THE VIEW FROM CHAOS MANOR
View 617 April 5 - 11, 2010
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April 5, 2010
The Day After iPad
The earthquake in Baja was no more than detectable here. I suppose the real earthquake is the iPad.
I will have more to say on iPad in the column. It probably is a game changer; it is certainly embraced with enthusiasm by a lot of people. There are reasons for all this, and I'll have that in the column. Meanwhile, no, I don't urge everyone to rush out and buy one; but you might start saving money.
It's tax week at Chaos Manor. It's also column week. And I'm a bit off in my energy levels. Michael Galloway was over all morning as I threw out stuff and made room, and that turns out to be more exhausting than it used to be. Old Pentium motherboards.
That is not strictly true. It is certain that a scheme that gives unlimited entitlement will soon go broke; but it is also possible to entitle everyone to a minimum level, and in practice we have been doing that for years. What we can't do is give everyone everything wanted. Some resources are limited. When my friend Frank Herbert discovered he had cancer, he instantly went to the Mayo Clinic. Because of Dune he could afford to do that. As it happens they couldn't do anything for him, but he thought it was his best chance.
Everyone can't go to the Mayo Clinic for whatever critical illness threatens. Mayo hasn't the resources. They choose their patients, and while they have some provisions for those who can't pay a lot, they mostly have to collect large fees to stay open. What happens to such facilities when there is a single payer? Or when there are no "Cadillac" health insurance plans that will pay whatever is required? Incidentally, not even the Cadillac plans can survive being required to take on all comers without regard to pre-existing conditions. Or perhaps they can, but the cost of the premium will be enormous.
Ponzi schemes always collapse, but that does not prove that some limited form of universal health care is impossible. Whether that minimum health care will be something you want will depend a lot on how it is set up, but it's not inevitable that it will collapse. One might ask the question: what gives anyone the right to have his medical bill paid by someone else? If it is some variant of "my brother's keeper", does that not violate the modern concept of separation of church and state? But that is another discussion.
For a man to love his country, his country ought to be lovely: and it is not loveliness to have people dying in hospital waiting rooms, as happened at Martin Luther King (and was the cause of that hospital's closure). The minimum level health care we have been providing to everyone has not always been well delivered -- but it mostly was. We mostly don't have the ugly picture of people dying in the streets for lack of a penicillin shot.
I do not believe the current Health Care Act will work as well as what we have now; it will not really give better health care at the lower end, while it will restrict what is available to the middle class, and send the upper classes abroad (as Canadians often come now to the United States).
For those who do not know: Take Back Your Government was Robert Heinlein's very detailed advice on citizenship and government. It was highly appropriate and useful when it was written but no one would publish it until Jim Baen finally did so in time for the Perot movement. I wrote an introduction to it which is still useful.
I am not familiar with the companion work, but given the low cost I can recommend the package. The Heinlein book describes an America that existed well into the Reagan era and which could be restored, although the media and the computer revolution have changed many of the details. At one time America was in effect governed by many thousands of volunteer precinct party workers. They are not so important now as they were then, but it's still a good way to learn something of elections, and the ground game is still important to real victories.
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April 6, 2010
The US deterrence policy has been the cornerstone of US foreign and military policy since 1945. When the Cold War heated up, Truman quietly threatened nuclear war with the USSR over the occupation of Iran; Stalin withdrew from Tehran (where the Red Army had been permitted during the War). It was all very complex, and skillfully done, and what Stalin learned from this was to get nukes and get them as soon as possible.
When the Cold War heated up in 1948 and the USSR started a blockade of Berlin, Truman decided not to initiate a nuclear war -- which would have been the only way for the US to force an opening to Berlin, since NATO (well, what became NATO largely in response to the Berlin Blockade) didn't have anything like the conventional forces that would be required to force passage; indeed there weren't enough troops on the ground to prevent the Russians from being on the Rhine in days or weeks. Carefully avoiding the first shot, Truman quietly informed Stalin that our patience wasn't infinite, while SAC conducted maneuvers designed to show America's nuclear capabilities.
The result was a contest of attrition, a very expensive supply of Berlin through airlift -- but a lot cheaper than any war would have been. It was also a demonstration of the effectiveness of nuclear deterrent, since the USSR easily had the capability to overwhelm the allied forces defending Berlin and for that matter all of West Germany.
