Posts for March, 2011
Well, sportsfans, the other shoe has dropped and it's a 13-EEEE. Gov. Walker's proposed biennial budget bill is certainly a doozey. Already the gored oxen are screaming, predicting doom, gloom and disaster. One is reminded, however, that you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.
Many on the left and even considerable folks on the other side voted in 2008 for Barack Obama for president. Some because he was a liberal, some because of his race but many because he ran on a platform of Change--change from the status quo with which many were uncomfortable. They weren't sure exactly what Change meant, but felt that something was awry in government and were willing to vote for "anything else."
Many of those reasonably moderate folks are disappointed in what they got, which was an orgy of deficit spending, grindingly brutal unemployment (Yes, I know; it's Bush's fault.), and a monstrous, problematic and controversial government health care program.
I think that disappointment and lingering unease with runaway "fix-it-all" government carried over into the 2010 election which gave us a Republican state government replacing the prior Democratic hegemony. Scott Walker was fairly easily elected as someone who would shake things up, with a reputation for staunch, unblinking fiscal conservatism. Folks felt this was what we needed in Wisconsin. Well, we got it.
I'm not going to go through the proposed budget item by item. Actually, our often-maligned (by me) daily newspaper did an admirable job in the Wednesday (March 2) edition of summarizing its contents and implications. As the newspaper noted, it certainly shakes things up. But, what did you expect? Scott Walker simply has done what he said he would do: balance (nearly) the state budget for the first time in recent memory.
The screaming is fully understandable. Many governmental elements are significantly impacted, including a number of sacred cows. The problem is for years--decades--we have been boiling the frog. Unboiling him is not easy. Bureaucracies created ostensibly to "fix" problems have been layered one on top of another, all with constituencies, manned by public sector union members and fully committed to the basic two rules of the bureaucracy: 1) Preserve the bureaucracy and 2) Expand the bureaucracy. (There is no third rule.) They will not go down easily, but go down they must if we are going to stuff the government tiger back in his cage.
Public sector unions are a very large part of the problem. These are the folks that staff the bureaucracies, including education which is a huge bureaucracy. I have noted previously that public sector unions are a different breed from unions in general. Their existence makes no logical sense and constitutes a fiscal nightmare. Private unions negotiate with an employer who holds the survival and success of the company uppermost and negotiates tough to limit payroll and benefit costs to sustainable levels. It's typically a close-to-even fight, sometimes temporarily favoring one side or the other.
Public sector unions collect huge sums of money in dues which they spend supporting politicians, mainly Democrats by at least a 10-1 ratio. A number of Democratic legislators owe a major portion of their campaign funding to these unions. (I guess a few Republicans get supported, but very few and mostly RINO's.) At the local level, party affiliations get blurred so the largesse goes to candidates sympathetic to the union(s). The effect is that contract negotiations are between powerful union representation and politicians beholden to the public sector unions for their jobs. Now the fight is uneven.
The result has been wage and benefit excesses that severely strain budgets at all levels of government. Public sector unions have acquired great power and accumulated large membership because of their success in negotiating attractive wage and benefit packages. Thus we have created the proverbial 600-pound tiger, out of his cage and devouring taxpayer money at an ever-increasing clip.
The party line being played out in the Madison protests is that it's all about workers' rights--more specifically union workers--and the middle class. In truth, it's all about union power and sustenance. Walker's proposals will substantially curtail the influence and income of the several public sector unions, mainly the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees International Union (SIEU), along with the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) teachers' unions. By way of illustration, the compensation of the heads of these unions is as follows.
- AFSCME head Gerald McEntee: $480,000, having grown steadily at 4% per year
- SIEU head Mary Kay Henry: over $306,000
- NEA head Dennis Van Roekel: nearly $400,000
- AFT head Randi Weingarten: $428,284
The assets of these unions ranges from $78 million (AFSCME) to $216 million (NEA). They have as many as 31 employees earning over $200,000 per year (NEA).
(These data are from the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity as reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 3, 2011.)
