Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Antifa picked a fight with Austin, TX police. That wasn't a good idea.

Last weekend Antifa protesters went on their usual potty-mouthed, profane way in Austin, TX.  Unfortunately for them, Texas police are less tolerant of being sworn at, pushed, shoved and punched than some of their law enforcement brethren in more liberal states.  Some of the protesters found that out the hard way.

I hope they learned from that experience - but I doubt it . . . I also hope they never try the same nonsense in the part of Texas where I live. Last time there was an attempt to arrange an Antifa demonstration in these parts, a local law enforcement agency broke out its 3-foot-long riot batons and gleefully issued them to everyone, along with encouragement to remember their training in how to use them. Things went down right peacefully after that!


So now incumbents are worried about primaries? GOOD!

The Hill expresses GOP incumbents' concern about the 2018 primaries.

Conservative activists say the latest GOP health-care bill sponsored by Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) falls short of the promise to repeal ObamaCare “root and branch,” but it’s better than nothing.

If that fails this week, as expected, Republican primary voters will have even less confidence in the GOP establishment — a rift that could spell trouble for incumbents in next year’s primaries.

“The backlash for the members of Congress more than the president could be significant if they truly can’t get their ducks in a row and get repeal accomplished,” said Chip Roy, former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), warning of danger for Republicans up for reelection next year.

“They would be in a much stronger position if they had done what they said what they were going to do and should have done, which was repeal it at a date certain and then have a series of discussions and debate about how to reform health care,” he said.

“We’re now staring at a much messier 2018 if Republicans continue to fail to get the job done,” he said.

Republican strategists and conservative activists predict that combined with Moore’s projected victory over Strange, an ObamaCare defeat will embolden conservative challengers to take on Senate and House GOP incumbents.

. . .

“I’m already getting calls from people who are going to primary [a] sitting Republicans,” said Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, who has fielded calls from prospective challengers to Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker (R) and Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock (R).

Two of the Senate’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents, Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), have already drawn challengers.

. . .

“On issue after issue, Senate Republicans are making excuses rather than delivering,” said Ken Cuccinnelli, head of the Senate Conservatives Fund. “We could definitely see a string of new primary challengers emerge in the coming months and Senate Republicans will only have themselves to blame for it.”

There's more at the link.

I think this can only be a positive development.  There are far too many representatives and Senators who are RINO's - Republicans In Name Only.  They aren't really interested in working with President Trump;  they have their own cosy deals going on with lobbyists, and in some cases with their Democrat "opponents in name only", and the will of the people doesn't really enter into their thinking.  If we can replace at least some of them with principled people, that will most likely be good for America.

However, I think precisely the same must happen on the other side of the aisle as well.  I'd love to see more honest politicians in the Democrats' ranks, too.  If the Bernie Sanders wing of the party is so strong in some states, let them nominate primary challengers to "old guard" incumbents.  If we get some of them into the House and the Senate, as well as some more committed conservatives, politics may well become a lot more entertaining.  It'll be the irresistible force meeting the immovable object - and sparks will fly.

Who knows?  Principled politicians might actually learn to compromise in the interests of the country as a whole, instead of fighting their partisan political battles in the press and making back-room deals in smoke-filled rooms.  Yeah, yeah, I know . . . dream on!

I think the only real solution is to term-limit all politicians.  Let's say you get ten to twelve years in elected office, of whatever nature (local, state, federal, whatever).  At the end of that period, you have to return to the private sector - no working for a political party, or lecturing in a politician-friendly academic environment.  Support yourself by hard work.  No easy sinecures!  After ten years in private life, you may be eligible to run for a more senior office - say, Senator or President.  Let's reserve those for more senior, more experienced people, by all means.  You can't run for the "junior" offices (say, up to and including Congress) any longer.  Again, a ten- to twelve-year term limit would apply.

What do you think, readers?


Are we already forgetting the lessons we should have learned?

I'm not a gung-ho "survivalist", one of those who gets ready for the end of the world as we know it, with food and supplies for at least a year stashed away, and the necessary firepower to keep it from the ravening, unprepared hordes who want to take it.  I think that's a pipe-dream.  If things get that bad, very few will survive, and then only because luck went their way.  Having been in too many Third World hell-holes for comfort, I know all too well that no amount of preparation can guarantee survival when society disintegrates around one's ears.  There are too many variables.

Nevertheless, I'm a strong proponent of preparing for emergencies as best one can, and being ready to make it without outside assistance for a few weeks to a couple of months.  I learned a lot traveling through those Third World hell-holes.  I've been through four hurricanes in the USA, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (about which I've written extensively), and experienced the Nashville floods of 2010.  I've seen enough to learn a number of important lessons.  The photographs of damage and destruction after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria over the past few weeks have merely reinforced my determination to do all in my power to have emergency essentials on hand, just in case.

What boggles my mind are the reactions I'm already hearing about (from friends in local and state law enforcement) among those who rushed to get gasoline, and panic-bought bottled water, bread, beer and other essentials (?), when they knew the storms were almost upon them.  Now that the storms have passed, and rescue and recovery have turned into repair and rebuilding, how many of them have bothered to restock their emergency supplies?  How many of them would be prepared if another Atlantic storm system strengthened into a hurricane, and headed their way?  (We're only halfway through hurricane season, after all.)  I suspect relatively few have even considered the possibility.

I'm equally baffled by the nonchalant attitude of those living outside the hurricane-stricken areas.  We've all seen the photographs and video clips of the damage to Texas, Louisiana, Florida and a number of Caribbean islands.  (Here, for example, is the Atlantic's photo essay of damage caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.  It's worthwhile viewing.  Ten days ago, those neighborhoods looked like many in mainland USA.  Now . . . not so much.)  We know what Mother Nature can do when she sets her mind to it - and that's not just involving hurricanes.  Scenes of disaster after tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes, floods and the like are all too familiar, and have been splashed across our news media for years.  Newspapers regularly publish scare stories about "the Big One" in California, or the Yellowstone "supervolcano" letting go . . . but most of those living in the danger zones for those hazards carry right on as usual, doing little or nothing to make what preparations they can in case such an emergency should arise.

I don't understand that.  OK, I've seen more than my fair share of disaster situations, but even so, everyone else I know has seen them too, albeit only on TV or in newspapers.  Why the mental switch-off?  Why the refusal to heed the advice of FEMA and other official resources, all of whom recommend that you maintain at least a minimal level of emergency supplies?  Why the resentment directed by so many against "preppers", when they'll be the first to ask those same preppers for help if disaster strikes their area, and resent the hell out of them if they don't share what they've put aside to help their own families?  Why the refusal to invest even a hundred dollars, over the course of a year, in building up a three- to seven-day reserve of food and potable water?  If you put $2 to $5 every week into buying a couple of extra cans of food, or a flat of bottled water, or other basic needs, at the end of a year you'll have your basic minimum emergency needs covered - so why not do it?

