Thursday, January 31, 2013

Did winter storm "Magnus" result from climate change?


Was this weeks “winter super storm” (Magnus) a sign of climate change?  Probably so. Although "cold-core", it was almost like a winter version of another Sandy, almost like a land tropical storm.  

The damage in Georgia sounds horrible.  In northern Virginia, it got warmer Tuesday than it should have, and didn’t drop much below 60 degrees Tuesday night.  Wednesday, it clouded over quickly, but stayed near 70 degrees (away from the river) all day. 

In the spring, that would be all right.  But in the winter, the air in a cold front coming behind is much colder, creating the likelihood of severe storms. 

Even so, as the front approached northern VA Wednesday afternoon, the line in front of it seemed weaker.  Then it stalled, and a line started overrunning it from the south.  Storm lines that train from south to north can sometimes be much more dangerous than lines that simply move from west to east and go away. 

At 6:30 PM, the NWS issued a “tornado watch” for the DC area.  There was no such watch farther south until you got to the Carolinas.  On the WJLA and Weather.com maps, you could see little hooks in the areas of heavy rain.  That means rotation aloft.  At 5000 feet, the wind speeds were said to be 90 mph. 

Fortunately, the rain wasn’t quite heavy enough to bring any of the rotation down to the ground. 

Finally, at 8 PM, the first “line” arrived in north Arlington, VA.  In the areas below the hilltops (the Trinity Presbyterian Church outdoor chapel is on one of the “protective” high points), a bit sheltered, there wasn’t much wind, and the cold rain was moderate, lasting fifteen minutes.  (This often happens.  In northern VA, areas to the south and east of DC seem more vulnerable to the worst storms, as I found out when I lived in Annandale in the 1990s.)  It took the temperature down ten degrees.  The worst should have been over.
  
But then it warmed back up.  A second line formed and came through about midnight.  Again, not too bad right here.  But reports of outages and downed trees were coming in.  Nothing went out right here. 

But with climate change, it seems as tough the storms are getting more complex, with more moisture, stronger winds, and much higher volumes of water.  Areas never exposed to flood could be,  and long tracking tornadoes could occur even in the mid-Atlantic, where so far they have been rare.

I dread to think of this same setup at the end of March, with outdoor temperatures say in the low 80s, high dew points, and a cold front with temperatures just a little warmer than what we had this time.  There could have been catastrophic tornadoes much further north.  I wonder if the March 1993 "Storm of the Century" could have produced tornadoes had it formed farther west (instead of a blizzard).  The "backside" or "thundersnow" of that storm produced one of the highest per-hour snowfall rates ever seen in northern VA.  
     
And it’s difficult to build your own life, if the infrastructure around you is becoming less stable. You become more dependent on others where you accept it or not.  

Here is some video of the Adairsville GA  tornado


I visited nearby Cartersville GA in 1998, to visit Sharon Harris and “Adovcates for Self-Government”   I remember, “two wrongs don’t make a right”. 

Note, below: My Droid "severe alert" (from the severe thunderstorm warning at 7:30 PM) won't go away. 


Monday, January 28, 2013

Opening all combat positions to women could mean women register for the draft (or could it mean the end of Selective Service registration forever?)


On Monday, January 28, 2013, the Washington Post has a Letter by David Dixon, pointing out that the opening of all combat areas to women in the military removes the one reason the Supreme Court have given in 1981 for upholding the male-only draft (Selective Service) registration, in the case Rostker v. Goldberg.  That opinion had been predicated on the idea that women could not perform some combat duties.  Now, there is a legal case for saying that women should be required to register for Sel;ective Service if men have to.  The link is (website url) here. Women are definitely drafted in Israel.

Actually, that opinion was issued after Nixon had ended the draft (1973), but shortly after the possibility of resuming the draft had been contemplated when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, eventually leading to some of the problems that would connect to 9/11.  After 9/11, some politicians, like Carl Levin (D-MI) talked about resuming the draft.

The ruling also came down shortly after the Pentagon, right before Reagan took office, had “hardened” its “old” policy barring gays from the all volunteer military (with “asking”), enforcing the same ban across all services.   In fact, Charles Moskos, after 9/11, abandoned his support for his own “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and argued for resuming conscription (including gays, and I believe he wanted to conscript women, too).   Back during the latter part of the Vietnam war, the military induction physical had stopped “asking” and rarely rejected men for sexual orientation.  This part of history seems to have been forgotten. 

It’s possible to take the new development for women as a reason to disband Selective Service altogether.  On the other hand, some people want to push the idea of mandatory national service.  