These unions contribute huge sums to overwhelmingly Democratic election campaigns by as much as 99% over Republican. The unholy alliance is obvious. As Marquette Professor Walter Farrell used to always say, "Follow the money." And that is what is at stake here.
In politics, nothing is as it seems. The hue and cry over "workers' rights" is nothing but a smokescreen for union preservation and political benefit. The demonstrators, while largely sincere, are simply dupes of the entrenched union/political gravy train.
Governor Walker's budget is the first real attempt to deal with the fiscal problems of this state in a realistic and honest manner. It is undeniably ugly, but that is what it will take to merely begin to disassemble the monstrous fiscal House that Jack Built that has become Wisconsin's fiscal and bureaucratic ravenous 600-pound tiger. Scott Walker is the first politician to try to stuff that baby back in his cage. The proposed budget is undoubtedly not perfect or even universally fair, but it is a responsible start. Legislative debate, hopefully bipartisan if they ever come back, will help to iron out some of the kinks.
Walker deserves a lot of credit for having the guts to take on the tiger, the first executive in my memory to do so. Sadly, I doubt that he'll get it.
There has been a lot of talk, some of it quite loud, over the last month--actually 25 days--about rights and freedoms. We are being deafened by screams that the Walker budget Repair Bill's section restricting collective bargaining by public service unions is an attack on freedom and the middle class; that it violates hard-won union rights. Harsh accusations indeed. But, what are they really saying?
There are several categories of rights. There is, of course, the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of the United States. Things like the right to bear arms, right of privacy (oops, that's not really there), among others. These rights are essentially cast in stone and can be undone only by constitutional amendment. Constitutional rights do not seem to be at issue here since none of them appear to infringed by Gov. Walker's bill.
There are God-given rights, like the right to life and free will. I'm not sure what the others are, but lots of folks refer to them. Walker seems to be safe from these also, whatever they are.
Then there are legal rights, those bestowed by legislative action. Ah, now we seem to have something. There was legislation passed some years ago that established collective bargaining for public service unions. However, that was a legal right created by a law. Such a right can then also be removed by legal action, which is the present case. These are equivalent actions, neither superior in any way to the other. What a legislature bestows it can take away, no foul.
O.K., what about those freedoms that the evil Republicans are taking away from us, the middle-class public. Certainly not the freedom of assembly or freedom of speech. Those are also in the U.S. Constitution, but seem to be safe from right-wing predation. Then there is: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It may be argued that the "pursuit of Happiness" (sic) and maybe even some Liberty is being infringed, but this is from the Declaration of Independence which, while a worthwhile sentiment, does not have the force of law. Also, I don't think the writers of the Declaration had public service union collective bargaining rights in mind.
The bottom line is, it is difficult to identify any real freedoms or rights that are being infringed, except the right of unions to fleece the public. Oh yes, the recent ongoing circus in Madison and elsewhere, like Illinois, is only and solely about the union right to collect dues and entice membership by negotiating rather generous benefits from strength gained through political contributions to those with whom they are negotiating. It is not about workers' rights, which are not being infringed or taken away. The majority of public service workers who do not belong to a union seem to be doing quite well on their own. Union workers will still have jobs with decent wages and reasonable benefits, and somewhat greater job security, compared with the rest of the employed folks.
So, all the noise, largely created by union agitators, professional demonstrators who seem to show up at every public protest, retired teachers with nothing better to do and college students who seem not to have to attend classes, is about the public service unions, not the workers. It's about union power and money, nothing else.
It is unfortunate that the Republicans had to resort to separating out fiscal elements from the bill to pass it with a simple majority. Interestingly, this tactic was advanced by none other that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who dared them to do it in a speech about a week ago. Personally, I'm impressed by the intestinal fortitude displayed by Governor Walker and the Republicans, who were under unprecedented pressure from the unions, both locally and nationwide.
Unfortunately, it isn't over yet. I have heard that national unions and/or union sympathizers have allocated $30 million to fund recall campaigns against eight Republican senators. How's that for outside interference in state affairs?
