not the Cuban Missile Crisis

Sheldon Stern, who was a historian at the JFK library for 23 years, points out that JFK stood up to his military leaders who were hell-bent on a full-scale invasion of Cuba, while today we are hoping that our military leaders might stand up to a President’s reckless decision to unleash the military and risk nuclear war.

It is all but impossible to imagine this kind of informed, rational and mature leadership coming from the Oval Office today. If discretion and common sense are to prevail, it will require, as noted above, turning the central dynamic of the Cuban missile crisis upside down; this time, the top military figures in the administration may be forced to try to short-circuit an impulsive over-reaction by their commander-in-chief. Today, fortunately, most senior military officers are vastly more politically sophisticated and historically educated than their 1962 counterparts (who received most of their formal military education before the advent of nuclear weapons). Indeed, Mattis has edited an important book about American views of our military and McMaster is the author of a highly-regarded study of the failure of civilian and military leadership to prevent the escalation of the Vietnam War. There is room for hope.

I too hope that cooler heads will prevail, and if the coolest heads are in the military at the moment I am behind them. But if the coolest heads are the military, it is a sign that the civilian leadership has completely failed. I am not confident that it will get us out of trouble this time, and even if it does it is a scary precedent for the future. Basically we are saying it is okay for the military to step in and take over in an emergency. Nothing in our constitution is supposed to allow that, and for it to happen the President has to be extraordinarily weak and the entire rest of the civilian government has to stand by and do absolutely nothing.

Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare by Bertrand Russell

Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare was a 1959 book by Bertrand Russell. The title is clearly tongue-in-cheek because these are two things that don’t mix. Here is a fun quote/paraphrase relating the book to the present day, provided by History News Network:

Responding on August 8 to North Korean threats, Trump publicly warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Later that day, North Korea’s state media announced that its government was considering a strategy of striking the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with mid- to long-range nuclear missiles―a strategy that a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said would be “put into practice” once Kim authorized it.

This kind of reckless and potentially suicidal behavior is reminiscent of the game of “Chicken,” which achieved notoriety in the 1950s. In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), two rebellious, antisocial male teenagers (or juvenile delinquents, as they were known at the time) played the game before a crowd of onlookers by driving jalopies at top speed toward a cliff. Whoever jumped out of the cars first was revealed as “chicken” (a coward). A more popular variant of the game involved two teenagers driving their cars at high speed toward one another, with the first to swerve out of the way drawing the derisive label. According to some accounts, young James Dean, a star of Rebel Without a Cause, actually died much this way.

With news of the game spreading, Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, suggested in 1959 that the two sides in the Cold War were engaged in an even crazier version: nuclear “Chicken.” He wrote: “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.” But the game became “incredibly dangerous” and “absurd” when it was played by government officials “who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings.” Russell warned that “the moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of ‘Chicken!’ from the other side.” When that moment arrived, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”

This might be the biggest problem of all with having nuclear weapons around. Even if rational adult supervision is present 99% of the time, and even if there were no risk of terrorism, it only takes one irrational leader one time to pull the trigger and fuck up our world permanently.

National Climate Assessment – censored?

13 U.S. agencies, including NOAA, NASA and EPA, are required to produce a National Climate Assessment every four years. The thing about bureaucracy, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad, is that it grinds on somewhat disconnected from the political process. So the latest National Climate Assessment has been produced. It has to be approved by political appointees in the agencies before it can be officially released, but no matter because the New York Times has posted the key appendix here, called the U.S. Global Change Research Program: Climate Science Special Report. I’ll post a couple excerpts below:

First, a bit of the up-front matter:

The findings in this report are based on a large body of scientific, peer-reviewed research, as well as a number of other publicly available sources, including well-established and carefully evaluated observational and modeling datasets. The team of authors carefully reviewed these sources to ensure a reliable assessment of the state of scientific understanding. Each source of information was determined to meet the four parts of the IQA Guidance provided to authors: 1) utility, 2) transparency and traceability, 3) objectivity, and 4) integrity and security. Report authors assessed and synthesized information from peer-reviewed journal articles, technical reports produced by federal agencies, scientific assessments (such as IPCC 2013), reports of the National Academy of Sciences and its associated National Research Council, and various regional climate impact assessments, conference proceedings, and government statistics (such as population census and energy usage).

“Fake news published by the failing New York Times”, indeed! I vowed never to forgive the New York Times for their role in the Iraq invasion debacle, but they are beginning to redeem themselves. The Trump junta seems to be getting frustrated that their Goebbels-esque propaganda isn’t just getting parrotted unopposed.

And now, I’ll just share this graphic which I found a bit shocking:

One interesting thing is you might think Florida or Georgia might be the wrong place to be, but these maps suggest they may not change as much and the rest of the country will sort of catch up to create one big Jurassic stew. Now, people live in hotter places than Florida and Georgia and manage to get along just fine. The real question is whether we can grow food under these conditions.

If you don’t believe me that this is disconnected from the political process, read this Guardian article about how the USDA has been instructed to avoid the term climate change. That is the agency responsible for our nation’s food security.

