Post-Election Re-Post: The Best Government Money Can Buy? Follow the Money!

I believe this is a good time to re-post a much earlier piece I wrote for this blog concerning the greatest threat to this country, the United States of America. Aside from the potential world-wide proliferation of nuclear weapons, the greatest concern comes from within. The problem of money in government is manifest across both sides of the political spectrum. Both President-Elect Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders warned of the danger during the recent campaigns. It is my contention that all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, should be concerned. Dealing with this problem represents a great opportunity for the incoming administration. My earlier post (which is repeated here in its entirety) can be reached by clicking on the following link:

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/the-best-government-money-can-buy-follow-the-money/

The Best Government Money Can Buy? Follow the Money!

For a very long time now, I have asked myself, “What is the biggest threat to the United States of America and our way of life?” From the beginning the answer seemed very clear, at least to my way of thinking, and the answer remains the same throughout the years that have passed since I first posed the question.

The Money

We already have the best government that money can buy, and the situation grows worse, particularly in Washington.

This has been the case under numerous administrations, and the situation knows no political party lines. Rather, it seems that such a dilemma is inevitable, somewhat akin to a perpetual law of nature – human nature. History has shown that while technology continues its explosive, exponential growth, human nature changes little as generations come and go; the problems inherent in a people attempting to wisely govern themselves stem from the biologically hard-wired nature of our mental make-ups. Self-preservation, self-interest, and just plain greed are always obvious and abundant in any society. Acting in one’s self-interest can be excused to a certain degree, but what is the proper label for a situation where wealthy and powerful factions “legally” influence (or control?) a society’s government along the lines of their best interests, often to the disadvantage of the middle classes and to the detriment of the society as a whole? Let’s face it, such a situation transcends the label of “political influence”; it is more properly called “corruption.”

 From the middle-class vantage point here in the trenches, it seems that Wall Street and corporate interests, along with labor unions have had a significant effect on the legislation which affects us all – often to our overall detriment. This happens when highly-paid lobbyists representing those interests bestow “legal” favors and political campaign contributions to candidates running for political office, candidates who are desperate to be elected or who face a tough re-election campaign. Why do lobbyists do this? The best answer to that comes from the well-worn advice which is so often relevant, “Follow the money!”

The U.S. Tax Code

Take the U.S. tax code, for instance – please! We are reminded every April how ridiculously complex it is, yet it should not be. Why not simplify it then? It will never happen under current conditions, because moneyed interests will always be on the backs of legislative committees to insure loopholes and myriad exemptions favorable to their particular business or interest. It is precisely the ongoing tinkering – no, make that meddling – by influence-peddlers acting through Congress which results in a ridiculously complex tax code. In fact, many of the bills which emerge from Congress are unduly long and unwieldy for precisely the same reason. Why are so many corporations “incorporated” in obscure places like the Cayman Islands even though their businesses operate primarily within the U.S., Europe and Asia? Follow the money – a more favorable tax base, of course.

Unsustainable Pension Obligations

Have you been hearing about the huge pension-obligation problems in bankrupt Detroit, in Stockton, California, and in many small communities across the country? We see only the tip of the iceberg on this one. The culprits: Labor unions and the politicians friendly to labor’s often excessive demands regarding benefits for their rank and file. Unions clearly have political and financial clout in political campaigns, and that is not without its long-term financial consequences – as we now understand. And then there are those political incumbents facing no imminent election challenges who just do not wish to deal with labor unrest during their tenure, so they readily cave to excessive union demands, “kicking the can down the road” and into the next person’s term of office. And the beat goes on.

A Second, Related Concern: Public Complacency

Nature has endowed humans not only with certain inalienable rights, but also with certain biological “defense mechanisms” – one of which is the tendency to put problems away for another day as long as a crisis is not imminent. This helps prevent ulcers, I suppose! We Americans it seems, have been “kicking the can down the road” for some time, now, while lobbyists have increasingly diverted governments, especially our Congress, away from truly representing “the people.” Politicians are too often focused on satisfying the wealthy and powerful who grant numerous “legal” favors to them and their office.

 And, by the way, did you know that currently something like 42% of legislators who leave Congress become paid lobbyists in Washington? I wonder why they do that? Again, follow the money! I believe that percentage was less than 12% just a few decades ago. Why did the Roman Empire collapse after centuries of world dominance? The experts tell us that corruption and public complacency were the primary causes. Does anything ever really change?

But It’s All Legal!

Some would claim that the lobbying industry operates perfectly legally, within legitimate guidelines regulating such things as political campaign contributions, etc. The rest of us would point to the fact that many of the laws and regulation guidelines as established by Congress and interpreted by the courts have long been unduly influenced by powerful interests. This calls to mind the old adage of “the fox guarding the henhouse.”

At what point do laws which clearly benefit the wealthy and powerful to the detriment of the common citizen and the overall good of the country become recognized as symbols and agents of corruption? I believe “bribery” is another way of expressing the current situation.

Abraham Lincoln’s “Take” on America

Lincoln_1

I recall many, many years ago, the moving, talking automaton (robot) of Lincoln at Anaheim’s Disneyland. At that time, such computer-controlled realism was quite a new thing. The convincing figure of Lincoln recited a number of his prescient thoughts and memorable utterances. I recall vividly the central idea that struck me the most, but I must paraphrase very liberally here: “This country, with all its resources and potential, will never be conquered by outside forces. Rather, it has more to fear from decay and forces within, than from foreign foes.” Amen.

 Was it not Lincoln who said “something” to the effect that we should resolve that…..“government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth?”

