Saturday, August 02, 2008

Some coolstuff... then Daggatt Compares the Tax and Economics Plans!

I’ve just returned from giving speeches and conultations for IBM, back east. No time for much of a detailed weekly missive. But I will offer something in two parts.

First, some interesting non-political items well worth a link or a look. And second, a guest editorial by one of the finest bloggers who never bloggeed -- Russ Daggatt -- concerning a close comparison of the tax and economic plans of McCain and Obama.

1) Cool stuff:

Movie trailers for novels? Wow. Suddenly, they’re all over the place! See a pretty cool one by my friend and part-time collaborator, Jeff Carlson, for his new novel PLAGUE WAR!

And see Greg Bear’s new book City At The End Of Time.

And while we’re at it! Author Mark Raynor ran a cool contest -- apparently on his own -- for photoshopped images based upon classic sci fi stories/novels. There are two Postman references (first and last images). But some of the Bradbury, Van Vogt and other references are choice!

See a worthwhile video about space-based solar power. Some of the numbers are obviously cooked (their extrapolation of year 2100 energy needs pretty clearly leave out expected benefits of efficiency and conservation.) But the overall concept is sound, over the long run.

...and more...

Want to start a petition?

Citizenship is about a lot more than just voting! In addition to joining my local CERT team and helping in the San Diego fires ( I've also helped a friend who has been leading an effort to create Project-KID... a systematic approach to bringing in basic child-care into disaster areas and utilizing local volunteers to handle this urgent need in skilled ways. Please have a look at these two web sites (only turn your audio volume down first!) and

We saw that in San Diego's fire crisis, a rich region with undamaged infrastructure was able to pour vast amounts of goods and volunteers into the evacuation centers. Even so, the child-care situation was mixed, at best. (Turns out the best places put healthy kids to work! e.g. taking care of animals. They were far happier and less bored.) Now, lessons learned here and in New Orleans etc are being applied to creating a turn-key set of kits and guides that can help manage childrens' needs in crises, from ideal cases (San Diego) to really rough situations.

Lenore says: "One of the key leading edge applications for this, we believe, is to make provision for dependent care for first responders and other essential personnel, who can't show up to do the work they are trained to do if they can't find child care for their own kids. Turns out this is particularly challenging in public health emergencies, where they utilize a lot of nurses, but we know fire and police also face these needs. We have had more than one emergency responder say that this could be a good mission for some CERT team members."

...and now...

2) Re-lighting the political lamp with some sharp insight... sharper than I can offer in a rush... this time we’ll substitute a guest presentation by Russ Daggatt, who shares these gems with just a few dozen friends online, instead of writing the editorials and blogs that his wisdom deserves.

=== The Economic and Tax Plans of Obama and McCain ===

Just for the record -- and before diving into the plans offered by Obama and McCain -- here is an update in our comparison of eight years under Clinton versus nearly eight years under Bush:

Job growth under Clinton : 22.7 million jobs – 237,000 per month.
Job growth under Bush: 5.8 million jobs – 72,000 per month (and going DOWN).

There has been a net loss of jobs every month so far in 2008. Bush will have the distinction as the first president since World War II to preside over an economy in which federal government employment rose more rapidly than employment in the private sector (civilian federal government employment went DOWN substantially under Clinton).

The earnings of the average American family (or "real median household income" in economic parlance) peaked in 1999 at $49,222 and has fallen since. This is the first economic expansion in this country's history when household income failed to set a new record. It will certainly decline further this year.

And how did investors do under Clinton vs. Bush? The Dow Jones Industrial Average went up from 3253 to 10,587 under Clinton (325%). It has gone up to 11,503 under Bush (8.7%). The S&P 500 went up from 447 to 1342 under Clinton (300%). It has gone DOWN to 1279 under Bush ( 4.7%). The NASDAQ went up from 700 to 2770 under Clinton (395%). It has gone DOWN to 2347 under Bush (-15.3%)

When Bush took office oil was $31/barrel. Now it is roughly $125/barrel. (That’s what happens when you put oil men in the White House.)

When Bush took office it took 93 cents to buy a Euro. Now it takes $1.56 to buy a Euro.

When Bush took office gold was around $250 an ounce. Now it is $915 an ounce.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The US economy did MUCH better under the fiscally-responsible “high tax” policies of Clinton than under the irresponsible “borrow and squander” policies of Bush.

So what do Obama and McCain plan to do about our fiscal mess?