When Dean Acheson left Korea out of the US nuclear deterrence perimeter, the USSR once again tested US determination by sponsoring the North Korean invasion of South Korea. The US response was non-nuclear. Acheson's defenders have always said that Stalin wasn't actually influenced by Acheson's speech; whatever the truth of that, Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles always thought that it was, as did the CIA. Eisenhower's nuclear doctrine was deliberately ambiguous: we stationed "tripwire" forces in Europe while Eisenhower proclaimed that the US response to an attack on NATO or any of the US allies in the ring of alliances built around the Soviet Union and China would be "massive retaliation at a time and place of our choosing." While technically ambiguous, few had any doubts of what Eisenhower meant, and certainly SAC prepared war plans that included a US first strike with everything we had. The plan (Single Integrated Operational Plan or SIOP) was highly secret, but its existence was not. Kennedy ordered preparation of more than one SIOP, and eventually at least five were developed. Kennedy's nuclear policy was "flexible response" but he did not actually abandon the concept of "massive retaliation at a time and place of our choosing".
Those were times of considerable intellectual speculation and exposition on nuclear policy. Herman Kahn's work "Thinking about the Unthinkable" was influential. So were many others. Liddell Hart advocated a heavy conventional approach in Deterrent or Defense famously advocating a conventional buildup of NATO forces and concluding that "Russia would have to use a policy of deterrence" since the West was capable of building a more powerful field army in Europe than the USSR had. Of course that would have been expensive, and most of Europe preferred the shelter of the US nuclear umbrella (which cost them little) to actually paying for their defense.
The US nuclear deterrent worked well during the Cold War. Europe never fell, and the long war of attrition in Viet Nam turned out to be more exhausting for the USSR than for the US. Soviet attempts to project power without nuclear weapons completed Russian exhaustion with imperialism in Turkestan and Afghanistan and was a major cause of the collapse of the whole communist system. Once the USSR collapsed, the US dismantled the elite Strategic Air Command (SAC -- "Peace is our Profession") and began building a more conventional military capability in which weapons previously reserved for SAC became part of the regular forces; but the deterrent capability was preserved.
Changes in US deterrent policy have always been made with considerable care. It is not clear that the recommended new policy has been thoroughly thought out and debated, and I see no evidence that it is non-partisan.
Europe doesn't at the moment need the US nuclear umbrella to prevent the Russian from being on the Rhine in days. Europe does enjoy an economy in which what would usually be spent on military forces can be spent instead on social benefits, thanks to the alliance with the US and the reality of US force. Changes in US deterrent policy probably will have little effect on Europe.
The same is not true of the rest of the world. At the moment the US nuclear umbrella extends over Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula. Whether that changes now is not clear. The status of Taiwan is also unclear. And of course all this mixes in with US interests. What are the US interests in the Middle East and the Far East? What do we want, and how much military force does it take to get it? It is not entirely clear that the Obama administration understands these questions.
Foreign policy objectives are like checks. Achieving them requires power. Power is not entirely military but the military is a good part of it. Deterrence has its costs and objectives and payoffs. So does defense. All of this is complex, and none of it is immediate: what we do today has a huge effect on what we can do tomorrow. The Strategy of Technology by Possony and Pournelle was written primarily as a Cold War document, but much of it remains relevant today.
The US policy of deterrence worked for a long time in very dangerous times. We should not lightly abandon it, and some of the proposed changes seem like abandonment to me.
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April 7, 2010
The credentialism conspiracy continues. University lobbyists have managed to get the Federal Government involved in ending internships on the grounds that it is exploiting young workers and violates the minimum wage laws. A Wall Street Journal editorial says
What the students ought to think is that NYU benefits nicely from all this. You can't get an education on business practices for free by doing an internship; better you should pay NYU for course or workshop. Look for an increase in requirements for credentials. You must pay to earn 'credentials' while you can get experience free as an intern. Not surprising. Of course no one is forced to take an internship.
Whatever happened to freedom?
Today's WSJ also has an op ed piece on the Dodd Bill that's worth your attention. The title says it all: "The Dodd Bill: Bailouts Forever." Instead of allowing institutions that are "too big to fail" to be eliminated and their assets sold to smaller and more efficient companies, Dodd -- reportedly the upper half of the famous Kennedy-Dodd Waitress Sandwich -- wants to set things up so that even more too big to fail institutions will be built up and bailed out and kept in homage to the Feds.
Whatever happened to capitalism, which is to say freedom?
Los Angeles, like the State of California, is broke. One reason is that during boom times they spent money on everything, but particularly on new employees and raising wages and pensions on existing employees. If you were to ask taxpayers what they like spending money on, pensions for former government employees would not be high on the list, veterans excepted of course. At one time government employee pensions wasn't a big problem, because the government workers paid into the pension fund as did the government. Over time that transmogrified and in many places -- California in particular, but there are plenty of others -- not only do the employees not contribute to the retirement fund, but the fund must pay a stipulated amount even if the fund's managers have lost all the money. This has made for massive time bombs that will be going off for a decade. There is over half a trillion dollars in unfunded obligations by California funds. Meanwhile the annual California budget remains in deficit and can only be 'balanced' by borrowing or selling assets or both because cost reduction is "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor." People with liquid assets are, for some reason, fleeing the state...
