June 16, 2010

Let's drop the Big One and see what happens

Admittedly, I'm intrigued by the idea of using a nuclear bomb to stop the Deep Horizon spill. The science is fairly straightforward: drill down very deeply into the sea floor in the general area of the well head, plant an A-bomb, and kablooey! The rock formations are superheated by the nuclear fireball, converting them to glass and sealing the oil reservoir. Problem solved.

The Russians, naturally, have already done this kind of thing, although never underwater. When I read that the Soviet Union had exploded five A-bombs between 1966 and 1981 to seal off natural gas wells (usually because of uncontrollable fires), I thought: well, of course they did. If it's big and loud and environmentally catastrophic, the Russians have already tried it. Just the way they do stuff. We've got a natural gas fire burning out of control here, Comrade. What shall we do? Is pooting it out with nuclear bomb! It must be all the vodka.

But before I get Dmitri Orlov all pissed off at me (because he only likes comparisons where the Soviet Union comes out on top), we should probably consider just how bad this oil problem could get. I think that people (including your humble blogospondent) are having trouble coming to terms with this catastrophe. We're in a state of denial. We allowed a foreign company with a miserable record of safety compliance to drill a well under five thousand feet of water into a huge oil reservoir with no effective plan for dealing with a blowout of precisely the kind that occurred. We don't know how bad this situation will become, how far the oil will spread, how much oceanic water will be affected. We can't foresee the ecological consequences of this much oil contaminating the seas. You start thinking: given the intricacies of the web of life, the continuity of the seas, the inability to seal anything off from anything else, the delicate structure of the food chain - could we all wind up dying from this, directly or as the result of an unforeseeable and incalculable chain of causation?

Thus, people are getting freaked out. Matthew Simmons, the Oil Guru, doesn't help when he talks about the failure of "down hole" structures below the superstructure of the blowout preventer (BOP). Julia Whitty in Mother Jones was writing about that. Simmons is adamant that oil is leaking not just from the well head, but from the sea floor at some distance from the BOP. Which suggests that the uncontrolled rush of oil is eroding and damaging the subsurface piping. That's the true nightmare scenario, because if the subsurface pipes fail, there isn't going to be any way to confine the control efforts to the BOP superstructure. The relief wells thus become a race against time in a different sense: can they get there while the existing well is still mainly intact?

Simmons urges the use of a nuclear bomb.

Simmons said the US government should immediately take the effort to plug the leak out of the hands of BP and put the military in charge. "Probably the only thing we can do is create a weapons system and send it down 18,000 feet and detonate it, hopefully encasing the oil," he said.

In some ways, I like this approach just because I'd love to hear Barack Obama, who tends to be a little on the cautious and measured side, announce the plan. "The beaches of the Gulf will be more beautiful than ever," he intones, "but first we have to hit them with an A-bomb."
It's all kind of surreal. We currently won't even let Dutch skimmers help us out with technology they possess but we don't, which involves sucking up oil-contaminated seawater, separating out the oil, and discharging the seawater overboard, the reason being: there is a small residue of oil in the discharge. (h/t Gary). This is the kind of fussiness which prevented Louisiana from constructing sand berms on a hurry-up basis. We're determined to use bureaucracy to get in our own way in dealing with the problem, but not to prevent the problem in the first place.

Of course, no one has ever drilled down 18,000 feet into a sea bottom 5,000 feet beneath the surface and detonated a nuclear bomb. No one can say for certain it will work, although the Russians are confident. But then they think that nuclear explosions are the answer to everything.

Unless BP has a nuclear capability (and maybe they do, they have more resources than some of the countries that have A-bombs), it looks like it's time to call in the guys from Lawrence Livermore and order up something kind of special.

Not even wrong

I've been reading a very good book about theoretical physics titled Quantum, by an English philosopher-physicist named Manjit Kumar. It's all about the debate between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr about the nature of reality at the subatomic level. Like most liberal arts types with intellectual pretensions, I like to read this kind of stuff so I can throw around terms like "quantum jump" and "valence electrons" and "uncertainty principle" (that's the formula pictured) and sound real rigorous and, you know, smart. Kumar even allows the lay reader some respect: he uses actual formulas in his book. Imagine that. American scientists who write for the general public might throw in E=mc2, but that's as far as they'll go. Otherwise, they lose book sales, of course.

