of Americans do not want what the Republicans are selling. 

If the president does this, I will be behind him. This speech should be the first klaxon of a great campaign to win over the American people, that seques into his re-election campaign and a great effort to target the most vulnerable House Republicans and work like hell to try to take back the House in 12.

But if he just triangulates and deals with these Radical Rightists, I will focus my energies on gradually rebuilding a real opposition, which I can only hope and pray will one day amass enough political power to undo the Rightist Coup D'Etat which we have seen unfolding in various ways since 2000.

13 April 2011

My e-mail to my congressman about the president's speech

Dear Congressman Berman,

Now that we have heard the President's speech, it is incumbent upon all Democrats in Congress to uphold as a firm commitment the Democratic principles underlying it. President Obama said quite clearly that the rich must pay a larger share of the burden of government. So, we must not allow the Republicans to roll over us and pass budget cuts without revenue enhancements. Mr. Obama said that the Bush Tax Cuts for the rich will not be extended again. We must make sure that doesn't happen. Mr. Obama said that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security must be preserved, with no vouchers or privatization, and with cost containment as the only permissible reforms. We must stand absolutely firm on this, even more adamantly perhaps than what the president said.

I commend to you the IPS report on taxation: here .

I have written to you, and to the White House, before, urging that we Democrats NOT allow the Republicans to set the agenda, or to use the threat of shutdown, the budget, or the debt ceiling, as a form of "hostage crisis" to get their way on policy and their opposition to offsetting revenue increases. We need to be prepared to call their bluff. As Paul Krugman has said, rather than having the president's plan be a sort of "left pole" and the Evil Ryan "cause not a budget" be the other pole, with something in the middle emerging, we must stand for our principles. Krugman said today that a "Zero Option" of just letting ALL the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012 is actually preferable to being rolled... again... by the Republicans.

I hope you see these issues this way. We in the DWDT ("Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party") are sick and tired of watching the Republicans get away with hostage crisis after hostage crisis, setting the frame and terms of every debate, and winning far more than the popularity of their ideas would ever justify. We must be prepared to fight, we must articulate OUR agenda, and we must call upon the American people to support it, including by protesting in the streets of Washington if need be.

I know we can count on you in this epic struggle.

Thank you.
David Studhalter

PBS: Goat's Blog... uncomfortably familiar feeling

President's 2 Firm Commitments

I will give Pres. Obama credit for 2 firm commitments he made in today's speech. 1) That he will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program while he's president; and 2) He will not go along with another extension of the Bush Tax Cuts for the rich.

While these are clearly not nearly enough, they are something.

I stand by my assertions that we in the DWDP (Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party) need to keep the pressure on the President to remember who his base is, not take us for granted, and not be so anxious to reach a compromise that he sells the store before even getting to the table (as he has done in the past too often). We need some bold leadership from this president, even if it means calling the Republicans' bluff, and allowing some negative consequences to come down as a result, because in the long run, we have to show them that we will not roll for them every time, and in fact, we're coming charging back and will be rolling THEM soon.

Initial Response: the devil is in the details

My initial response to the president's speech is that it wasn't quite as horrible as I feared, but that the devil is in the details. He did not make a firm commitment to no major changes in Social Security, and it seems to me once again he's meeting the Republicans more than halfway, and allowing their framing of the issues with regard to how important the debt is right now (I think less than he is saying), to prevail. He's still letting them set the agenda.

Also, if this is the starting point, he is effectively admitting that the outcome, the actual policy, will no doubt be worse. 

I did like that he included military spending cuts, but there were no specific targets.

I also liked that he at least stated the principle that the rich should pay more, but there was nothing specific. He could have given some detail about just how hugely the taxes the rich pay have come down in the last 50 years, but he missed that opportunity.

All in all, I will say this: there is at least a possibility from this speech to stand up for the American people and prevent the evisceration of essential programs, and at least start to restore the taxation of the very rich that will be necessary to address the gross income inequality that's a big part of the problem, and which the president didn't even mention.

But if this is just a prelude to more cave-ins to the Republicans, which is what I fear, I will stick to my stated intention to oppose this president's policies, in favor of more progressive policies. In other words, to be part of an in-party opposition from the left, in hopes of putting pressure on this president to be aware that he must stand up for our interests, even if it means a showdown rather than conciliation with the Rightists. They certainly have shown willingness to play this kind of hardball; we need to MAKE Obama do likewise.

