Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Quick Reaction to the Health Care Summit

Being retired gives me the advantage of watching today's Health Care summit unadulterated by the sound-byte czars of the mainstream media.  After watching, I can only come to the following generalizations:

  1. The Democrats want to find an affordable way to provide medical care to those who need it.
  2. The Republicans want to use the deficit as a hammer to defeat any meaningful reforms, even though the Congressional Budget Office says that the proposed bill will reduce the deficit.  Their proposal only insures three million more people, still leaving tens of millions uninsured.
  3. The Republicans spent a considerable amount of time discussing process, while the Democrats discussed desired outcomes.

The Republicans simply put their political goals ahead of those of the American people by denying the President any credit for the solution to this critical problem. So, given that the Republicans don't want to change the status quo, the Democrats need to go it alone while they have the majority.  Do they have the guts to do this?  (And since the Dems must go it alone, it would would be even better if they could include the Public Option to increase competition.  One can dream!)

Other thoughts:

It's too bad that we did not have this depth of debate before we entered the ill-advised war with Iraq that has ballooned our deficit far more than any health care improvements will.

Kudos to neighboring congressman Rob Andrews for his constructive statement trying to find a compromise despite the obstreperous comments from the other side.

Toward a More Perfect Union

The United States Constitution starts off with a grammatical oddity.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more Perfect Union…”

Merriam-Webster defines perfect as “being entirely without flaw or defect".  So how can something (the Union) be “more perfect”?   Either it’s perfect or it’s not.

Clearly, the Union has never been perfect, neither in Revolutionary times nor today.  When the Constitution was ratified, slavery was common, with slaves counting as fractional persons.  Women and people who did not own property did not have the right to vote.  In fact, the Constitution had to be changed almost immediately after ratification through the first Ten Amendments – the Bill of Rights.

In 1972, we took a giant step toward bringing the Union one step closer to perfection.  Congress passed, by the required two-thirds majority, an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee rights to all people, regardless of gender.   Even President Nixon endorsed this amendment.  In order for the amendment to become part of the Constitution, it would need to be ratified by three-fourths (38) of the State Legislatures within seven years, i.e. by 1979.

Unfortunately, the late 70s was an era of Conservative influence, culminating with the election of Ronald Reagan as president.  While 35 state legislatures had ratified the ERA, it was still three short of the number for enactment.  So today, while rights for women are improving incrementally (e.g. the Lilly Ledbetter Act), the struggle continues for equal rights in our democracy.

While the gap is closing (albeit slowly) for women’s rights, today there is even a wider gap in achieving rights for gays and lesbians.  As evidenced by the quick implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, the snail’s pace of its repeal, the rampant (and sometimes violent) discrimination against gay Americans, and the struggle for marriage equality, we have a long way to go before the Union becomes “more perfect”.

It is now a new generation since the original ERA was passed by Congress.   It’s time for a new ERA to be proposed and ratified that encompasses not only  the rights of women, but also those of gay Americans.

The Amendment should be worded just like the 1972 version, with the addition of the italicized portion:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex or sexual orientation.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

How can such an Amendment pass in this day and age?   There will be naysayers on both the Left and the Right.

On the Right, there will be pushback from the homophobes and femophobes spouting the extreme and ridiculous epithets that they are using today – shared bathrooms, marriages to goats, etc.  On the Left, there will be their usual timidity saying that the mood of the country today is not conducive to such a needed, but controversial, change.

Yet, now that a new generation is coming to power, they can see more clearly that rights for women and gays are a fundamental pillar of the American spirit.  The sky has not fallen as incremental gains have been garnered over the years.   The same fervor and organizational skills that elected Barack Obama as the first post-boomer President can be mobilized to finish the job and enact a “more perfect” Equal Rights Amendment as the legacy of this generation.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Toyota vs Wall Street

I'm not condoning Toyota's actions, but it is interesting to note that federal prosecutors are considering criminal charges against that company, while the Wall Street bankers who have done considerably more harm to America go scot-free. Obviously, Toyota needs better lobbyists.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Chump Change

After a year-long abdication of the leadership for health care reform to a dysfunctional Congress, the President has unveiled the White House’s own proposal. In a nutshell: “too little, too late.”