Every day on the campaign trail, McCain and other Republicans claim Obama will increase taxes while they will cut taxes. Unfortunately, this is not true. (I say “unfortunately” because we need to get serious about our budget deficit.) Obama will also cut taxes … but by less than McCain. First, an explanation. When talking about proposed fiscal policies, it is important to distinguish between “current law” and “current policy.” Under a “current law” baseline, all of Bush's tax cuts are assumed to expire on schedule and the Alternative Minimum Tax is expected to balloon unobstructed. This means that if nothing at all happens, the default event will be that federal revenues will jump significantly, causing both the Obama and McCain tax plans to look like massive tax cuts.

Under the “current policy” baseline, it is assumed that Congress continues to "patch" the AMT and decides to continue the Bush tax cuts indefinitely. The only credible scoring of the proposed tax policies of the two campaigns is by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center . According to their analysis (), compared with current law, McCain would cut taxes by $4.2 trillion over 10 years, while Obama would cut taxes by $2.8 trillion. Compared with current policy, McCain’s policies would result in a $600 billion loss in revenue over ten years, while Obama would increase revenue by $800 billion over the same period.

The two candidates’ tax plans would have sharply different distributional effects. Senator McCain’s tax cuts would primarily benefit those with very high incomes, almost all of whom would receive large tax cuts that would, on average, raise their after-tax incomes by more than twice the average for all households. Many fewer households at the bottom of the income distribution would get tax cuts and those tax cuts would be small as a share of after-tax income.

In marked contrast, Senator Obama offers much larger tax breaks to low- and middle income taxpayers and would increase taxes on high-income taxpayers. The largest tax cuts, as a share of income, would go to those at the bottom of the income distribution, while taxpayers with the highest income would see their taxes rise significantly.

Now check this out: The report notes that McCain has been describing his tax plans on the campaign stump differently than the formal plans that his campaign gave to the Tax Policy Center for evaluation. If you use the tax plans McCain himself describes, he would reduce revenue by nearly $7 trillion over 10 years. In other words, they believe the “official” McCain plans understates the revenue loss by $2.8 trillion. The Tax Policy Center also believes the “official” Obama plans are unrealistic, but working in the other direction. They assume his plans will cut taxes by $367 billion less than the plans described by his advisors – they believe the actual 10 year revenue loss from Obama’s plans will only be $2.4 trillion.

One final point: The Tax Policy Center report makes a preliminary attempt at comparing the cost of the health care plans proposed by the two candidates (as both would result in a loss of revenue): [I]mportant details of both plans are not known, so we made assumptions that might or might not be consistent with the final plans proposed by each campaign. Under our assumptions, if the plans took effect in 2009, the McCain plan would cost about $1.3 trillion over ten years and the Obama plan would cost about $1.6 trillion.

Both campaigns propose measures that they believe will reduce the rate of growth of health insurance premiums, which would reduce the cost of their new subsidies and existing public programs. We did not evaluate the effectiveness of those measures and did not include savings from health care cost efficiencies in our estimates. Under our assumptions, Senator Obama’s plan would reduce the number of uninsured Americans by about 18 million in 2009, and 34 million in 2018. Almost all children would have coverage because the law would require it, but nearly 33 million adults would still lack coverage in 2018.

Senator McCain’s plan would have far more modest effects, reducing the number of uninsured by just over 1 million in 2009, rising to a maximum of almost 5 million in 2013, after which the number of uninsured would creep upward because the tax credits grow more slowly than premiums. Both plans are highly progressive, although Senator Obama’s plan targets subsidies more toward low- and middle-income households and is thus significantly more progressive than Senator McCain’s proposal.

The Obama health care plan would include about over 10 years. If you include those tax cuts along with his other tax proposals, he is proposing tax cuts under both current law and under current policy. Under current law (i.e., Bush tax cuts lapse), he would be cutting taxes by around $3.4 trillion. Under current policy (i.e., Bush tax cuts continue), he would be cutting taxes by around $200 billion. In neither case, is he proposing a tax increase, let alone “the largest tax increase in history” or any of the other nonsense McCain and other Republicans are saying.

Fascinating stuff. Thanks Russ.



zorgon the malevolent said...

Should speedy Internet service be free? Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, wants the agency to vote on a plan in August that would let any household in the country cruise the Net at broadband speeds, at absolutely no cost. But his idea faces heated opposition from companies such as AT&T (T) that worry their profits will be threatened by a free alternative.

In all likelihood, this proposal represents a club for beating the nationwide broadband duopolies into opening up their service. As such, it probably won't go anywhere -- but that's not the intent. More likely, the FCC intends to use this as a stick along with some legislative carrots (possible public funding for network upgrades) to induce competition in the broadband industry.

As everyone knows, the telco industries lobbied for and got nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars worth of fee hikes and public tax subsidies in 1996 in return for their promise that they'd massively upgrade the nationwide information infrastructure (Telecommunications Act of 1996). Instead, "Americans were deceived and defrauded by many of their telephone companies to the tune of $200 billion -- money that was supposed to have gone to pay for a broadband future we don't -- and never will -- have."