Live Blog on President's Speech

So far, so good. He's talking about how from those with more, more must be expected.
We must restore fiscal responsibility. The video is breaking up, but he's saying "We have to live within our means" "pay down the debt," etc. Let's see how much he talks bout the revenue side as opposed to cutting essential social programs.

11:00  He's saying the interest on the debt will squeeze out other priorities if not addressed.

We can solve this problem, doesn't have to be our future. Have to be honest about what's causing our deficit.
Spending popular, higher taxes aren't. Politicians eager to say all we need to do is eliminate waste and abuse, but that isn't enough.

Foreign aid 1%.

Truth: 2/3 of budget is medicare, medicaid, social security, and national security. Only 12% is "Discretionary."

Much of which is really important, too.

So far, Repubs want to focus only on 12%.

Any serious plan requires us to put everything on the table.
Not required to balance budget overnite, but we need tough decisions now.

Mentioning Ryan plan, gives him credit.  (Boo).
Now saying Ryan plan would lead to a "fundamentally different America than what we've known."
Big cuts in education, transportation, clean energy.
Not waste or excess.
These cuts say we can't afford the America we believe in.
Deeply pessimistic view of the future. Can't afford to fix crumbling infrastructure, educate our youth.
China is doing better, so is So. Korea.
We're being told that America can't afford any investment, or to keep promise to care for our seniors.
Plan says instead of guaranteed health care, you get a voucher, if not enough, tough. Ends Medicare as we know it.
Says 50 million Americans have to lose health insur. in order to balance the budget.
Mentions nursing home care.
Somehow we can afford $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy.
Mentions decline in ordinary folks' income. (yay).
Questions need for rich to pay less taxes!? (yay)
Takes 33 seniors to pay for president's tax cut.
Not courageous. No courage in asking the most vulnerable without political clout to make all the sacrifices.

So far so good.

We take responsibility. We built a railroad across a continent. GI Bill. Saved seniors from poverty with Soc. Sec. + Medicare.

We don't have to forfeit our investment in our people and our country.

We will all have to make sacrifices (MMmm)
As long as I'm president we wont.
4 Trillion in deficit reduction thru balanced approach.
Every kind of spending on the table.

1st step:  Keep annual domestic spending low, building on budget negotiations.
No sacrifice in core investments to grow jobs.
We will win the future.
2d step: find additional savings in "Defense" budget.
No cuts that compromise defense of homeland or "America's interests." Debt itself is a threat to security. We can find savings while still doing this job.
We need to not only eliminate waste, but fundamentally review mission and role in the Changing World. Pres. will make decisions.
3d Further reduce Health Care Spending. Their plan: make seniors and poor to pay. OBama plan: reduce the cost of health care itself. (Good)
We will reduce wasting money, and we will demand more efficiency, cut drug costs. New incentives for lower costs. Look at all evidence to reduce spending while protecting access. Strengthen MEDICARE + MEdicaid will save 500 billion without cutting essential services. Obama will preserve HC programs as a promise we make. No voucher program with shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs (Yay). No abandonment of fundamental commitment.
Includes commitment to Soc Sec.
Soc Sec not cause of deficit, but needs to be strengthened. No slashing of benefits. No privatization.
It can be done. (Ick). Very vague, and no commitment to no increase in ret. age. or cut in benefits.
4th.  TAX expenditures. Agreed to Bush tax cut extension to avoid tax increases on Middle Class. Draws line: refuse to extend them again.

Eliminate many itemized deductions.
Limiting itemized deductions for wealthiest 2% saves 320 Billion.
Go further: reform individual tax code to make it fair and simple.
Reducing tax expenditures to lower deficit.
Also reform corporate tax code.

If recovery goes well, we can make better progress.
Debt fail safe: if by 2014, if debt not falling as share of economy: plan requires more spending cuts and "spending" reductions in tax code. Incentive to act boldly now.

We need to live within means while investing in future: everyone sacrifices, but no one bears all burden.

11:23 Many will disagree. Some will argue no new taxes ever.
Tax burden on rich lowest in half a century. The richest can pay "a little" more.
Most wealthy Americans would actually agree, he says.
Washington needs to ask more from the rich.