The middle ground position on the opening of all combat roles in the military to women is that for any particular MOS or job, any women that fill them would have to pass the same physical qualifications as men. John McCain now supports this position.  The practical result will be that relatively few women will want to become Navy Seals  even if they pass (and most won’t).  Most men, because of genetics, have more upper body strength than most women.  In fact, many civilian men in distant fields (even the arts, like music and ballet) could actually pass the Navy Seals physical.  (You usually have to be very strong to be a stage, concert, ballet or opera performer or actor.  It helps to be slender and lean.)  A few people (Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post Jan. 25) have argued against the change allowing women to serve in all combat positions (even gradually) because of the unusually aggressive nature of infantry combat and the possibility of capture.  However, it’s not clear that “the Queen of Battle” is more dangerous or demanding than some civilian occupations with many women, like firefighting.  

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gun control rally in DC leaves its arguments as a bit underwhelming


Sunlen Miller has a video for station WJLA in Washington about the gun control rally in Washington Saturday. There was a smaller 2nd Amendment counter rally. 


My take on it is this:  It’s difficult to believe that gun control will make a lot of difference in protecting the public when there are 300 million guns out there now.  It might work in Britain, for Piers Morgan.  It may not work as well here.  But it is true, background checks could catch some people, but not all (like Holmes).  They won’t stop teens from using their parents’ unsecured weapons.  Assault weapons bans and limits on clips could slow down some attacks and discourage some contemplation of them.  But not all.  
     
On the other hand, I’m very concerned about a right wing mentality that everyone has a “moral responsibility” to learn how to protect his family and other children by learning to use weapons.  The reported remarks by a Milwaukee, WI country sheriff that ‘calling 911 is no longer your best option” because of budget cuts are very disturbing (as reported by the New York Daily News here ).  One wonders why the family in the Cheshire, Connecticut home invasion in 2007 didn’t call 911 in time and have police surrounding the house immediately.  Did they need to be armed?

On the other hand, a woman wrote an op-ed in the New York Times recently (I lost it) about an attempted invasion of her townhome in the Capitol area of Washington DC.  Police got there just in time to catch the person breaking in. Still, she argued for strict gun control.

Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) reports being present at the shooting of George Moscone and Harvey Milk in 1978, and of personally attending to one of the men before police arrived.

A long article ("The Preppers Next Door") in the New York Times region section today (January 27, 2012) by Alan Feuer describes the mentality of the doomsday preppers, even in NYC.  The movement is described as a “short” against the idea of sustainable civilization and infrastructure, as if eventual apocalypse, a purification where everyone defends himself and his own family and lives just to survive day by day, would be a virtuous thing. It’s a scary idea.  Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, is said to have been a doomsday prepper who wanted her unstable son to embrace her ideas about doomsday (maybe Dec. 21, 2012). 
  
Chris Hughes (a founder of Facebook and now editor at The New Republic) and Franklin Foer write “Barack Obama is not pleased” in their preview of a Feb. 11 interview, in which the president is not that sanguine on the future of gun control, here. I have yet to look at Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” (on Amazon).  

Saturday, January 26, 2013

H5N1 research will step up again

Influenza researchers are ending a voluntary moratorium on certain kinds of research into H5N1, after suspension out of fear that publication of results could provide blueprints for terrorists.
David Malakoff has the story on Science Insider here

H5N1 has generally not been easily transmitted among humans, but there was a report that a variety that could be so transmitted had been synthesized in the Netherlands.

It is still surprising to me that there hasn’t been more attention to the idea of introducing H5N1 vaccine material to the public so that it can gradually build up some herd immunity to some strains. 

H3N2 influnza may be subsiding slightly, but media reports are sensationalizing a new Australian strain on “tummy bug”, or norovirus.  I haven’t had this an adult very much, but I had three days of diarrhea at the end of 2009, postponing hernia surgery by one month.  And it came on very suddenly.

Adults probably do build up some immunity to norovirus strains over a lifetime.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

HIV might be rendered almost "harmless" by new cell therapy (Stanford); Hastings proposal on obesity stirs moral controversy


A new paper in Nature, Molecular Therapy, reports a project at Stanford where researchers created HIV-resistant T4 (or T-helper) cells, which, if propagated (as by stem cell treatment) could protect people infected with HIV from ever progressing to AIDS.

The Huffington Post offers a video about the story (by Robin Wilkey) (website url) here

The therapy would be straightforward.  As a patient gets a transfusion of HIV-resistant cells, the susceptible cells gradually die off.

NIH has a paper on “long term non-progressors” dating back to 2006 (website url) here

It has long been known that some people exposed never progress or progress very slowly to AIDS.  It’s never been clear whether HIV resistance naturally would evolve.