Bill Clinton generally did an excellent job as president, but he committed several very big sins. First, he did nothing during the Rwanda genocide in 1994; second, he didn't fight to the death the 1995 repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, which led directly to our current financial meltdown. And, third, under Bill Clinton's watch, the biggest theft in American history took place -- in 1996 the telcos took 200 billion dollars from the public and then reneged on their promises, delivering essentially nothing for all that money.

Lots of people shriek with outrage about the 60 billion dollars stolen by Halliburton in no-bid contracts incompetently or fraudulently executed during the Iraq War. But that theft is nickels and dimes compared to the gigantic smash-and-grab perpetrated by the telcos courtesy of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

It's worth asking why broadband internet service should be provided by for-profit companies at all. Today we all accept the obvious conclusion that essential basic services like water and sewage need to be provided by municipalites. Privatizing municipal waterworks isn't an option because people need water to survive, and the first thing any capitalist would do as soon as he got control of the local waterworks would be to jack up prices until lots of people couldn't afford water. Society judges this unacceptable, so we've settled on publicly owned waterworks and sewer services.

But nowadays, broadband internet service qualifies as the same kind of basic necessity. So why should for-profit companies be allowed to limitlessly jack up the cost of broadband internet service until 30% to 40% of the population can't afford it?

The anto-competitive broadband monopoly has gotten so extreme that greedy broadband telco and cableco duopolies sometimes not only won't install fiber optic intenret connections, they're even suing to prevent the cities from doing so.

This offers a good example of what B. Dewhirst is talking about when we says that the free market often doesn't work. Clearly broadband offers an excellent example of how duopolies have neutralized the market and created in effect a cartel split between two rapacious monopolies. Instead of upgrading their broadband infrastructure, cable cos/telcos find it more convenient to throttle subscribers' connections if they use too much bandwidth, or disconnect people altogether, meanwhile continuing to hike broadband internet fees without limit.

Free market proponents deny that nationalizing the internet is necessary, but proposed solutions to the nationwaide broadband duopoly problem in America prove eerily reminiscent of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which merely gave the telcos a gigantic license to steal. Broadband internet access may be an area in which Dewhirst is right, and -- like health care or K-12 education or muncipial water & sewer service -- the free market might have to be removed entirely and a socialized system substituted in order to get something that actually works.

However, we'll have to see how this shakes out. My personal hope is that if Obama gets elected, putting people in the FCC who change the regulations to permit wide-ranging competition in the broadband industry may solve the entire problem. Right now, it's not clear how this will work out -- time will tell. If aggressive deregulation doesn't work because the the telco/cablecos have locked up their dupoloy too tight, then socializing broadband access and getting rid of capitalist markets in broadband may be the only realistic alternative.

Aric said...

Where are these Russ Daggatt articles published?

David Brin said...

aric, Russ D simply emails these missives to friends (the list of names includes some top /famous people, though.)

z, duopolies are not a "free market" so nothing is proved here except that Adam Smith was right. The worst enemies of market competition are not socialists. The true and historically persistent enemy is crony-aristocracy.

The cable companies should be broken into smaller, competing companies with the proviso that they have maximum contiguous borders, compared to surface area... like gerrymandered Congressional districts. Then, the law should permit (require?) them to build INTO each others' territory by one mile per year. Each would need to be aggressive laying fiber or WiMax, in order to stay alive.

Anonymous said...

So let me get this straight.

The current economic crises is all Bushs fault because..

a) Glass Stegal Act was repeal in 1999 allowing US merchant banks to run amok;
b) Greenspan (appointed in 1987) blew the mother of all credit bubbles post 2002 in response to the Dot Com Bubble crash (1996-2000);
c) China kept the renembi pegged artificially low against the dollar (1995-2008) to keep economic growth high and thereby reduce the internal political pressure for reform (thats why the Euro is $1.56 and not $1.10..);
d) Japan keeps an effective negative discount rate for more than a decade (1992-2008) thereby financing a multi trillion dollar carry trade;
e) debt securitization pricing and risk hedging models based on very complicated but naive mathematical models that turned out to be little more than a variation of the Greater Fool Theory.

Bretton Woods II has just blown up. It almost blew up in 1998 and was only saved then because the Long Term Capital Management crises short circuited the feed back loops before it could fatally damage the system.

Where Bush does share some responsibility for the current crises is for is not firing Greenspan on Jan 21'st 2001.

J McConnell

David Brin said...

