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On the surface this may sound pretty good.  The GOP regularly suggests that the federal budget is just like a household budget, but bigger.  So, since families “have to balance their budgets”, so should the Federal Government.  But let’s look a little closer…

A Constitutional amendment to balance the budget means that the Federal Government could NEVER, ever have expenditures that outpace income.  Not in time of war, or natural disaster, not ever.  A balanced budget amendment might help keep us out of unnecessary wars, like, say, Iraq.  No more butting into other countries’ business.   But how would we pay for any war?  Selling war bonds like during World War II?  Those war bonds went to building bombers and tanks and making bullets — bonds along with rationing any raw materials that went toward manufacturing war materiel.  Under the GOP’s anti-tax mantra, raising taxes to fund a war would be off the table.  Or would it…?

Since the GOP is so fond of using household budgets as the analog for the federal budget, let’s look at how a balanced budget amendment compares to a household budget.

Do you have a mortgage on your home?  Do  you have a car loan?  Do you use credit cards?  Do you or your kids take out loans to help finance college expenses?  Do you refinance your home or take out a second mortgage to pay for remodeling or renovating it?  All those borrowing options would be off the table if you used the rubric of a balanced budget amendment.

Raising the debt ceiling doesn’t represent new spending.  Rather, it is borrowing to cover past spending — like the Bush tax cuts, Medicare Part D, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  To default would be like deciding to default on your mortgage or to refuse to pay on your credit cards.  So, your house would be foreclosed and auctioned off on the courthouse steps.  Your car would be repossessed.  Your credit cards would be canceled — but you’d still owe the remaining balance.  And your credit rating would drop like a rock.  And when you finally paid them off, you’d find that your interest rate would be sky high should you apply for a new loan or new cards.  And if those consequences weren’t challenging enough, the black marks on your credit rating would remain for years after you paid your bills and paid any future bills, such as rent on a place to live, on time.  To make matters worse, the rent you’d have to pay would likely be higher than if you had an excellent credit rating.  If those acts kill your personal credit rating, just imagine what it would do to a country’s credit rating!

Some members of the GOP don’t think that default would be so bad.  They don’t believe what the economists and the Treasury Secretary and the Chamber of Commerce or the bankers are telling them.  They only pay attention to the voices in their heads or on Fox News.  They don’t look into the ideology of the Koch Brothers or of the supposedly non-partisan think tanks that spout Milton Friedman’s version of economics.  One GOP legislator allowed as how stiffing China and Saudi Arabia might be a pretty good idea.  What he fails to realize (or perhaps he just doesn’t care) is that American pension funds are a very significant holder of treasury notes.  So, along with stiffing the Chinese and the Saudis, a lot of Americans would also get stiffed — and not all of them would be those hated public employees.  They might even include Congress… along with aerospace retirees among others.

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We are finally landscaping our back yard…after living in the house for eight years. The project has been going on for a couple weeks, and the end is in sight. Since we live in a desert climate, grass didn’t make any sense. Besides the water requirements, you have to mow the darn stuff, and there are 18 holes worth of grass just over the wrought iron fence for us to enjoy, without the effort needed to keep it up. It’s amazing how good today’s AstroTurf looks. It even has thatch!

Spouse is currently enjoying his afternoon snooze, but we’ll soon be enjoying a glass of celebratory wine on our new patio. The table and chairs set is waiting for us to pick it up at Sears. An arbor with attached bench is on order from Amazon, and tomorrow will bring a trip to our locally-owned garden center to begin picking out plants for the beds and perhaps some new containers. And an awning is on order from Costco.

Needless to say, we are kicking ourselves that we waited so long. But a layoff notice four weeks after we moved in put a serious crimp in our original ideas, and over time, we just got used to it. Ran into a friend this morning as we picked up our weekly produce box from a CSA, and she asked how soon we were going to inaugurate the new space…just as soon as we get the awning in and up and some of the plants in. Some will need to wait for cooler weather to plant, but we’re having fun planning.