The Medicare-for-All “public option” is the only way this nation would be able to effectively increase competition and provide the Americans with the type of health care that this great nation deserves. All of the other gimmicks will at best provide some incremental improvement, but there is no doubt that the insurance profiteers will still be able to game the system to their benefit.

If Lyndon Johnson were president today, he would have successfully jawboned 51 Senators into passing an effective Medicare-for-All system. President Obama’s timidity and his blindness to the Republic party’s stated goal of doing nothing that even remotely shines light on a governmental success are a major disappointment.

Now, after one year of Republican obstruction, some of the Democrats are starting to drink the Fox/GOP kool-aid (or is it tea?) and are backing off of their previous Medicare-for-All commitment.

No doubt, if Congress can get its act together, the President may be able to sign a bill with incremental improvements such as removal of pre-existing conditions as a qualifier, or caps on rates. But why should we hope that the administration will do better with the insurance companies after its debacle in controlling Wall Street?

This isn’t “Change we can Believe in”. It’s chump change.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Going Nuclear

In a major concession to Republicans and the Energy lobby, President Obama has proposed loan guarantees to several privately-owned companies to develop and build nuclear power plants. Who woulda thunk? A supposedly liberal Democrat promoting taxpayer support of a privately-owned risky business, one of the major energy planks of the Republic party’s platform.

While there is an immediate need to develop “clean” energy, this specific initiative is ill-advised. Construction of nuclear power plants is a risky business – not so much from a technical perspective, but rather from a cost perspective. The construction of these plants has always resulted in a significant overrun, and these loan guarantees do nothing but guarantee that the American taxpayer will absorb those costs so that the energy businesses can reap the profits.

Smart use of nuclear energy will help alleviate some of the climate issues that plague us, but at a great expense. We still do not have a viable solution for disposal of the tons and tons of radioactive waste that these plants generate. Much of the toxic waste is stored on site, leaving this as yet another problem that we are bequeathing to future generations. Can we trust private companies to expend the dollars to adequately secure this waste from terrorists?

The government should not subsidize new nuclear power plants until a solution to the current radioactive waste problem is implemented and proven. Meanwhile, the dollars that would go to these energy companies would better be used to develop more renewable energy sources as well as technology to reliably handle the nuclear waste problem.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Christie's Choices

Governor Chris Christie has a thankless and difficult job, as do the other 49 state governors. Because of the Bush near-Depression, the country’s economy is in the tank, and more of the burden of essential services is being placed on the states.

There are difficult choices to be made, but the character of the Governor will be measured by the approach he takes. Looking at it simplistically, there are two factors that need to change – expenditures and revenue.

To date, Christie has suboptimized the solution by only considering the expenditure side. There is no doubt that draconian cuts are necessary – the question is where those cuts should be made. Cuts that simply transfer the fiscal burden to municipalities or property owners are not cuts at all, but simply a Titanic deck chair rearrangement. More importantly, expenditure reductions that place the burden on the most vulnerable New Jerseyans are foolish, immoral, and in the long run more expensive. A good example is his proposed cut on charity care for hospitals. Like those of his Republican colleagues in Congress, his actions will result in more people dying from lack of adequate health care in the United States.

Let’s be honest – to get out of this situation, we need to address the revenue side of the equation also. You can call them taxes, fees, or whatever, but in order to maintain essential government services, revenues must increase. Yes, we should aggressively cut waste from programs, but I’ll bet many of those programs are running on a bare-bones budget even today.

Those on the left who rail at the Governor’s policies without suggesting alternatives are not adding value to the debate. Instead, they should work to implement both cuts and revenue enhancement that do not place an undue burden on those citizens who can least afford them.