Others say we shouldn't even talk about cutting spending until there is recovery. Use scalpel, not machete, to reduce deficit.
Doing nothing is not an option.
Need to begin process to get fiscal house in order.
Some say no reforms to MED,MED,SSN because of fear of Republican type changes. Obama says reforms needed in order to make programs sustainable. (Hmmmm)

"We have obligation to prove we can afford our commitments."
Smarter, leaner, more effective.

Some say that politics is too divisive, no way to come together.
He says he has some sympathy for this view.
First Bush raised taxes.
Clinton found a way to balance the budget.
Some Republicans agree with balanced approach.
End of June: final agreement to reduce deficit. Biden will coordinate.
We need to bridge differences and find common ground (Impossible!)
Debate gets sharper. That's OK... this is an important debate.
We need to think about our country that made liberty policy, think about our fellow citizens, and about what's retired to preserve the American dream for future generations. Not a partisan idea. It's patriotism.
Quotes Florida man "I believe in that great country my grandfather told me about."
We need to use our dollars here, restoring what our Ancestors struggled to create and maintain; regardless of politics, etc.
Still believes that if we can come together and uphold our responsibilities to each other we can pass on that dream to the future, etc.

My e-mail to the authors of the IPS report on revenue

Farflung correspondents,

I sent this to one of the authors of the Institute for Policy Studies Report on the need for Revenue Reform previously discussed. Here.

Mr. Collins:

I heard your co-author Scott Klinger being interviewed by Ian Masters on Background Briefing (KPFK-FM Los Angeles, ianmasters.com), and immediately went to this report. I admire its succinct and direct argument.

I have several times had arguments with friends about the wisdom of a financial speculation transaction tax. I was surprised by the magnitude of your estimate on this tax, but I thought your idea of exempting small investors was a good one. I truly believe that the kind of rapid speculative trading that has become de riguer on Wall Street amounts to parasitism, so I applaud this concept.

I imagine that you considered carefully what would have the greatest revenue side positive impact without harming the interests of middle class and working people, but it occurred to me that there were at least two areas of revenue enhancement that might have well been included:
  • Raising or even eliminating entirely the income caps on Payroll Taxes, without changing the income limitations on benefits
  • Limiting the mortgage interest deduction to one house or condo, and to a fixed interest amount that would be roughly commensurate with the interest on a recently purchased home affordable in one of the higher price zones by a family or individual with less than $200,000 income (however that might be best formulated). (Anyone who can afford more than that should not be subsidized).
I would also like to see an "infinitely progressive" scheme, rather than brackets; i.e., a curve that would be applied to income (past a threshold) to determine tax rates. In this computer age, the arithmetic simplification tool of "tax brackets" is unnecessary.

But more importantly, I think that taxes even on more moderately well off people, say, >$80,000 for individuals and>$160,000 for couples, needs to be increased; modestly in the lower end, and as you get closer to the threshold you mention, at a rate that smoothly transitions to the new higher taxes you are proposing.

Right now, it is probably politically infeasible to enact tax significant tax increases, but we need to keep pushing the idea, until people like the protesting teachers and fire fighters in Wisconsin and Ohio, and others who are naturally sympathetic to them, start to understand that the "Cut taxes" mantra of the Republicans since Reagan at least has actually decimated our country, and we want the nation ready and able to help minimize gross economic inequality and make public investments for prosperity of all the people back.

Thank you.

David Studhalter

12 April 2011

IPS: some simple revenue reforms we desperately need

The Institute for Policy Studies report linked to in the post below (and here), contains a simple set of revenue reforms that all Progressives need to get behind:

These five tax revenue reforms could raise a total of as much as $4 trillion over the next decade:
  • Establish several higher income tax brackets for millionaires: $60–80 billion a year
  • Scrap overseas corporate tax havens: $100 billion a year
  • Introduce a modest financial transaction tax: $150 billion a year
  • Revamp the estate tax to include progressive rates: $25 billion a year 
  • End preferential treatment for dividends and capital gains: $88 billion  
I would add to this, removal of the income cap for FICA and Medicare taxes, which would make these programs more fiscally sound over time as well.