JM, talk about a contrived set-up! Like most who try to excuse these monsters, you concentrate on comparative minutia, instead of far more important matters.

The chief Bush crimes have been:

1) Castrating and intimidating and choke-chaining the entire United States Civil Service and preventing the professionals from doing their jobs. By appointing to every top office men and women who at-best were politically fanatical hacks and at-worst complicit in outright malfeasance and theft.

The pattern is utterly pervasive, from appointing ALL US Attorneys based upon their bent as frothing political hatchetmen, to appointing to the SEC, FCC, FDA, EPA, and so on, executives openly contemptuous of the laws they were legally charged to enforce, to directing entire graduating classes from Bob Jones University into supervising tasks they had never even heard of, to smashing every whistle-blower protection, including those that the right had tried to use against Bill Clinton...

To wit - during the first Bush term, more than ten times as many enforcement actions were filed against corrupt traders, banks etc by New York State (under then Atty Gen Eliot Spitzer) as there were even investigations begun by the SEC. (And Bush Cheney vowed to get Spitzer, by any means possible.)

When the chief and sole purpose of an administration is to prevent government from functioning, it may be facile to blame details of the law, when things blow up. This crash is the fault of the driver, not the air filter.

2) Committing us to a debilitating land war of attrition in Asia (one bungled by meddling, draft-dodging politicians), despite our military's vow never again to make that mistake, thus squandering our finances so that capital markets get flooded with US Government paper, devaluing our credit at the topmost level, where it matters most.

3) Using that war as an excuse to bypass normal contracting rules and let "emergency" no-bid, non-competitive, crony contracts to Bush family friends, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, while keeping Iraqi oil off the market for six years, thus helping other Bush family friends to the tune of a trillion dollars. (And this from supposed defenders of "competitive capitalism.)

4) Tax cuts that were designed to do everything that Adam Smith warned us not to do, pouring our childrens' borrowed money into the pockets of a growing aristocratic caste who do not innovate or create goods or services or jobs, but simply use it to "be more wealthy."

I could go on... because there are at least ten more points. In comparison, Alan Greenspan trying to keep the economy stimulated seems a pale "crime." If a mistake, it was honest. The same amount of easy credit might have NOT blown up, if our civil servants had simply been allowed to keep an eye on it. e.g by forcing banks to act like banks and "derivative speculators" to back their paper with more than hot air.

Oh, BTW, there is a reason that Greenspan, long the darling of the right, is suddenly a bad guy.
See what Greenspan says about Clinton vs Bush:

Go back above. Look at the basics. Capitalism not only does better under democrats, it does vastly, hugely overwhelmingly better. Get used to it. Or refute it... if you can. But you cannot. So... distract away with minutia!

Genius said...

surely the leader of the US should have seem those issues coming from a mile away, and taken some visible action - unless he is an idiot or just doesn't care.

Instead he fairly directly compounded the issues via the things David mentions.

If the president has a job at all surely it is to prevent his country falling to it's knees.

zorgon the malevolent said...

Russ Daggatt's discussion of the current fiscal crisis seems most informative. Good job, Russ.

That said, some issues:

We have to be careful in comparing jobs when talking about job growth. How many of those 5.7 million jobs created in the last 7 years were full-time jobs? Most of the new jobs created during the last 7 years paid a lot worse than the new jobs created under Clinton. The disparity gets a lot larger when we realize that not only were a lot more of the jobs created under Clinton full-time as opposed to McJobs, under Clinton a lot of underclass people moved from welfare to work. Meanwhile, under the sociopaths currently in the White House, millions of people who should count as unemployed, don't -- because they're discouraged workers.

That said, it's a little hard to blame the drunk-driving C student in the Oval Office for all this, because the U.S. economy has undergone a massive shift over the last 10 years from full-time jobs with benefits to part-time temp jobs with no benefits -- courtesy of outsourcing.

Also, Clinton benefited from a huge dot-com bubble. At least some of the "jobs" created during Clinton's years were vaporware positions due to dot-bomb companies (and the real companies that supplied 'em with technology) that imploded when the internet bubble burst in 2001.

So comparing job creation figures here can be highly deceptive. The big macro trends warping the U.S. economy today, which are driven by macroeconomic forces like technology and global wage arbitrage, remain: a relentless move away from full-time jobs with benefits to part-time temp jobs with no benefits and much lower pay; immense growth of the FIRE (finance insurance real estate) sector of the ecnomy as opposed to the part of the U.S. economy that actually builds anything (this includes software); a huge shift from high-paid skilled U.S. jobs to low-paid service jobs; growth of a winner-take-all economy in which an increasingly smaller percent of the top workers take an increasingly larger amount of all wages and benefits; global wage arbitrage which remorselessly lowers wages for all skilled as well as unskilled U.S. workers, because PhDs in China are willing to work for $7 an hour, and starving PhDs in Russia will jump at the chance to work for $2 per hour as long as it's U.S. currency.