First, New Jersey should proactively promote consolidation of the various municipal authorities, local governments, and school districts. Economies of scale will eliminate unnecessary administrative overhead while improving the overall quality of our government services. Home rule is a luxury that we can no longer afford. By consolidating and implementing lean/six-sigma practices, our agencies can provide higher quality services at lower cost.

Second, New Jersey should increase the gasoline tax. Right now, we have one of the lowest taxes in the Northeast. The increase in revenue should be used to subsidize mass transit, which is more efficient than personal automobiles – and more available for the less-advantaged citizens. Also, to reduce the burden of this new tax, part of this enhanced revenue should go to an income tax rebate for licensed drivers with incomes below a certain threshold.

The character of the Governor and the health of the State will be measured by his actions moving forward.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Missing the Bus on Fiscal Reform

I read Governor Christie’s “Fiscal State of Emergency” speech he gave today describing his acknowledged draconian cuts in state expenses and services.  I don’t envy him in his position.  I’m not savvy enough on the pension issues or the state programs that he is cutting to constructively comment on them yet.  There is one cut, however, that is a mistake and will cost New Jersey in the long run.  In fact, it is a tax increase for those who can least afford it.

I’m referring to his reduction in subsidies for New Jersey Transit.  In his speech, he acknowledged that we will have “service reductions or fare increases.  Mass transit is more cost-effective and environmentally responsible than personal automobiles.   Users of the mass transit systems are skewed toward the lower end of the economic spectrum, so they will be the people hardest hit by these cuts.  In his remarks, Christie mentioned the “rich union contracts” and patronage issues with that agency, but these issues can be addressed independently and should not precipitate the reduction or elimination of subsidies for New Jersey citizens.

Infrastructure is the foundation of the economic well-being of the state, and should have increased support even in these tough times.   An additional sales tax (say 1%) on the sale of privately-owned vehicles over $30,000 would be a good place to start to help with the NJ Transit subsidies, while encouraging residents to drive more fuel-efficient cars at the same time.

Here is the Democratic response to Christie's speech:

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Wakeup Call for All Drivers

“Software is like entropy.   It is difficult to grasp, weighs nothing, and obeys the Second Law of Thermodynamics;  i.e., it always increases.”   - Norm Augustine, former Chairman – Lockheed Martin Corporation

The recent issues with Toyota’s automobile design should be a wakeup call to all drivers. 

As we make more and more complex vehicles, much of the hitherto mechanical and hydraulic systems are now being controlled by embedded real-time software.  And there is no such thing as bug-free software.

Software problems have been with us forever.  One problem almost aborted the first moon landing at the last minute, and software is a prime suspect in the crash of an Air France A320 back in 1988.  Now the consumer automobile market is following in the footsteps of the aerospace industry – with increased employment of “fly-by-wire” and integrated vehicle systems.

Even if the current problems with our high-tech automobiles turn out to be unrelated to their embedded software (and for the techies reading this, I include firmware, microcode, and any other programmable instructions), it’s only a matter of time before Murphy’s Law rears its ugly head.

NASA has strict software standards for manned spaceflight and other critical systems.   Granted, satellites and spacecraft are orders of magnitude more complex than passenger automobiles, but the sheer numbers of cars on the road compel us to ensure that their embedded software is as bug-free as possible.

Just like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) imposes safety standards on a car’s mechanical system, they should similarly develop, implement, and enforce standards for embedded passenger automobile software.  Automobile manufactures and their subcontractors should be required to follow these standards for safety and reliability.   This software should be made tamper proof to minimize the risk of malicious hacking.  Software code should be published on the internet so that it may be reviewed by knowledgeable end users for problems.   Will this result in an incremental increase in the price of a car?   Maybe.   But what is the price of a massive recall, not to mention the human suffering that might result from faulty software?