On another health matter, NBC News created controversy this morning with a story by JoeNel Allecia about “fat-shaming” to control obesity, here, referring to a paper from the Hastings Center by Daniel Callahan, here. A survey by NBC found that 59% of respondents objected to regarding obesity in moral terms.  Callahn says that over one-third of adults and 17% of kids are obese (not just overweight).  It seems that the one great exception (outside of the world of runners, bikers, swimmers, and athletes) is the disco floor.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

House passes 3-month suspension of debt ceiling; will hold itself to passing budget by tax day or not be paid; NYTimes online debate seems to have swayed GOP


By a vote of 285-144, the House of Representatives has passed a bill allowing the government to borrow in excess of the current debt ceiling until May 18, 2013.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

It moves to the Senate, where it should be taken up soon.  The White House has now said it will not  oppose a temporary extension of the debt ceiling.

What is more interesting is that the bill also says that pay for members of Congress stops on April 15 if Congress fails to bass a budget. 

Did the coverage of the consequences of a debt ceiling breach spur many GOP congresspersons to give up insisting on using the “suicide” weapon?

Perhaps the instructive debate (including comments) on the New York Times website last week (especially Lawrence Tribe’s page on prioritizing, along with many comments, including mine, which were quite detailed and explicit), really made a difference.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Study links aspirin use (to prevent heart attacks) to blindness (macular degeneration)


The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has reported a study linking aspirin use (often to reduce the risk of heart disease, since aspirin is a mild blood thinner) to macular degeneration and resulting blindness.  The JAMA link is here
  
Author Stephen King says he has macular degeneration.  It can cause blindness that seems to start in the center of the field of vision.
   
The study was conducted in Australia.  24% if aspirin users developed early signs of neovascular AMD in fifteen years.   Another statistic indicated a threefold risk increase over fifteen years.  But it appears that the results counted people with detectable AMD but few or mild actual symptoms.
  
When I was a substitute teacher, one particular male teacher in his 50s woke up one Saturday morning in 2006 with a blind spot and a detached retina , requiring emergency eye surgery, which was successful.  I took him to the doctor once. 

I have never heard this alarming story before. 

I have noticed “floaters” in my vitreous humor since about 1997, but this is considered normal aging.
   
The Examiner carried the story here and it was mentioned on ABC WSorld News Tonight on Jan 22.  
   
It will be important to see what the CDC reports on this.

The Mayo Clinic offers his primer on macular degeneration, link.  It says that “dry” macular degeneration is more common than “wet”, which is related to blood vessels behind the retina growing abnormally.   It’s not clear which type may be affected by aspirin, but it would be logical for it to be the wet type.  Wet macular degeneration seems to be more severe and can start abruptly, and is sometimes treated by injection of drugs right into the eye.  

My last eye exam (for glasses) was in February 2011, and it was OK.  But I use aspirin for arthritis because it works so well and is cheap.
   
Ophthalmologist Craig Blackwell  explains the disease here.
  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A "Full Faith and Credit" bill was introduced in the Senate in 2011


On Dick Gregory’s “Meet the Press” today, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) went against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).  Schumer argued for a “permanent” debt-ceiling increase, but Cruz mentioned the Full Faith and Credit Act of 2011, which had been introduced by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA).  He says neither Obama nor Reid wanted the act. 

The Govtrack reference for the bill S. 163 (which would have to be reintroduced) is here

The bill would require that the Treasury prioritize obligations to the public in the event that the debt ceiling is reached.  The Treasury could not simply pay on a "first come first served" basis.  
   
It would have needed to be established that debt held by the Social Security Trust Fund was included in the bill. If it weren't, there still could occur very negative consequences for Social Security recipients.  

Schumer wants an indefinite extension of the debt ceiling because this law does not totally prevent the possibility of default.   
   
Cruz did mention the obvious shortcomings of the bill on “Meet the Press”.  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

National Day of Service: How it works on the National Mall


Early Saturday morning, the Washington DC media (especially NBC4) and CNN talked about the National Day of Service activities in Washington DC, without very clear explanations of how it worked or what people do.  The president was shown volunteering in an elementary school in Washington DC (Michelle Rhee’s former territory) making repairs.  This was “grab a hammer time”.

Furthermore, there were mentions on CNN this morning as to whether "national service" should become "mandatory".  

This afternoon, I did go to the Mall, and with some asking, found out how it worked.  You had to go to one line at a small tent on the Independence Avenue side, and register.  “They” asked for you name, phone number, zip code, and email address.  It sounded a little pushy.  But “you” get a time ticket to go to the big tent.  I wasn’t that busy, and I went right in at around 3 PM. 
    
I did see a large array of organizations, on matters arranging from health, schools, the Red Cross, veterans and families, environment, and a curious effort called “Community Resilience”.
  
I asked what that was, if it was related to recovering from Hurricane Sandy or similar disasters, and she said, no, it was just about local community projects.  Maybe it is about preparation for disasters. (I;ve covered some of the controversies over volunteering and Sandy on the main blog, Nov. 17, 2012). 
  
The environmental station featured an organization called “Roots and Shoots”.
  
At the Red Cross station, people were learning CPR (which I learned at work in Dallas in 1983 while working for Chillton  -- of course, it’s changed).
  