Among the colorful characters and anecdotes, Kumar recites one I had heard before about Wolfgang Pauli, the Austrian physicist who many considered a virtual peer of Einstein. Einstein and Bohr agreed that Pauli's immense intellect and mental quickness, coupled with his scathing wit, intimidated them both. That seems like quite an achievement: to intimidate Albert Einstein intellectually. Goes to show, I guess: there's always somebody faster. At one point, Pauli, commenting on a paper written about quantum physics by another, lesser light, dismissed it as "not even wrong." I'd heard that before but didn't try to figure out what he meant. So thinking about it, and coupling it with something I had read recently by Richard Feynman (I take my pretensions seriously, you see) in which Feynman said that the true method of science was trial and error, that we learn by mistakes and constant improvement of accepted knowledge, I thought I had a glimmer. What Pauli was saying was that the work in question was worthless even as elimination of a wrong approach. It didn't suggest a different approach to other scientists (enlightened by the failed analysis in question), it wasn't even "in error," it was simply irrelevant. It was so far off it didn't have anything to do with anything. Pretty funny, thought about that way. The depth of some minds...

Okay, so watching the Obama speech last night about the BP oil spill, I had the same kind of reaction. Obama is not even wrong. His leadership has become so completely irrelevant that it cannot be judged as helpful or counterproductive. His way of approaching things cannot be used to suggest another, better way of handling things. All that you can do at this point is to say that whatever it is that he's doing has nothing to do anymore with the fate of the nation.

I don't know if you've seen this clip from The Daily Show, but here it is in living color: Jon Stewart going through Obama's complete repetition of the Bush-era transgressions against civil liberties:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/16/stewart-critiques-obama-f_n_613937.html.

Glenn Greenwald has been writing about these things in meticulous detail for a long time, and I suppose I have, too. I just don't get it. What is he doing? I have no idea. Anthony Romero, head of the ACLU, began a speech recently in which he stated, quite frankly, that he was "disgusted" by the Obama Administration's approach to due process and civil liberties.

There's really no hope here, none at all. If Obama abdicates the throne and does not run in 2012, then the ascension of the Right Wing is a virtual given. 2012 is so far away, and economically the country just keeps sinking. The commercial real estate market, the public pension plans, the state budgets -- they're all in dire peril, in danger of failing. The level of national indebtedness and the delta between tax receipts and government spending have moved to absolutely preposterous dimensions. There is no movement to reorder public spending away from military campaigns, even though the obviousness of their unaffordability is ridiculously apparent. There is simply no plan, nothing, a complete vacuum.

Adrift upon a sea of oil-filled troubles, with no captain, no one to lead us to try anything new. No one even wrong.

June 13, 2010

High Tea in the Empire Room

But while I throw the term around, often (admittedly) in a pejorative tone: just what is The Tea Party? Is it presided over by the Mad Hatter, does it represent the modern-day avatars of the Sons of Liberty, is it a Support Group for Political Lunatics? Does it exist just to give people who are over 50, and white, and broke, an excuse to leave their trailers and get together in the rec room?

No, it's none of these things, actually. Lewis Carroll did not write the platform, the "Contract from America." The Tea Party might best be described as the Libertarian Wing of the Republican Party, and it's coming on strong. The party had the muscle to get rid of Robert Bennett of Utah, for example. It has nominated Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, it assisted Scott Brown in Massachusetts. It seems, really, never to lose any race it enters, and it did not really exist before 2009. It has the Big Mo', and it's for real. The Establishment Parties are scared shitless, as are their Mainstream Media sponsors. The MSM do not necessarily have any kind of foothold with the Tea Party, which means they don't know how to "access" them, and tap into them for "sources" and remarks made "on background" and "off the record." Thus, it is in the interests of the MSM to marginalize the Tea Party, because the fate of the existing media depends on maintenance of the status quo, which is a world inhabited solely by the Usual Democrats and the Usual Republicans. Whom, increasingly, absolutely everybody hates.

For these reasons alone, you kinda gotta like the Tea Party.

Let us drop the relentless snark, then, and actually look at a prototypical representation of the Tea Party platform, this one from Wikipedia, and not dissimilar from the Maine GOP platform which officially and explicitly adopts the Tea Party agenda. So here we go, with comments by your faithful blogger, a man sorta trained in Constitutional law, just as our President is sorta trained.

1. Identify constitutionality of every new law: Require each bill to identify the specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to do what the bill does (82.03%).