Government at all levels is not merely broke but so deep in the hole that it can never tax its way out. Either some of these debts have to be restructured, or there will be runaway inflation. We can't tax the economy to pay off these debts. We are already at the stage where increased taxes don't bring in much -- if any -- more revenue, while their effect on the economy is severe.
Add to all that the new entitlement obligations of the Health Care Act, and you have the recipe for something a lot worse than Carter's stagflation. Many of you will not remember that era of national malaise, and the "misery index" which figured in both Carter elections. The misery index is formed by adding the inflation rate to the unemployment rate. Carter castigated Ford because the misery index was above 13% in 1976. At the end of Carter's term it was over 22%, and Reagan made much of that. Given current unemployment rates which aren't likely to plummet, and the need for more money to pay off the enormous debts, we can only speculate on what the misery index will be in 2012.
The situation is critical, but apparently not considered serious.
As to what happened to the pension funds: the managers got sucked into the derivatives and kiting bubbles at the same time that the Democratic legislature and governors kept reducing the employee contributions to the pension funds while raising the pensions and lowering the age of retirement. California is in more trouble than Greece. Greece having joined the Euro can't inflate it's way out of its debts, and no one knows how to get out of this: Germany isn't really interested in financing Greek pensions, and the Greek unions answer all this by strikes and riots. One wonders how that will play out in California, where we can't inflate out way out either.
Los Angeles for years has had hidden taxes in the electric and water rates -- the Department of Water and Power makes huge profits, which are handed over to the City. DWP has big surpluses, but wants to raise rates again. The City Council, under fire from voters, offered DWP all but $6 million of the loot it wanted, but that wasn't enough, so DWP in a fit of pique withheld $73 million that it was due to pay in tribute. This has brought on the current Los Angeles financial crisis, and the Mayor is going to shut down the city by furloughing employees several days a week. There is no discussion of, say, cutting back employment to 2002 levels. Unions are of course threatening to strike, or take to the streets, or quite probably both.
When I was deputy mayor of Los Angeles we had 81 civil service exempt employees. There are over 600 now.
We live in amusing times.
They're rioting in Kyrgyzstan because the utility bills are too high and there's corruption. Sounds like Los Angeles. Police have killed 40 rioters according to the radio. Taking to the streets has its costs.
I got this email, and wonder why I think it is disturbing:
That is, I am not astonished that SAT scores determine the price; the question is, I suppose should there be a price? Then I think egalitarian thoughts and worry: think of a really bright girl born to a family that won the egg in a lottery. Might make a good novel. You are bright. You must donate an egg. Report tomorrow to the Public Health Institute. Failure to do so will incur a severe penalty. Have a nice day.
April 8, 2010
When I did my series on America's Looming Energy Crisis back in Jimmy Carter times I went through all the numbers including reliability and returns on investment and concluded that nuclear power was a very cost effective way to generate electricity and generally the technology of choice for energy investors. It is also clean and safe. The major downside was political and legal; as technology it is sound. The French apparently came to the same conclusion.
I haven't followed the numbers since, but the evidence is strong that both in the US and France that's still the right conclusion: power companies are trying to build new reactors, and one supposes they are doing that because they expect to make money. Of course we expect the enemies of nuclear power to be out in force to put a stop to these efforts, and the media will cover them. The Los Angeles Times has a front page story with the headline "Now it's no nukes vs. no jobs" about an anti-nuclear rally in a town that has a nuclear reactor and is seeking to build two more. The rally drew seven (7) people. In the entire article there is no attempt to present any rational argument against nuclear power; it's all "Chernobyl" and "Three Mile Island" and chanting (although seven people chanting isn't much of a chant). There is no mentioning that Chernobyl was the result of a weapons grade breeder reactor of a design that cannot be licensed in the United States -- Edward Teller personally saw to it that a prohibition on "positive void" reactors was written into the fundamental Atomic Energy law. And of course it doesn't mention that no one off site was harmed by Three Mile Island and those on site received nothing more than exceeding badge radiation levels and thus being sent home.
While Three Mile Island was in the news, coal miners were killed, and there was a fatal railroad crossing accident involving a coal train; and we can calculate that the result of Three Mile Island was more coal fired plants which put more radioactives per kilowatt into the atmosphere than ever have nuclear plants. You don't find that in news accounts of anti-nuclear rallies; charitably I'd say it is because the writers don't know any of this.
