Tuesday, April 23, 2019

"If we want more stability in state services, there’s a simple answer"

That was the title of an ADN editorial board editorial Sunday.  

First and most obvious, if there were a simple answer it would have been found long ago.  There are no simple answers in politics or government (which are not the same things, though they overlap.)

So what is that simple answer according to the editorial board?

After listing numerous shortfall's in this year's budget, they tell us:
"There’s also a simple solution that would go far toward helping restore that stability: Honesty in the budgeting process."

I agree that honesty in the budget process is helpful for the public to understand what's going on.  But is it simple?  Hell no.

First, the budget has to account for billions of dollars, so it's going to be long and complicated no matter what.  But sure, there are ways to make it easier to follow or harder to follow.
Second, the politicians - the governor and the legislators - who are trying to please constituents and funders with rewards that might not be appreciated by most, try to hide those items.   Questionable special favor allocations or cuts are well hidden in rows and columns of numbers that are hard to comprehend.
Third,  in these times of ideological warfare, many items will come under attack no matter how good they are for the general public.  Either they're ideologically unacceptable for one side or the other, or they might appear as a 'win' for one side and loss for the other.
These are just a few reasons why achieving a transparent budget is NOT simple.

Let's move on to the third paragraph of the editorial:
 "Sometimes, as with the senior benefits program, speedier processing of benefit applications results in more people than expected joining a program, draining funds more quickly. But failing to foresee scenarios like that - or deal with them swiftly when they arise - is a failure of leadership. Like not considering prices below $60 per barrel of oil as a realistic possibility for tax purposes, as happened before the 2014 price slump, failing to recognize or plan for the possibility of an uptick in benefit recipients is an indictment of our elected and appointed representatives."

OK, usually people are complaining that government doesn't act fast enough.  But when they do, they get criticized too.  Are they saying that by getting eligible people into the program quickly, the cost is too high?  If so, it's one of the few times I've seen government criticized for doing too good a job.

:et's look at the failure of leadership comment.
"But failing to foresee scenarios like that - or deal with them swiftly"   
Government is not a business where the CEO has the final say.  In a democratic government, decision making power is divided in different ways.  Broad policy making is supposed to be reserved for elected officials and their helpers, the high level appointed officials.  Career public servants are then asked to fill in the mechanical details of,  and then carry out, the policies.

But it's more complicated than that.  Power is split between the governor's office and the legislature (and, if needed, the courts.)  But the legislature is further split between the Senate and the House.  And each of those bodies is split between Republicans and Democrats and a few independents.

Leadership in such a situation isn't easy.  What's needed is peacemakers, maybe even therapists, as much as leaders.  But how do you make peace with people who see you as the enemy and whose supporters (voters and funders) tell them not to compromise?

In contrast, a marriage is simple.  There are only two policy makers and possibly some subjects of the policy (children.)  Often in a marriage, one of the two policy makers dominates the other.  Occasionally, the two work together in harmony.  But frequently they fight and disagree on everything.

Ask any divorce attorney how 'simple' it is to get angry spouses to work out the settlement of their property, and custody of the kids, even of the dog.

Then the editorial talks about oil tax credits.
 "they’re a classic example of the state’s destabilizing tendency to make a promise and then leave those who make plans based on that promise holding the bag, making residents wary and businesses disinclined to make investments in Alaska."
And to not look partisan, the editorial suggests the administration oughtn't renege on the two year school funding or senior benefits.

But this is the nature of a two year legislature that cannot commit funds beyond their two year session. (And since the new session just began, last year's commitments aren't law.)  It's also the nature of the power of large corporations to extract benefits from a legislature it paid for (in campaign contributions, in propaganda campaigns, and strong arm lobbying.)