WS: Okay. What's wrong with that? Even if Congress just says, "Article I." Although I know what the TP is driving at. It's the absurd expansion of the Commerce Clause and the Ninth Amendment to allow any damn thing that Congress wants to do, even if the 10th Amendment suggests the states should have the primary right. Score: TP 1, Congress 0.

Reject emissions trading: Stop the "cap and trade" administrative approach used to control pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants. (72.20%).

WS: Well, see - they didn't want to say "carbon dioxide," because they don't believe in the theory (the "theory" in this case being "Science.") It doesn't have to be cap and trade, but we have to do something, and if you think the extractive and polluting industries are going to do so on their own, I have two letters for you: BP. Score: Push, because Congress sucks on this issue too.

Demand a balanced federal budget: Begin the Constitutional amendment process to require a balanced budget with a two-thirds majority needed for any tax modification. (69.69%)

Well, I don't think you need the 2/3rds requirement if you just enforce the first part. California has used that 2/3rds thing for a long time, and we're about to file B/K. But yeah - why shouldn't the federal government live within its means? Curiously, however, where is the mention of Pentagon spending? TP 1.5, Congress 0.

Simplify the tax system: Adopt a single-rate tax system; eliminate the internal revenue code and replace it with one that is no longer than 4,543 words. (64.90%).

Personally, I believe the correct number is 4,527 words. If there is no Internal Revenue Code, however, where do we put the 4,543 words? In the D.C. phone book? Much depends also on the "single rate." Talk about a blank check.
Unable to score.

5. Audit federal government agencies for constitutionality: Create a Blue Ribbon taskforce that engages in an audit of federal agencies and programs, assessing their Constitutionality, and identifying duplication, waste, ineffectiveness, and agencies and programs better left for the states or local authorities. (63.37%)

Let's be honest, people, if we're going to start fresh. Just come out and say you want to get rid of the Department of Education, Health & Human Services and the EPA. Score: subtract one point for disingenuousness. And please - no more Blue Ribbon Committees. That's why we never do anything. We "study" it to death. Score: TP 1/2, Congress 0.

6. Limit annual growth in federal spending: Impose a statutory cap limiting the annual growth in total federal spending to the sum of the inflation rate plus the percentage of population growth. (56.57%).

Not a good idea. What if there's a true emergency? The balanced budget plank covers this. Penalty of 1/2 point for missing the obvious. Score: TP 0, Congress 0.

7. Repeal the health care legislation passed on March 23, 2010: Defund, repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (56.39%).

Fine with me. It's a piece of sell-out junk, and by the time it takes effect, doctors will get paid with cows. No credit, though, because the system if still completely broken.

8. Pass an 'All-of-the-Above' Energy Policy: Authorize the exploration of additional energy reserves to reduce American dependence on foreign energy sources and reduce regulatory barriers to all other forms of energy creation. (55%).

This is the "burn coal," drill-baby-drill & build nukes plank. TP: -1, Congress, irrelevant.

9. Reduce Earmarks: Place a moratorium on all earmarks until the budget is balanced, and then require a 2/3 majority to pass any earmark. (55.47%).

Just eliminate earmarks. If a Congress member wants a pork deal for his state or district, don't allow it as an attachment to a general bill. Make him/her/it introduce it as a free-standing pander.. Swing and a miss.

Reduce Taxes: Permanently repeal all recent tax increases, and extend permanently the George W. Bush temporary reductions in income tax, capital gains tax and estate taxes, currently scheduled to end in 2011. (53.38%).

Oh hell, there's your dead giveaway. I thought we were going to have a brand new tax code. Why include a plank just to help "Bush's Base"? This plank betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what's going on. Minus 2 points for overt pro-Republican sloganeering.. Score: -3.5.

As noted, there's nothing in the platform about out-of-control defense spending, illegal surveillance by the government, the abridgement of due process, or anything else that might offend Sean Hannity. Thus, the Tea Party platform lacks a coherent philosophy. It fails to address the problem of a huge military-industrial-security complex which drains $1 trillion per year from the national treasury, leads to a militarized, perpetual-war foreign policy, and infringes liberties at home. How do the Tea Party people miss this?

Not very encouraging. An aggressive, belligerent, militarized federal government which is simultaneously "small" and "limited." These conditions do not coexist in the Real Universe. As Eisenhower warned, if you persist in maintaining a huge MIC, you have to have a large federal bureaucracy to protect the citizenry from it. Otherwise, you wind up with a society as once existed in Germany between 1932 and 1945. Of course, Eisenhower was a fluoride-loving Communist.

