Wednesday, February 27, 2013

For kavips--the scale of the universe

Incredibly well done; press START and move the mouse slowly.

Stuff you can't make up

85 Illinois lottery checks bounce.

If you can't trust government gambling, who can you trust?

Thinking about everyday heroes and special needs children

I stumbled across this piece by Liane Kupferburg Carter on 10 Things I Wish Someone Told Me About Parenting a Child With Special Needs a couple days ago, and I've been meaning to link to it.  She personalizes it about autism, but as the parent of a special needs child with a different disease I read each of her "10 Things" with great interest and found much to think about (and agree with).

So here is a snippet for Dana, and for John, and for all the other parents in whatever station of life, with whatever social/political views, who are struggling to do their best for their "special" son or daughter:
3. People will stare. This will eat at you in the beginning. It's natural to feel uncomfortable, resentful, even mortified. It is also a natural instinct for people to look at anything that's a little out of the ordinary. Your child's quirky behaviors in public may draw attention, and what if they do? Stop worrying about it so much. Who cares what strangers think? And I can promise you this: You will learn to never, ever judge any other parent whose kid acts up in public. Eventually, you will figure out how to handle people's inappropriate questions. I'll never forget how taken aback I was at a wedding 15 years ago when my husband's uncle abruptly asked, "Is there any hope for your son?" Sometimes, people may imply that you just aren't trying hard enough. Or they will offer unsolicited advice or press the latest miracle cure on you. Worst of all, they will talk about your child right in front of him. Don't let them. And don't you do it either. Your child may not be verbal (yet), but his ears are working just fine.
And because most people who don't have children like this will not click through the link, here's one more:
8. There will be people who tell you that autism is a gift. Or that God singled you out to be a special needs parent for a reason. Don't believe them. You weren't singled out or chosen. What you are doing is rising to meet challenges, and simply doing what every good parent does: giving your child everything he needs to thrive. My son has many abilities and strengths; he can be warm and funny and empathetic; he has an amazing memory; he's a whiz with video games. But I'm not going to lie: Those early years with him were hard and scary. So is reaching the age of 20. His disability isn't a gift. What is a gift is the joy he and his older brother bring to our lives. 

Larry Kotlikoff at PBS wins "worst non-answer" award of the week

You don't have to be ideologically in agreement with a position to recognize a complete and utter non-answer to a question.

In this case, a PBS viewer asked Kotilkoff why Congress doesn't extend the ceiling for Social Security taxes upward to increase revenue coming into the system.  It is not an unusual question--I've probably heard it about a million times.

But this has to be the worst non-answer ever given:
As an overview, Social Security's payroll tax is highly regressive. But it's benefit formula is highly progressive. On balance, the system is progressive. So Congress may feel that the system is already progressive enough.
Larry, you're kidding, right?  Congress has consciously balanced the regressive nature of the tax against the progressive nature of the benefits and decided the system is "progressive enough"?

Sure they did.

Oh--and a footnote for Larry and any PBS copy editors out there:  in the first line there should NOT be an apostrophe in the word "its."  "It's" is a contraction for "it is."  "Its" is the possessive for "belonging to it."  You're welcome.

Fisker was always a sham

... and the State either knew it or should have known it.

This is not a post about whether or not Governor Markell should or should not have invested our tax dollars in stimulating industry and job growth.  That sort of decision will always be debatable along party/ideological lines, and--in fact--all rhetoric to the side both major parties do so on a regular basis.

This is about what appears to have been outright fraud--fraud that should have been easily detectable.

Over the past several years I have spoken, independently, to about a half dozen Fisker employees, all of whom were experienced auto workers and most of whom had previously worked at the Boxwood Road plant.  The earliest was at a Conrad High School football game 2 1/2 years ago; the latest was yesterday.

All of them told exactly the same story.

It goes like this:

In all the time they worked for Fisker, none of the old machinery was removed from the plant.  No new machinery was installed.  Think about that for a second.  To retool a conventional (and elderly) automobile production facility to produce an entirely different line of vehicles is a massive undertaking. It had happened several times in the history of the Boxwood Road plant, and that was just to change between different vehicles in the same line of cars.  The Fisker vision was a completely different type of vehicle.  And yet there were no significant changes made to the facility, according to people who worked there.

(In a way I can verify this personally.  Two years ago I had a niece who went to Conrad and I drove by the plant on an almost daily basis.  You never saw deliveries being made there.  Never.  My niece's best friend lived a block from the plant.  Her family said they never saw deliveries being made there.)

So what did the employees do?  "Mop the floor" is what I have been told by multiple workers.  Mop the damn floor.  They would come in, mop the floor and clean the windows for two hours, take a break, get up when a manager came through, and mop the floor again.  Then they'd take a 2-3 hour lunch before mopping the floor again during the afternoon.