The Wisconsin Taxpayers' Alliance in two recent bulletins clearly and succinctly outlines the fiscal games played by the last two administrations to balance a hopelessly out-of-balance budget with non-GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) tactics, creating a massive structural deficit. Walker is the first governor in quite awhile to address Wisconsin's budget problems head-on without gimmicks.
The only way to balance the budget without dumping the deficit onto taxpayers is to cut spending. That he is doing to the accompaniment of the deafening roar of a chorus of gored oxen. I for one respect him for his honesty and courage. Way to go, Scott!
As I'm sure everyone knows, there has been a catastrophic earthquake centered off the northeast coast of Japan measured at 9.0 on the Richter scale. This is one of the strongest quakes in history, eclipsing the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake which registered 7.9. Since the Richter scale is a base-10 logarithmic, the Japanese quake was more than100 times more powerful the famous Frisco quake.
The Earthquake: This earthquake created a 20-30 foot tsunami that created even more damage than the quake, since the Japanese have designed their buildings to withstand earthquakes. The purpose of this post is to provide some accurate information on this event that seems to be lacking in our news media. Some of this information is based on Alert Bulletins from Stratfor.com, an accepted reliable source.
First, a few words about plate tectonics. The crust of the Earth is made up of several huge tectonic plates that move, probably due in part to cooling and to rotation dynamics. The plates tend to move in an east-west direction. The largest of these plates is the Pacific plate that covers most of the Pacific Ocean. It extends from the coast of the United States to nearly Japan and Indonesia. This plate is moving in a westerly direction, butting up against a leg of the North American plate off the northeast coast of Japan. These plates are pushing against each other, which causes one plate to slide under the other, pushing it up. When stresses build and sudden relative movement occurs, the result is an earthquake.
This movement results in extremely sudden lifting or sinking of the crust. When it occurs under water, this displacement creates a huge swell that expands from the epicenter at incredible speeds, as much as 500 mph. In the open ocean, this swell may be only a few feet high, but when it encounters land, the water underneath is slowed by friction and lifted, resulting in a towering wave--a tsunami--causing massive destruction. Water traveling at high speed is like steel, irresistible.
NOTE: Since the U.S. west coast (California, etc.), is at an angle, the plate movement is sliding. Thus, California quakes are the result of slippage, not one plate pushing under the other (subsidence) as in the Pacific Rim. In South America, the plate movement is pulling apart.
Sadly, the Japanese were well-prepaered to deal with large earthquakes, even one as monstrous as this one. Many buildings held up only to be toppled by the speeding wall of water. The great loss of life and incredible damage was due mainly to the towering tsunami, for which there was no protection.
Nuclear Power Plants: This is a bit mysterious because one would expect the Japanese to have designed carefully to protect against damage from earthquakes and consequent tsunamis. Yet, at least three nuclear power plants are in trouble and one, the Fukishima Daiichi plant in Okuma, is in dire straits. Although there are conflicting and confusing reports coming from Japan, and altogether too much uninformed media reporting and speculation, it appears that the Fukushima plant withstood the earthquake but not the massive tsumani for which it was not designed. In my opinion, this was shortsighted as the two often go hand-in-hand. First, though, let's review nuclear power plant design and operation.
Reactor Design: The reactor core (or pile) consists of nuclear fissionable material, usually a radioactive isotope (variant) of uranium (U235), inside a heavy confining vessel called a containment structure or dome. In the Japanese design, this dome is made of 6-inch thick steel. A byproduct of the fission process is plutonium (Pu239), also a radioactive isotope.
Graphite control rods are inserted into holes or spaces in the pile to absorb nuclear radiation (neutrons). The rods are raised and lowered to maintain the chain reaction in equilibrium. Circulating water (raised to its boiling point or beyond) cools the pile and provides the heat energy to drive turbine generators. The cooling water also functions to moderate the nuclear reaction by absorbing neutrons.