Fact-Checking, Truth, and Moral Certainty

In the climate of recent presidential campaigns, including the present one, a new imperative has, of necessity, emerged: That of independent “fact-checking” the statements and pronouncements of candidates. It is both fascinating and disturbing how often bald-faced lies and distortions of the truth are put before the voting public – from both major party candidates – even though the perpetrator is often caught on tape saying the very thing later denied. Is there no shame?

truth-pic_2

Have you ever been inconvenienced by illegitimate charges to your credit card which required a replacement card? It is actually becoming difficult to find anyone who has not. Inconvenient? Yes. Getting worse in this internet age? Yes. The cost to government, financial institutions, and to each and every one of us who must deal with the upsurge of fraud and identity theft is monumental. We pay dearly with our time, energy, and money for credit-bureau monitoring, anti-virus software, and fraud recovery efforts. I maintain that the prosecution and punishment of such fraud is woefully inadequate to serve as a creditable deterrence to anyone tempted to steal and defraud.

Have Truth and Honesty in All Things Become Old-Fashioned Notions?

It troubles me greatly that truthfulness and a personal sense of honor are ever scarcer commodities in America, not just in the political arena, but in our everyday encounters. Survival in America demands constant fact-checking because mis-representation from advertisers, politicians, bankers, and outright con-artists is on the upsurge in this society as is outright fraud.

The latest Wells Fargo Bank scandal is but a recent example. As I understand it, bank employees, with the allegedly tacit knowledge if not encouragement of upper management, opened unauthorized and unwanted new accounts at the bank in the name of current account holders. This, presumably for the sake of garnering money bonuses paid for generating “new business.” Seriously? Dozens of lower-level folks have been fired, and the CEO forced to resign, but the real question, here, is “Who will go to jail” for the significant fraud perpetrated? The answer? Probably no one, despite the seriousness of the allegations.

This is the path commerce in America has increasingly followed: The wealthy accused hire the best, high-priced lawyers to wrest unwarranted perpetrator leniency from our system of justice which should instead be serving notice that unscrupulous behavior will not be tolerated.

 As is almost always the case, those responsible in upper management at Wells who escape jail will, undoubtedly, become comfortably “retired” with pre-negotiated, guaranteed millions in their pocket despite “stiff” fines from the government for their naughtiness. The ordinary workers at Wells who were allegedly coerced by management to implement such a scheme have been fired and will fare much worse. No wonder folks are growing wary of “the system” and the lack of any real deterrence emanating from enforcement to discourage those tempted to take advantage of the public. Expect more of the same until the America demands and exacts justice in such cases.

Monitoring congressional hearings, such as that recently held to question the CEO of Wells Fargo, is usually an exercise in viewer frustration as often hapless members of Congress meander through poorly thought-out questions for those called before them to testify. Also in play is the public’s awareness that, lurking in the shadows, is the strong possibility that the congressional folks have, in the past, been bought and paid for by lobbyists representing the very entities and people being investigated by them. At best, it often seems as if our congressional “watchdogs” doing the interrogating are more interested in a beneficial television photo-op than really insuring justice.

Senator Elizabeth Warren was the glaring exception, recently, as she tore into the Wells Fargo CEO for his evasive responses to her pointed questions. At one point, she asked him for a yes or no answer to her very specific question. When he went into evasive/deflection mode for the second time, she promptly cut him off and declared, “I take that as a NO!” and forged ahead with her no-nonsense questioning. Hooray for Ms. Warren and her refusal to be deterred from her fact-finding! If a straight answer to pointed questions is not forthcoming, the person under oath should be made to “twist in the wind” until the question is addressed.

America has many complex challenges and problems. Truth and honesty in all things are necessary if we are to make any progress in addressing our country’s issues. We do not have the luxury, time, or money in this society to stop and fact-check everything, all the time.

 While these virtues should certainly start at the top with our elected officials, such attitudes must be embraced as well by us, the public at large, in our everyday dealings with one another – all the while demanding it of our government and corporate leaders.

truth-pic_1

It seems that the Gordon Gecko greed creed which declares “Greed is Good” has become the rallying cry of the new ethics in American business and government along with “Do Whatever It Takes to Get Yours.”

 If you have any doubt about current trends, you had best take the time to step back, take a good look around, and do some honest reflecting. What will it take for we the people to judge our fellow humans not by their position, their material trappings, their “engaging” personalities, or the color of their skin, but by the demonstrated content of their character…and their honesty in all things. We must not tolerate anyone who flagrantly behaves poorly in that regard.

Bernie Sanders for President? Tackling America’s Big Problem

The Money

These are fascinating times in this United States of America! Who will be elected president in 2016 to lead this country across the troubled waters which lie ahead? The story of this election campaign is materializing as I write these very words. Chapter two of the narrative begins after the election results from New Hampshire’s primaries this week which saw Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders emerge as clear winners.

There is much to be said about this election campaign and the amazing, atypical roster of candidates who have emerged, but I focus on three salient points:

Point one: That the current front-runners (yes, it is early), Trump and Sanders are most improbable/unusual candidates. On the one hand, Donald Trump is an outspoken, high-profile, multi-billionaire capitalist with a show-biz flair but no political experience, whatsoever. On the other hand, Senator Bernie Sanders characterizes himself as a Democratic Socialist – hardly the historical caricature of your viable presidential candidate!

Point two: The American electorate is desperately disgusted with Washington politics and politicians who perpetuate the “art” of procrastination and indecisiveness. It is clear that Trump and Sanders are where they are because they present voters with radical departures from the status-quo.

Point three: Both of these candidates have taken the plunge into the deep, treacherous waters of America’s most serious problem – especially Sanders.

What is the greatest threat to the United States of America?