I've gone further than the minimum.  Miss D. and I have invested in our preparations, and expect to spend more over the next year or two, providing additional resources such as a small generator.  We don't have every "i" dotted or every "t" crossed - we can't afford to - but we've covered most of the basics.  Following the lessons I learned during Hurricane Katrina, I'm fairly sure we'll need to help friends and acquaintances, too, so we have enough put aside to do that if necessary.  We'd all get tired of rice and beans, but we'd survive.  What's more, if things become untenable locally, we can load our food and other gear into our vehicles, top up their tanks from our stored supplies, and head for safer pastures.  We won't be an immediate burden on those at our new location.

There are those who argue that, if they're not in an area prone to hurricanes or similar major emergencies, they don't need to make such extensive preparations.  That's their business, of course.  However, hurricanes are far from the only major threats.  Where we live now, in northern Texas, we could encounter the "triple whammy" of earthquakes to our north, in Oklahoma;  weather emergencies coming in from the west, along the "dry line", including torrential rains and the risk of tornadoes in summer, or ice storms in winter (as Lawdog can attest);  and wildfires or floods, both of which are far from unknown in this area.

Any one of those would be bad enough.  Two or three of them at the same time would stress every resource we've got, including the transport network through which assistance and supplies would have to reach us.  That stress would be made worse by the need to help other communities, perhaps worse off than we might be.  We might have to wait until their immediate needs were met before we received help and supplies ourselves.  That's not being paranoid;  that's being realistic, and is entirely in line with historical reality.  I'm sure, if readers check the history of their own areas, they'll find similar risks for which to prepare.

It worries me very much to see how few people around here have taken any precautions against or made any preparations for emergencies, even after official advice to do so, and after the recent hurricanes have demonstrated so clearly why that's a good idea.  In the event of real need, what will they do?  They'd better not come knocking at my door, because my reserves will go to my wife and our small local network of close friends.  That's what they're there for - not for public distribution!

I'm sure many of my readers are familiar with Aesop's fable of the ant and the grasshopper.  The original version goes something like this.

In a field one summer's day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart's content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.

"Why not come and chat with me," said the Grasshopper, "instead of toiling and moiling in that way?"

"I am helping to lay up food for the winter," said the Ant, "and recommend you to do the same."

"Why bother about winter?" said the Grasshopper; we have got plenty of food at present." But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil.

When the winter came the Grasshopper found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing, every day, corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer.

Then the Grasshopper knew...

It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

The revised version is somewhat different.

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper thinks he’s a fool, laughs, and dances and plays the summer away.

Come winter, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while others are cold and starving.

CBS, NBC and ABC show up to provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to a video of the ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food.

America is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can this be, that in a country of such wealth, this poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?

Kermit the Frog appears on Oprah with the grasshopper, and everybody cries when they sing “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

Jesse Jackson stages a demonstration in front of the ant’s house where the news stations film the group singing “We Shall Overcome”. Jesse then has the group kneel down to pray to God for the grasshopper’s sake.

Al Gore exclaims in an interview with Peter Jennings that the ant has gotten rich off the back of the grasshopper, and calls for an immediate tax hike on the ant to make him pay his “fair share”.

Finally, the EEOC drafts the “Economic Equity and Anti-Grasshopper Act,” retroactive to the beginning of the summer.

The ant is fined for failing to hire a proportionate number of green bugs and, having nothing left to pay his retroactive taxes, his home is confiscated by the government.

Hillary Clinton gets her old law firm to represent the grasshopper in a defamation suit against the ant, and the case is tried before a panel of federal judges appointed from a list of multi-generation welfare recipients. The ant loses the case.

The story ends as we see the grasshopper finishing the last bits of the ant’s food while the government house he is in, which just happens to be the ant’s old house, crumbles around him because he doesn’t maintain it.

The ant has disappeared in the snow.

The grasshopper is found dead in a drug related incident and the house, now abandoned, is taken over by a gang of spiders who terrorize the once peaceful neighborhood.

I fear those of us who prepare for emergencies are more likely to encounter the second version . . . but that doesn't make preparations less worthwhile.  I hope, dear readers, that you're doing the same - and not being grasshoppers.  There are altogether too many of them for comfort.



Monday, September 25, 2017

It's not just the the swamp - it's our fault, too, for sending the wrong people there

I note, with mingled approval and annoyance, this article in the Orlando Sentinel.  It was first published in 1984.

One hundred senators, 435 congressmen, one president, and nine Supreme Court justices - 545 human beings out of 238 million - are directly, legally, morally and individually responsible for the domestic problems that plague this country.

I excluded the members of the Federal Reserve Bank because that problem was created by the Congress. In 1913, Congress delegated its constitutional duty to provide a sound currency to a federally chartered but private central bank.

I exclude all of the special interest and lobbyists for a sound reason. They have no legal authority. They have no ability to coerce a senator, a congressman or a president to do one cotton-picking thing. I don't care if they offer a politician $1 million in cash. The politician has the power to accept or reject it.

No matter what the lobbyist promises, it is the legislator's responsibility to determine how he votes.

Don't you see now the con game that is played on the people by the politicians? Those 545 human beings spend much of their energy convincing you that what they did is not their fault. They cooperate in this common con regardless of party.

What separates a politician from a normal human being is an excessive amount of gall.

. . .

Just 545 Americans have fouled up this great nation.

It seems inconceivable to me that a nation of 235 million cannot replace 545 people who stand convicted - by present facts - of incompetence and irresponsibility.

I can't think of a single domestic problem, from an unfair tax code to defense overruns, that is not traceable directly to those people.

There's more at the link.

I think the author's making one mistake - one that lays the blame for Washington's fecklessness at our door, as much as anyone else's.  You see, the representatives and Senators - yes, and the President - in Washington are there because we put them there.  In some cases, we made wise choices.  In other cases, we made extremely poor ones.  Either way, they wouldn't be there without our votes.

It's too easy to blame Congress and the Senate for the mess we're in.  We need to look in the mirror when we do that . . . because we're just as much to blame as they are.  They reflect us, and our values - and, in the case of far too many of them, that's a terrible judgment on their constituencies, and on our country.


Yet more clergy sex scandals hit the Catholic Church

I've hoped against hope, ever since my own crisis of conscience back in 2005, to learn that the Catholic Church has taken meaningful action to clean up its Augean stables of clergy sex problems.  Tragically, that hope has been in vain.  Many new scandals have rocked the Church over the past few months.

CNS News recently reported:  "Vatican Cardinal’s Secretary Arrested for Hosting 'Cocaine Fueled' Homosexual Orgy Near St. Peter’s".  This is a particularly disturbing report, as the senior priest concerned is said to have been recently recommended for promotion to Bishop.  He also allegedly used a vehicle with Vatican diplomatic license plates to smuggle cocaine into the Vatican to fuel his orgies.  (It's not surprising that homosexuality is encountered in the Vatican, of course.  Back in 2013, Vanity Fair ran an in-depth exposé about it, and a year later, a former commander of the Pope's Swiss Guard claimed that there was a "gay network" in the Vatican.)