There simply is no substitute for revenue-side redress of the government's financial problems, and Democrats need to step up to the mike and say so.

Fighting the Budget and Austerity Hoax

We in the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party simply must find a way to combat this giant budget and spending-cut hoax being perpetrated by the Republicans with feckless opposition from our party.

PLEASE READ this excellent Institute for Policy Studies report by Alison Goldberg, Chuck Collins, Sam Pizzigati and Scott Klinger: Unnecessary Austerity, Unnecessary Shutdown.
"If corporations and households amassing $1 million or more in income each year paid taxes at the same rates as they did in 1961, the Treasury would collect an additional $716 billion a year — $7 trillion over a decade."
 Our society has become vastly more unequal in terms of who pays for essential services, and who reaps the rewards, than it was fifty years ago. We, the people, must DO WHATEVER IT TAKES to begin reversing this trend.  And a big, big part of that is to go back to demanding that the very rich and corporations that want the privilege of doing business in the USA must pay a much, much larger share of the cost of maintaining a civil society.

The Republicans want to destroy the Middle Class. We, the people, must STOP tolerating deception and lies, and stop accepting the myth that there should be no revenue side to the solution to America's long term fiscal problems. We must demand that a more equitable share of the burden be transferred to the very rich and corporations, so that essential public services on which working people and the beleaguered remnants of the Middle Class depend, can be preserved, ans so that resources to make vital public investments in infrastructure and renewable energy will exist. It could hardly be more clear that the future prosperity and essential character of our nation as a government of, by, and for the people is at stake.

Dean Baker: Paul Ryan in Your Pockets; government by people who hate you; and a rant: Mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore‼

If you want a really succinct statement of just how much the Republican party is perpetrating a gigantic swindle on the American people, pretending to represent the interests of ordinary folks, when in fact they represent the interests of those who are so greedy they want every last dollar, and only their interests, read this recent op-ed by co-founder of the Center for Economic Policy Research, Dean Baker, Paul Ryan in your Pockets: Government by People Who Hate You.

We progressives are not represented well by the Democratic party; that's clear. The Republicans are perpetrating a big hoax: the idea that cutting spending will increase jobs and restore the economy to full employment. The opposite is more likely to be true; and if you look not even at the fine details but the major tenets of the Republican "cause not a budget," they have no interest in cutting the debt. Their budget doesn't do this, at all. They say it does, but only in magic land would it ever happen. They project 2.8% unemployment from their magic trickle down system, that's been proven not to work. They want to further cut taxes on the rich, which would accelerate the government into insolvency, not "balance the budget."

(If you have any doubt about this, consider history. Most of the current national debt was run up under Republican presidents. The only balanced budgets in the last 40 years were under Democratic presidents. Under George W. Bush, they set up a vastly expensive national security and surveillance infrastructure, started two wars that are still going on, and created a boondoggle Medicare prescription drug benefit that was more of a giveaway to Big Pharma than a real benefit to America's seniors (although partly fixed by HCR), all without paying for any of it; they just added it to the debt while cutting taxes for the rich. I call that irresponsible to the point of being unpatriotic.)

I honestly think whoever is calling  the shots in the Republican policy machine is being given marching orders by people who have gone insane with greed; who want every last dollar from ordinary people they can get, and who care so little about the long term well being of the American people (synonymous with America itself), that they are willing to enact policies that give short term gain to a tiny oligarchy while destroying America. And they have gamed the system, including ownership and control of the media, legalization of corruption the buying of political power, and masterful use of propaganda techniques and political brinksmanship, to do it.

The Democrats, who have no clear progressive economic agenda, led by a president who has made quite clear that he has no intention of creating or leading one, are feckless, weak, beaten back, and losing this fight.

We progressives just have to start organizing. Start taking to the streets and saying, America is not broke! The rich have it all. And we're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it anymore!

11 April 2011

Ryan plan must be declared D.O.A.

Even conservative economists are acknowledging that the "Cause not a Budget" being put forward by supposedly oh-so-responsible darling of the likes of the Economist and the Beltway Media Kool-aiders, Paul Ryan, is based on totally implausible numbers and utterly fails to address the revenue side of any realistic fiscal plan. See this.

Dems need to step up to the mike and say clearly, loudly, and often: "D.O.A."