There are two major types of nuclear power reactors. One is the pressurized water reactor (PWR) where the cooling water is highly pressurized, raising its boiling point. In this design, the water used to cool the pile does not boil and create steam. Steam is created in a separate steam generator outside the containment vessel and used to power turbine electric generators. The cooling water also is employed to control the nuclear pile by absorbing neutrons, but is not the primary control mechanism. (See my blog post "Oil and Nukes", August 4, 2008, for a more detailed description of the PWR reactor design.) This is an important distinction. Most U.S. nuclear power reactors are the PWR design.
Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) Diagram
The Japanese reactors, on the other hand, are boiling water reactors (BWR), where the cooling water is allowed to boil, creating steam voids. This accomplishes two purposes. It eliminates the necessity of a separate steam generator and it increases the range of nuclear pile control possible with the cooling water alone. (Steam voids absorb little radiation. The more steam the hotter the nuclear reaction.) In fact, cooling water/steam is the primary method of control in a BWR, while control rods perform this function in a PWR. The BWR design also employs control rods, but they are used more to fine tune the pile activity.
A salient and unanswered question in anything I have read is why the Japanese reactors at Fukushima Daiichi--there are six reactors in the plant--were not immediately shut down--called "SCRAMMING"--when the earthquake hit. The control rods in these reactors are electrically activated, which system failed when power was lost due to the tsumani and backup power also failed. This also disabled the cooling water pumps, eliminating that method of control.
In modern reactor design (the Japanese reactors were built in the 1970's), power failure results in immediate, mechanically-actuated, full insertion of the control rods, SCRAMMING the reactor and shutting down the nuclear reaction. If this is not done immediately, loss of cooling water circulation due to pump failure may result in heat-induced distortions that jam the rods, preventing shutdown. This is apparently what happened in Japan, for reasons I find mystifying. I understand that all U.S. reactors employ automatic power failure SCRAMMING. (Due to operator error, the Three Mile Island reactor was allowed to overheat, jamming the control rods and resulting in a partial meltdown.)
Present Status: As previously stated, there are conflicting reports. The latest information I have indicates a dire situation that is getting worse. Despite frantic efforts by the Japanese to contain the situation at the Fukushima plant, it appears to be deteriorating. Several explosions have occurred in the plant, damaging at least two of the reactors. It is possible that the reactor No. 2 containment vessel was damaged, but that is presently not confirmed.
Steam pressure is rising to dangerous levels in at least three of the reactors, requiring venting radioactive steam into the atmosphere. While this is spectacular, it is not particularly dangerous as the radioactivity level of the steam is low and it dissipates rapidly. So long as the containment dome is not breached, the danger from radiation is minimal except in the immediate vicinity. However, there are credible reports that the containment vessel at reactor No. 2 may have been damaged. If this damage constitutes a breach--and this is not clear--substantial radiation exposure is likely.
There have been at least three explosions, but they do not involve radioactive material. The high temperatures and superheated steam inside the containment vessel result in accelerated electrolytic corrosion, breaking down the water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen--the well-known electrolysis process. The oxygen is absorbed in the corrosion process but the hydrogen accumulates. As it is vented along with the very hot steam, it strikes the oxygen-rich atmosphere and explodes. These explosions are outside the pile containment vessel and would normally cause only building structural damage.
There are reports of widening and increasingly elevated radiation levels downwind of the plant, causing widespread evacuations. So far, the levels are not lethal but are potentially harmful. Also, workers are being evacuated from the Fukushima plant. This suggests at least a partial breach which is not good news. Should efforts to cool the pile or piles at the facility fail, the radioactive cores, having lost all cooling, will melt and create pools that could reach temperatures of 1000's of degrees. This is the classic meltdown which, if there is accompanying fire which is likely, could spread significant radioactive smoke over a wide area. This now would look more like Chernobyl than Three Mile Island.