In any event I haven't seen any evidence that nuclear plants are not both efficient and profitable except for legal harassment, and absent had information to the contrary I consider this settled. As to the Cato Institute scholars who say otherwise, what they present is arguments to the effect that brokerage houses are reluctant to invest in nuclear plants -- all of which is true, but their concerns are all over the legal uncertainties. Nuclear power plants require huge up front investments and are subject to tort bar law suits whose outcome is always uncertain. That was true when I wrote my series decades ago, and it remains true.
Nuclear power is safe, it is "green", and it is reliable. We now have the French and Japanese experiences. Some day we'll learn to curb the ravenous wolves of the tort bar; but by then there may not be sufficient capital to build those plants here. The Chinese don't seem to have that problem.
Low cost energy and freedom are collectively the remedy to our economic crisis. Meanwhile our capital vanishes, we face a looming energy crisis, and we owe essentially everything the government collects in taxes in unfunded pension obligations. How long do we let this go on?
On a lighter vein:
I have to confess that this was very difficult to watch...
I was trying to update the Index page a bit by transferring old headers to the older headers page, and realized that this place is a bit of a mess. That's not a problem for continuing readers and subscribers, but I fear that the home page isn't a lot of use in instantly attracting new readers. I get new readers and subscribers -- I presume from word of mouth, which I hope will continue -- keep us the good work -- and anyone who reads this place for a while tends to stay around.
It doesn't have much instant appeal to those who don't know why they came here. I'm not sure there's any remedy for that. There's a lot of stuff on this site, some unique, and while it's my business to explain things to people, it's getting a bit beyond me here.
I will remind you that I no longer support internal search engines or any search engine service. You can find stuff here by doing Google with site:jerrypournelle.com as the first term.
Periodically I am tempted to try to revise this place, but it's getting less likely every year. I expect I really should revise the Home Page, and particularly the stuff about what this place is all about, but I am not at all sure how.
My continued thanks to all the subscribers who pay for this place.
April 9, 2010
The radio is telling me that the US Government has awarded an energy star certificate to a gasoline powered alarm clock. The request was from an investigative organization, one source saying that it was a government frauds investigation unit. I don't usually report rumors, and this is certainly no more than that, but the horrifying lesson is that I don't know if it's true or not. So far have we come...
So let's go Google -- and Lo! It is indeed true, according to the New York Times in an article dated in March so it's not an April Fool. It gets worse. Apparently this isn't an automated award program. According to the Department of Energy, a live human being, a Civil Service employee and member of the Service Employees Union, has to approve all such applications before they are awarded. No one has yet been able to identify the employee who approved the gasoline powered alarm clock. Another product awarded an Energy Star for its efficiency is an air filter which was pictured on the web site of the fictitious company that purportedly marketed the product: the picture showed an electric space heater fitted with a feather duster and fly paper. This, according to the New York Times, elicited this comment from Senator Susan Collins of Maine:
I wonder if there will be any effort to find the civil servants who approved these, or if, having identified them, there is any possible remedy to be applied. Remember: whoever approved this will be able to retire with a large pension which you will get to pay for, probably for the rest of your life. Now the government that approves an Energy Star Certificate for a gasoline powered alarm clock will now in essence take over administering the Health Care System in the United States. Good luck, America.
April 10, 2010
I am involved with taxes and getting the column (very late) on the wire.
Repeating from last night. .
April 11. 2010
The Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society weekly records a panel called "The Never Ending Panel." Not long ago Niven, Barnes, and I did one of those. The topic was collaboration. We've done this panel before at science fiction conventions, and I suppose this means we won't be able to do that topic again. Fortunately there's other stuff to discuss. Anyway here's us on writing in collaboration and perhaps a few other extraneous topics on a Thursday night before a LASFS meeting.
There is a very large and very varied mail section today. I suspect you'll see something of interest.
The April column is now posted. It's got a lot about iPad, and reviews a number of books.
This is a day book. It's not all that well edited. I try to keep this up daily, but sometimes I can't. I'll keep trying. See also the weekly COMPUTING AT CHAOS MANOR column, 8,000 - 12,000 words, depending. (Older columns here.) For more on what this page is about, please go to the VIEW PAGE. If you have never read the explanatory material on that page, please do so. If you got here through a link that didn't take you to the front page of this site, click here for a better explanation of what we're trying to do here. This site is run on the "public radio" model; see below.
If you have no idea what you are doing here, see the What is this place?, which tries to make order of chaos.
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