Answer: The fact that Abraham Lincoln’s government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” has been hijacked by wealthy, special interests from industry and Wall Street. I have long been convinced that the situation poses a dangerous threat to the viability of our American democracy. It would seem that Senator Sanders has reached a similar conclusion along with many of our citizens who look askance at the gross wealth inequality which reigns supreme in America.

I recall a trip to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland when I was a young man: My family was listening to a speech by Abraham Lincoln realistically delivered by Disney’s “Lincoln automaton” (programmed robot). In the speech, Lincoln declared that, should the United States ever fail, its demise will come from forces within, not from outside the country. It was abundantly clear to me that Lincoln was warning about both citizen apathy/polarization, and the corrosiveness of internal corruption.

Donald Trump’s willingness to “damn the torpedoes” and say whatever is really on his mind was on full display in the first Republican debate when he wagged his finger disapprovingly at the influence special interests have on the decisions and functioning of our government. He insisted that he should know as well as anyone how the system works for the wealthy, because he, as a developer/capitalist, has taken advantage of the opportunities that the law allows! How refreshing was that honest admission and his subsequent stand that special interests have too much sway on our government by way of campaign contributions?

The Bernie Sanders Solution: Rein-in the Special Interests

 For anyone like me who is well aware of Wall Street’s recklessness, Sanders’ contention that our government is being steered by special interests is a resonating bell-tone. Few serious people will forget the near collapse of this country’s entire financial system back in 2007/2008 (yes, it almost happened!) and the role played by the greed and influence of Wall Street banks and investment houses. Hundreds of billions of dollars were lost, much of that by middle-class Americans, during the recovery process and the bail-out of Wall Street. Countless lives were changed forever thanks to the reckless, greedy actions of Wall Street and the banks as they parlayed their securitized and scrubbed, sub-prime home mortgage con game into huge profits…and, yet, not one of the well-documented protagonists ever spent a day in jail for it.

For anyone who needs to be convinced just how close this country came to financial/global Armageddon, I recommend the Frontline documentary, Inside the Meltdown. Michael Lewis, in his book (and the current popular movie) titled The Big Short reveals just how corrupt and/or ignorant were the people in both government and the private sector who allowed all this to happen. And make no mistake: Nothing has changed enough since that narrow escape to prevent a worse, future financial calamity from happening again.

When asked how he intends to change the ways of Congress and Wall Street should he gain the White House, Sanders cites his “popular revolution” as the vehicle. Indeed, he has touched a sensitive nerve in the populace as evidenced by the response received by his message about wealth inequality and the people’s government being increasingly controlled by wealthy special interests. Is Sanders a head-in-the-clouds liberal who does not know what he is tackling? After listening carefully to him, I think not!

 Just How Will This Work, Senator Sanders?

 A media political pundit (there are a lot of them) asked Sanders just the other day, “How will you possibly get an often self-serving Congress to wean themselves from the campaign contributions which fuel their constant drive for re-election? Who, in a position to matter, would shun the money? Do you think YOU can change their minds and enact laws which eliminate campaign contributions?”

At that point, Sanders proved to me his mettle with his quiet but firm answer (paraphrased): “No, the public will change their minds.” He reiterated and emphasized that his strategy involves a “popular revolution.” He did not have the opportunity to elaborate further, but I can imagine what his strategy might be. I envision a successful attempt to ban outside money and influence from our government process proceeding in two steps:

Step 1: Establish a generous election campaign fund (including network time) paid for by taxpayers and equally divided among all “qualified” candidates for major office. I am certain that an acceptable winnowing process can be established to narrow the field, initially.

Step 2: The executive branch (the president) drafts a written oath of office whereby major Washington office-holders and seekers can choose to swear to abstain from all moneys collected from special interests – under penalty of perjury. Any incumbent or candidate who does not sign the oath will be listed in the “nay” column of a listing which is readily available for all the public to see. Given the current mood of the electorate, I would hope that those who resisted signing the pledge to forego private campaign finance would see future voter support at the polls seriously dinged. That approach would, indeed, represent the public changing the minds of Congress – as Sanders intimated! Sanders must surely have something similar in mind in order to give his popular revolution some teeth!.

 Have You Ever Wondered Why Our Tax Code Is So Complicated?

 Here is the answer to the question. The intricate loop-holes and deductions in today’s huge tax code are symbolic footprints left behind by special-interest lobbyists and their lawyers who have, over many decades, chiseled away at tax code simplicity, creating special exceptions (loop-holes) in order to benefit their wealthy clients. Such clients are heavily represented in the top 0.1% of the population who now owns more wealth than the bottom 90% of Americans. Funny how that happens, isn’t it? By the way, I am in favor of raising marginal tax brackets up to at least 50% (with no loop-holes) for those making over ten million dollars a year, rising to 80% for incomes over fifty million – not to exact revenge on successful people, but to discourage the rampant greed and speculation which today’s 39% bracket (complete with loop-holes) encourages. I wonder how the rich ever got the marginal rate reduced from the 90% level it had reached during the Eisenhower administration….I wonder.

One of the worst Decisions Washington Ever Made!

 I agree with Bernie Sanders that the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act was a terrible move. Glass-Steagall was enacted in 1932/33 to separate savings and loan banks from Wall Street investment banks. The great depression made clear the need for such legislation. Most people with their precious savings held by a bank do not want that bank making risky Wall Street investments with their hard-earned money – never mind what the FDIC says it guarantees. Greed-induced gambling with the money of America nearly resulted in Washington’s inability to contain the financial chain-reaction which began in 2007. Back in 2008, other than Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers which did go under, it was clear that without a taxpayer bail-out, systemic failure of the system could destroy this country’s entire economy. Call it “taking one” by the taxpayer for the greedy and incompetent.