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So, Tim Pawlenty thinks that President Obama is engaging in class warfare. Has he lost his mind? If there has been class warfare in this country, it’s the result of a generation of GOP policies of tax breaks for the uber-rich while wages have remained stagnant at best for the rest of us. The Republicans talk of Ronald Reagan as if he were a saint but they conveniently forget that Reagan’s tax rates were significantly higher than they are now. In fact, they’re so blinded by their admiration of him, that the GOP budget negotiators rolled their eyes in disbelief when the president pointed that fact out to them the other day. Perhaps that really sums up the nature of the problem. Republicans in Washington want to rely on their own set of “facts.” But facts are stubborn things. They don’t change just because they don’t fit your ideology.

And the really sad thing about Pawlenty’s comment is that the Fox-infused Republican base will lap it up as surely as they do the Gospel.

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I’m Back

I said I would be on hiatus for the month of May. Well, I’m back. First a quick update on my post-surgery progress. In a word, I’m doing great. As I told the surgeon when I saw him this week, I’m probably 90-95% back to where I was before this whole thing started. So I’m very pleased. Still have a couple months of rehab, but functionally, the shoulder does almost everything I ask of it.

Spouse retired the end of April, and we spent most of May on the road. We spent five days in the Napa area, wine-tasting. YUM! Good wine, great meals. No wonder it’s a favorite destination! My favorite varietal is petit syrah. Vintner Carl Doumani is legendary for his petit syrah. He has a small winery called Quixote. Tours and tastings are by appointment only. We learned about Quixote when we visited Paraduxx. We are eagerly awaiting our shipment.

After a few days at home, we went to spouse’s 45th college reunion at Caltech, followed by the annual Seminar Day, where participants go back to class for a day. From there it was off to Arizona to visit family and friends. We spent a couple days in Sedona, marveling at the red rocks. It’s a photograph’s dream. We wrapped up that part of the trip with an off-road jeep adventure. Serious fun!

It’s always good to reconnect with good friends. And as we enter another political silly season, it’s good to remember and reflect on what is truly important…the people in our lives.

One more plug. If you ever have the opportunity to go to the Body Worlds exhibit, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s fabulous!

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On hiatus

I had a bit of surgery last week and will be taking a break.  There are many worthwhile topics to discuss, but typing one-handed takes too much concentration.  So, I’m checking out for a while.  See y’all around the first of June.  By then I should be rehabbing my shoulder.  Nothing serious — they cleaned out a bunch of arthritic bone spurs, repaired a tear in the rotator cuff and dealt with a severely inflamed tendon.

In the meantime, something to think about.  I was watching Ken Burns’ Civil War series on a local PBS station, and Shelby Foote, a historian with Southern roots, made the statement that the war occurred because Americans forgot how to compromise — the very thing that he says is our genius as a nation and the essential thing that makes our form of government work.

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The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Japan seems to be more dire as time goes on.  Not only does the news about the extent of damage and the potential for further radiation releases continue to escalate, but now we’re hearing that TEPCO, the utility company, vastly underestimated the potential for the very sort of devastating tsunami that caused the cascade of events.

It’s no wonder that the utility doesn’t seem to know how to solve the cooling problem.  I’m not certain that it is “solvable” in the conventional sense of the term.  Four reactors in trouble, along with several spent fuel cooling ponds.  There is concern of breaches to the ponds, meaning that water will need to be added continually — possibly for years until the spent fuel has cooled enough to be transferred to dry cask storage or eventual reprocessing or permanent storage.  And there is concern that at least one of the reactor containment vessels may have cracked.  Both problems make it almost impossible to contain the radiation, and we’ve seen levels up to 100,000 times normal in parts of the plant.  Elevated radiation levels, while still too low to cause immediate risk to human health, have been detected thousands of miles from the crippled plant.

It’s not surprising that people are wrestling with the advisability of increased use of nuclear energy here at home, in addition to the fact that most of our nuclear power stations are nearing or even beyond their design life.