10 April 2011

Why this is not (yet) the Space Age; and why the Star Trek universe does not and cannot exist

More than a year ago now I promised my correspondents and blog readers to essay an explanation, as I put it then, for Why this is not (yet) the Space Age; what a Space Age might actually be like (and why the 'Star Trek' Universe does not and cannot exist). Sorry for the delay, in the unlikely event anyone was actually waiting for it.

I'm not truly prepared to go into all this comprehensively, but I have read a fair amount that touches on the physical realities that circumscribe this issue, and have what I hope is a fairly realistic grasp of what the limits and parameters actually are. So I'll take a stab at explaining those points. There are really two topics here: Space Flight Near the Sun, and Interstellar Travel. Both have limiting factors that most people, even people who like to watch Battlestar Galactica or such like, don't really understand. 

I will leave out for now much in the way of commentary about What a Space Age might actually be like; leaving that for a later speculative post.  

1. Solar System Space Travel and Colonization.

Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s it was blithely assumed by many people, some of whom actually did understand the physics and chemistry of space flight and rocketry, etc., that the very difficult problems associated with the energetics and economics of even near-Earth and intra-Solar System space flight would be readily solved, and that we as a civilization really were on the verge of an Age of Space. People like Gerard O'Neill and many “hard science fiction” writers pictured space colonies in orbit around the Earth and the Sun by now. Colonies on the Moon and Mars were seriously envisioned, and whole schemes for terraforming (making more Earthlike) at least Mars, were devised and discussed seriously. Projections were drawn up whereby the all but prohibitive cost of lifting even modest masses (like the mass of a person), off the surface of the Earth and into space, would come down, in much the same way that the cost of computer power and memory has been exponentially reduced.

This has not happened, and there are no indications that it is about to. The essential problem is that, unlike information technology, space travel requires a lot of expensive energy, a lot of expensive equipment to make it possible for human beings to survive in a really, really inhospitable environment, and a lot of time. Even within the Solar System, apart from near Earth orbit, which is reasonably accessible, especially for unmanned vehicles (although still quite expensive to get to), everything is very far away by terrestrial standards. And not only that, but moving. So, while the computations of celestial dynamics are quite tractable with computer assistance, it takes a lot of “delta-V,” which is space talk for energy necessary to change your velocity to match that of your destination, and a lot of time, to get anywhere. And space is dangerous. It's full of lethal radiation, and you have to take everything you're going to need with you. It's proven to be inordinately expensive to send humans into space for any purpose at all, and the costs have not dropped significantly. Only governments, with huge resources and no need to show economic justification (usually) can even attempt it. Sure, there are some private ventures hoping to send rich assholes into space for pure ego-trip reasons, but I discount that as non-serious. Economically, widespread human space travel just isn't to hand.

Now, will it ever be? Sure. There are potential technologies, like space elevators, and exotic propulsion ideas, that will no doubt eventually result in humans being able to use space for more than just machines like satellites to provide TV signals and imagery of Earth. Even colonies in orbit, or on Mars or the asteroids. I don't doubt it'll happen, but it's not about to happen. This is not the Space Age. We have the capability to launch satellites and robot probes to explore the Solar System, and to put humans in orbit or possibly, at huge expense, even send them to a planet or two, just to show it can be done. But there will be no significant living in space or colonization of space, anytime soon. The bottom line (that hated expression) is that for now, it's just too damn expensive. 

Another point: as my uncle pointed out to a younger me when I was arguing for the concept of space colonization, why would we consider the vast cost of colonizing orbit, or the Moon, or Mars, when we haven't even found it economically justifiable to colonize the surface of the ocean, or Antarctica, where there is readily available, breathable air? The concept of space colonization, for the foreseeable future, just doesn't make economic sense.  

2. Interstellar Travel.

Even more remote is the prospect of traveling “to the Stars.” It was a favorite meme of classic Science Fiction that technology would solve the truly intractable problems of sending anything, (even information traveling at the speed of light) to “the stars.” I used to read, back in the 70s and even 80s, about various ideas, such as “Bussard Ramjets” (see Wikipedia article), “ion drive,” “laser drive,” etc. that might make interstellar vehicles possible. Some optimists, like the scifi writers Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, wrote how the curve of technological advance should reassure us that pure science theoretical breakthroughs would probably happen, and the problem of practical interstellar travel would probably be solved by the end of the 20th century. Hmmm. Not so much, it would seem.