When a commitment is made against the strong objections of the minority, then when that minority gets more power, that commitment will be challenged.  The oil companies have been telling Alaskans for years how they're going to pick up and leave if they don't get their way.  Well, either they've been bluffing or they've been getting their way.   [Figuring out comparative tax regimes is even more opaque than the Alaska budget.  Here's a long essay on whether Alaska oil taxes are fair by King Economics Group.  Unfortunately it doesn't compare our taxes to those of other oil producing states and countries.   And, it turns out, Ed King, according to his LinkedIn page,  has been Alaska's Chief Economist since Dunleavy took control in December 2018.    This ISER report also is focused only on in-state.   This OPEC comparison of oil taxes isn't about the industry taxes, but taxes at the pump. Finally, this ADN article says ConocoPhillips' Alaska region is its most profitable by far.  But that's not the point of this post, but I didn't want to make a statement without some backup.]

In the last paragraph, the ADN comes to its conclusion.
"So what’s the better answer? Make the hard choices — fund services fully or be up-front about the fact that they’ve been cut — instead of kicking the can down the road."
So, now they seem to be acknowledging that the 'simple' answer is really a 'hard choice.'  They don't talk about who has been kicking that can.  About the Republicans being in power for most of the last ten years when the budget kept going up, or how the Democrats have been trying to raise revenues with income or sales taxes, but the Republicans continue to block that.

Their simple isn't simple.  It's pap.

Here's a headline that caught my eye several years ago.
"For GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina, solving the nation’s biggest challenges is pretty simple — “it’s not rocket science,” as she likes to say."
Here was my response:  Note To Carly Fiorina: Solving Nation's Problems Harder Than Rocket Science  It delves into other aspects of the difficulty of good government.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Snowy Branches

The trees are playing peekaboo with the snow.  It was clear for several weeks.  Then snow.  Then gone.  Then snow, then gone.  This morning there was a light dusting, but now it looks like winter again.  But it's mid-April and we know it will be gone again soon.  Maybe even tonight.  But it's so beautiful.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

To Keep Warm, You Can't Regenerate Your Heart, But Salamanders And Zebrafish Can

I spent today mostly reading Waiting For Snow In Havana."  My book club meets tomorrow and I had a lot of pages left.  I finished it and there is much that is good in the book, but I think a good editor could have helped Carlos Eire cut lots of pages.

So I don't have the creative energy to do much here.  I did jot this done recently and so I'll leet you off easy.  A brief contemplation about your heart.

From Science:
"The price of staying warm
Among vertebrates, zebrafish and salamanders can regenerate their hearts, whereas adult mice and humans cannot. Hirose et al. analyzed diploid cardiomyocyte frequency as a proxy for cardiac regenerative potential across 41 vertebrate species (see the Perspective by Marchianò and Murry). They observed an inverse correlation of these cells with thyroid hormone concentrations during the ectotherm-to-endotherm transition. Mice with defects in thyroid hormone signaling retained significant heart regenerative capacity, whereas zebrafish exposed to excessive thyroid hormones exhibit impaired cardiac repair. Loss of heart regenerative ability in mammals may represent a trade-off for increases in metabolism necessary for the development of endothermy."

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Real Snow, Not Metaphorical Snow

While Barr and Trump and others do a snow job in response to the Mueller Report, apparently giving Senate Republicans enough cover to stay silent,  nature gave Anchorage some real snow yesterday.  

But just like real snow, metaphorical snow starts to show through as people test it.

And with just a little bit of heat, it turns to slush.

And then liquid.

And what it was trying to conceal becomes visible again.

Friday, April 19, 2019

"Someday, and that day may never come. . ." How To Avoid Admissible Evidence

When teaching ethics, I found this clip from The Godfather to be invaluable.

What evidence is there here of a bribe?  I'm forgiving you a debt in honor of my daughter's wedding.  Someday.  Someday in the distant future, or maybe not so distant, or maybe never at all, I may ask you to return the favor.

Imagine the Mueller investigation trying to present this transaction to the grand jury.  Well, unless there was a recording of this, there's nothing to present.  Only the evidence.  Well, this guy had a debt that was never recorded.  And . . . maybe he does this other thing for the Godfather.  Is that quid pro quo?  Or is it just a favor?  Is it a bribe?  Is it illegal?  Is it collusion?  Would a grand jury say it was beyond a reasonable doubt?