None of these macro trends can be laid at the feet of either Clinton or even the sociopath who currently infests the Oval Office. The sociopath in the Oval Office has made things worse, but the U.S. economy would still be in plenty bad shape without his help.

You need to compare the DJIA and S&P 500 corrected for inflation, which you haven't done. We should leave out the NASDAQ because, as mentioned, that was a victim of the dot-com bubble, which neither Clinton nor the sociopath now in the White House were responsible for. The dot-com bubble & subsequent collapse were driven by tech trends and social mania that no president has control over. Remember the book Dow 36,000? That wasn't a Republican or a Democrat idea, it was plain batshit-insane tulipomania.

It's also not obvious that the exponential rise in oil prices can be laid at the doorstep of the sociopath in the White House. As I read the figures, they're the result of skyrocketing Chinese demand, and that appears likely to continue regardless of who's in the White House in 2009, and would have occurred even if Al Gore had been allowed to assume the presidency after he was lawfully elected in 2000. The war in Iraq is pinching off oil from a world market that's right at the end of demand outstripping supply, and that has probably sparked a lot of speculative rise in the spot oil price. However, it's clear that world demand for oil is going to exceed world supply from now on regardless whether the Iraq oilfields fully come back online or not. So long-trend speculative pressure on spot oil prices continues strongly upward, and I don't see that changing for at least the next 20 to 30 years.

Nobody, either McCain or Obama, is talking about the fact that even if we start building 800 nuclear power plants and scrapping all our highways and suburbs and internal combustion engines and we start replacing cars with light electric rail right now, today in a gigantic nationwide Manhattan-project-style convulsion, it will still take 20 to 30 years at an absolute minimum to have a significant impact on America's dependency on foreign oil.

The price of oil in U.S. dollars has skyrocketed in part because of the massive devaluation of the dollar relative to other currencies, and that's due to the grossly criminal and irresponsible failure to regulate the FIRE sector. That can and should be laid at the feet of the sociopaths currently misnamanging the country.

The claim that The earnings of the average American family (or "real median household income" in economic parlance) peaked in 1999 at $49,222 is again problematic. Corrected for inflation, American household buying power actually peaked in 1973 and has continuously fallen since, by around 5% in real constant 1973 dollars. Several trends have masked this collapse in middle-class wages over the last 35 years. First, women entered the workforce, and that compensated for a while. Now that's over because no more women can enter the workplace, they're pretty much all in it. Second, people started to work more than one job or longer hours on their current job. That couldn't last. Third, people used their houses as ATMs during the real estate bubble by refinancing their homes and freeing up new cash (or getting 2nd mortgages using the inflated values of their homes) in the late 90s and through the 2000s, and now that's over.

So the 1999 claim is really not accurate in real dollar terms, or in terms of sustainable income. Remember that 1999 was the peak of the dot-com bubble. That feeds into and distorts those numbers even more.

For evidence that U.S. average weekly earnings peaked for the middle class in 1973 and have since fallen steadily in inflation-adjusted terms, see this paper. There are many causes: the skyrocketing cost of rent in real terms, the decline in high-paying manufacturing jobs, degree inflation (you need a masters degree today to get jobs that only required a bachelors degree in the 1960s or 1950s, such as librarian), the out-of-control increase in college costs far beyond inflation, and the bizarrely destructive repeal of usury laws which now allow credit card companies to charge outrageous interests (35% or more) which were illegal prior to 1982 and charged only by mafia gangsters running loan shark operations.

It's certainly correct that the U.S. economy does much better under Demos than under Repubs, but the looming demographic health-industrial crisis (which is only partly fiscal) is such that this won't help a whole lot.

As for McCain's vs Obama's plans about our fiscal crisis, they don't address our real problems at all. Neither candidate is willing to discuss the looming demographic-medical-industrial crisis that's rolling toward us as health and medicare costs continue to escalate far above the rate of inflation, while a huge swath of our population prepares to go into retirement. The demographic crisis that's going to hit us will be immense, and nobody's discussing it. The current fiscal problems and current deficits remain trivial and negligible by comparison with the looming demographic-health-industrial meltdown caused by these demographic trends. See this summary of CBO reports for a suggestion of the seriousness of the looming crisis.

For the full scope of the demographic-health-industrial tsunami bearing down on us, see the warning by David G. Walker, former comptroller of the United States, that we face "financial catastrophe" and that America is currently on "an unsustainable course."

Entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare simply will not be able to keep pace with the estimated 77 million members of the baby boomer generation now beginning to retire, Peterson and Walker contend.

About 10,000 baby boomers will become eligible for Social Security benefits each day for the next two decades, and the government already spends more than $4 on older Americans for every dollar spent on children's education, healthcare, and other basic needs.

If changes are not made soon, new generations of Americans face either crippling tax increases or Draconian cuts in government programs, Peterson and Walker warned. And the result will be sharply higher interest rates; a weaker dollar; higher prices for oil, food, and other necessities; and greater unemployment, according to a new foundation publication called "The State of the Union's Finances - A Citizen's Guide."

Government programs that are required by law, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps, account for more nearly two-thirds of the federal budget. In other words, "62 percent of the budget is on autopilot and it increases every year," said Walker.

The mandatory spending on entitlement programs is ballooning so quickly that "there is no discretionary spending left in 20 to 25 years," Walker said, for needs such as highway maintenance and defense programs.

The real problem here is Medicare. Social Security can be fixed by moving up the retirement age, doing means-testing, etc. But there's no easy way to fix constantly rising health care costs because, as I've pointed out repeatedly in previous comments, health care costs are driven by the exponentiating technology of gene therapy and stem cell treatments and all the other new treatments that will come on line over the next 40 years as our knowledge about biology explodes. Examples like this prove wonderfully heartening...but they're what's driving health care costs through the roof, and it's not going to stop anytime soon. Combine that will tens of millions of baby boomers retiring that so that instead of having 4 workers to support each retiree (as in the 1960s), you'll have 2 workers to support every 3 retirees, and you're facing a fiscal problem so large that the current "crisis" looks like chickenfeed.

That's what both McCain and Obama ought to be talking about. Neither of 'em is. For starters, we need to cut at least 80% of our useless gigantic 1.35 trillion dollar military budget and move immediately to a single-payer nationalized health care system. Unfortunately, those are only stopgap measures. Read the prediction above about "no discretionary spending left in 20 to 25 years." That's Beltway-speak for "the United States defense budget is going to zero within 25 years because Medicare will gobble up all the available tax revenues and we'll have deficits so large we won't be able to borrow any more from foreign countries."

That's a serious issue. Naturally, none of the candidates is talking about it. Even Russ Daggatt seems focused on the short-term deficit and financial issue, which are serious to be sure -- but negigible compared to long-term demographic health-industrial tsunami that's rushing toward us. We're talking about 20% of our GDP getting gobbled up by health care costs by 2040, and essentially 100% available government revenues going to health care for old people by 2050. After that, we'll need more than 100% of available U.S. tax revenues, and you can't do that.

So there's going to be a blowup sometime before 2040, and either we'll have to raise everyone's taxes by somewhere around 60% (which would cause riots in the street and the breakdown of civil society), or something else is going to have to be done, I don't know what. Telling people we have the biotech to save them when they're dying of cancer, but we can't afford it, doesn't seem like a workable social policy. What I do know is that retired baby boomers will form a huge voting block and they won't vote to let themselves die of cancer when there are gene therapy treatments available to prevent it, no matter how expensive those treatments prove.

Comparing McCain's and Obama's proposals seem problematic, moreover, since (a) we don't know the details yet; (b) the president proposes but congress actually sets fiscal policy, and even if McCain gets elected, there's clearly going to be a huge sweep of Demos into congress, so control of both houses will surely fall back to the Demos.

This suggests that under a McCain presidency we'd get stalemate, with the Demo-controlled house and senate blocking McCain's crazy supply-side tax cuts. Under an Obama presidency, it's not clear what we'd get, since Obama is a pragmatist and his positions seem data-driven. It's likely that Obama's fiscal priorities will change as rapidly as Clinton's did when Clinton got elected and got a chance to actually see the details of the fiscal mess the senile sociopath Ronald Reagan had created. Clinton wasn't elected as a deficit-cutter, but he became one. Obama isn't being elected to fix the looming demographic health-industrial crisis, but he may be forced to do that by circumstances.

So talking about what McCain or Obama will actually do about fiscal policy seem premature right now. We just can't say what's going to happen, just as no one could offer an accurate projection about Clinton's fiscal policies based on his campaign white papers. Both Russ Daggatt and David Brin seem to be financial determinists: they think we understand the fiscal and economic trends and we need to jump right on top of them. I have no such illusions. Financial and economic and demographic trends have a life of their own, and force politicians and societies to do things utterly contrary to the most carefully laid plans.

Citizen James said...

I take it the plague war was the title Mr. Carlson was looking for that you posted about a while back looking for suggestions.

Speaking of books (and I apologize if I sound too fanish here), I heard a rumor that there was a sequel to Kiln People in the works. Any comment?