The problems of energetics and economy of space travel within the solar system are exponentially increased with interstellar distances. Those very distances, combined with the hard facts of physics, make it utterly infeasible, in fact, for travel of anything physical to other stars in anything like a fraction of a human lifetime. The best technology that now exists, irrespective of cost, could not transport even a minimal dead weight to the nearest star in less than, at minimum, a millennium or more. Even signals traveling at the speed of light take years, if not centuries, to reach potentially interesting destinations “out there” in the Galaxy.

One of the reasons, of course, is the fact that interstellar distances are so very, very great. See this, which comments on this.

Star Trek and other science fiction is partly based on the fanciful postulate of various means of traveling faster than light, such as “warp drive,” “hyperdrive,” “star gates,” “wormholes,” etc., but none of these is really anything more than wishful thinking, at this point. No one has the first clue how to actually do this, in the sense that Benjamin Franklin might have at least been able to conceive of transporting electricity through a wire to do useful work. We can’t even really intelligently speculate, at a conceptual level, how any kind of “FTL” could possibly work. What’s described in fiction is really just magic.

And this is unsurprising. Because, in reality, traveling, or even communicating, faster than light can traverse space, is actually impossible, for a variety of technical reasons. Not only is it impossible, but it is the logical equivalent of traveling backward in time, which creates logical paradoxes. Why this is so is complicated. This article, which assumes at least a certain fluency in the conceptual language of science, does a pretty fair job of explaining this.   

Then there is the Fermi paradox, which I already discussed here. Think about it. If, as most people assume, the universe fairly regularly configures itself in such a way that intelligent life evolves and reaches a technological level more advanced than we are now, wouldn’t it follow that, if it were actually possible to travel faster than light and visit large numbers of stars in short periods of time, then others would have preceded us and done this? It’s easy to calculate that if a civilization existed even for just a few tens of thousands of years with this capability, it would have time to visit every single star in the Galaxy. So, if this kind of interstellar migration and colonization were actually feasible, at some time in the billions of years that the Galaxy has been in more or less its present form and configuration, someone would have already done this, which would mean that they had been here, to Earth. The evidence that this has never happened is not absolutely conclusive, but, on the other hand, there is absolutely no reason to conclude that it ever did happen either, so you’re left with at least some reason to conclude that interstellar travel and colonization, while not theoretically totally impossible, are not easily accomplished. And the concept that even if it ever does occur or has occurred, elsewhere in the universe (which I imagine it has), it has not involved the ability to travel faster than light. Instead, it has been a very long-term proposition undertaken only by the most advanced and mature civilizations.

Which we aren’t. And which we won’t be, I’ll venture to say without much fear of being proven wrong, for a good, long time.

Non political: Problems with Inflationary Theory (Cosmology, not dollars and sense)

As part of an occasional foray into other than politics, this is from an e-mail I sent to a friend who shares my interest in such things:

There's an article in the current Scientific American about the rather serious ... maybe fatal... theoretical problems that have cropped up in the Inflationary Cosmological Theory, (first proposed by Alan Guth and presented by him in a general public pop sci book in 1998 The Inflationary Universe, perhaps you read it).

The gist as I get it is that the whole attraction of inflation (which I confess I never really grasped) was basically twofold: 1. It explains the current state of the universe in ways that most people trying to make numbers work with an unadorned Big Bang couldn't seem to get to work; and 2. it provides a mechanism for "smoothing out," and vastly increasing the volume of, the universe in the first few zillionths of a second, which makes the relatively but not quite perfectly flat and uniform universe we now see conceivable.

The gist of the new problems, if I understand them, is that it turns out that Quantum theory mandates that inflation is eternal; but that in regions of space time it might come to an end (like a ball rolling down a hill and coming to rest in the valley of the energy curve). Our universe is such a region. Fine, but quantum physics requires that what we see... such a spontaneous end of inflation very soon after the BB, is actually extremely unlikely. Later such regions would be equally if not more habitable, and far more likely. So they must predominate in  the meta universe. But then, why are we a special case? There isn't even an anthropic principle answer. It seems like Inflation requires a lot of special pleading, which is the death knell of a scientific theory. The main problem is that in its current form it necessitates a prediction that everything that's possible happens, and this particular universe is rather odd and unlikely, so the theory predicts nothing useful: lots of other possibilities would and presumably do also exist in other regions. Over a broad swath of possible universes, ours would be spectacularly rare and unlikely. Of course that doesn't mean it can't exist, but it's unsatisfying to pursue a theory that makes reality as we know it a highly unlikely special case, without even the anthropic principle to explain it.