A major sex scandal erupted last year on Guam, where a former Archbishop and many priests have been implicated in the abuse of children and teenagers.  The scandal has only grown since then.  What's more, allegations of uncanonical practices and misuse of donated funds have led to even more problems for the Guam archdiocese, making it more difficult to focus on the sex scandal and deal with it as it deserves.

A couple of weeks ago, a priest was recalled to the Vatican from that nation's embassy in Washington DC after he was alleged to have trafficked in child pornography.  One presumes that the cleric will face due process in the Vatican . . . but there's no guarantee of that, of course.  After all, some of those most responsible for the child sex abuse crisis in the US Catholic Church have found a form of sanctuary there (for example, Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston).

Internationally, sex scandals have continued to plague the Catholic Church.  The head of the Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brian, stepped down after being exposed as an abuser - but was not defrocked.  It's been alleged that South America has become a "safe haven" for priests accused of child abuse in other countries, particularly the USA - and that's without taking into account the home-grown sex scandals afflicting Catholic churches in that continent.  Observance of celibacy in the Catholic Church in Africa is conspicuous by its absence in many areas (I can confirm this from personal observation during my travels in that continent).  The worldwide list of countries affected by sex scandals in the Catholic church, particularly child sex abuse, is simply staggering.

There may be those who think I'm anti-Catholic by publishing this information.  I'm not.  I was born and raised Catholic, and I daresay I'll never change my Catholic outlook on life.  However, as I wrote during the height of the Catholic child sex abuse scandal in the USA, my perspective changed when I was asked - no, ordered, as were all priests - to lie to our people about it.  I wrote extensively about that dilemma several years ago, and about my response to it.

Tragically, I truly and sincerely believe that most of the "establishment" of the Catholic Church - the cardinals, archbishops, bishops and administrators who run the Church - have no intention whatsoever of taking stronger action to root out immorality and sex abuse of every kind, unless and until they are forced to do so.  They see their priority as protecting themselves and the institution of the Church, instead of putting the interests of the people of God first, as they should.  They are, I believe, a perfect example of Dr. Jerry Pournelle's "Iron Law of Bureaucracy":

Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:
  • First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.
  • Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.
The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

In my opinion, the "Iron Law" perfectly describes the Catholic Church hierarchy today - and perfectly explains why it cannot and will not confront the problems of immorality and sex abuse among its members.  That's truly sickening - and it leaves those of us who believe, out in the cold.

Protestant evangelist Bob Mumford once defined secular humanism as "what you get when the world evangelizes the Church".  I suspect that's a very accurate description of what's happened to many of the leaders of the Catholic Church.  May God protect us from them . . . and lead them to repentance and conversion, to save their souls from the consequences of their choices.


It's not the NFL versus President Trump - it's what it means to be American

I've become very annoyed at much of the commentary this weekend concerning President Trump's call to the National Football League to fire players who protest during the playing of the national anthem.  One would think, to judge by the voluminous verbiage being spouted by so many, that this was a case of Big Brother oppressing its citizens yet again.  In one of the more balanced comments, the Wall Street Journal opined:

With the politicization of the National Football League and the national anthem, the Divided States of America are exhibiting a very unhealthy level of polarization and mistrust.

. . .

Mr. Trump has managed to unite the players and owners against him, though several owners supported him for President and donated to his inaugural. The owners were almost obliged to defend their sport, even if their complaints that Mr. Trump was “divisive” ignored the divisive acts by Mr. Kaepernick and his media allies that injected politics into football in the first place.

Americans don’t begrudge athletes their free-speech rights—see the popularity of Charles Barkley —but disrespecting the national anthem puts partisanship above a symbol of nationhood that thousands have died for. Players who chose to kneel shouldn’t be surprised that fans around the country booed them on Sunday. This is the patriotic sentiment that they are helping Mr. Trump exploit for what he no doubt thinks is his own political advantage.

American democracy was healthier when politics at the ballpark was limited to fans booing politicians who threw out the first ball—almost as a bipartisan obligation. This showed a healthy skepticism toward the political class. But now the players want to be politicians and use their fame to lecture other Americans, the parsons of the press corps want to make them moral spokesmen, and the President wants to run against the players.

The losers are the millions of Americans who would rather cheer for their teams on Sunday as a respite from work and the other divisions of American life.

There's more at the link.

The WSJ almost gets it . . . but not quite.  Perhaps, as an immigrant to this great country, I have a different perspective, one that's a little clearer.

Every nation has its symbols;  those tangible things that represent what it is and what it stands for.  The flag and the national anthem are two such things.  Every American does - or should - recognize them for what they are, understand how they became national symbols, and the rich history that they represent.  Those of us who become Americans from outside certainly do - or, at least, all those with whom I've spoken certainly do.  We adopt those symbols as our own, learning about them, answering questions about them as part of the process of becoming citizens, and learning to value them more than the symbols we've left behind elsewhere.  I think that gives us an advantage, an insight, that's perhaps denied to those who grow up with them, never having to think about them.

Those who serve their countries also adopt symbols that have particular meaning for them.  Military servicemen know that their comrades and forebears died under the flag of their country, so it has particular meaning for them in that respect.  (South Africa has had a new flag since democracy came to that country in 1994, but I still respect the older flag, the one under which I served in the armed forces, despite the fact that it's tainted by connotations of racism.  It remains the flag under which many of my friends died, and under which I was wounded.  I still wear it on my lapel, paired with the US flag.  It's an instinctive tribute, and I guess it'll be that way until I die.)

There are other, less publicly recognized symbols that service personnel and veterans will understand.  A recent example is "The Brick of the Unknown" (shown below), carried by US Marine Corps service personnel during a recent run.  It's described as "a block symbolizing the weight of those who were lost or captured, to remember their sacrifice".

You can bet the Marines who carried it, and those who saw it, understand that symbol very clearly - and if anyone had tried to dishonor that symbol, you can bet there'd have been a very strong reaction!

I think there are a great many Americans who do understand the meaning of our flag and our national anthem.  To see NFL players deliberately disrespecting that, putting identity politics over nation, is not just upsetting to us - it's flat-out disgusting.  If they do not respect the symbols of our nation, they should just get it over with and give up their citizenship.  We don't need them wasting our oxygen, consuming our resources and trashing what we hold dear.  The nation is greater than the sum of its parts.  That's why our forefathers rebelled against Britain in the first place.  That's what they fought a bloody Civil War to maintain.  The nation serves us to the extent that we serve the nation, and vice versa.  No service - no nation.  We give in order to receive - and I'm not talking about entitlement programs or handouts!  It's a two-way street.