Why was Glass-Steagall repealed in 1999 during the Clinton administration? I do not know the answer to that one, but I would wager that lobbyist’s footprints were prevalent along the paths leading to Congressional offices – wouldn’t you?

 Where Does Hillary Clinton Stand?

 Hillary Clinton insists that she is serious about the lobbyist problem, yet I have not heard her call for the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall. I wonder specifically what her plan would be (beyond invoking the reactionary legislation of Dodd-Frank) to proactively restore the full attention of Congress to the business of the people?

At one point in last night’s democratic debate between Sanders and Clinton, she took personal umbrage at Sanders’ insinuation that her $600,000 speaker’s fee received from Goldman Sachs over the past year is unacceptable. Clinton said she would never be swayed in her vote by campaign favors. Sanders missed his chance by not retorting that not everyone in government might possess such high personal standards – a safe bet, I will wager.

Sanders did groan, “Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people” (my paraphrase) – a remark surely made not to refute her personal integrity in the matter, but to demonstrate the absurdity of blithely dismissing the corrosive power of lobbying on our over-all system of governance. In many crumbling parts of the world, they call it bribery – the need to pay money for a favor…or even for a fair shake. Sanders sarcastically asked (paraphrased), “Why would the wealthy do that with their money? Do they enjoy throwing their money around?”

Lincoln_1I hardly believe that Abraham Lincoln, politically savvy as he was, could countenance the form of bribery present in America today. At the time, Lincoln was correct when he ventured that America had more to fear from within than from without. In all fairness, he could little imagine that other immense threat to us all that has since materialized – an unstable nuclear world. May divine providence provide “we the people” with the leadership we so desperately need along with the popular will and good sense to vigilantly guard our democracy and our freedoms.

The Most Important (and Challenging) Job of All?

If you said President of these United States or CEO of the most iconic and “valuable” company in the world, Apple Computer, you would be very wrong. “Most powerful” or “most influential” might apply, but not “most important.”

PARENTING

The most important job in the world, by far, is birthing, educating, and responsibly raising children to grow into accountable, productive citizens of this planet. Parenting/mentoring is the most important job of all!

Most people pondering the question just posed would likely agree with the above answer. We are accustomed to the expression, “grass-roots movement,” a phrase prevalent in today’s news, particularly when applied to forms of social protest. Having spent seventy-four years plus as a member and active observer of the SHB, the Society of Human Beings, I conclude that the majority of mankind’s domestic and global ills can only be cured by administering a strong dose of self-help…at the grass-roots level.

With society and government so immersed in top-down solutions to our economic, social, and personal problems, it is refreshing to encounter people who feel that, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” My message has nothing to do with tea-party politics or any other kind of party affiliation. I am speaking to the need for a more enlightened, educated, and responsible citizenry as THE long-term solution to so many of the problems which, today, we attempt to legislate, regulate, and subsidize away.

Just as I believe that education in America will best be served by “better students” arriving in our classrooms as opposed to “better schools” and “better teachers,” I propose that society will best be served by nurturing “better citizens” for the ranks of society and not by “better jobs” and “better opportunities” from our industries and government.

And just how is such a grass-roots effort of that magnitude going to occur? The unavoidable, but correct answer is: One very young person at a time….and it will take time, a lot of time. The key to it all is responsible parenting/mentoring of our very young.

The two-adult, intact family unit – a household in which children are raised by two mature, responsible adults is the best vehicle for achieving the stated goal. For you successful single parents, note that I stress the word, best. Obviously, there is a CATCH 22 involved, here: Before mature, responsible children happen, there must be mature, responsible adults to enable them, and those adults in charge were once malleable young children themselves, also vulnerable and in need of wise adult guidance. Yes, this represents a stiff challenge, but a way must be found to break into the endless circle of poor mentoring and poverty which, today, seem to be driving our society into a downward spiral.

An Interesting Experience at the Front Door

The other day, my doorbell rang. I put down my book and opened the door to find a middle-aged black man, nicely dressed in casual clothes and with magazine subscriptions to sell which could help his personal cause. He had quite a line of patter which hinted that he had come up the hard way and was now making a better life for himself – very laudable. As part of his pitch, he asked me if I ever had to go door-to-door like he was doing. I thought for a moment and truthfully replied, “Yes, when my company had been “downsized” and I was out looking for a job!” Once or twice over the years, my knocking-on-doors job search was accompanied by a palpable sense of desperation when the economy was really tight, no one was hiring, and our savings account was rapidly being depleted.

The man asked if I were aware of poverty areas in the greater San Francisco Bay Area – places like Oakland, CA., and I assured him that I was quite aware. He commented on the lack of youthful opportunity in those areas, and asked, “What do you think is required to remedy the situation?” My initial reply: “The situation IS complicated.” I thought for a few moments and then added: “Since you have asked for my opinion: I believe that one of the major problems faced in some regions of Oakland and other major cities with poverty/crime problems is the predominance of one-adult households raising multiple children – usually a mother with no father.” I suggested that, “The positive influence of the intact family unit is THE ultimate gateway to youthful opportunity – for any youngster, anywhere.” I was giving my honest reply to this man’s direct question – a reply which reflects my long-held belief that the combination of poverty and insufficient adult supervision and mentoring is an untenable combination, especially where that is the norm in any neighborhood.

I told him that, being retired, I could not afford a magazine subscription that I do not want, but that I would donate five dollars to help him out. It was an interesting and clarifying moment for me and well worth the donation.