Take me back to the days

One distinctive aspect of the dimming hopes for the Obama Presidency is that his eclipse will definitely usher in a truly nutty interregnum of bizarre politics in America. Indeed, we're well on our way. Sharron Angle is the Republican nominee for Harry Reid's Senate seat in November. Which made me recall this scene from 'Dr. Strangelove:"

Ripper: Mandrake, have you never wondered why I drink only distilled water, or rain water, and only pure grain alcohol?

Mandrake: Well it did occur to me, Jack, yes.

Ripper: Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? Fluoridation of water?

Mandrake: Ah, yes, I have heard of that, Jack. Yes.

Ripper: Well do you now what it is?

Mandrake: No. No, I don't know what it is. No.

Ripper: Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?

General Ripper's solution to the problem of flouridation was to set in motion a series of events confounding the American "fail-safe" program, thus ending the world in a nuclear holocaust. It was a bout of sexual impotence which alerted Ripper to the insidious effects of flouride in the drinking water. Was his diagnosis right, or wrong? It doesn't matter; all human life was destroyed anyway.

The theory that flouride in the drinking water was a Communist plot was promulgated chiefly by the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by the American candy manufacturer Robert Welch. Welch and his brother James invented the caramel-on-a-stick candy called the Sugar Daddy, which no doubt potentiated the formation of caries in many American mouths during the 1950's, providing as it did an ideal sugary, adhesive matrix for bacterial growth on the teeth. As I write those words, I can almost taste a Sugar Daddy in my own mouth, and feel its treacly essence against my teeth. If you bit into a Sugar Daddy, it could momentarily lock your upper and lower mandibles together. It was powerful candy. Thus, ironically (or was it?) Welch's anti-flouride campaign played directly into the hands of the Communist plot, weakening the enamel (and moral fiber) of American children.

Although my own conspiracy theory is that Robert Welch knew this when he founded the John Birch Society. He wanted us to have cavities! There is absolutely nothing easier on God's Green Earth than hatching your very own conspiracy idea, and I'm kind of proud of mine. It's just a matter of adding two plus two. Welch built on his theory with the allegation that Dwight Eisenhower, hero of V-E Day, was a paid operative of the Communist Party. The Paranoid Style of the Right Wing, the historian Richard Hofstadter called it in 1964. Ah yes, I remember it well.

Now comes this good news about Sharron Angle:

The Nevada state Assembly voted 26-16 to fluoridate the water of two Nevada counties. Angle voted against the bill.

History, as the wit said, does not necessarily repeat itself, but it does rhyme. This was really the kind of thing I was hoping for in the Tea Party Movement. Most of their ideas are incoherent, a matter of flailing in impotent rage against a Federal-Big Finance oligopoly which is strangling the country and impoverishing millions. Most fair-minded people can see that at this point; Washington's corruption is utterly complete, Wall Street is rigged in favor of a few large banks which make millions on every single trading day, the middle class is falling through the floor, the national budgetary priorities permit only war and bailouts while health care and Social Security go slowly bankrupt. There is no coherent opposition to these developments because it is essentially an Inside Job.

As long as the country is falling completely apart in the wake of the Obama debacle, however, I am at least grateful that things will be colorful and insane, the way they often were in the 1950's, the Golden Age of the Self-Made Millionaire Political Nut Job. The key point in contradistinction, however, being that America was definitely on the way up in the 1950's. Now it is just as evidently on the way down. Our incompetence and unwillingness to take our problems seriously perhaps find their best metaphor in this: the Gulf of Mexico is filling up with the oil of a foreign corporation which was under no obligation even to sell that oil to us. While our President takes lessons in Method Acting so that he can project just the right attitude of outrage to satisfy the cable news programs.

Against this kind of madness, Sharron Angle (and thank God for those two, distinctive R's in her first name! Isn't that somehow more interesting?) is diverting, appropriate and just what the doctor ordered. The know-it-alls are already laughing her off. This is a gift to Reid, they say. She's the easiest candidate to beat, because she's so loony. An anti-flouride zealot! Ha ha ha! I would say to those confident political pundits that they really need to get out more. It would not surprise me at all to see Sharron Angle in the Senate. Maybe she'll become the Majority Leader. Maybe General Jack D. Ripper did not destroy the world in vain.