The World Laughed At The Black Guy, They Said. Friends and Foes Will Respect Us, Again, They Said

Or not: Vice President Pence, speaking today at the Munich Security Conference, told our allies that he brought greetings “from the 45th president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”

He paused.

He waited a little longer.

And then one beat more.


Four seconds in, Pence gave up, and picked up his speech.

Video here.

American power can be measured in all sorts of ways — including the degree to which we are valued, trusted and respected by our allies.


The US under Republican misrule has squandered an enormous amount of that informal power.  We are not an irrelevant nation — any more than the United Kingdom was after the half a century in which its empire dissolved.  And we haven’t gone all the way to the position Britain found itself in by, say the late 1950s, an unmistakably second rank power.

But any delusions about an American 21st century are pretty well exploded now, as indicated by the utter disdain for the President of the United States felt by everyone sentient observer — and for the political party and movement that still, against all reason, stands by him.

We won’t see an America that can persuade as well as bully the world until the Republican Party rubs shoulders with the Whigs.

Image:  Umberto Boccioni, Laughternot later than 1916.

The Last Days Of The American Empire…Soft Power Edition

I’m working on an column about, among other things, the arc of federal support for science since World War II.  As I was trying not to think about our national emergency national emergency this morning, I tripped over the following thought…

The funding deal Pelosi, McConnell et al. worked out included $1.375 billion for new barrier construction along the border (not, technically, a or the wall). That’s a win for the Democrats and a defeat for Trump, as it’s a tiny fraction of the amount that the bigot-in-chief sought, and that would be necessary to truly fortify the frontier.  For what follows I’m going to ignore the faux emergency through which the would-be dictator seeks to seize other money to pay for some useless shit, and just look at that number.

So, what makes for a powerful country?  I’d argue that the ability to project force around the world is in many  ways the least significant part of it.  Certainly, in a globally connected world, with the full range of surveillance technology and so forth, the notion of using technology perfected by, say, 1400 or so, overlapping fortifications, to keep folks out is…

Shit stupid.

US power since the middle of the last century has certainly been headlined by the military; but our capacity to influence life at home and abroad on a daily basis, in the hour-by-hour experience of billions, has turned on everything else, from our cultural impact (jeans! Rock and roll!) to, crucially and perhaps most significantly, the scientific, medical and technological revolutions fostered by the American research community.

That’s what got me going about even the seemingly de minimus amount of barrier funding in the spending bill.

The NIH budget for 2019 is $39.3 billion. In constant dollars, that’s nine percent below the peak funding achieved in 2003.  About 80% of that money goes to research grants — so just shy of $32 billion pays for folks to address all the ills that befall Americans, and citizens of the world.  For FY 2018 the National Science Foundation received $6.334 billion for research related activities.* *There are, of course, other significant pots of research money in the federal budget — DoD, DoE and Commerce all fund a lot.  But the NSF is where curiosity-driven basic research gets its support, and the NIH is, of course, the one that as we all age we notice a lot, so that’s where I’m focusing this exercise in futile rage.

A first, obvious point. The money spent on the barrier would add more than twenty percent to recent NSF research budgets, and would represent a four percent boost to the NIH.

Within those numbers these factoids: the average research project grant at NIH in 2017 provided a skosh over $500,000 to award winners. The NSF funds such a wide range of projects and disciplines that the figures are a little opaque, but still, as of 2016, the average grant offered an annualized $177,100, while the median figure was $140,900 per year.

You can see where this is going.  That barrier money could fund almost 2,800 more principal investigators trying to figure out cancer, Alzheimers, antiobiotic resistance and all the rest.  It could pay for more than 12,000 researchers pursuing basic science — the kinds of questions with pay offs that can’t be anticipated, but that have, over the last century, utterly transformed the way humans live on earth.

FTR: I do know that budgets don’t work as sort of implied above. They’re political documents, so spending on foolish stuff is often the price to be paid to spend some on smart ideas.  If we somehow avoid pouring a billion plus into  holes in the ground along the Rio Grande, that money doesn’t readily flow to a lab.  But the exercise is worth doing anyway, if only to point out how little, in budget terms, it would take to turbo charge research in this country.

The reasons for doing so extend beyond the value of knowledge for its own sake, of course, there’s the economic benefits of scientific research. There is an open argument about the size of the multiplier for each dollar invested in basic research, though less controversy about the benefits of investing in more translational or directly motivated work of the sort that shows up in many/most NIH proposals, for example. But the bottom line is that trying to figure out how nature works is good for the national (and global) bottom line.

Instead, we’re buying bollards.

And that’s how the American century ends.

Not with a catastrophic collapse, but the decision to put our national treasure to work in dumbest possible fashion, leaving aspiration, well being and wealth on the table.

With that — I’m done, and you’re up. Open thread.

*There are, of course, other significant pots of research money in the federal budget — DoD, DoE and Commerce all fund a lot.  But the NSF is where curiosity-driven basic research gets its support, and the NIH is, of course, the one that as we all age we notice a lot, so that’s where I’m focusing this exercise in futile rage.

Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Ramparts of Paris1887

Help a Furloughed Worker Out

About a week and a half ago, I read a story in People magazine about furloughed workers having a rough go of it:

When Kristie Scarazzo, a divorced single mom of a 4-year-old daughter landed her dream job last September as a botanist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she drained her savings for the exciting move to Ventura, California.

“I thought I was making a wise choice, working for the federal government,” she tells PEOPLE, “one that is very secure.”