That this potentially is a disaster of unprecedented magnitude is clear. The key is containment breach combined with fire. Despite hyperactive media speculation, we in the U.S. are not in danger of radioactive fallout. We are 7000 miles away from Japan, and any radioactive smoke will have long dissipated on its way across the Pacific, despite prevailing winds. In Japan, the potential is much more scary. If the worst happens with the Fukushima Daiichi plant--containment breach and fire--then Japan will be a long time recovering. They will need our prayers.
Finally, let me reiterate that all U.S. reactors incorporate fail-safe nuclear pile shutdown features that obviate anything like what is happening in Japan. I truly am surprised at the apparent short-sighted design of their plants. Our are designed and configured to withstand any conceivable terrorist attacks, which would serve well in the event of a natural disaster.
Obama, the French, the English and some unspecified Arab countries (are there any left with governments?), with the strangely enthusiastic acquiescence of the UN, have launched a military attack to establish a no-fly zone (at first) against the legal government of the sovereign nation of Libya in support of a ragtag, polyglot bunch of rebels who were getting the stuffing beat out of them by government forces. Question: WHAT IS OUR INTEREST IN LIBYAN AFFAIRS??
We get not one drop of oil from the 2% of the world's supply produced by Libya, although the Europeans get much of their oil from there. Are we once again saving their bacon? The nonsense about humanitarian purpose to prevent evil Muammar Gaddafi from massacring innocent civilians--well actually they're rebels trying to bring down the government--is an obvious smokescreen for something else. But frankly, I have no clue what that is, except for a nagging and scary suspicion. (Later.)
First, let's dispel the fiction about an international coalition with the French, English and unspecified Arabs--who at last call seem to be wimping out--sharing the load of this no-fly zone establishment, involving bombing and cruise missilling Gaddafi's military installations. No one but us has the capability and equipment to do this, so 90% of the load will be on us--our aircraft, our cruise missiles, our precision munitions, our ISR capability.
The problem with this is our air strength is stretched to--and in some cases, beyond--the breaking point, due largely to extreme overuse in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars following Kosovo. Our attack aircraft are on average over 26 years old and well beyond their design lives, except for the F-22 Raptor procured at half the needed quantity and then procurement was canceled by Obama. Our tankers are 50 years old and our tactical airlift (transports) are too few and in some cases (e.g. the C-130 Hercules other than the J-model) as much as 60+ years old. Tanker maintenance on our ancient workhorse KC-135's is becoming a serious problem due to fatigue-related deterioration.
So now we add Libya to the Obama war catalog. We are indeed nuts, or are we? Some conservative commentators have suggested that Obama does not like the military and is not supportive of American exceptionalism and superpower status. The main reason for that status is our military which is unparalleled in its capabilities and skill. The Defense Department budget has been cut by the Administration, with the Air Force taking the brunt of the cuts. If the purpose is--and I'm not saying it is--to cut us down to size by degrading our military strength through overstress and overuse, then this is the way to do it.
Finally, if we succeed in bringing down Gaddafi's government and driving him from the country, who or what takes its place? Are we embarking on yet another exercise in regime change and nation building, on top of Iraq and Afghanistan? How long is this going to take? Another 10 years? How many of our boys' lives will be lost to Gaddafi's supporters gone underground like Saddam's in Iraq while we nation build, which will require boots on the ground? And has anyone noticed how fast this all happened??
We are already overcommitted around the world. I 'm beginning to think we should let the world take care of itself, bring everyone home and let other countries take care of their own affairs. If human rights are violated, why is that our problem? Let the UN do it if they're so concerned, but without us. Why do we need to prop up other nations with our foreign aid money? Let them sink or swim on their own. (Humanitarian aid in the event of a natural disaster is an exception.)
We don't need anyone. Repeat, WE DON'T NEED ANYONE! We have everything we need right here at home if only we have the sense and will to use it. Let's junk NAFTA and set up tariffs that level the playing field of workers' wages. If the WTO doesn't like it, tough. We really don't need BMW's. If you don't want to build it here then pay the tariff.
Yes, that's isolationism. I think it just may be an idea whose time has come.
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