As one of them told me, "They might not ever have produced any cars, but they had the cleanest floor of any automobile factory ever."

There were apparently a couple of areas set up as display areas, where there were big charts and diagrams showing the kind of machinery that would some day be delivered, and how the assembly line would some day look--but tomorrow never came.  Visiting dignitaries came, looked at the charts, listened to the spiel, shook hands with the smiling workers.

And apparently never asked why there was no machinery being installed to manufacture cars.

Why, one wonders, did none of these factory workers ever come forward publicly or drop a dime to the District Attorney's office ... or something?

First, I don't know for sure that none of them did, but two of them explained it to me thus:

"We've all been laid off before.  We've all seen our families go through tough times, and we've all had our unemployment run out before.  As long as they were paying us to feed our families, we weren't going to blow the scam."  Almost embarrassed, one of them told me:  "I thought of it as the two years of unemployment benefits I never got before."

I don't actually blame them:  if a private employer wants to pay you to show up and not work, who wouldn't take the money?

But then one wonders about the due diligence supposed to have been exercised by the State, especially given our multi-million dollar investment.  There seem to be three, and only three, possibilities:

1.  All of the employees and former employees who spoke to me were exaggerating, lying, or mistaken.  It's possible, I guess, that the Fisker plant is actually brimming with new equipment that they really did intend to use to produce new cars.  Of course, I've never even seen a picture of it ...

2.  State authorities were so overconfident and so lax in their exercise of due diligence that they either never seriously examined the situation, or were taken in by the "show" areas of the facility.  That would be disturbing.

3.  State authorities figured out what was going on, and decided to remain silent.  In this scenario you never know how many state officials figured it out, or at what level.  Maybe they feared for their jobs if they told Jack Markell or Al Levin.  Maybe political considerations kept people from talking.  Maybe the fact that some people had jobs was considered a good enough return on our investment, even if Fisker ultimately decided to build the car of the future in China.

But you do have to wonder:  beyond the occasion campaign reference, beyond the occasional editorial or letter to the editor, why the General Assembly has never conducted an investigation to determine if Fisker ever seriously intended produce cars or significant car parts in Delaware?

$25 million in tax money would have produced a lot of construction jobs if put toward major caps or transportation funding.  $25 million would have closed some of the holes in Delaware's Medicaid coverage.  $25 million would even have been an economic stimulant back in the hands of Delaware taxpayers.

$25 million to Fisker--even if some of it eventually gets repaid--is money down the toilet in pursuit of an opportunity that now seems more and more to always have been a chimera.

Maybe it wasn't such a bright idea to turn economic development in Delaware over to the guy who gave us all those Walgreens ...

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Robert Gibbs admits White House demanded he lie about drones

OK, they said, "Don't talk about it or acknowledge it," but listen to the former Obama administration Press Secretary himself:
“When I went through the process of becoming press secretary," Gibbs said, "one of the things, one of the first things they told me was, ‘You’re not even to acknowledge the drone program. You’re not even to discuss that it exists.'”
---snip---Gibbs said that once he figured out a reporter's question was about the drone program, "I realized I'm not supposed to talk about it."
“Here’s what’s inherently crazy about that proposition," Gibbs said. "You’re being asked a question based on reporting of a program that exists. So you’re the official government spokesperson acting as if the entire program -- pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

Effects of sequestration: a non-existent Federal department will have its budget cut

You can't make this stuff up:

If you want a thorough agency-by-agency rundown of the budget cuts sequestration would deliver, the Office of Management and Budget has you covered. In compliance with The Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012, the OMB sent a detailed report to Congress in September 2012. But there's a small problem with the report: One of the cuts it warns against would affect an agency that no longer exists--and didn't exist when the OMB sent its report to congress.  
The first line item on page 121 of the OMB's September 2012 report says that under sequestration the National Drug Intelligence Center would lose $2 million of its $20 million budget. While that's slightly more than 8.2 percent (rounding error or scare tactic?), the bigger problem is that the National Drug Intelligence Center shuttered its doors on June 15, 2012--three months before the OMB issued its report to Congress. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Back ... sort of ... by popular demand (yeah, right)

It has been nearly two months since I last posted here, which is way too long to remain in limbo.  One should either give the thing a merciful natural death or return to writing on some predictably regular basis, particularly if one wants to play fair with the (very) small cadre of loyal regular readers.

But, of course, there is always real life, which keeps intervening with increasing energy, and the need to use precious time to do other things with family, friends, and professional endeavors ...