Some stations seemed to be collecting “pledges” – of “hours”, not money.  The atmosphere (or "tone") felt a bit coercive. 
  
There is a site where “you” can find out projects in your own city.  It’s called “All for Good”, link   Many of the projects seem to be more about social capital than accomplishing anything “big”.

I get the feeling that this is all about local social cohesion and preparedness – and a mindset that major dislocations (from storms, terrorism, environmental disasters) cannot be prevented now.  That’s disturbing. 
In any case, it’s important when volunteering to make sure there is a fit with what the person does in the rest of his or her life.

I do find that many organizations with volunteers become bureaucratic.  They become empires for the people that run them.

Here's "libertarian" advice: It may be better to look for service opportunities with connections you know (rather than in big organizations with "government" connections).  For example, many churches organize summer trips to developing countries for service work.  For high school and college students, these are tremendous opportunities to learn, see, and develop people skills in different cultures.  I I could be 17 again, I would jump at that.  And college students can consider service projects overseas for first jobs (they look great on resumes later).  There is a big need for engineers for water projects now. Some of these are run by faith-based organizations. 
  
I also visited the DC Armory briefly today, because the media had mentioned it.  When I got there, I was told that about 1000 volunteers (that sounds like a stretch) had assembled about 100,000 care packages for military and National Guard families.   I suppose given my past history with “don’t ask don’t tell” that could have made sense.

On the way to the Armory, on the Orange Line, away from "civilization", I saw a little boy, African American, with "National Day of Service" stickers on both his jacket and forehead.  No -- taking a picture wouldn't be fair.  But that does sound "coercive" and manipulative. 
  
I’ll keep “you” posted on what I can do about this personally.  (Sorry – English doesn’t distinguish between personal and impersonal “you” the way French does.  We don’t have a “thy” anymore. )  Seriously, I'd like any effort to which I give my time (at age 69) add "value" (in a knowledge sense, not fiscal) to what I already do.  And I prefer "prevention" to adaptation.  


Chelsea Clinton spoke about a “chain of service linking all Americans” (link).  This is not something government should try to manage. 


Friday, January 18, 2013

House GOP considers temporary extension of debt ceiling, challenging Obama's ultimatum


Rosalind S. Helderman and Ed O’Keefe have a story in the Washington Post Friday morning (Jan. 18) indicating that some House Republicans are considering a temporary extension of the debt ceiling, maybe until May or June, to give the Democrats (especially the Senate) more time to come up with the “required” spending cuts.

The link is here

Charles Krauthammer, conservative columnist with the Washington Post, made a similar suggestion today.
  
The suggestion would test President’s pledge not to negotiate about the debt ceiling.  If he signed a temporary extension, he would be implicitly “negotiating”.

Republicans are saying that, were the debt ceiling not extended, the Treasury can prioritize payments to bond holders, and that would include the Social Security Trust Fund, protecting beneficiaries for now.  The Treasury says that its computer system process payments only on a FIFO basis, but it would seem as if it could be forced to pay bond issues (including Social Security) first.  If it cannot, the immediate consequences are even more grave (including for Social Security recipients, as I have explained before).

For what it’s worth, you can read Michael Tanner’s analysis at the Cato Institute, “The Overrated Debt Ceiling”, link here. Is there a distinction between principal and interest, and is only interest breach  that constitutes default?   Is there such a thing as a “technical default” where we delay paying non-debt-servicing costs?

CNN's Ali Velshi always reminds us that raising the debt ceiling doesn't authorize any new spending. True.  The critical element is paying the bills already due.  But a portion of it probably does allow new spending already authorized, which is what some in the GOP want to focus on; they think (incorrectly) that is all that stops. 

I think high school government teachers should ask test questions on the debt ceiling.  The subject lends itself to tricky multiple choice, doesn't it.  In fact, ask about it on Millionaire!

Update: Saturday, Jan. 19

The New York Times reports that the House GOP hardliners have "reversed themselves" and offered to extend the debt ceiling for several months, giving time to work out a long term budget, link here

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Man up!: Is "default" on the debt ceiling the moral equivalent of the (male only) military draft of the past?


There is a lot of discussion on the web as to how the Administration – the Treasury Department – should act under constitutional ideas of separation of powers (and explicit powers) if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling in time to avoid missing some payments.  This really could happen by mid February, even sooner. 

My general feeling is that professor Tribe at Harvard may be right – but there are credible views that says that the administration really should go ahead and issue bonds anyway, or mint coins, issue IPU’s, etc.  As I’ve noted, it would be interesting, perhaps necessary (through litigation) but disturbing, to find out what the courts have to say about this matter.  And it may be hard to predict even what the current Supreme Court would say.   This is turning into a chess game, both positional and tactical, like the Sveshnikov Sicilian (maybe the Bishop sacrifice variation – yes, a pun). 