It (the Situation) IS Complicated! Some Statistics

The circumstances surrounding high poverty/crime areas are varied and complex, but statistics shine a glaring spotlight on the positive influence that an intact, loving family has on the future prospects of the children. 8% of children raised by married couples live in poverty compared with 40% raised by single mothers. Within those statistics exist plenty of single moms (and dads) who are doing an exemplary job raising kids under difficult conditions: Statistics deal with trends, not with individual cases, but the trends are quite clear.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial observed the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial report issued while he served as an assistant secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s Labor Department. Moynihan’s study which focused on the black family and the increasing number of fatherless homes determined that, “The fundamental problem is that of family structure. The evidence – not final but powerfully persuasive – is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” Moynihan was vilified by many liberals of the day for his report. The response of the Great Society in Washington was to penalize marriage and subsidize single parenting, and that is a typically top-down Washington “solution” which so often actually makes the problem worse.

The Journal article goes on to cite these more recent statistics: At the time of Moynihan’s report, 25% of black children and 5% of white children came from a fatherless household. Today the numbers are 70% and 35% , a startling increase, particularly within white families.

Raising responsible, accountable, and productive children is very difficult in today’s demanding society, both in black communities and white enclaves – even in two-parent families. When only one parent is present to shoulder all of the attendant responsibilities, the task becomes overwhelming with the additional burdens imposed by widespread poverty in the environment. Such conditions make breaking the vicious circle of poverty doubly difficult.

Although I believe in marriage as the best alternative, that, for me, is not the heart of the argument, here. The real issue has more to do with two adults entering into a long-term compact of mutual commitment and responsibility with a strong focus on the welfare of their children. Ideally, such a mutual commitment is accompanied by an honorable and sincere desire to provide a better opportunity for their kids than they themselves experienced – even though considerable self-sacrifice is required.

When these attitudes begin to take hold in our society, we are on the right track. I believe that WAS the way it was, and not that long ago in this country. It would take a few generations for such a grass-roots effort to show positive results, but don’t count on government solutions alone to solve the problems we experience any time soon.

Recently, the great astrophysicist, Steven Hawking, was asked what human trait he would like to see modified or eliminated: He replied, “Aggression.” While I agree with him, I would add, “I wish to see restored the once prevalent notions of personal honor and integrity… and parental accountability.” I continue to hope.

Rain at Last in California! The Bleaker Picture?

Finally, the rains have come to central and southern California! We have been in severe drought, now, for many months, and anxieties run high as reservoirs run low and even go dry.

 IMG_1918_CROP

Although the three to four inches over the last few days is quite literally “just a drop in the bucket” in terms of alleviating our drought conditions, the coming of such significant rainfall raises hopes that more is to come this season: It must!

Linda Was Right About “Water”

I recall my wife voicing concern many years ago about California’s rapid growth outrunning its resources – particularly water. At the time, I hadn’t given it much thought; today, I think a lot about the possibility – fast becoming a likelihood!

There has been a huge influx of people in California and, specifically, in the San Francisco Bay Area over the last several years. The primary reason aside from the region’s wonderful climate is the booming economy and the tech job magnet which is Silicon Valley. Every vacant space (and there are not many!) is giving way to developers and the apartment/condominiums they love to build. The housing demand is fierce which begets sky-high home prices and rents. However, it seems our city fathers and the state politicians in Sacramento have given little thought to water and the skyrocketing population/resource imbalance. Now, California’s long-term drought has finally spotlighted the seriousness of the situation.

IMG_1932

Locally, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, residents have been asked to cut water usage by 10 to 20%. Lawns have been going brown and showers have gotten shorter among the citizenry. The central valley of California, long known as “the salad bowl” of the world for its bountiful produce, continues to farm although there are sections of the valley that lie fallow for lack of water. In other locations, even such water-intensive crops as almonds are still grown in abundance.

Where Do the Farmers Get Their Water?

More and more, California’s farmers are going far below ground for their water, drilling deeper and deeper wells. Some of these wells are so deep that they cost a farmer hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill. Most of the shallow, easy-to-reach aquifers have been depleted over decades of easy drilling. Small farmers who cannot afford the drilling costs of deep wells see the handwriting on the wall.

I was surprised to learn – and not that long ago – about land subsidence. Here is how it works: Over a period of continual pumping of well water from the aquifers, a significant lowering of land elevation occurs. The nearby large city of San Jose, California, experienced some thirteen feet of subsidence in its early days when water came exclusively from wells. That degree of land recession can cause all kinds of problems today: New flood-zones (not a problem at the moment!) and infrastructure damage, for example. Imagine the potential stresses and strains on underground utilities like water and gas pipes as the land settles in a slightly uneven fashion.

The “60 Minutes” Program on California’s Water Problems

Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” recently devoted an entire program segment to California and its growing water problems. The program highlighted data which shows serious depletion of the state’s aquifers – mainly by big agriculture. The implications are clear: Any long-term climate change in California which results in less rainfall each year for an extended period will, in the not too-distant future, take a severe toll on the state’s agricultural output as aquifers are pumped dry faster than they can replenish – precisely the present situation. The resulting damage to California’s agriculture will have huge economic consequences on the state in years to come.

The de-salinization of salt water is seriously being considered right now in some regions of the state. Down south, Orange County and San Diego have already implemented sewage treatment plants which reclaim waste water (even sewage) back into drinkable water. At the end of the “60 Minutes” segment, Ms. Stahl finally gave in to urging from her host at one of these re-processing plants and drank a glass of water which had been reclaimed from sewage/waste: She apparently remains in good health and even admitted that it “tasted OK” – to paraphrase.

IMG_1915

Barely visible at the base of the Japanese Maple in the above picture is a little sign my wife has in our garden. It reads, “For all things, there is a season.” How true for the annual seasonal changes which we expect. I fear that little sign may portend a darker cycle – one with a period of hundreds of years – a cycle of severe drought in California. I hope not.