Yet there has been no shortage of topics that need commenting upon.  The gun control debate has seemingly degenerated to the point where instead of discussing the role and limits of constitutional rights we are not throwing stones over whether firearms are (statistically speaking) a useful defense against rape (therefore making possession and carry a women's rights issue).  In this "debate" within Delaware were have recently been treated to the local spectacle of the same person arguing for a woman's "right to carry" as a rape-preventative, while at the same time he argues that women inherently cannot be trusted to be truthful about social/sexual relationships and whether or not they were really being threatened by an assailant.

There's education, of course.  kilroy has had all the debates (and mud-slinging) over the Pencader closure as well as all the sustained idiocy of increased Federal control of our schools while at the same time the sequester is getting ready to make millions of dollars of Federal money disappear.  Today we have the perfect example of that in the News Journal.  RTTT money is poised to evaporate, but we are still being required by Governor Markell to install a completely idiotic evaluation system for new teachers, based on the improvements in test scores of their students.  Here's the wonderful statement from the Markell administration:

The state promised to evaluate the performance of teacher preparation programs as part of its federal Race to the Top funding, and a new system must be implemented, said Rebecca Taber,Markell’s education policy adviser. 
State officials say they will listen to the colleges’ concerns and consider modifications to the assessment system accordingly. But the overall goal of using student test performance to judge the quality of teacher preparation programs is not up for negotiation. 
“What matters most now is how we do it, not whether we do it,” Taber said. “We want to be fair to the colleges, and we’ll make adjustments to be fair.”
The irony here:  we've already committed or spent the RTT money.  There's no more coming, and we're going to have to complete a lot of the mandated initiatives out of already diminished state and local funds.  So what we're going to do now is create another worthless teacher evaluation system.

Why is it worthless?  Because it will be absolutely useless in any meaningful form for districts considering the hire of new in-state graduates or the retention of first-year teachers from out-of-state schools, that's why.  Out-of-state grads won't have to undergo such evaluation, and any principal who based a re-hiring decision for a second- or third-year teacher solely (or even heavily) on such test scores ought to be fired.  Pretty much that simple.  (Except for the fact that if you did actually let go a Delaware-trained teacher over this evaluation system that other teachers are not required to take, you might as well name the building after him/her, because after the discrimination lawsuit she/he will own it.)

Of course, in my absence it is fascinating that nobody in the local blogosphere ever wants to talk about the continuing administration practice of shredding the US Constitution over drone attacks (including the possibility that the administration might use the same justifications as currently employed to kill journalists as well as terrorists) or the fact that--at least in terms of reducing Pentagon spending--the sequester might be a great thing after all.

How about this one, out of Egypt, where the US Department of State routinely tells the new government it must be peaceful in its response to protest?
On Thursday, US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told the press, "Whether we’re talking about Egypt or any other country on the planet, frankly, we support the right of peaceful protest as one means for citizens to express themselves to their government. But protest has to be peaceful and the response to protest also has to be restrained and peaceful on the part of the government."
So, Victoria, that means that the US wouldn't, like, sell huge quantities of tear gas to the same Egyptian government for putting down peaceful protests, would it?  Well, no, not exactly, she mutters.  It means that when we sell them tear gas canisters we will remove the labels that say they were made in the USA and exported to Egypt with the State Department's permission.  You really cannot make this shit up.

Then we have the US Department of Justice (I smile ironically every time I type that title) using Aaron Swartz's "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto" to hound him into suicide.  It's fascinating the limits which are now placed on free speech, and it is even more fascinating that nobody cares.

Oh, and for the hyperbole of the year award, Kids Prefer Cheese co-honcho Angus would nominate Paul Krugman on the above-mentioned sequester:

And here's the inevitable Krugman chiming in with his bosses:
 the “sequester,” one of the worst policy ideas in our nation’s history... a fiscal doomsday machine that would inflict gratuitous damage on the nation.
People, the sequester only lowers spending relative to baseline growth.  That is to say, it doesn't actually cut spending in the sense a regular normal person would view it.  Over the full 10 years of "deep" cuts, after the "doomsday machine" ravages us, Federal spending will be higher than it is now.  I am not making this up!

Federal spending is over 3 trillion dollars. We are talking about cutting 85 billion from its growth.  That's like a pimple on your pimple.  Calling this "one of the worst policy ideas in our nation's history" is just amazing hackery.

Slavery was one of our nation's policies. Interning Japanese Americans with no cause in WWII was one of our nation's policies. The war on drugs is one of our nation's policies.
Extra-legal drone killings of Americans (and non-americans) is one of our nation's policies. I'd say that the sequester is actually an above average policy for our nation. If we can't cut 85 billion from our planned spending growth four years after the recession ended, we are pretty much doomed.

No, for better or worse I don't know how often or how regularly I will be back, but we'll see.  I think I plan (ambiguous enough for you?) to write fewer but more in-depth posts when time and energy allow, rather than simply commenting on everything every day or so.  Or not, if it doesn't work out.  We'll see how it goes.