Four months later, Scarazzo, 45, is “trying not to freak out” as she deals with the uncertainty of no pay since Dec. 22, one of approximately 800,000 employees affected both financially and emotionally by a partial government shutdown without end.

On Friday, President Donald Trump, whose insistence for funding for a proposed southern border wall led to the government closing, said it could last for months — “even years.”

“It’s really difficult,” says Scarazzo, echoing the concerns of several federal employees whom PEOPLE spoke to as the shutdown grinds on.

I’m not usually in the habit of reading People magazine- not that I have anything against it, my grandmother used to get it and then they would end up at my parent’s house and it was something nice to flip through and see puff pieces and pictures of pretty people- but someone tweeted the story and it caught my eye. I think what resonated to me was the fact that she was a botanist- one of those jobs that doesn’t get the attention that “sexier” things like the Coast Guard or TSA do in this shutdown, but it’s a super important thing that we all take for granted. Plus, it’s one of those jobs where you just can’t stop going to work- plants die and the things they are working on are like the other scientists who are still going to work because years worth of work is in experiments that will just die and be lost if they are not dealt with every day.

At any rate, me being me, having a soft spot for single moms, I looked her up on facebook, assumed there was only one botanist in Ventura who went by the name of Katie Scarazzo, and messaged her. She was very nice although probably taken aback that some lunatic on the internet (yours truly) had hunted her down, but said she didn’t need help atm, but thanked me and I told her if things change, to reach out. I just got a message from her about a gofundme:

As many as government employees being cut from the pay due to the federal government shut down. My husband and I have created a GoFundMe, the funds, to help Kristie Scarazzo, graduated with a Master degree of Botany, gave up her previous job to work for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as her dream job of her life. We ask everyone to give a helping hand, the donations go to her, the single mother with lovely children of 4 years old. The funds will be used to pay for her monthly condo rent, food, student loan, child care, and other expenses. The total raised funds will go toward her all the necessary monthly payments immediately. I am grateful for who I am today; I have been in downtime ago and I know how it feels. I feel everyone should extend the helping hand as it is our human nature to have sympathy toward others, like Kristie.

I am in for 50 and hope you all will help out, too.

The floor time constraint of any 2021 agenda

Prioritization will be a key differntiatior of Democratic Presidential and Senate primary candidates. I believe that most Democrats will share significant elements of what is on their top-10 list of areas that need federal government attention in a government that could theoretically have a narrow Democratic trifecta. But the key will be prioritization.

In 2009-2010, the US Senate was able to do the following big things:

  • Confirm two Supreme Court Justices
  • Pass the ACA
  • Pass Dodd-Frank
  • Pass the stimulus (ARRA)

In 2017-2018, the US Senate was able to do the following big things:

  • Pass a huge ass tax cut
  • Confirm two Supreme Court Justices
  • Not pass Repeal and Replace while burning several months of attention on it

Senate floor time is a key constraint.  A very productive Senate might have slots for two big bills, three or four medium actions (such as SCOTUS nominees) and a lot of housekeeping.  A productive Senate is most likely positively correlated with the size of the effective majority.

Right now, there are numerous agenda items that could qualify as a “big” thing from the Democratic/liberal perspective.  The following will be an incomplete list:

  • Healthcare reform
    • Medicare for All?
    • ACA 3.0?
  • Global Warming Policy
  • Voting Rights Act revision
  • Civil Rights Act revision
  • 2 or more SCOTUS confirmations
  • Truth and Reconciliation
  • Constitutional Amendments to make electing a compromised buffoon harder (mandatory disclosure of 14 years of paperwork related to anything authorized by the 16th amendment etc )
  • Immigration and naturalization

Any of these things could easily eat up three months or more of floor time in the Senate.  I’ve listed well over twenty four months of potential floor time activities from an incomplete list if all of these items were considered to be “big” items for the Senate.  That is infeasible as it neglects the basic day to day functioning of the Senate as well.  The Senate still has to approve nominees, it still has to pass appropriations, it still has to make tweaks and changes to the law as circumstances dictate.

So the question will be prioritization.

Candidates are likely to share the same items on a top-10 list but the rank ordering and asset allocation will matter a lot. One candidate might want to spend six months on healthcare again at the cost of doing not much if anything on immigration and naturalization. Another candidate could want to spend a little time on a minimal “fix-it” healthcare bill while spending more time on global warming policy.  Those are all defensible choices.  But the prioritization is very valuable information.


They Hate Us For Our Freedoms

And maybe some other shit, too:

The United States has spent nearly $6 trillion on wars that directly contributed to the deaths of around 500,000 people since the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs published its annual “Costs of War” report Wednesday, taking into consideration the Pentagon’s spending and its Overseas Contingency Operations account, as well as “war-related spending by the Department of State, past and obligated spending for war veterans’ care, interest on the debt incurred to pay for the wars, and the prevention of and response to terrorism by the Department of Homeland Security.”

The final count revealed, “The United States has appropriated and is obligated to spend an estimated $5.9 trillion (in current dollars) on the war on terror through Fiscal Year 2019, including direct war and war-related spending and obligations for future spending on post 9/11 war veterans.”

“In sum, high costs in war and war-related spending pose a national security concern because they are unsustainable,” the report concluded. “The public would be better served by increased transparency and by the development of a comprehensive strategy to end the wars and deal with other urgent national security priorities.”

Much more here.