No form of energy production is without risk.  That goes without saying.  But what is needed is an open and honest conversation  about risks, and about life cycle costs of the various forms of energy we currently use, including renewable sources.  We need to know the per megawatt cost of the entire life cycle — licensing, construction, operation, maintenance, fuel costs, decommissioning/dismantlement of the plants.  We also need to know and to understand the costs of rendering safe any  waste products of each energy source.  And we need that information for all types of electric generation — hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, natural gas, coal, petroleum and nuclear.  And finally, we need to know all the ways in which government subsidizes various forms of energy generation and the ways in which government guarantees against losses that might be incurred by investors or insurers in the event of a failure somewhere in the generating process.

It is only in knowing all of the above information and being able to compare one energy source’s costs and risks against the others that we truly can understand what is at stake.  We know that petroleum is a finite resource.  When it will run out can be open to debate, but it will eventually run out.  Having an informed conversation about the uses of petroleum products (beyond burning them to generate electricity and power our vehicles) is essential.  And it is equally essential to expand that conversation to the point that we recognize that not all petroleum was created equal.  The oil that comes from some locations burns cleaner than that from other locations.  And it’s not equal in terms of the cost of extraction.

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Almost a decade ago, one of the rationales for the U.S. move to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was to spread democracy.  Conventional wisdom has long held that democracy must be seized from within a country, not imposed from the outside.  Iraq is not now, and may not be democratic for a very long time.  On the other hand, looking at Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East, it would appear that homegrown democracy movements are taking root.

I’ve been following the events in Egypt, holding my breath as the people removed their support from the regime.  It has been apparent to me for over a week that Mubarak could not survive the change long-term.  It was only a matter of time before the regime fell.  The only question was whether the people could be deterred with sufficient force coming from the regime.  When the goon squads were sent in, I feared that wholesale violence would break out, and had the army not remained neutral, it could have.  But with the military’s commitment not to fire on the demonstrators, it became obvious that Mubarak’s hold on power was evaporating.  The only questions were how long he might try to hold on and whether he would leave with any of his dignity intact.

Yesterday, all indications were that he would be resigning.  But he had one last surprise up his sleeve.  I held my breath as the crowd realized that Mubarak had not resigned.  The crowd was primed for a massive celebration, and they were understandably shocked and angry.  Would their anger turn to violence?  What would the army do?

This morning, when discussing the fact of Mubarak’s resignation, NBC’s Brian Williams may have hit upon something profound, perhaps without realizing the implication of his words.  He mentioned that yesterday, the official statement from the Egyptian government was that Mubarak had turned over his powers to Vice President Suleiman, while retaining his titular role as President of Egypt.  That sentiment was echoed in interviews given by the Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S.  Yet, this morning, when VP Suleiman made his announcement of Mubarak’s resignation, he indicated that it was Mubarak (the titular but supposedly impotent president) who transferred power to the military.  Hmmmm.  If Mubarak had transferred power to Suleiman, how could he be the one to transfer power to the military today?  Was yesterday a shell game?  A “man behind the curtain” event, whereby Mubarak would still be controlling the levers of power while in theory Suleiman held them?  Or had the military in effect staged a coup, forcing Mubarak out, giving him the option of “resign or be fired.”

It remains to be seen what Egypt’s future will look like.  President Obama set out several markers in his statement — fair and free elections, revocation of the hated 30-year-old emergency law, and a transition to civilian rule with an open political process.  There will be a lot of work to do before those free and fair elections can be held.  Meanwhile, with Parliament having been dissolved and the entire cabinet sacked, much remains uncertain.

What will be most interesting will be to watch the response of both the leaders and the street in the other Middle Eastern countries.  Will there be another revolution?  Will the powers that be respond with violence?  Or might they try to get ahead of the street and institute meaningful reform?  No one knows.  Yet.  The temptation of the military will be to place stability ahead of democracy.  That’s what Mubarak did.  That’s what governments do in general.  It will take time and much lively discussion and negotiation to bring true democracy to Egypt.  There are many voices, many opinions, many dreams for Egypt’s future that will need to be heard and considered if true democracy is to prevail.  And a time of rising expectations can be unpredictable.

To the Egyptian people, I wish you well as you enter this new and exciting time in your history.

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