Staff at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been told to avoid using the term climate change in their work, with the officials instructed to reference “weather extremes” instead…

The primary cause of human-driven climate change is also targeted, with the term “reduce greenhouse gases” blacklisted in favor of “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency”. Meanwhile, “sequester carbon” is ruled out and replaced by “build soil organic matter”.

Reading on, I have to say it isn’t clear how high up the political chain this directive came from, or whether it is a mid-level supervisor advising staff how to stay out of political trouble. Self-censorship is still censorship though, and indicates the politicians have created a climate (no pun intended) of caution and fear for scientists. I can’t argue with building organic matter though, which would be good with or without climate change.

best practices in affordable housing

Affordable housing has fairly simple solutions on the surface – build more housing to push down prices, and/or provide people with an income sufficient to afford market rate housing. But it’s so difficult in practice in the United States, and from what I have seen, around the world. Curbed has a round-up of things being tried in the U.S., but I feel like these are tinkering around the edges of a large problem. I am leaning more and more toward the idea of providing people with an income (preferably by providing them with job skills, but by redistributing tax revenue of necessary) so that they can afford to choose among the options available.

  • revolving loan funds to renovate vacant apartments
  • bonus equity paid to low-income renters, sort of like reward points they can use for a down-payment on a home (this assumes owning is better than renting, which it might not be if all the twisted tax incentives, zoning restrictions and homeowner covenants were removed. In other words, saving is great but converting those savings to home equity is not automatically the best financial move for every family. In other words, maybe helping lower-income families to build financial assets they can use for whatever they need ultimately would be the best policy.)
  • mixed use, green building and transit-friendly development – all great but I am not immediately clear how this helps create affordable housing, other than bumping up supply slowly and gradually
  • non-profits and governments just straight-up renting homes and putting homeless people in them
  • coordinated national housing policy (but this is in Canada, not the U.S.)

men and automation-driven job loss

This Wired article, despite its offensive title (MEN WILL LOSE THE MOST JOBS TO ROBOTS, AND THAT’S OK), makes some interesting points that the kinds of jobs being automated today might disproportionately affect men.

Robots are coming for our jobs—but not all of our jobs. They’re coming, in ever increasing numbers, for a certain kind of work. For farm and factory labor. For construction. For haulage. In other words, blue-collar jobs traditionally done by men…

Some political rhetoric blames outsourcing and immigration for the decline in “men’s work,” but automation is a greater threat to these kinds of jobs—and technological progress cannot be stopped at any border. A recent Oxford study predicted that 70 percent of US construction jobs will disappear in the coming decades; 97 percent of those jobs are held by men, and so are 95 percent of the 3.5 million transport and trucking jobs that robots are presently eyeing. That’s scary, and it’s one reason so many men are expressing their anger and anxiety at home, in the streets, and at the polls.

While all of this is going on, though, there’s a counter­phenomenon playing out. As society panics about bricklaying worker droids and self-driving 18-wheelers, jobs traditionally performed by women—in the so-called pink-collar industries, as well as unpaid labor—are still relatively safe, and some are even on the rise. These include childcare. And service. And nursing, which the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will need a million­-plus more workers in the next decade.

Because when I walk by Bubba the construction worker with his cat calling and cigar smoking I think, that’s the guy I want to leave alone in my home with my children. Of course, that’s as stereotype, but I pass a few Bubbas on the way to my job every day, where I pound on a keyboard alongside men and women. I’m willing to buy the idea that manly jobs are filled mostly by men, but I’m not willing to buy the idea that most men work at manly jobs. I don’t have the stats, but I willing to speculate there are a lot of us men pounding on keyboards for every manly lumberjack and cowboy out there. I wouldn’t discourage my son from considering a career in nursing or elementary school teaching, if that interests him, but more likely I will gently steer both my son and daughter toward technical fields like computer science, genetics, or engineering where they can be the ones designing and directing the technologies that is changing all our lives. I would like them to have a solid foundation of a well-rounded education in language, history, and ethics, which everyone needs, and then some solid skills with real economic value to top that off.

North Korean nuclear submarines

Submarine-launched nuclear missiles are the ultimate deterrent, because unless your enemies are sure they can find and destroy all your subs before they have a chance to launch, you have the ability to retaliate anywhere at anytime, even if this is your last action after your enemy has turned your country into a “sea of fire” (as the North Koreans are fond of saying). If you read the first half of this CNN article, you think North Korea has them or almost has them, but if you get to the end you find out that the expert consensus is that North Korea isn’t close.

The US military has detected “highly unusual and unprecedented levels” of North Korean submarine activity and evidence of an “ejection test” in the days following Pyongyang’s second intercontinental ballistic missile launch this month, a defense official told CNN on Monday.

An ejection test examines a missile’s “cold-launch system,” which uses high pressure steam to propel a missile out of the launch canister into the air before its engines ignite. That helps prevent flames and heat from the engine from damaging either the submarine, submersible barge or any nearby equipment used to launch the missile.