What the protesting NFL players are doing is making it a one-way street.  They're demanding that we - that our country - give, whilst they give nothing back.  They're trampling on the symbols we hold dear because they think there are some things more important than our - note, our - nation.  In trashing those symbols, they are also trashing those of us who hold them dear.  It's no wonder that the reactions to their protests have been so strong, and so negative.

Last night I heard a friend, who's watched NFL games on TV as long as I've known him, say bluntly that from now on, he'll watch something else.  I heard another friend ask for the channel to be changed when an NFL game came on, for the same reason.  I think the players and the NFL have no idea how strong a reaction their antics have stirred up - but I think President Trump understands very well.  In publicly excoriating them for their protests, he's tapping into a deep-rooted anger and disgust running through much of the American people.  I share that anger and disgust.

I hope and pray that Americans will vote with their feet, their TV remote controls, and their wallets.  Let's bankrupt the NFL.  Maybe that will alert the (hopefully soon-to-be-impoverished) privileged players, the team owners, and all others who espouse identity politics, that they can go too far.  In this case, I think they have;  and I think President Trump is absolutely correct.  Fire their asses!


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunday morning music

Let's have another classical interlude.  How about Vivaldi's Concerto for Flute in G Minor, RV 435?  It's a short work, part of a set of six flute concertos, Opus 10, published in about 1728.  James Galway is the soloist.

Baroque music always relaxes me.  It's usually less flamboyant than later developments, designed to fill in the background rather than reach out and grab one by the throat and demand attention.  This is a good example.


Saturday, September 23, 2017

(NSFW) No way that was an accident!

Australians have always been noted for a robust sense of humor.  It's come to the fore again in a postal referendum on whether to legalize same-sex marriage in that country.  The Sun reports:

Around 16 million survey forms were posted to Australians across the country this week so people can have their say on legalising same-sex marriage.

But among those sent out featured unfortunate phrases - including "bumsex" and "d*ck to" - according to eagle-eyed recipients.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) ... apologised for the potentially "offensive" words and said it will issue a new form if requested.

There's more at the link.  A tip o' the hat to Australian reader Snoggeramus for alerting me to it.

If that was an "accidental" combination of letters, I'll eat my hat!


We're all going to face an "interesting" retirement

No matter how near to or far from retirement we are, the current parlous state of the US pension and retirement funding "industry" is far from comforting.  Just this week, one million Ohio state pensioners learned that their cost-of-living allowances may be cut "as a way to shore up the long-term finances of the fund".  We also saw how Illinois must contribute $130 billion - which it doesn't have - to eliminate the backlog of its state retirement fund.  We learned last month that Kentucky's state pension system is in dire straits, and may have to drastically cut benefits and payouts.

Some states are now trying to force private workers to become members of, and contribute to, state pension plans.

California just passed a law to force 7.5 million private sector workers to pay into the state retirement system. In this, the Golden State joins Illinois, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon and Maryland. Of note is that these six states rank from having the 2nd to the 13th-worst unfunded pension liabilities in the nation, with Illinois’ pension debt estimated at $77,822 per household according to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research Pension Tracker website. Minnesota is actively studying the issue; they have the 18th-highest per unfunded pension liability. New Jersey’s legislature passed a bill to expand its state retirement system to non-government workers, but Gov. Chris Christie intelligently vetoed the plan.

Why are the weakest government pension systems seeking to force private sector workers to pay into their accounts? There are four reasons: the infusion of new cash can help the balance sheets; millions of additional voters will be made more dependent on government programs; those same voters will be invested in ensuring that state-run pension systems are adequately funded; and the political appointees and politicians who oversee those retirement systems will have billions more in investment leverage to pressure corporations to bend to their progressive demands.

There's more at the link.

Pension problems aren't limited to the public sector, either.  Corporate pension plans are also underfunded to a very large extent, and private pension savings in IRA's and 401(k)'s are less than optimal, to put it mildly.

Basically, if you're depending on any pension fund - public or private - to ensure a comfortable retirement, you need to be rethinking that right now.  The odds are good to excellent, IMHO, that you're going to be disappointed.  As for those already drawing a pension, the odds are getting better all the time that their benefits will, at the very least, not keep pace with the real rate of inflation.  In many cases, those benefits may be reduced (see Kentucky, for example, as mentioned above).

I recommend reading these articles to get a better sense of what the future holds for US pensions in general.  (The last article is the most recent, and a good summary of the current situation.  Even if you don't read the others, I urge you to read that one.)

I also recommend following Pension Tsunami, for regular updates on state and government pension systems.  Remember, if those systems need funding, they get it by taxation - and that means their problems will inevitably affect each and every one of us.

I don't know that I'll ever have enough money to pay for my retirement, having initially saved for retirement in another country whose currency has almost collapsed under the weight of prolonged inflation, making it meaningless in US dollar terms;  and, after coming here, I earned a very low clergyman's salary for many years, with no private pension savings possible.  I suspect I'll be writing books as long as I can!

(Of course, it's only relatively recently that people came to expect to "retire" at all.  Right up to World War II, the expectation was that one would work as long as one was able, then rely on one's children to help out for one's few remaining years of life.  With today's much smaller families, that's not likely to work out very well . . . )


Friday, September 22, 2017

"This Is Why You Will Never Get Ahead"

That's the title of an article over at The Vulgar Curmudgeon's new blog site (and if you followed him on Blogger, you'll want to update your link to reflect his new home).  He provides a number of interesting charts, showing how prices and affordability of various assets, etc. have changed over time in comparison to income.  Here's one example - automobile prices.

When you look at the increases over the past couple of decades, and consider that real incomes have largely decreased over the same period, things become clearer.  It's even more brutal when you reflect that the "official" rate of inflation has little or nothing to do with the real rate of inflation.

Go read the whole article.  It's worth your time.


The inevitable result of penny-pinching, wrong priorities, and poor planning

I'm pleased to see the new Secretary of the Navy do some plain speaking.

The 10 deaths aboard the USS McCain last month and the seven aboard the USS Fitzgerald in June have many causes, which Spencer addressed in a Senate hearing yesterday. But the fundamental problem is a collision between a shrinking fleet, growing operational demands, and erratic funding for training and maintenance.

“When I said yesterday that the Navy has a problem and we’re going to fix it, (that means) we’re going to have to come to ... some sort of balance between supply and demand,” said Spencer. “The COCOMs (Combatant Commanders) are going to have to understand it, and the Hill is going to have to understand it.”

The Navy has been operating according to a “false math… that we couldn’t afford,” the secretary said. “We have been punching way above our weight and possibly robbing Peter to pay Paul to get our missions done, and now the bills are coming home.”

Longstanding Navy culture will have to change, Spencer said, to make it acceptable to say “no, we can’t” when an already overtasked or undertrained unit is given a new mission. “You truly have an organization, as you all well know, that is biased to action and the word ‘no’ is just not in the lexicon,” Spencer said. “We have to find a balance ... because the pure blind answer, yes, without assessing the risk is non sustainable.”