In fact, some of the language of “conservative” media publications (even the Wall Street Journal), as well as Tribe’s, suggests that a breach of the debt ceiling does NOT cause default because bondholders can be paid first.  (There is enough cash flow to pay them.)  In fact, some conservatives say,  Congress is not “defaulting” when it misses Social Security payments because it can cut them off at any time, legally.   In fact, David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey have a somewhat shocking article mentioning the Flemming v. Nestor opinion “The Myth of Government Default” in the Wall Street Journal today, link here.  Then, resuming payments is a political matter.  There could be enormous dislocations for many people, but those hardships could bring back the discussion of means testing even for current beneficiaries right now.  It’s still a “political” problem, but now a moral one, too.  No wonder conservatives wanted to privatize Social Security before it was too late. (The "Trust Fund" process might apply to Rivkin's argument;  a federal judge would have to say.)
  
Indeed, the idea that the Treasury should (may be can be compelled to) prioritize payments with bondholders getting paid first forces it to make potentially political choices (or decisions based on its own interpretation of law) on who to stiff (assuming that Social Security is a legitimate moral claim).  The idea that the Executive Branch must decide which people (in some palpable groups, like Social Security recipients) must make personal sacrifices is shocking now, but there are precedents.  Back in the 1960s, I lived with the Vietnam era draft – men only, with a system of deferments that allowed the government to decide whose lives were the most expendable (the “cannon fodder” theory).  I got drafted, but after advanced degrees, and was spared “combat”.  I can see how I can be on the firing line again.  But there is certainly a lot of experience with the idea that citizens get called upon to make sudden and unexpected sacrifices for the common good and for others (and unfortunately, for other people’s ideological agendas) all the time.  The mechanics of  going “Cold Turkey” though, have enormous political consequences. 


It’s interesting to me that the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that the male-only draft is constitutional (1981, after the draft had been ended), and that Social Security recipients are not necessarily entitled to future benefits as a (14th Amendment driven) “property right” does not bode well.  But it could change its mind on these matters.  It has before, on “moral” concerns.  (Look at Lawrence v. Texas, 2003).

There are other people in the firing line, like contractors who might not get paid in time, and who could lose homes or get evicted.  Is it the moral responsibility of the rest of us to help other strangers “privately” because the financial system has been hijacked by fiscal extremists who want a revolution?  History says this happens all the time.  The only answer seems to be "radical hospitality". 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Obama calls news conference, warns Congress on debt ceiling, tries to push GOP into (chess) zugzwang


As I came home from a meeting with a tax adviser and turned on WJLA (ABC) in Washington, and caught the end of the president’s stern warning, “We are not a deadbeat nation.”  The president said that he would not negotiate with a “gun” (figurative) at the heads of the American people. 
  
Huffington Post has a story here

The conference seems to have come about as a response to the “wildfire” on the blogosphere Saturday afternoon about “minting the coin” after Senate Democrats urged him to consider “all legal options” to keep paying the bills, and the media (and bloggers) jumped on that, too.

The president had his meeting at noon rather than at 1 PM to avoid walking over NBC’s “Days of our Lives”, which had a major blowup today.  But he’s also having it exactly one week before his public swearing in on Martin Luther King Day (supposedly a National Day of Service).  He actually takes the oath of office on Sunday.  His State of the Union speech won’t happen until Feb. 12.  We could have breached the debt ceiling by then.

Here’s my take:  There is not much else the president really can say.  He is like a chess player trying to put his opponent into zugzwang.  “It’s your move”, he said.  That is certainly true.  But the problem can be, if his opponent has no legal move, then it’s a stalemate, a draw.  And a draw is a loss for the American people. “  Or, as Barney Frank once said, “punishment for the country.”

 If Obama were a tournament chess player, he would probably always open with the Queen’s  Pawn  (“1. d4”) and play to let his opponent choke in his own position, unable to get counterplay.  (George W. Bush was much more like a King’s Pawn player. But, actually, so was Bill Clinton.  Bush didn’t have the patience for the Ruy Lopez, even.)  Obama manages his problems with the GOP the way grandmaster Larry Kaufman (right here in Arlington VA) manages his opponents when he plays with the White pieces (as in his recent opening books).

There’s a lively discussion about the debt ceiling going on at the New York Times (link in yesterday’s post).  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Timocracy": Treasury takes "minting the coin" off the table; "Boushka says" let the courts decide which branch is responsible for past government bills; it's a crisis


In a public relations ploy unusual for late on a Saturday afternoon, the Treasury Department said that it would not mint a high value (trillion dollar) coin to “end-around” Congressional Republicans on the debt ceiling. The Treasury says that the Federal Reserve has told it that the FRBank will not such an object for deposit.  So much for “Timocracy”.

Annie Lowrey has a typical story in the New York Times here.  