The article's author, Paul Steinhardt, favors a new kind of cyclic theory, wherein Big Bangs are part of oscillations in the Meta Universe, and that's where the smoothing out occurs. Unfortunately, at the nonmathematical conceptual level of pop sci writing it's very difficult to assess what makes sense and what doesn't; we pretty much have to wait for people much smarter than we are to figure out all the logical problems and observational confirmations, and to tell us what's what.

Anyway, I ordered a couple of relatively recent books that at least touch on these topics, and hopefully they'll give some sense of current cosmological thinking:  Caroll; From Eternity to Here; the Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time; and, Steinhardt and Turok; Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang -- Rewriting Cosmic History.

Just intuitively, and partly from a Buddhist bias in favor of what's referred to as "beginningless time" this seems right to me. Regions, like the "universe", may have beginnings, may expand "forever" and evaporate into entropy, but there's always other beginnings, other expansions, other life, other time.

My e-mail to the White House: seizing the agenda

My e-mail to the White House today:

The Republicans are now crowing about how they forced the president to "capitulate" in the budget negotiations, which, unfortunately, is indeed the way it's being largely perceived.

Reports that the president will address his own "deficit plan" soon are also disturbing. Progressive economists, whose formulations reflect what the majority of Democrats really want, have explained that cutting the deficit is not the main concern in a time when we have over 20 million chronically unemployed and the risk of a double dip recession is far from over.

Suggestions of cuts to Medicare and Medicaid are very disconcerting. These programs are ESSENTIAL elements of any Democratic program. The only acceptable program reforms are in the area of increasing caps on income subject to payroll taxes and in controlling costs; not in reducing services, and, for God's sake, not in anything even remotely smacking of privatization. How someone like Alice Rivlin thinks that it would be helpful to turn any part of Medicare over to profit making businesses that spend far more than Medicare for administration and have the inherent conflict of interest of seeking to minimize service and maximize profit, is totally beyond me.

The president's plan for fiscal health of our nation needs to focus on reforming taxes, to cut out corporate loopholes, raise (or eliminate) the cap on income subject to payroll taxes, outlaw corporate offshoring, reform free trade to protect American workers, and, ESPECIALLY, greatly increase actual taxation on the very rich, who have had what amounts to a free ride for a long time.

There has been the beginning of a sea change in American politics, which the president has yet to get a hold of. There IS an opportunity to seize control of the agenda: stop accepting the Republican frame for what needs to be done. Go to the people, and lay out the VERY BIG picture, and explain in plain but realistic language exactly, from a Democratic perspective, needs to be done. And exactly WHY that would be so much better, and so much more in the interests of ordinary Americans as opposed to corporations and the very rich, than what the Rightist Republican party wants to do.

Thank you.

09 April 2011

My letter to my Congressman

I sent this to my congressman, Howard Berman.

Dear Congressman Berman,

With the threatened GOP-caused shutdown successfully averted, I'm writing to urge you NOT to be one of the first to vote for it! The reason is that I think the Democrats need to force the Republicans to vote for this bill. Democrats should abstain until the last minute, and vote for it only if it would otherwise be defeated.

This bill actually is really lousy for America. With 22½ million chronically unemployed, we should be doing more public investment, not cutting discretionary spending. Cuts should be made in military spending, the security state, etc., where bang for the buck both in meaningful security for our country and economic stimulus is dubious at best. Politically, we Democrats need to get back the initiative. This whole budget negotiation was on the GOP's terms: not whether, but how much to cut; and where; and how much of their immaterial policy agenda they got to blackmail out of us.