Regarding online petitions, Snopes has an essay on why online petitions may not be all that useful. Although the site you mention does make some effort to address some of these problems (duplicate or automated entries), others (getting it to the right person, convincing anyone that the signers are in fact their constituents and representative of public opinion in general) seem rather iffy.

I think it would be more effective to have sites pointing out serious issues (dealing with what online petitions do do well - raising public awareness), and asking people to directly contact decision makers such as their elected Representatives and Senators

Sociotard said...

Soooooo, what Dagat is saying is that my choice in November is between a fiscally irresponsible Democrat and an even more (by an order of magnitude) fiscally irresponsible Republican.

Great. Dr. Brin, your suggestion that candidates should stipulate looks bad right now, considering the agreement between the candidates is for a very bad thing.

In more lighthearted news, check out a website that brings a fanboy joi d'vivre to emergency preparedness. (they concern themselves with mundane disaster preparedness too)
Zombie Squad

zorgon the malevolent said...

When The Wall Street Journal publishes something like this, it may be an indication that McCain has a wee bit of an image problem with the people who are supposed to vote for him:
Is John McCain Stupid?"

David Brin said...

I found the Henninger piece in the WSJ to be weak and unfair. I am not interested in pouncing on McCain's rhetorical slips, especially when there are possible up-side interpretations.

What matters to me is the circle of friends he would appoint to high office and command over the civil service and officer corps and policy making establishment. So far, McCain has distanced himself from maybe 20% of the horrific monsters who have gorged themselves on vampiric gushers of "largesse" from the public's arteries. He offers not a scintilla of evidence that he sees anything substantially wrong.

THAT is why John McCain is an utter calamity. And note: it is not even a matter of left or right or liberal or conservative. It is a matter of noticing that we've become a mafia state and simply pledging a return to law. To a nation governed by law.

A few goofy statements, by comparison, are merely endearing.


Oh, another item in support of this thesis:

The percentage of large US corporations audited by the IRS:

1990: 72%
2007: 26%

Why will no one raise the plight of the civil service -- and law itself -- as THE main issue in this election?

Tony Fisk said...

...Because it's a boring technicality?

Actually, the next time someone passes such issues off for that reason, point them to the '99 Victorian election upset. Commentators seem to think the outsourcing of the Auditor-General's office was a minor issue. On the other hand, it's reinstatement was the very first order of business in the next Parliament. One feels that the breath of Vox Populi was heavy on the necks of the MLAs

What is the source of those figures, David? I would like to see a few data points in between.

David Brin said...

hrm. the source was, well, a certain high quality magazine. write me separately.

Travc said...

Clinton doesn't get all the credit for the economic success of the later 90s, and Bush can't bear all the blame for the current mess... true enough. There are larger forces.

However, there is a huge difference in reaction to those larger forces. A economically sane admin may only have been able to put a band-aid on the economic woes, but the current Admin (and previous congress) has done pretty much all it can to pour salt into the wound.

Worse yet, they have consistently doubled down on policies which, at very least, can turn an economic slump into an outright disaster.

On the socialization of utilities... I tend to side with people on my left on this. During initial innovation and buildup, private enterprise tends to be a pretty good thing. However, when the tech (and protocols) get standardized (positive feedback loop), I think it is often time for the government to step in. If the capital markets weren't so insane (overvalued), I'd suggest that a public buyout would be the fair way to go... as is, I don't know how to get there in a just manner.

However, outlawing public efforts as we have done is just wrong.

Alex Tolley said...

The biggest difference between teh candidate's tax plans is more about ideology. Republicans, including McCain, believe that cutting taxes pays for itself in higher growth. This is just plain wrong as. As a result, every scenario for Republicans requires economic growth which is to be stimulated by ever more tax cutting. After a over a decade of repeating this mantra of tax cuts = growth, it seems to have become the conventional wisdom, despite its incorrectness.

Alex Tolley said...

Nice video for Space based solar power. However, the video forgets to mention the efficiency losses beaming that power to earth and exactly how we build those units. If they were shipped from earth, then current rocket technology would make these systems far too expensive. O'Neil had suggested lunar mining or materials and orbital manufacturing - the natural way to go, but the costs of getting started are huge.

As to extrapolations of energy use, we cannot do this indefinitely, although we have a long way to go before our energy use starts to become significant enough to impact the planet's energy budget.

Anonymous said...

Mr Brin

As I guessed you have not the slightest idea how international finance system or the international economy works. Or the US economy for than matter. All you can do is recite ad nauseam partisan talking points lifted it seems from Pacifica Radio and Daily Kos et al.