 The idea has been promoted by Paul Krugman.

The administration is insisting that it is the responsibility of Congress to pay the bills for money that it has already spent.  Period.  Except that it isn’t over. 

Ezra Klein explains all this in an article Saturday in the Washington Post, here (the "WonkBlog").  

Klein also has two articles in the Washington Post arguing why we should NOT mint the coin (it amounts to admission of default anyway and takes pressure off GOP extremists, he says). Chris Hayes, however, joins Krugman in arguing that using the mint should be kept as an option.

What if Congress passes a spending reduction and debt ceiling extension that the president (because of excessive entitlement cuts) vetoes?  Then default is on the backs of the administration.

It seems to me that it is the responsibility of the Executive Branch (the Treasury) to pay the bills as due whenever any legal means is available.  That could mean minting a coin.  Issuing IOU’s is dubious (and could mean that some bills are never redeemed).  Invoking the Fourteenth Amendment (and going ahead an borrowing anyway), might be legal.  Bill Clinton has said that he would have used the 14th, and I am inclined to agree.

I don’t think that the country can afford legal uncertainty over which branch is ultimately responsible for bills already incurred.  Just as with Bush v. Gore in 2000, I think that the matter ought to go right to court now and that the Supreme Court should weigh in on this question by early February.  This is an emergency.

I do think that the Administration should signal a willingness to accept a “reasonable” start on gradual entitlement reform. (Okay, Obama has said he will do this, and I don’t quite get what the ideological objection on the right is.)  The best policy, to avoid stiffing any one group, is a mixture of a lot of different measures, rather than depending on any one of them.  There is no question that retirement ages need to increase gradually and actuarial formulas need to change with increasing life expectancy.  I think Republicans (and Democrats) should pass a measure soon that makes this start. 

There is a lot of discussion that we shouldn’t even have a debt ceiling limit.  That’s for another time. It seems unnecessary, but now dangerous.  But the GOP has one big point.  We are continuing to borrow money to pay bills already incurred.  We’re like a family that puts the interest for its previous bills on more credit cards, running a Ponzi scheme,   The only way to stop (smoking) is to go cold turkey.  That means we have to hurt some people “on The Town”.  So be it, they say.

There is a danger, any time that a system becomes unstable, that there will be personal casualties and sacrifices.  This happens any time there is a singularity.   Some House Republicans seem to be playing the card that sacrifice is inevitable some day, so it’s time to “man up”.  I grew up with the draft and was conscripted during the Vietnam war.  I got through that.  I don’t want to have my life conscripted again for someone else’s political ambition.  But it happens all the time, in history.

The biggest danger would be the valuation and liquidity of assets after a default, and in the legal arguments, as I have noted, that could mean that Social Security could stop for some beneficiaries forever.  The problem, as I’ve noted on the retirement blog , is that the Supreme Court (in 1960) has already said that FICA is a “tax”  (however poorly constructed) to pay for other people’s benefits, not an annuity premium. 

There seems to be an enormous breach of trust possible here.  Again, I think that Congress should carve out a partial  property right to the annuity value of FICA taxes already paid. 

The New York Times has recently pointed out that the "top earners" tax increase (on the Fiscal Cliff) is hurting small businesses that pipe their earnings onto personal returns.  But I have been told even in family and personal conversations (even with "moderate" Republicans) that this problem can be solved by setting up businesses separately with the proper accounting setup, which requires attorneys and tax advisors and can work differently in various states.

Update: Later January 13

The New York Times has published the beginnings of a "debate" on whether or not the president or Treasury can "run out of bounds" at this link "proposing the unprecedented" here. The most "encouraging" post is Newi Buchanan's, from George Washington University Law School, "The Constitution", suggesting that the president still can borrow the minimum necessary each day.  But Lawrence Tribe suggests that the only constitutional course (until Congress acts) is to pay bondholders and then prioritize other payments.  Several of the posts say that practical chaos cannot be prevented without a willingness from Congress to do its job.

No one has yet written about the precarious legal position social security beneficiaries (with other income or assets) could be put in. (The Washington Times had mentioned it in the summer of 2011, but the "liberal press" doesn't want to tell the whole truth. maybe.)  I expect we'll see that soon. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

WSJ "hostages" editorial unearthed; Dems to president: Mint the coin if necessary


OK, here is the purloined editorial from the Wall Street Journal,  Jan. 3, 2013, called “Boehnerr’s Second Chance”, link here

Read though the article and look for the words, “You can’t take a hostage you aren’t prepared to shoot”.  That’s particularly provocative what has been going on in the country recently (with the gun control debate), and that tragedy was already known when the WSJ wrote this editorial.  Reading the article as a whole, it seems like a metaphor.  But it’s true, as Ben Affleck’s character says in “The Town”, sometimes, to get your way, you have to “hurt some people”.  Either they accept a new position of dependence on others, or they die.  That seems to be what as society based on social capital means, to some conservatives.  But what ever happened to personal responsibility as we know it, as a foundation of individualism?