The accidents only make the problem worse by taking two ships out of circulation. The Fitzgerald will be in repairs for over a year. The McCain’s assessment is still ongoing but the damage looks to be less extensive. Repairing the two destroyers will cost an estimated $600 million, money which Spencer noted is not in the Navy budget. The service will have to ask Congress for supplemental funds, and “it’s going to have to be sooner rather than later,” Spencer said, almost certainly before the 2019 budget request in the spring.

In the medium term, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has prioritized plus-ups to readiness funding for all four services – in many cases deferring modernization. The goal is to catch up on the years of cancelled training and deferred maintenance that resulted from the 2011 Budget Control Act capping defense spending even as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on and new threats arose from China and Russia.

The long-term solution is a larger Navy. The fleet has shrunk from its 1987 high of 594 ships to 278 today, even while the number of ships deployed outside US home waters at any given time has stayed roughly constant at about 100. That means ships and sailors must deploy more often and for longer, putting more strain on humans and machines alike with less time for recovery and repair ... Unless the demand for ships drops – which is unlikely – then the supply of ships must rise.

There's more at the link.

I lay the blame equally at the doors of the politicians and the Navy's senior leadership.  Politicians wanted to have more money available for entitlement programs and other vote-getting projects, so they short-changed our armed services.  The armed services, on the other hand, wanted the latest in flashy, gee-whiz hardware and weapons (e.g. the bloated, long-delayed, unbelievably expensive F-35 program), so they short-changed other elements of their responsibilities such as maintenance, training, etc.  The result is damaged ships and dead sailors in 2017.

I worry about that in the light of the current crisis over North Korea.  Are our armed forces really ready for action there?  I guess there's only one way to find out . . . and I hope and pray that doesn't become necessary.


Carrot WHAT???

Australians have always been a resourceful, inventive people . . . but I'm not sure about this news.

Australia’s biggest carrot oversupply in 25 years has prompted farmers, along with chefs and winemakers, to get creative and use the popular vegetable in foams, consommes and infuse it in vodka.

. . .

Mr Hinrichsen put the excess in vegetables down to optimal growing conditions, big crop yields and Russia’s ban on European imports for having a domino effect on the world carrot market.

“It seems there’s been a perfect storm of events which have led to an absolutely flooded Australian carrot market,” Mr Hinrichsen said.

One solution to use up excess and “wonky” carrots unsuitable for sale was the creation of carrot vodka.

Alice Gorman and Gen Windley from Kalfresh teamed up with a winemaker to create the carrot vodka which Ms Gorman described as clean and refreshing with a hint of carrot flavour.

Restaurants have also helped farmers get through excess carrots by juicing, roasting and turning the vegetable into a foam to compliment items on their menus.

Rydges South Bank Brisbane executive assistant manager Dominic Rose said the hotel’s restaurant Bacchus were making the most of the oversupply.

“We were in the process of changing the menu and just lightening it up for spring and we put a duck dish on there and it’s a duck ravioli but it’s got a consomme that goes with it,” he said.

“When you make it you put carrots through there as it gives you that nice amber colour.

“Then the dish sort of evolved and the chef that was in the restaurant was working with it and we ended up putting a carrot foam on there and grilled carrots as well.”

There's more at the link.

I know that almost anything can be fermented and/or brewed and/or distilled into some form of alcohol, but carrot vodka?  Sounds like the Soviets won the Cold War after all!  And what's "carrot foam"?  I think of foam as something I see on top of a beer, or on the surface of the sea.  I've never eaten foam on top of my food . . . and as for a foaming (or foamed) duck, that brings to mind rabies rather than a rattling good meal!

Oh, well.  I suppose next, they'll come up with skin cream made from carrots, and claim it's healthy and good for you, because one of the ingredients is beta-carrotene.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Almost in the weeds!

Here's a Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber making a very, very long takeoff run.  He only just got his wheels off the ground before the tarmac ran out.

You might say that's a military analog to the (in)famous Ilyushin Il-76 long takeoff run in Australia, which we've seen in these pages before.

Both are nailbiters - or, as we used to say in the military, "you'd have to pull hard to get the seat cushion loose from your pants after that!"


Yet another forecast about the end of the world . . .

. . . this time on Saturday, September 23rd - and I'm betting it'll turn out to be just as false as all the previous ones.

Seriously, why do people listen to this nonsense?  The latest claim is from someone calling himself a "Christian numerologist", who's identified a series of recent events as lining up with Biblical prophecy.  He's also rehashing the old, tired nonsense about a non-existent Planet Nibiru (which, if it were about to collide with Earth as he claims, would long since have been visible to the naked eye, never mind telescopes).

To me, the most telling give-away about all this nonsense is the source's claim to be a Christian.  If he is, his faith is no more than skin deep - because he's ignoring one of the fundamental tenets of Christian revelation (which, as a retired pastor, I take seriously, even if some of my readers may differ).  You'll find it in Matthew 24:36.

"But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only."

That says it all.  Jesus admits that not even he, the Son of God, knows the day or the hour that the end of the world will come.  Therefore, if anyone else claims that they're a Christian, and they've worked it out, and that they know more than Jesus does . . . they're saying they know more than the Son of God.  I call BS, right there.  If they claim that, they are demonstrably not Christian at all, no matter what they say!

Don't bother with anyone prophesying the end times, the Second Coming, or whatever.  We don't know when it's due, and we won't know until it happens.  Down the ages, countless people have thought they recognized the "signs of the times", and believed that the end was nigh . . . and they've all been wrong.  I see no reason to think we know any more than they did.

For Christians, the Biblical message is that we all live, every day, in our own end times.  None of us know the day or the hour of our deaths.  Yesterday, Miss D. and I were driving when someone decided to change lanes - and almost hit our car, because we were in her blind spot.  We could have died then and there, but for some rapid evasive action by Miss D.  There's no guarantee that she (or I) will always be able to react so quickly, or have room in which to do so.

Our own "end times" can come without warning - so we'd better be ready for them, and live our lives in such a way that our actions, our entire way of life, provides evidence of our faith.  That way, when the end does come for each of us, we'll be prepared to give an account of our lives before the righteous Judge of us all.  As Marcus Aurelius famously said, "Do every act of your life as if it were your last."  Words to live by . . . and to die by, when the time comes.


Sounds logical to me . . .

From Stephan Pastis and yesterday's edition of his Pearls Before Swine cartoon strip (click the image for a larger view at the strip's home page):


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Too cute!

Courtesy of Borepatch, here's a pup who just wants to be part of the game.

All together, now:  Aaaaaawwwww!


Contaminated water awareness goes mainstream?

Last week I published some thoughts about emergency water supplies, in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Now Accuweather has put up two interesting articles dealing with the threat from contaminated water following a hurricane, and how to deal with the problem.