Two concerns: one is that Trump decides they are close and decides to order a preemptive strike. Even if this were the best course of action, Trump is not the leader we would need at the helm during such a crisis. Two is that these might be the same experts what brung us weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Maybe this is their makeup call for the earlier bad call. In other words, maybe we’re in for an unpleasant WMD surprise that goes in the opposite direction of the last one.

The current US intelligence assessment is that the missile program aboard submarines remains in the very early stages.


Annuities – I admit they sound like a boring topic. But what is not boring us thinking about you might want to do with your relatively short life of earth, and thinking outside the box about the tools available to you. Annuities are one of those tools.

Fixed SPIAs make retirement planning easier in exactly the same way that traditional pensions do: They’re predictable. If you know that you need $X of income each year in retirement, you can go to an online annuity quote provider, put in $X as the payout, check “yes” for inflation adjustments, and you’ll get an answer: “For $Y, you can purchase an annuity that will pay you $X per year, adjusted for inflation, for the rest of your life — no matter how long you might live.”

Pretty easy, right? You now have a specific figure for the minimum amount of savings necessary to retire safely. With a traditional stock and bond portfolio, retirement planning is more of a guessing game.

Fixed SPIAs are also helpful because they allow you to retire on less money than you would need with a typical stock/bond portfolio.

You could work hard and live frugally while you are young, then turn over your savings to an insurance company at some point and continue to live without working hard. People typically do this at retirement age (i.e. when they are old), but you could do it at a younger age and continue to live frugally without working hard, or you could work part time and pursue a passion part time, or you could spend more time with young children than hard working middle aged parents typically do, or you could take the risk of starting a business knowing that failure wouldn’t ruin you. You could turn over part of your savings, continue to work somewhat hard, and pursue some combination of any of the things on my list above. You could make gradual transitions from one mix of activities to another.

Now, do I really practice what I am preaching here? No. I work like a dog to support a family. I’m a conservative person, and I particularly worry about my ability to meet the costs of health care and education in the future. But I also ask myself each day what choices I am making right now that I might regret when I am looking back some day.


nuclear proliferation and non-state actors

This post on Lawfare talks about three ways people and groups other than nation-states could get their hands on nuclear weapons.

That entails blocking the pathways to terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon. There are three possibilities for how a terrorist organization might acquire the bomb: transfer—the sale or handoff of a weapon from a nuclear-weapon state; leakage—the theft of a nuclear weapon or weapons-grade fissile material; and indigenous production—the construction of a nuclear device from illicitly obtained weapons-grade fissile material.

Each pathway to nuclear acquisition by a non-state terrorist group is contingent on an act of commission or negligence by a state. The “leakage” of a weapon to a terrorist group would originate from one of the nine nuclear-weapon states or the 22 states (at current count) with weapons-grade fissile material in their civilian stocks. Among this group, the countries of greatest concern regarding the nexus of proliferation and terrorism—North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia—are each continuing their development of nuclear weapons and risking broader proliferation, including to non-state actors.

North Korea is on the verge of a strategic breakout both quantitatively, by ramping up its number of warheads to possibly as many as 100 weapons by 2020, and qualitatively, by mastering warhead miniaturization. And it would have few qualms about selling nuclear materials for the right price. Pyongyang is known, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, for its willingness to “sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.” Pakistan continues to build up its nuclear arsenal (including the development of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons), employs terrorism as an instrument of state policy, and faces the internal security threat of radical Islamists attempting to infiltrate its nuclear establishment. And Russia, which inherited the Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal and stocks of fissile material, terminated its nuclear-security cooperation with the United States under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program put in place by the Nunn-Lugar Act in 1991.

a “soft military coup” for the U.S.?

This New Republic article is clearly very partisan. But it points out some concerns about three active or very recently retired generals being given unprecedented power over our country.

His complete failure to grow into the job has allowed multiple power centers to emerge and vie for ascendency within the administration. It has impelled other institutional actors to essentially expropriate from Trump governing tasks that should be his exclusively. In some cases, as when he gave military leaders a free hand in fighting terrorism, he has willingly parted with these obligations. In others, as when Congress wrested discretion over Russian sanctions away from him, he has been layered over reluctantly.

But the most alarming development is the one that ironically has official Washington the most relieved: the emergence of a trio of military officers (two retired, one actively serving) as de facto caretakers of the presidency.

It is perfectly consistent to say that the growing clout of generals John Kelly (the White House chief of staff), H.R. McMaster (the national security advisor), and Jim Mattis (the defense secretary) is preferable to an alternative in which Trump shambles through his presidency unencumbered, but also dangerous in its own right, and evidence of serious institutional failure. The hope is apparently to keep Trump’s administration within certain guardrails, so that if and when it fails, he doesn’t take the country and the world off the road with him.

If there is some kind of international crisis, I think I feel more comfortable with these guys making decisions than Trump. But I don’t like the idea that we have the military in charge rather than the civilian leadership, because they are very likely to come up with military solutions to problems. I always thought Trump would be lazy and delegate a lot of his job to subordinates, but this has taken a disturbing turn. It seems unlikely that Trump would be removed from office by Congress in the next four years, so at the moment I am hoping to avoid any major geopolitical crises through luck, and that someone will convince him not to run for reelection.