For more on the subject of unbridled growth here in Silicon Valley and cities and towns, in general, click on the following link for my post “Our Cities and Towns: About Growth and Quality of Life” (archives, May 31, 2014).

See “Our Cities and Towns…”

Nuclear Weapons: Is Civilization Going “Critical?”

While traveling through New England just two months ago, Linda and I made it a point to drop into any bookshop that looked interesting – our usual mode of operation. In the back room of a rustic little shop in Lenox, Massachusetts, I found a small, unassuming little volume titled simply, “Hiroshima.” Because of my interest in the science and history of nuclear weapons, I recognized the title as a possibly important one. It was published by John Hersey in 1946, the year after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is a bookplate on the inside cover, and the book’s fine condition suggests it had been cared for over the years. Hersey’s piece, an expose of the horrors of nuclear weaponry, was first published in the “New Yorker” magazine. My little book is an obvious first book edition.

IMG_1371PS

Today’s “Wall Street Journal” Bookshelf (Aug. 6, 2014) under its byline, “A Decision and It’s Fallout,” reviews a new book by Paul Ham titled, “Hiroshima Nagasaki.” The book review mentions Hersey’s book as the best representative of the first wave of moral revulsion over the decision to use atomic bombs on Japan. Indeed, Hersey’s accounts of specific bombing victims and the general aftermath in Hiroshima paint a stark and gloomy picture.

With the specter of nuclear weapons ever-lurking in the shadows, the warfare currently raging on several world stages along with these specific recent reminders of Hiroshima prompted me to write this blog-post.

I cannot think of a more important question for us, the denizens of this planet, to ask ourselves than the one posed in the title of this post: “Is Civilization Going Critical?”

What does that mean? In nuclear weapons parlance, “going critical” refers to the condition whereby enough radioactive material is effectively combined to enable a nuclear “chain reaction.” A chain reaction occurs during the “fission” process whereby atoms are split apart releasing both energy and enough free neutrons which act as new “bullets” to split yet other neighboring atoms in a rapidly cascading scenario.

mushroom-cloud1[1]

When the state of criticality is met, runaway fission occurs, accompanied by a tremendous, almost instantaneous release of nuclear energy in accordance with Einstein’s most famous prediction that e = mc2. A nuclear chain reaction can be controlled and sustained in a lab environment without catastrophic results as demonstrated by Enrico Fermi and his team of physicists. They were an advanced “arm” of the Manhattan Project, the government’s crash program in World War Two to build the first atomic bomb. Fermi and his team demonstrated the feasibility of a nuclear chain reaction on Dec.2, 1942 while working under the old football bleachers at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. In contrast with Fermi’s ability to moderate his chain reaction, in a nuclear weapon once criticality is reached in the bomb’s radioactive core, the reaction is unstoppable and virtually instantaneous.

There is no going back. It is that statement which frightens me about the state of world affairs, today. Are we, the societies which comprise our earthly civilization, approaching a point of criticality in our global relationships, and, given our powers of mutual mass destruction, risking a point of no return? Is a flash-point possible which triggers a chain reaction of events from which there is no turning back? I fear that is so.

Here are several questions which deserve serious consideration:

-When any country announces that it will do whatever it needs to do to protect its people, that is precisely what its citizens expect. But how far does that policy extend, and at what point are a country’s citizens deemed to be in mortal danger to the point where all options should be on the table?

-What would happen to any state or region of the globe deemed “responsible” if even a crude nuclear device were detonated in or over the financial center of New York City? While at this time, only Russia and China have nuclear arsenals large enough to truly destroy the United States in a physical sense, the damage inflicted by a single, small nuclear strike on New York City to this country’s economy and our way of life, would constitute a “virtual destruction” of the country as we know it. The retaliatory price to be paid would, almost certainly, be massive for the actual or perhaps even for a “perceived” perpetrator. And then what follows?

-What about an unintentional or unwarranted nuclear first-strike? Never say “impossible” – extremely unlikely, yes, but once nuclear-tipped missiles are launched, they cannot be called back – a necessary “precaution,” if you will. One thing is certain: The brilliance of the scientific/engineering community in decoding the laws of physics and fabricating such powerful weapons will never be matched by a similar competence and capability of the bureaucrats who control them. Perhaps you have heard the news of our recent missile silo problems in that regard.

-And finally: At what point will the common framework of “humanity” supersede the more secondary distinctions which so prevail today – nationality, race/ethnicity, religion, tribal allegiances, etc.?

Are Humans Capable of Managing
the Technologies They Create?

Increasingly, the evidence says no. Look at the recent reports of massive cyber-theft. Do you recall the live smallpox virus recently found in a cardboard box at some abandoned health facility? By long-standing international agreement, there are only two designated sites on the planet which are authorized to possess live smallpox… under lock-and-key: Russia and here, in the United States. These two examples illustrate the overriding fact that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link – a truism that will always haunt our efforts to manage technology. There will always be weak links and vulnerabilities! On a more benign level, many of today’s roads cannot handle the ridiculous commute traffic we have created, a legacy of that truly wonderful engineering triumph, the automobile. Say, wasn’t the automobile supposed to free us from our shackles?

Back to the Real Question

The real question is, of course: What policies will govern the possible use or non-use of acquired nuclear weapons? Implicit in any such discussion is the whole concept of “civilian casualties” in warfare, a topic so often pertinent to the conflicts we hear reported every day. There seem to be no satisfactory answers to that issue and to the even larger questions – and that is very troubling.  As the “Wall Street Journal” book review reported, “Dutch” Van Kirk, the last surviving crew member of the B-29, “Enola Gay,” which bombed Hiroshima, died last month. His view of modern warfare discounted any application of moral logic: “It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence.” As General William T. Sherman so aptly stated and demonstrated in Georgia during the U.S. Civil War, “War is hell,” and there is no other way around it. The world had better think long and hard about that reality, for the potential stakes today are immense, and there is no room or time for second-thoughts.