Going forward, we need to do a much better job of putting forward OUR agenda: public investment in renewable energy, cuts only in mandatory spending areas where the value to the American people is dubious, OFFSETTING closing of tax loopholes for corporations and tax breaks for the very rich, INCREASES in income caps for social security and medicare (Rather than eviscerating cuts and privatization) to ensure these programs' fiscal future; and higher taxes on the very rich. Of course with the Rightists in the majority, we will have to negotiate, but our message, and our agenda, must AT LEAST be lain on the table.

Please see: studhalter.blogspot.com.

I support Robert Reich's concepts of a PEOPLE's PARTY to counterbalance the Tea Party, and I hope you do as well. See here: http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/03/10/the_principles_of_the_peoples_party/

I know we, your constituents, can count on you and thank you for the opportunity to express my views.

David Studhalter

I support the People's Party wholeheartedly

I've made reference to this before, but in the wake of the "budget deal" where the Democratic party... yet again... met the minority Rightists who still control our government more than halfway, and, more especially, essentially totally allowed them to set the terms of the negotiations  (i.e, how much, not whether to cut, and where, and whether they got their irrelevant policy blackmails through or not)... I want to reiterate my strong support for the principles of the PEOPLE's PARTY to counterbalance the Tea Party, as succinctly laid out by Robert Reich here.

The People's Party is dedicated to the truth that America is a rich nation - richer by far than any other, richer than it's ever been. The People's Party rejects the claims of plutocrats who want us to believe we can no longer afford to live decently - who are cutting the wages and benefits of most people, attacking unions, and squeezing public budgets. The People's Party will not allow them to turn us against one another - unionized against non-unionized, public employee against private employee, immigrant against native born. Nor will the People's Party allow the privileged and powerful to distract us from the explosive concentration of income and wealth at the top, the decline in taxes paid by the top, and their increasing and untrammeled political power.
We have joined together to reverse these trends and to promote a working people's bill of rights. We are committed to:
1. Increasing the pay and bargaining power of average working people. We'll stop efforts to destroy unions and collective bargaining rights. Protect workers who try to form unions from being fired. Make it easier for workers to form unions through simple up-or-down votes at the workplace.
2. Requiring America's super-rich to pay their fair share. Increase top marginal tax rates and the number of tax brackets at the top. Treat income from capital gains the same as ordinary income. Restore the estate tax. Revoke the citizenship of anyone found to be sheltering income abroad.
3. Protecting and expanding government programs vital to the working middle class and the poor. These include Social Security, K-12 education, Pell Grants for disadvantaged students, public transportation, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
4. Ending corporate welfare and cutting military outlays. Trim defense spending. End special tax subsidies for specific corporations or industries - at both state and federal levels. Cut agricultural subsidies.
5. Saving Social Security while making it more progressive. Exempt the first $20,000 of income from Social Security taxes. Make up the difference - and any need for additional Social Security revenues - by raising the ceiling on income subject to the Social Security payroll tax.
6. Ending Wall Street's dominance of the economy and preventing any future taxpayer-funded bailout. Break up Wall Street's largest banks and put a cap their size. Link pay on the Street to long-term profits rather than short-term speculation. Subject all financial transactions to a one-tenth of one percent transactions tax.
7. Fully enforcing regulations that protect workers, consumers, small investors, and the environment. Raise penalties on corporations that violate them. Expand enforcement staffs. Provide more private rights of action.
8. Providing affordable health care to all Americans. The new health law isn't enough. We'll fight for a single payer - making Medicare available to all. End fee-for-service and create "accountable-care" organizations that focus on healthy outcomes.
9. Slowing and eventually reversing climate change. We'll fight to limit carbon emissions. Impose a ceiling on emissions or a carbon tax on polluters. Return the revenues from these to the American people, in the form of tax cuts for the working middle class.
10. Getting big money out of politics. We'll fight to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overrule Citizens United v. FEC. Require full disclosure of all contributions for or against any candidate. Provide full public financing for all presidential, gubernatorial, and legislative candidates in all general elections.
 I would add a point 11.

11.  Scaling Back America's Overseas Military Empire. We will examine every aspect of the Constitutional responsibility of the government to protect America. But we will work to scale back unnecessary military procurement and maintenance of overseas forces and bases that are not necessary for that effort. We favor the abolition of the Dept. of Homeland Security and the restoration to the military and previously existent law enforcement agencies the responsibility to keep America safe and enforce the law.