I highly recommend reading both articles, as well as my earlier article and a longer one that I wrote on the same subject some years before.  Many people put some effort into storing emergency food supplies, but pay little or no attention to their need for water, keeping only a few flats of 16-20 ounce bottles of water on hand.  That may supply drinking water for a few days, but it won't be enough for cooking, personal hygiene, etc.

Furthermore, I'm hearing many reports from survivors of both Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that sewer lines 'backwashed', flooding bathrooms (if not entire homes) with the contents of sewers pushed back up into toilets, baths and basins by overflowing storm water.  This is particularly problematic if you plan to fill your bath in an emergency, to use it as a water reserve.  Even the smallest backflow will ruin that water.  As the old saying goes, "If you add a glass of wine to a barrel of sewage, you have a barrel of sewage.  If you add a glass of sewage to a barrel of wine, you have a barrel of sewage!"  What's more, any sewer backflow that overflows your toilet(s), basin(s), bath(s) or shower(s) will cause a major contamination problem, one that will probably require (expensive) professional attention to clean up.

It begins to look more and more desirable to install a sewer backflow valve to prevent this problem, particularly in flood-prone areas.  FEMA has instructions on how to do that (link is to an Adobe Acrobat file in .PDF format).  Even though we don't live in a flood-prone area, I'm going to look into that as part of our next residential upgrade.


More fiscal insanity in Illinois

We've spoken before about Illinois' budget woes - follow those four links for more information.

Now comes this news.

Illinois’ pile of unpaid bills topped $16 billion for the first time as the state deals with the fallout of an unprecedented two straight fiscal years without complete budgets, the state comptroller’s office reported on Tuesday.

The bill backlog is growing despite the enactment of a fiscal 2018 spending plan and income tax increase in July that ended a budget impasse between Illinois’ Republican governor and Democrats who control the legislature.

. . .

A provision in the budget enacted by lawmakers over the vetoes of Governor Bruce Rauner authorized the sale of up to $6 billion of general obligation bonds to pay bills from vendors and service providers that are accruing late payment penalties of as much as 12 percent.

. . .

But on Monday, the governor told reporters that the bonds do not solve any problem because lawmakers failed to set aside money to make principal and interest payments over the 12 years the debt would be outstanding.

“We need to come up with roughly half a billion (dollars) of cuts just to be able to service a bond offering,” he said, adding that he planned to meet with legislative leaders for discussion.

There's more at the link.

So, Illinois wants to borrow another $6 billion . . . to pay current bills presently totaling about $16 billion . . . but the state has made no budgetary provision whatsoever to pay the interest on those new borrowings, let alone the principal?  Does that sound like something the average bond investor will find attractive?  I don't know about you, dear reader, but to me, it sounds absolutely insane.

Illinois' current population is reportedly about 12.8 million people.  That means every resident of Illinois, man, woman or child, is on the hook for $1,250 of currently outstanding short-term state expenditure, over and above the state's longer-term debt (estimated to come to $5,041 per resident), and over and above the state's $130 billion backlog in pension funding (equal to another $10,156 per resident, all of whom are liable for the shortfall).  In case you were wondering, that's a total of $16,447 in state government debt owed by every resident of Illinois.  (That leaves out questions of their share of the US national debt, of course - but let's focus on state-level finances here.)

Even leaving aside federal debt, if Illinois owes you money in any way, shape or form - a pension, payment for goods you've sold to a state agency, reimbursement for expenses, whatever - I suggest you urgently begin examining ways to survive financially without it.  I suspect you're not likely to be paid in full - that is, if you're ever paid at all.

(There are, of course, many other states that are almost as badly off, and to which the same caution applies.)


One has to ask . . .

. . . given the abysmal failure of the War On Drugs:  is it time to just let this stuff come in, and allow the drug addiction problem to solve itself through natural selection?  After all, drugs - particularly 'hard' drugs - are today much easier to find, and far more affordable, than they were at the start of the War On Drugs in 1971.

And then there's this:

Methinks Einstein had the right of it:

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again
and expecting different results.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Shooting miscellany

Here are a few bits and pieces that have crossed my path, or my consciousness, in recent weeks.

First off, buckshot.  I highly recommend Federal's Flite Control rounds as one's primary buckshot load for defensive use.  I prefer the #1 buckshot reduced-recoil (i.e. slower muzzle velocity) cartridge (15 pellets per load), but others choose 00 buck in standard-velocity or reduced-recoil rounds.  The special Flite Control shot cups hold the load together quite a long distance from the muzzle, so that even out to 30 yards, most of the pellets will hit a human-size target.  Most 'conventional' buckshot is lucky to get half as far without some of the pellets drifting off target, and at 30 yards, you'll be lucky to get two or three buckshot pellets in the kill zone.

However, it's often hard to find Federal Flite Control buckshot.  Many stores simply don't stock it, partly because it's a premium round (and therefore more expensive), and others because they concentrate on hunting rather than tactical firearms and ammunition.  There's a good, and reasonably low-cost, second choice;  Sellier & Bellot's 12-pellet 00 buckshot round.  It's also hard to find, but if you do an online search, you're likely to locate some.  (Note that I'm talking about the 12-pellet round here, not the cheaper 9-pellet load.  Be sure to search for the former.)  It patterns very tightly in most shotguns in which I've tried it.  Tamara tried some a couple of years ago, and found the same thing (and also noted the superior tightness of the Federal Flite Control pattern).

So, if you want good defensive buckshot rounds, Federal Flite Control is still top of the heap;  but the 12-pellet 00 buckshot Sellier & Bellot load isn't bad, and it may pleasantly surprise you (or unpleasantly surprise someone on the other end of your muzzle).  As always, test some of the rounds in your own shotgun to find out how it patterns for you.  Here's an article on how to pattern your shotgun for birdshot rounds;  for buckshot, I recommend shooting at 25 or 30 yards instead of 40, and a human head-and-torso life-size silhouette instead of a 30" circle.

Next, a couple of folks have complained that ported firearms such as the Taurus Tracker or Model 44, which I've reviewed and recommended in their .44 Magnum versions, are too 'noisy' for prolonged use.  I have to admit, they have a point;  but I don't know anyone who uses these things for casual plinking, without ear protection!  They're meant to be used with earplugs and/or muffs.  Given that protection, the louder noise from the ported barrels isn't a problem at all.  Certainly, I'd hate to have to fire one inside a car, or in my bedroom at night - but I don't use them for that purpose.  I have other firearms, better suited to such environments.  The ported barrel does make recoil control easier, and enables faster repeat shots.  That's what it's there for.  The added noise is not pleasant, but given proper equipment, it's not a problem, either.

Finally, here's a US Marine showing us how to cook bacon in the field . . . er . . . sort of.