Mediate has a similar take on the WSJ language, here    

Today, on CNN, Ali Velshi debated Seantor Ron Johnson (R-WI). Velshi reiterated the point that raising the debt ceiling is necessary to enable Congress to borrow money to pay bills it has already ratcheted up. That means, if it isn’t raised some parties may get stiffed.  It’s the wild West again, maybe.  (I’ve written on the retirement blog how some Social Security recipients might have no legal claim to recover missed payments at all – so some recipients may be the “hostages”. )    But Johnson disagreed.  He said the government just pays its creditors in line and cuts more spending.  I honestly could not tell from the conversation if he understands that some ordinary Americans don’t get paid when they are owed. They ask for money from or be taken in by “more fortunate” friends and relatives.  Is this kind of social capital what he wants to see, and is that a reason why it doesn’t matter?  What does Johnson means?

The New York Times has a story today that Senate Democrats are urging the White House to prepare fail-safes.    The story, by Jonathan Weisman, is “’Any  Lawful Steps’ to Avoid Default”, link here.   One idea is to invoke the Fourteenth Amendment, in connection with the possibility of “minting the coin”, a $1 billion platinum coin(s) to be stored in the Federal Reserve.  (Watch out for Goldfinger, or Platinum-finger.)  Another idea is to issue IOU’s, as I discussed on the retirement blog Jan. 10 (there are some serious flaws with this that could hit Social Security recipients). 

Can the president use the idea of “minting the coin” as a way of his promise not to negotiate defaulting on bills already owed?  (Remember, it’s just possible that some of the Social Security isn’t really legally owed.)
The “absolute” ceiling deadline could come sooner than expected (even before the State of the Union on Feb. 12, which seems late). It’s horrifying that some “conservative” GOP Congressmen and even Senators think that you don’t need to raise the ceiling just to pay bills that come due.  This is not about authorizing new deficit spending; it’s about paying the bill you already have.

Yes, if necessary, mint the coin.

Note: When I wrote the Jan. 5 posting, I had not located this WSJ editorial; I had located a similar piece by Kimberly Strassel.  Again, note the embedded Scribd  Debt Limit Analysis on that posting.  


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Influenza outbreak seems to be exploding



Media sources report a sudden outbreak of influenza during early January.  Boston, with 700 cases, has declared a public health emergency, and one hospital in Pennsylvania is treating patients in tents.
It appears that this year’s vaccine is protective, and that most patients were not vaccinated.  But this year’s strain seems virulent.  It’s not clear if this includes H1N1. (Later: it's "H3N2".) 

Sometimes influenza mutates during the winter and vaccines given in the fall are not as effective.  I had a short but severe case in March 2011 that caused me to miss an SLDN dinner, and caught a case in California in February of 2002.

Hospital personnel are being required to work with masks even if vaccinated.  One ER nurse in Boston said she hadn't seen anything like this in 27 years. 

It’s also not clear if “social distancing” will be necessary.  The virus seems to like dry environments common in winter.


Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Remember, in Indiana, a nurse was recently fired for refusing a flu shot. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

NOAA reports that 2012 was warmest year ever for Planet Earth


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is reporting that 2012 was the warmest year on record and second most extreme, with the details here.  The “State of the Climate” page is here.
  
The average temperature for Earth was 55.3 degrees F, 3.2 degrees F above the 20th Century average, and a full degree above the second warmest year, 1998.

The abnormally small snowpack, very warm spring, and drought were main features.  Also unusual were the early tornadoes, which subsided as the cold air from the northwest was less available, the derecho, the wildfires, and the hybrid superstorm Sandy.

Will this report turn around the “world of plenty” deniers, some of whom (ironically) are in the “natural family” camp?

It will remain to be seen if the US can develop and use its suddenly abundant natural gas resources without adding to carbon dioxide emissions. 

The greatest component of change seems to have to do with loss of permanent polar ice cap area, with higher sea levels and less reflectivity (and more heat absorption) in high latitudes.  A second problem could be sudden methane releases from former permafrost  (here on Earth, not on Titan).

Check also the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report for 2013, on the Weather Channel, here. Extreme storms are at the top of the list. 

Saturday, January 05, 2013

The debt ceiling "debate" and hostage taking: Partisanship on either side can be deadly

So, what do we make of the president’s statement, “no negotiation on debt ceiling”.  An ABC News story maintains that “no negotiation is a negotiating tactic”, link  here. 

Note that Mitch McConnell maintains, “we cannot increase our borrowing limit” without spending cuts. 
  