A Postscript:

Two years ago, Linda and I toured Hyde Park on the Hudson in upper New York. We found it fascinating, and the more we learn about Franklin Roosevelt, the man and the politician, the more we want to know. As our little tour group assembled in front of the venerable old mansion which was Roosevelt’s family home for generations, our middle-aged tour guide with a back-east accent said something unusual, something which certainly struck a chord with me.

NY 2012_150_AlanPS“See that door over there at the right-corner of the house?” he asked. He went on to explain that is where Franklin Roosevelt and long-time friend and White House advisor, Harry Hopkins, made the most important decision of Roosevelt’s long career. In that little corner office, they set in motion the Manhattan Project, the full-out, no-expense-spared effort to develop the atomic bomb – before Germany could do it. The nuclear race was on. “A most unusual opening remark for a tour guide,” was my first reaction. My long interest in the Manhattan Project and all that it signifies, however, made me nod in agreement. Our guide had obviously studied his history and had similar viewpoints on that particular matter – very interesting!

For readers who would like to know more about the Manhattan Project and the ramifications which stem from its success, I whole-heartedly recommend the documentary film by Jon Else, “The Day After Trinity.” It is the best of the many and varied fine documentaries I have in my video library. It is a film which everyone should watch, and one which no one who does watch will forget. It is not a film about bombs, or science, or merely history – it is first and foremost a human story, centered on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant principal architect of the bomb. The story, as related by many of the key players on the project, delivers a message for all humanity. Oppenheimer’s eyes on the DVD cover convey a message about the truth he had quickly recognized: The nuclear genie is loose, and it is already too late to control it.

IMG_1376PSDespite my enthusiastic testimonial for this film, I have no connection whatsoever with its sales or marketing. My mission here, as always, is to pass along something that I deem special to the readers of my blog.

Our Cities and Towns: About Growth and Quality of Life

This evening my wife and I are attending a presentation on “growth,” in our cities and towns. The program is being presented by a local environmental group, and we hear that the featured speaker is excellent. The topic of “growth” is of considerable interest to us. Many in America and other parts of the world have serious questions about the upside and the downside of growth in their local regions.

Prune_Orchard_near_Santa_Clara,_California_(3655751146)[1]

“The Valley of Heart’s Delight” – today known as Silicon Valley, Ca.

Linda and I have had the great good fortune to live here, in Silicon Valley, California, since 1970. We are located between the major cities of San Francisco and San Jose. Silicon Valley is named after the natural element, silicon – the key and ubiquitous “ingredient” in semiconductor fabrication. Silicon and its attendant technologies constitute the modern-day California gold-rush. Before “Silicon Valley” was so-named in the late nineteen fifties, this fertile valley was known as “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.” As recently as sixty years ago, aerial views of the land revealed one vast landscape of orchards – as far as the eye could see. At ground-level, the view of fruit-tree blossoms in spring and the effect of their perfume in the air were the essence of the term, “delight.” Apricots, cherries, and prunes were especially prevalent and were acclaimed as the very best that could be found – anywhere.

Today’s aerial views reveal a very different landscape; the transformation of the area over the past sixty years is nothing less than phenomenal. The fertile soil of the valley has been paved over in favor of roads, roads which connect the myriad of technology companies covering the region. Today, one is hard-pressed to locate even a one-acre orchard anywhere in this valley.

The city of Sunnyvale maintains a small portion of its former apricot orchards as part of its community center. The orchard is carefully tended and its delicious cots are sold on-site every year at harvest time – a boon to the local residents. This orchard will be protected and preserved for generations to come.

Nestled next to the orchard plot is the Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum which opened in 2008. It does an excellent job researching, preserving, and presenting the rich historical heritage of this entire valley. This is a history which is both fascinating and crucial to intelligent planning for the future of the region. The presentation on growth which we will be attending is being given at the museum tonight.

Like California’s gold rush of 1849 which gave birth to boom-towns overnight, today’s technology boom has converted sleepy valley towns into a wall-to-wall conglomeration of thriving metropolises. Unlike the boom-towns born of the gold rush which were quickly abandoned and fell to ruin once the easy gold was taken, these modern-day cities will be around for a long time to come. Unlike gold, silicon, the major constituent of sand, is and always will be very plentiful, as will the technological applications for it in the form of semiconductors.

Discussions about the upside and the downside of growth are particularly meaningful in this most unusual place, because the effects of growth, for better or worse, are so amplified and accelerated in Silicon Valley. I would characterize this region as THE “test tube” locale for city planners studying the effects of growth on residents and their quality of life.

Been Here Since 1948: Oh, the Changes that Have Occurred!

My credentials for commentary on the changes in this region actually go back beyond 1970 to 1948, the year our young family moved to California from Chicago, Illinois. We lived north of here, in San Mateo – about twenty miles toward San Francisco. Orchards were not so prevalent on the northern peninsula, nearer “The City,” but the life-style in those little population concentrations was distinctly “small town.” I recall the late forties when San Francisco International Airport was one small building that looked much like a suburban Greyhound bus terminal does today. When your plane boarded at gate 2 in those days, you actually walked along a covered open-air walkway and entered the apron where the plane was waiting by going through a four-foot high, swinging “garden” gate. A modern new terminal was opened in 1954 which was a delight for travelers.