Book roundup #1

I'm finding it difficult to post one-off articles about friends' books, so I'm going to try doing a more-or-less regular book roundup article in which I'll mention new publications from friends and fellow bloggers.  I hope you'll give them a try.  I've found a lot of good reading material among them.  I'll limit coverage to books by friends and colleagues, those whom I've come to know in person or in cyberspace.  I'll list them in the order in which I was told (or learned of) their release, to be fair to all concerned.  (I'll also do stand-alone reviews of certain books now and again.)

First off, I recently reviewed Tom Rogneby's short story, 'The Boogeyman'.  He's just released two more starring his new character, in a compilation called 'Working Vacation'.

The blurb reads:

Martin Shelby, called the BoogeyMan by friend and foe, returns in two new stories.

In “The Devil Drinks Sweet Tea”, a young Shelby thought his Grandpa was just being grouchy about having to help out with the gardening. That is, of course, until Grandma's geraniums spontaneously burst into flames and the lilies started chanting in Latin.

In “Working Vacation”, the BoogeyMan just wants to relax on the beach with his wife, but his plans change when an old friend tracks him down to call in a debt. Shelby races against the clock to find a missing client before the full weight of the world falls in on his quiet vacation.

I'm enjoying Tom's new protagonist.  This looks like it might develop into a worthwhile series - perhaps even a full-length novel or two.

Next, Margaret Ball has returned from her decade-long hiatus in writing.  Her new novel is titled 'Insurgents', and is the first book in her new Harmony series.

The blurb reads:

Can one man make both love and war – at the same time?

Harmony, one of the first settlements from Earth’s Age of Expansion, has a totalitarian government which uses the bleak continent of Esilia as a dumping ground for political dissidents. Now they’re surprised that the dissidents want to secede.

Gabrel is totally devoted to his colony’s battle for freedom. Isovel, daughter of the enemy’s invading general, knows exactly why Harmony should continue to rule the exiles. When she is taken hostage by his guerrilla group, he has to draw a line between his personal inclinations and his duty to the insurgency, while Isovel has to remember her duty to escape. There can be no future for two people on opposing sides of this war – so Gabrel will just have to win the war. And the peace.

Margaret's been previously published by Baen Books, and has a well-established writing pedigree.  I think this is her first independently published book.

Last but not least for this week, Dragon Award-winning author John C. Wright has just released the sixth book in his amazing 'Moth & Cobweb' series.  I love the first three books in the series, and I'm planning on reading the next three as soon as I can find the time.  (Isn't it odd that writers are so busy writing that they usually have less time to read than their readers do?  Seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn't it?)

John's new book is titled 'Tithe to Tartarus'.

This is listed as 'Young Adult' reading, but I find it equally gripping as adult fiction.  The blurb reads:

Inflicted with amnesia, Yumiko Ume Moth has managed to discover the identity of the lost love she cannot remember. She has also learned the bitter truth of her mother's murder. And the party responsible for the absence of the one and the death of the other is the same: the Supreme Council of Anarchists.

Now Yumiko hopes to rescue the brilliant young man who may or may not be her fiance while seeking vengeance for the Grail Queen, her mother. But her only allies are a scatter-brained fairy and the Last Crusade, which despite its grand name consists of a young knight and his dog. Nevertheless, the Foxmaiden will not turn from her path, though all the dark forces of Tartarus stand in her way.

If it's anything like as good as its predecessors in the 'Moth & Cobweb' series, this one will be un-put-downable.  I'm looking forward to reading it.

I'll have more book news soon.


Will homeowners abandon their hurricane-damaged properties?

That's the question posed by CNBC.  It holds profound implications for the mortgage financial sector.

New estimates suggest as many as 300,000 borrowers could become delinquent on their loans and 160,000 could become seriously delinquent, that is, more than 90 days past due, when banks initiate foreclosure proceedings ... That is four times the original prediction because new disaster zones were designated and more homes flooded when officials released water from reservoirs to protect dams. The total number of mortgaged properties in disaster zones is 1.18 million. Houston disaster zones contain twice as many mortgaged properties than Katrina zones, with four times the unpaid principal balance.

After Hurricane Katrina, mortgage delinquencies in Louisiana and Mississippi disaster areas spiked 25 percentage points. The same could happen in Houston, as borrowers without flood insurance weigh their options. They will get some federal relief, but if rebuilding would cost more than the principal in their homes, they could decide to walk away.

There's more at the link.

Zero Hedge adds:

Combining the preliminary estimates for both Harvey and Irma suggests that over 3.3 million total mortgaged properties are located in Irma and Harvey-related FEMA Disaster zones, while the dollar amount of total unpaid mortgage balances in these two zones is massive: between Irma's $517 billion and Harvey's $179 billion, the total potential damage could impact as much as a $696 billion in notional mortgage values, which banks could be on the hook for if current occupiers decide to simply walk away.

Again, more at the link.

This highlights an anomaly in US mortgage finance law, one that does not exist in most of the rest of the world.  In several US states, a mortgage is classified as so-called 'non-recourse debt';  i.e. it's secured only by the property against which it is granted.  If the mortgage holder defaults, the property may be seized and sold to pay off as much as possible of the mortgage bond, but the holder's other assets may not be seized in the same way, and the holder may not be sued for the balance (if any) of what was originally owed.  In other states, there is a right of recourse, but it may be more or less limited according to local law.

This issue exposes the mortgage holder to much greater risk when it comes to hurricane-damaged properties.  If the homeowner discovers that his insurance payout is much less than the present value of his home, and/or much less than what it will cost to repair his home, and if the mortgage holder's recourse is limited, he may simply decide to walk away from it, cease paying the mortgage, and let the mortgage holder deal with the problem.

I posed this question after Hurricane Katrina, when I wrote:

What about mortgages on properties that are now underwater? The occupants can't and won't pay, but the mortgage holders will demand payment.  We could end up with massive foreclosures on property that is worthless, leaving a lot of folks neck-deep in debt and without homes (even damaged ones).

The problem is likely to be much worse after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which affected a much larger area between them.  To make matters worse, more storms are already active in the North Atlantic Ocean, and may potentially strike this country.

This problem, in turn, means many financial institutions may have to take a long, hard look at whether or not it's still profitable to grant mortgages in areas vulnerable to such natural disasters.  If they can't adequately protect their investments by insurance or other means, then is it still worth making them?  That may affect potential homeowners in those areas for much longer than the hurricane damage will take to repair.  Some sort of state guarantees may be necessary to persuade financial institutions to continue to finance home construction and purchases - yet another burden on already over-extended state budgets, and on taxpayers.


Monday, September 18, 2017

South Korea as the wild card in the North Korean game

George Friedman makes a very interesting point.