Here's a Tweet that picks up on this ambiguity.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

What Does "Lightly Redacted" Look Like?

Here's a look at all the pages in the Mueller Report.  You can see it better here.

I was a bit irked that I saw headlines describing the Mueller report as 'lightly redacted' without the quotation marks.  That was Barr's office's description of it, his spin.  And it was clear that he saw his job as not just the head of the DOJ, but as a defender of the president.

So when I saw this view of the Report, I thought it was worth considering.  I don't see enough government reports like this to know if the Mueller Report is lightly redacted, moderately redacted, or heavily redacted.

If we simply go by percentage of blocked text, I suppose this is lightly redacted.
But another way of thinking about it is how it compares to other such reports.
Another way to think about it is whether the parts redacted really need to be redacted for genuine legal and security reasons, or because they reveal things the president doesn't want to reveal.

I'm not using the term 'lightly redacted' ironically, because I don't know the answers to any of those questions.  I'm just offering this visual of what has been described as 'lightly redacted.'

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

This Is Why So Many Establishment Politicians And Their Supporters Hate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Let me just say it out front.  I think AOC is one of the best things to happen in 2018/2019.   In this post I'm going to explain why I think she's pissing off so many people in Washington and beyond. But if you aren't interested in that, just scroll down to the bottom for her positive look to the future and when it gets trashed by the president and others, you can come back and see why I think they do that.

  • She's smart in the sense that she understands how lots of things fit into the larger macro picture.
  • She's articulate.
  • She's able to show her love of life.
  • She's able to respond to her detractors with wit, humor, dance, and hope.
  • She's not shy.
  • She's using her new Congressional seat to actually do things this country needs.
  • She's savvy with social media.  
  • She's able to give voice for women and people of color and working people.
  • She's beautiful.  (This isn't something that we're supposed to comment on, but we all know that it doesn't hurt.)
OK, let's take a short side trip.  When I was a junior in high school, I delivered the mail as a Christmas break job.  I delivered in my own neighborhood, my own street even.  I was fast.  My supervisor was my regular mailman.  After a couple of days he pulled me aside and said, "Steve, you get paid by the hour and when you finish your route, your time is up.  What's your hurry?  Pace yourself.  When you get to your house, take a break before starting again."  

Later, as a grad student, I learned about 'soldiering' when I read Frederick Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management.  He described how workers get into a comfortable pace or work and how frisky new workers (like me delivering mail) upset that comfortable pace.  So the workers first start to subtly hint to the worker (as my supervisor did) to slow down and take it easy.  If that doesn't work they get more aggressive, which could lead to sabotage and even physical violence.  

I think this is the reason there's so much negative press about AOC.  She's making everyone look bad.  

For the Republicans it's about everything:  
For Democrats the issues are, perhaps, more procedural.  
  • She challenges the speed they are moving toward change in Climate and Health Care etc.
  • Her activity and social media savvy and presence make them look like they're doing nothing.
  • She brings a bright spark of life to a job they're doing with less sparkle.
  • She got elected by defeating one of their inner circle in the primary
  • She's challenging the way they operate, their rules, their beliefs about what's possible
Trump's election showed weaknesses in the Democratic common wisdom.  He exploited the fact that Democrats championed people of color and women in a way that made white males the enemy.  The only terms negatively describing a group of people that Democrats didn't 'ban' were words like hillbilly and white trash.  Trump gave that group respect.   AOC's parents were poor.  They nearly lost their home to the 2008 housing crisis.  An event that led to her to find out about her congressional rep's power structure in New York.  Like many of today's college grads, she ended up doing minimum wage work.  So she's reached out to the Trump voter, whom she knows as someone who has lived their life.  

He also used social media to by-pass the press and talk directly to his followers.   And AOC is as good a politician in using social media.  She doesn't just use it, for her it's almost an art form.  

And while some Democrats embrace everything she brings to Congress and their party, others see her as interfering with their routine, their way of seeing what's possible and how to get there.  

Here's the video.  It's a bit of social science fiction. 