SFO 1960

 SFO in 1960 when you could park and walk to the (only) terminal

As a young boy with a new driver’s license and a penchant for airplanes, I loved to drive to the airport, swing into a parking place just outside the modern new terminal and watch the airplanes come and go from the roof. How exciting that was! Good luck trying that today. Like most of today’s international airports, SFO is a nasty complex of multi-terminals, elevated skyways which criss-cross each other in confusing fashion, and multi-story parking garages.

sfo2-200dpi[1]

SFO today. Is this really “progress?”

My wife and I have lived in our house for the last forty-two years. We have seen, first-hand, the changes I describe, and we have been a part of those changes in the valley: Me, as an electrical engineer in the world of computer technology/start-up companies and my wife as a schoolteacher.

For the first twenty years after settling here in 1970, life was beautiful in our little city. Most “things” were new and fresh and manageable – like buildings, shops and shopping centers, the local library, and roads that were smooth with plenty of capacity for the traffic back then. Then things began to change. Today, we have horrible traffic – not just at rush hour, but virtually all day long. What used to be a pleasant five minute drive to the new Sears with its wide apron of ample-parking, is today an effort due to a blizzard of cars and a string of traffic lights that never before existed.  And good luck finding a parking space at Sears! That same store that was once the brand-new focal point of its spacious surroundings is now surrounded by a shopping mall and numerous other businesses and their office buildings. The massive new Apple headquarters under construction near that location will prove an additional, notable housing and traffic challenge to the area.

 Too Many People and Too Much Traffic!

There are too many people here, now. What was once the major attraction of the region – great weather and surroundings – has been surpassed by the money that can be made in the local tech industries. The fine colleges and universities in the area are also a draw for the techies who come here. Stanford University is here, in nearby Palo Alto, and can rightly be termed the catalyst for the whole phenomenon of Silicon Valley. The remarkable story of Stanford University, itself, deserves a whole blog-post of its own (will happen) – in fact, a whole book of its own.

Returning to the main point, the money and jobs which power this valley have increasingly undermined its quality of life by attracting too many newcomers, increasing the traffic immeasurably, and decreasing the air quality of this one-beautiful region. Yes, that may sound hypocritical since most of us were newcomers to this region at one time – in my case, decades ago, but there is another viewpoint to be considered. When we older residents arrived here, the valley had plenty of open space, easy access, plenty of services, and a long way to go before its economic promise was to be fulfilled through the efforts of us, its new residents.

For me personally, and in the opinion of most old-timers in the region, continued “growth” in the form of new jobs and more people is not a positive trend at this juncture. If one is OK with the transformation of suburban living into urban living with its necessary population densities, the trend will not be a problem. For local officials who salivate over more tax revenue and for developers who turn silicon into gold, the situation is marvelous. Four to six-story “condominium blocks” are sprouting up all around the region, adding hundreds of new cars to the road for each new development. The modest homes in some neighborhoods that have stood for decades are increasingly being “shadowed” by two and three-story mini-mansions. These, of course, were built on proportionally small lots made available by the purchase and subsequent demolition of older homes.

A favorite way to relax, for me, is stepping out on our patio at dawn to greet the day, a cup of coffee in hand; I often bid the day farewell in like fashion. In addition to the increasing roar and boom of traffic noise from distant freeways, one often hears the wail of sirens – fire or police. The sound of emergency vehicles was once a great rarity, here – no more. Now it is commonplace, not quite like NYC or downtown Chicago, but definitely on the rise as this area becomes more and more urbanized.

 The Morning After (the Presentation on Growth)

Now, as I complete this post, it is the next morning, and my wife and I have additional insight from last night’s aforementioned presentation on the complex issue of “growth” in our towns and cities. The former city planner who delivered the talk raised some good points. I would like to have had some post-presentation discussion time with him, but that proved not to be feasible.

The one question which intrigues me: What is the major paradigm underlying the evolution and ultimate destiny of towns and cities? Specifically, is it possible for a region to grow and reach an equilibrium point where both booming growth is curtailed and population densities stabilize well before the quality of life is adversely affected? The variables involved in the dynamics of growth are fascinating and complex – Phd thesis material. A caution: It is important for city planners to succeed in identifying both the variables involved in growth dynamics and the “handles” available to modulate those variables. But one must realize that, at a given time and circumstance, the specific handles that need pulling (the necessary corrections) are not always available or operable for various reasons. The NIMBY (not in my back yard) effect can kill many generally meritorious municipal building projects, for instance.

I suspect that the real answer to my above question is this: Towns and cities are destined to grow and achieve an optimal quality of life for their residents. From that point forward, they seem ultimately doomed to continue the urbanization trend until aging infrastructure, population density, and other of the many variables involved make life in such cities and towns unpalatable. External events and trends can drastically alter the status of regions. The histories of once-great cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit provide interesting case studies. Like Silicon Valley today, they were once the industrial gemstones of this country’s economy, and look at them now. The external trend that changed Detroit completely was the emergence of the global economy and Japanese auto manufacturers.

Detroit-Train-Station-Smith[1]

The abandoned and trashed, once-proud central rail terminal in Detroit

The notion of towns and cities being destined to grow to their eventual destruction is quite troubling. One would wish for wise local governments and populations who could recognize a good thing and declare that “more is not good.” But perhaps we are doomed to a version of the “Shembechler doctrine,” Bo Schembechler being the former great football coach at the University of Michigan. Schembechler’s mantra for inspiring his players went like this: “You are either getting better, or you are getting worse.” In other words, there is no viable state which allows maintaining the status quo, staying at the current level. If you are not improving, you are slipping according to coach Bo.

Similarly, perhaps town and cities must also either continue to grow (the illusion of getting “better”) or curtail growth and face the prospect of quickly wilting (getting “worse”) and a premature demise. History provides many instances of sustained, uncontrolled long-term growth which, while prolonging life, seems to impose an inevitable day of reckoning. Perhaps we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t!