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in “Battles of the Budget”, got into similar territory in his Jan. 3 column, here.  He writes that, in the past, the GOP would have had to compromise because of its lack of control of the government.  (I use the word in a British, parliamentary sense.)  It would have lacked bargaining chips.   Here, though, Krugman writes “The GOP maintains the power to destroy by refusing to raise the debt limit – which would cause a major financial crisis.  The Republicans have claimed that they plan to use their destructive power to extract major policy concessions.”  Later, Krugman refers to the idea of “threatening to hurt millions of victims unless you get your way – which is what the GOP strategy boils down to – shouldn’t be treated as legitimate political tactic.”

Indeed it shouldn’t.  Krugman is talking about hostage taking. In fact, Kimberly Strassel used the phrase "what other hostages are Republicans willing to see shot" in her Wall Street Journal on the debt ceiling fight Jan. 3, link here,  Am I making too much of this metaphor?  Remember, under our "Timocracy", the Treasury Department could decide that we will reach the limit much sooner than we thought (how about next week?) 

Let me temper this discussion right now by quoting likable gay character Will Horton from NBC’s “Days of our Lives” when he says, in a different context, “do the math.”  (That means, "actuarial" -- Chapter 9 of LOMA.)  That’s what Congress needs to do – solve the problem.  Figure out how much each policy change will bring in, and how much each spending reform, including entitlements, will really save.  Solve the algebra test problems, and publish the results. 

Krugman, for one thing, is one-sided earlier in his essay in decrying practically all entitlement reforms and other cuts.  I think he’s a bit lax in not noting that we can’t continue not to collect our full FICA tax if we’re going to support even current Social Security benefits. 

Nevertheless, I could be in the firing line for this, in this Social Security area, as I have written. But so could a lot of other people for different reasons.  Gradual, incremental changes in the margins can be allowed for and planned for.  But sudden cut-offs and financial “evictions” cannot.  The intransigence in Congress (sometimes in both parties) can indeed lead to sudden, if accidental, poverty and even death for some. 

In a practical sense, there are no “victims”.  There are only winners and losers.  A little bit of Ayn Rand is necessary here.  After that, there is indeed compassion and “radical hospitality”.  But that is not the same as self-definition, real dignity and freedom.  It is silent dependence, accommodation to loss created by the involuntary takings by others.  (Of course, one can lose out because of his own acts or even own foolish attitudes.) 

There are ways that I can be caught in the middle, but there are ways this can happen to almost anyone, probably.  Financial collapse (with cut-off and wealth melt-down is one.  War and terrorism is another.  Yes, national (and homeland) l security matters.  What would our nesteggs be worth if we lost power permanently because of a terrorist EMP attack?  Or, make it local.  If you’re the “victim” of a violent crime, even  a local one, you lose.  You’re not just a “victim”.  Someone took something away  from “you” (maybe by violence) because, way down the road, there were other “needs” (however irrationally constructed sometimes) that you did not see.  Ultimately, the results of events like 9/11 became very personal for thousands. 

I am nearing 70 years old.  I have met some unusual challenges (that make a good story) but I’ve also been somewhat sheltered from things others face.  Indeed, pure “equality” is a myth because, above the molecular level, it does not happen in nature.  There is ultimately only complementarity.  Were I to be taken “hostage” and then sacrificed, I simply wouldn’t be around.  My own view of afterlife and karma is that I would probably start over in poverty in another one of Clive Barker’s Imajica dominions, maybe near the Cradle.   (OK, the Reconciliation means that I could eventually come back, some day.)  

There are many ways to wind up on someone's altar. But what is so damning about the idea is that another party has decided that “you” are next in line to be sacrificed.  You are not important enough to get a fair shake, because we don’t have room on the life-raft for everyone. You are now filled with shame at your own lack of worth.   Shame can sometimes generate self-indulgent pleasure.  Think about all of this in connection with the bullying crisis.  It seems as though the GOP is willing to play the bully here.  Of course, I can conjure up other examples – like the way we handled the military draft and deferments a few decades ago.  Remember the term “cannon fodder”.  (Oh, is a lottery an answer for moral questions like this?)

There is a way a person can harden himself or herself to this sort of thing.  That is to learn to take care of others (even physically) as well as the self.  That means protecting people, watching their backs and letting them watch yours.  I wasn’t physically competitive enough as a boy to get into that without shame, which could generate self-indulgence.  I made may separate peace, or truce, with the social system and led a productive life -- as an isolated pawn in a Queen Pawn chess opening.  But there is always the possibility of "losing it".

Update: Jan. 7

"Debt ceiling hostage taking is far more absurd and dangerous than 'mint the coin' is", Washington Post, here, by Greg Sargent, linking to a post by Ezra Klein that describes just how awful it gets.  McConnell has said that "the debt ceiling is a hostage worth ransoming."  What does he mean?  That people who could be wiped out and put into pathetic dependency on others or otherwise die are a suitable sacrifice?  Welcome to Maoist consciousness.