It looks to the future, what the world would look like if things got better because of the policies she's pushing.  And it's pretty close to how I envision things, though I'm less sanguine about what technology will do for us.  Like all predictions there are probably flaws, but the attacks on her New Green Deal are much harsher than other people's predictions of the future, predictions that are less imaginative, more mired in the past.

And the video is beautiful.  The artist [Molly Crabapple] does a great job. (If I find out the name I'll add it here.)  This format has come a long way since I wrote about The Story of Stuff and then the followup about Victor Lebow.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Campbell Creek - Still Some Snow

Biked over to Campbell Creek yesterday to see if the snow was gone from the trail as it is from the Chester Creek trail from UAA to Goose Lake and on around to Alaska Native Medical Health Consortium (ANMHC).  It's close, but there are still snowy/icy/slushy spots like this one.

I made it through on several of these patches, but decided I'll wait another week to see if my regular run up to Campbell Airstrip is ice free.  But the views of the creek from the various bridges is, as always, wonderful.

Monday, April 15, 2019

How Can This Happen? Notre Dame On Fire

The first time I visited Notre Dame Cathedral was in 1964.  Then again in April 1965. (I was a student in Germany that year.)

Then this picture (and the other two) was from a visit to Paris in 2016 for a 60th birthday party of a relative I first met back in 1964.

And today I see this on the internet.

Whatever one thinks of religion or the Catholic church, this building and the other Cathedrals like it are monuments to human vision, science, art.  To imagine structures so huge, with indoor spaces so magnificent reflects the impossible that humans can achieve.  To know that these structures took centuries to build reminds us of humanity's patience and persistence.

How does a fire break out in such a treasure of human ingenuity and reverence?  I don't know.  With all the stone one would think that the many, many candles could do no harm.  But parts are built of wood as well.  We'll know more.

It's not the first time the Cathedral was in disrepair.  From the Cathedral's own website:

"One of the most notable monuments in Paris (and in all of Europe for that matter) is the Notre Dame Cathedral. This Catholic treasure is over 800 years old. It is located on a small island called the Ile de la Cite in the middle of the River Seine. The building of the cathedral was completed over the course of 200 years; it was started in 1163 during the reign of King Louis VII and was completed in 1345. 
As is the case with most notable historical monuments, The Notre dame Cathedral Paris has its own share of both the glorious and the tragic historical moments that will forever remain indelible in the mind of people everywhere. Among them is the crowning of Henry VI of England right inside the cathedral in 1431. The Cathedral was at one time in a stage of total disrepair and close to the point of being demolished, but was later saved by Napoleon who himself was crowned Emperor in 1804 inside the Cathedral.   
After restoring the Cathedral back to its formal beauty and in the midst of World War II, it was rumored that the German soldiers might destroy the newly installed stained glass. It was therefore removed and only reinstalled again after the war had ended. The steps were taken because of only one particular archeological glass window called the Rose window which is supposed to be the biggest glass window in the world produced in the 13th century."

Meanwhile, from CNN:
"French President Emmanuel Macron just announced that, starting tomorrow, he will launch an international fundraising campaign to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Macron, speaking from the scene, described the fire as a “terrible tragedy," but added the “worst had been avoided." He noted that the cathedral's facade and two main towers did not collapse during the fire.
“I’m telling you all tonight — we will rebuild this cathedral together. This is probably part of the French destiny. And we will do it in the next years. Starting tomorrow, a national donation scheme will be started that will extend beyond our borders," Macron said."

Two Reading Tips - EPA Climate Change Report And William Barr's History Misleading Congress With A Summary

This post offers an introduction to two articles that I think are worth reading.  One is about an EPA report on economic impacts of Climate Change and how we can reduce them.  The other gives some background on William Barr and how he mischaracterized to Congress an internal Justice Department memo in 1989.