Monday, February 1, 2010

It's Time for Another Giant Leap for Mankind

I’m a space junkie.  I grew up watching the Space Race between the US and USSR.   I remember the first US manned space flight – Alan Shepard’s 15 minute sub-orbital jaunt off the coast of Florida.   I bought a vinyl recording of the air-to-ground communications and listened to it enough times to be able to recite the capsule- to-Canaveral communications from memory.  The deaths of my heroes on Apollo I, Challenger, and Columbia (as well as of several Soviet cosmonauts) were like a death in the family.  I thrived on the successes of Mercury, Gemini, Skylab, Apollo, Mir, the International Space Station, and the Shuttle.  When I started my career in the summer of 1969, one of my first purchases was a television set so I could watch the miracle of Neil Armstrong’s footsteps on the moon.  While I didn’t work directly on any of the space programs, during my career I was fortunate to work to support the Atlas, Titan, Landsat, Shuttle, ISS, and several classified space programs.  I’ve had “behind the scenes” tours of the Johnson Space Center (that’s me on the left in the photo with Dr. Segun Thomas at JSC in front of a huge environmental test chamber) and the Kennedy Space Center, highlighted by the thrill of piloting the Space Shuttle simulator to a not-so-perfect landing on the KSC runway.  I’ve been fortunate to work with several former astronauts – all as fiercely intelligent as they are brave.

After the splashdown of Apollo 17 in 1972, the buzz of the manned space program was somewhat abated.   We were at a crossroads.  We met President Kennedy’s goal of going to the moon and returning safely by the end of the decade, and repeated it five more times. (And by the way, all of this was done using computer technology that was much less powerful than the iPhone I carry in my pocket).  We bit our nails until the ill-fated Apollo 13 came home.   The “reusable” Space Shuttle program was started – albeit without a clear mission.  We had some subsequent wonderful and priceless scientific successes in unmanned space exploration through the Hubble Space Telescope (which couldn’t have been successful without the several manned repair and upgrade missions), the never-say-die Spirit and Opportunity exploration of Mars, and numerous deep space probes that have travelled into the deep reaches of the Solar System. 

Now, we are at another crossroads.  The Shuttle program is winding down, with five more flights to go.  Nothing generates as much excitement as manned space flight.   Is it expensive?  Sure.  Is it worth it in terms of risk and dollars?  Certainly.  Those who argue that we can learn as much about the planets by sending unmanned probes are right, but manned space flight provides much more than excitement and national pride.   Advances in medicine, materials, energy, and other fields are direct results of the manned space program.

So where do we go from here?   President Obama cancelled the Constellation program which would have built the boosters and capsules to return us to the moon.   (Full disclosure: I am retired from Lockheed Martin which had a big chunk of the Constellation program).  Instead, NASA will spend $6 billion to jump start private companies to develop and operate vehicles that will ferry civilian astronauts to the International Space Station.

While the cancellation of the Constellation program was the right thing to do, our experience with the privatization of government services is unblemished by success.   Competition is a good thing, but operating the space program as a “for profit” enterprise will result in duplication of effort, compromise safety, and reduce the ancillary benefits that we have enjoyed from NASA’s research and development.  We will lose the programs that NASA has run with schools and universities that encourage students to study math and science, and we will continue to abdicate our leadership in these areas to China and India.  Manned space flight is a risky business, and it is yet to be seen whether private companies will be willing to assume those risks.  Sure, there will be government subsidies, but as we have seen in the banking business, subsidies without control lead to a small number of very rich people with no upside for the taxpayer.

There is a better way – and we have irrefutable evidence that it works.

Let’s set a goal of a manned mission to Mars.   The Red Planet has been an object  of human wonderment since the first cave man marveled at this oddly colored moving star in the sky.  But let’s not do it alone.   Make it a goal of humankind to establish a presence on Mars by 2025 and continue the mission spearheaded by our astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts.   We need to partner with Russia, China, Japan, India, the European Space Agency, and the rest of the world to make a Mars mission a global goal.  We have shown that we can partner with our fellow humans on the International Space Station – let’s take it to the next step and expand those partnership goals to work together to go to Mars.   Not only will this allow us to share the expense and rewards, but it also will be a giant leap to bring mankind together for a common and difficult goal.