The US had little to gain from a war with North Korea; it wanted only to destroy the North’s nuclear program. The war plan was complex, and though it was likely to succeed, “likely” is not a term you want to use in war. North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities were scattered in numerous locations, and many were underground or in hardened sites. And the North Koreans had massed artillery along their southwestern border, within easy range of Seoul. In the event of an American attack on North Korean facilities, it was assumed those guns would open up, killing many South Koreans. Destroying those batteries would require a significant air campaign, and in the meantime, North Korean artillery would be firing at the South.

The US turned to China to negotiate a solution. The Chinese failed. In my view, the Chinese would not be terribly upset to see the US dragged into a war that would weaken Washington if it lost, and would cause massive casualties on all sides if it won. Leaving that question aside, the North Koreans felt they had to have nuclear weapons to deter American steps to destabilize Pyongyang. But the risk of an American attack, however difficult, had to have made them very nervous, even if they were going to go for broke in developing a nuclear capability.

But they didn’t seem very nervous. They seemed to be acting as if they had no fear of a war breaking out. It wasn’t just the many photos of Kim Jong Un smiling that gave this impression. It was that the North Koreans moved forward with their program regardless of American and possible Chinese pressure.

Another Player Enters the Game

A couple of weeks ago, the reason for their confidence became evident. First, US President Donald Trump tweeted a message to the South Koreans accusing them of appeasement. In response, the South Koreans released a statement saying South Korea’s top interest was to ensure that it would never again experience the devastation it endured during the Korean War. From South Korea’s perspective, artillery fire exchanges that might hit Seoul had to be avoided. Given the choice between a major war to end the North’s nuclear program and accepting a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea would choose the latter.

With that policy made public, and Trump’s criticism of it on the table, the entire game changed its form. The situation had been viewed as a two-player game, with North Korea rushing to build a deterrent, and the US looking for the right moment to attack. But it was actually a three-player game, in which the major dispute was between South Korea and the United States.

The US could have attacked the North without South Korea’s agreement, but it would have been substantially more difficult. The US has a large number of fighter jets and about 40,000 troops based in the South. South Korean airspace would be needed as well. If Seoul refused to cooperate, the US would be facing two hostile powers, and would possibly push the North and the South together. Washington would be blamed for the inevitable casualties in Seoul. The risk of failure would pyramid.

There's more at the link.  It's well worth your time to read the article in full.

This explains, to my mind, why the US response to North Korea's undoubtedly aggressive moves has been so muted.  There is no doubt that the USA could turn the whole of North Korea into a radioactive desert - but that would poison parts of China and most of South Korea with fallout, which neither country will accept.  Short of such an all-out nuclear attack, any US military intervention in North Korea must inevitably involve South Korea.  If South Korea is not willing to permit its territory, or its airspace, or its waters, to be used for that purpose, the USA is effectively stymied.

I see only one way to break the logjam, and force the issue.  That would be for the USA to announce that, in view of North Korea's aggressive actions and stated intentions to become a nuclear power, it is willing to sell nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea.  Note that I said "sell" - in other words, not station US nuclear weapons in those countries under US control, but give each country its own nuclear warheads and delivery systems, under its own sovereign control.  China would instantly have kittens - a nuclear-armed Japan must be close to its worst nightmare, and a nuclear South Korea wouldn't be far behind that.  If anything could force China to rein in the North Korean regime, that might do it.

Frankly, I see no other way of breaking the stalemate over North Korea.  Can readers suggest anything better?


Cutting out the deadwood in the State Department

In his 1971 book 'The Foreign Affairs Fudge Factory', Alastair Campbell relates:

Ellis Briggs, when he was ambassador to Czechoslovakia shortly after the Communist coup d'êtat in 1948 ... had been pestering Washington, without success, to cut his staff of eighty personnel ... by half ... One day the Czech government, unaware of this background, declared sixty-six of the American embassy's personnel persona non grata and gave them forty-eight hours to leave the country ... to Briggs it was a blessing in disguise.  "The American embassy in Prague then consisted of thirteen people," Briggs remarked.  "It was probably the most efficient embassy I ever headed."

With that example in mind, it's encouraging to read this report.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is finishing what he calls a “redesign plan” that would shrink the State Department and revamp American diplomacy in ways that already have drawn bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill.

Tillerson said he is determined to do more with less even as the Trump administration grapples with growing foreign policy challenges in North Korea, Syria and Russia.

"The most important thing I can do is to enable this organization to be more effective, more efficient,” Tillerson told U.S. Embassy employees in London on Thursday. “Because if I accomplish that, that will go on forever and you will create the State Department of the future."

Since taking office, Tillerson has moved slowly to fill traditional leadership slots at State, leaving many offices vacant or nearly so. Retirements, removals, hiring freezes and fewer promotions have trimmed staff. A few diplomats have publicly quit to protest administration policy.

Among the most vulnerable have been diplomats at programs now out of favor, like climate change and women’s empowerment, as well as special envoys. Some special fields, such as religious freedom, are being subsumed in other bureaus.

Tillerson delivered a progress report on his redesign plan to the White House Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday. It quickly prompted a bipartisan protest.

. . .

Tillerson last month denied he is “hollowing out” the department. He said that reorganization will take months to implement and that some positions are best left unfilled until all the pieces are in place.

Congress already has pushed back hard on the staffing and budget cuts.

This year, Tillerson backed President Trump’s proposal to cut State’s budget from about $55 billion to about $39 billion. He told a Senate committee in June that he aimed to cut about 1,300 jobs — 327 foreign service officers and about 1,000 civil service employees.

State has about 13,000 foreign service employees and 11,000 civil service employees.

There's more at the link.

The "swamp" is already pushing back against Secretary Tillerson's plans, as the above article makes clear;  but I think they're long overdue.  Part of the problem is that the State Department has been its own worst enemy when it comes to justifying its enormous cost (over $50 billion annually) and bloated bureaucracy.  The Washington Examiner noted:

With its image still tainted ... by the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, the State Department has struggled to shake public perceptions of failure after spearheading a controversial nuclear agreement with Iran and failing to improve battered relationships with Russia and Israel, among others.

Its deep transparency problems were exposed in a January inspector general report, which found several examples of FOIA requests for politically charged documents that were suppressed by officials who should have had nothing to do with the FOIA process. In 2014 alone, the State Department spent $2 million of taxpayer money fighting FOIA lawsuits in court instead of simply turning over documents, as the law requires.

Again, more at the link.

There's historically been a great deal of tension between the US armed forces and the State Department, and between American businesses and the restrictions imposed by State on their overseas marketing and promotional activities.  The State Department appears to have done little to justify many of those restrictions and its activities except to state that they exist "because we say so".  Many of its activities in Africa have been blunders of the first magnitude.  I know, because I witnessed many of them at first hand.  Benghazi was only the most recent example, and one of the most publicized.  There have been many more.

I think Secretary Tillerson is doing exactly the right thing.  Get rid of the deadwood, streamline the State Department, and restructure the organization to effectively address today's priorities, rather than those of the Cold War.  Faster, please!