The Climate Change one isn't news to people immersed in the topic, but adds the weight of Trump's EPA giving the warning. And it's something to pass on to skeptics.   The Barr piece is important context ( that I haven't seen elsewhere)  for his summary of the Mueller Report

Part 1:  Climate Change

Even when the fire is raging and police and firefighters issue mandatory evacuation orders, there are people who refuse to leave their homes.   Climate change happens more gradually than raging wildfires, but the devastation is more extensive and the damage will continue to increase if we don't slow things down.   Here's an LA Times article* about a recent EPA report on the future economic impact of climate change and how a carbon pricing scheme could reduce the future impacts by half.
"By the end of the century, the manifold consequences of unchecked climate change will cost the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars per year, according to a new study by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Those costs will come in multiple forms, including water shortages, crippled infrastructure and polluted air that shortens lives, according to the study in Monday’s edition of Nature Climate Change. No part of the country will be untouched, the EPA researchers warned.
However, they also found that cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and proactively adapting to a warming world, would prevent a lot of the damage, reducing the annual economic toll in some sectors by more than half."
This is from the Trump administration's EPA!!!!!  (Do I need more than the exclamation points, each of which represent another outrageous decision by the EPA to loosen standards that help individual companies and compromise the future for the rest of us?)

Who could sit around, unconcerned about climate change?  I ask that question daily.  Here's my current version of the answer:

  • people who don't know - they only know what's on the news and the media's 'balanced' coverage which gives the 1% deniers equal time with the 99% of scientists who know that climate change is real, gives them a false sense that it's still up for debate
  • people who have a vested interest in not knowing - they have corporations or jobs or investments in those corporations that are maintaining their current lifestyle  (this includes politicians who get significant funding from those oil and coal interests)
  • people who don't care - they think that they will be gone before the real impacts hit and they don't have kids or grandkids who will be affected; or they, for whatever reasons, can't concern themselves with the fate of others

I'm convinced that Climate Change is the most serious challenge to human existence (both in terms of surviving, and for those who survive, living in a world with a regular life with access to food, housing,  and safety.)   That's why I belong to Citizens Climate Lobby and why our local chapter was pleased that we got the Anchorage Assembly to pass a resolution endorsing the current Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.  It's true, the Assembly's resolution, by itself, does little.  But as part of the CCL's webpage of all the other endorsers, it's like a signature on a petition with many, many others.  It's telling legislators who are concerned about the politics of Climate Change, that there are many people and organizations out there that have their backs.

In any case, I'd recommend reading the LA Times article so when you talk to deniers or avoiders you have data to push them closer to understanding why we can't dawdle on this.

*Note:  There are two LA Times articles.  One was a last week in something called LA Times Science Now and it includes a useful chart.  The other is a shortened version in today's regular LA Times.

As if that weren't enough for one post, here's another piece to help people understand William Barr and his history of writing summaries for Congress.

2.  William Barr's Past Summarizing For Congress

Just Security  has an article on a 1989 situation where then Attorney General William Barr misled Congress with a summary of a Justice Department document that, when finally made public, showed Barr's deception. An excerpt:
"Members of Congress asked to see the full legal opinion. Barr refused, but said he would provide an account that “summarizes the principal conclusions.” Sound familiar? In March 2019, when Attorney General Barr was handed Robert Mueller’s final report, he wrote that he would “summarize the principal conclusions” of the special counsel’s report for the public.
When Barr withheld the full OLC opinion in 1989 and said to trust his summary of the principal conclusions, Yale law school professor Harold Koh wrote that Barr’s position was “particularly egregious.” Congress also had no appetite for Barr’s stance, and eventually issued a subpoena to successfully wrench the full OLC opinion out of the Department.
What’s different from that struggle and the current struggle over the Mueller report is that we know how the one in 1989 eventually turned out."

It got Barr off the hook in the short term and he was no longer Attorney General when it was finally made public.  My experience is that people tend to use the same strategies that served them in the past.  If Barr can keep the Mueller Report hidden until after the 2020 election, he'll have done his job.  Compare this good-old-boys-protecting-their-own behavior with the tell-it-like-it-is language of people like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez!

We need to see the Mueller Report!  

Remember, you're not helpless.  You have power.  You can let your Congressional Rep and your Senators see these documents and let them know how you feel.  No, your one contact (phone, email, or mail) won't change things, but along with thousands of others, it will.  (The links help you connect with your members of Congress.)