If you had even the slightest idea about the real world of international finance you would know that the 'trivia' I mentioned is exactly what all the knowledgeable observers have been discussing over the last few years . Everything you brought up in your reply is the real trivia hurled about by partisan hacks who have not the slightest idea what they are talking about. It's like listening to a sniggering spotty teenage virgin talking about sex...

You want something to nail on Bush? Lets talk 'credit enhancement' of securitized debt. The scam that the whole multi-trillion subprime debacle of 2002-2007 was based on. A legally dubious legal ruse that originated in the 1980's but only really took off during Clintons watch in the 1990's. Bush let the SEC continue its Clinton policy of pretending that the rating agencies where doing nothing dubious. Of course Bush could have stopped it. Or maybe Clinton should not have let it get out of control in the first place.

But I strongly suspect you have never heard of 'credit enhancement' either.

But that's the problem with all your 'positions'. All the economic and finance problems you try to blame on Bush are all the result of policies put in place long before Bush came to office. Bush created some new ones of his own, none of which you seem to be aware of due to your blithe unawareness of the world of finance and economics. Quoting some politically partisan 'expert' at great length, which seems to be your normal practice, is not my idea of informed discussion.

We are going through a very serious crises in the financial system at the moment, the worst at least since 1971, with the very real potential of a rerun of the 1932 collapse. Both candidates policy positions on the crises at the moment are risible. On the GOP side because they know there is nothing can do but ride it out. Its ten years too late to change tack. On the Dem side because they are living in fantasy land. Repeat policy positions that seemed inane when trotted out in The Nation 20 years ago. Put your hands over your ears and hum loudly and the problems will go away.

The is one major difference between the candidates positions - the Dem policy as it stands has the real potential if implemented to precipitate a crises as severe as the bond crash of 1932. That is when the Panic of '29 became the Great Depression.

Guess who I am voting against in November?

J McConnell

zorgon the malevolent said...

An essay by Prem Shankar Jha worth taking a look at -- "Atoms, Germs and Fear Make A Deadly Cocktail":

More than a dozen years ago, at the very end of his book, “The Age of Extremes”, Eric Hobsbawm, the noted historian of Capitalism and Empire, had observed: “The twentieth century ended in a global disorder whose nature was unclear, and without an obvious mechanism for either ending it or keeping it under control…. The future cannot be a continuation of the past, and there are signs, both externally and, as it were, internally, that we have reached a point of historical crisis.”

At that time his prediction went virtually unheeded. The Cold war had just come to an end. Capitalism had finally triumphed over socialism ending a two century-old ideological conflict. Its spread would be accompanied by the spread of democracy, and that would ensure peace. No wonder Francis Fukuyama predicted that the world would become a rather boring place.

But few predictions have gone so spectacularly wrong. There is a progressive disorganisation of life in the industrialised market economies. (..) Among the poor countries of the world state failure, resulting in generalised civil war or bouts of genocidal violence, is becoming frequent.

This shift is undermining the three-century–old Westphalian state system, and threatening to push the world back into Hobbes’ ‘State of Nature’. (..)

As the Westphalian state system has begun to unravel, time honoured international treaties and domestic laws have begun to come apart. Among the casualties are the Geneva convention on the treatment of prisoners of War and on torture; the International convention banning the use of chemical weapons, and domestic laws guaranteeing individual freedom, the right to privacy and habeas corpus. Perhaps the most disturbing is the unravelling of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, which has begun with North Korea’s announcement that it has carried out a nuclear explosion. It is both an effect and a contributory cause of the ever more rapid return to Hobbes’ State of Nature.

The mounting chaos has touched off a frantic search for explanations. (..)

But in popular debate and, regrettably, in the making of policy in the powerful nations of the world, there remains a strong touch of denial. The belief, fostered in the early nineties, that Globalisation would spread affluence; that affluence would strengthen, or release pressures for democracy, and that the spread of democracy would bring world peace, still remains strong. Indeed it has now been given a new Messianic form. If it doesn’t happen automatically it must be made to happen, if necessary by the sword.


By the same author, the book The Twilight of the Nation State: Globalization, Chaos and War is also highly recommended.

Dewhirst, you might find these particularlly provocative. Dr. Brin, who appears to be making a great deal of money as consultant to one of the giant multinational corporations most active in shipping highly skilled American jobs overseas (IBM), will probably not greet these pieces of scholarship with as much enthusiasm.

Travc said...

@J McConnell

You seem to be admitting the massive deregulation of the finance sector was a mistake. How can you possibly see the Dems policy proposals as potentially sparking a crisis, when the GOP policy of ideologically cutting regulation and oversight has caused the current mess?

Look up the legislative actions which made the "Big Shitpile" possible. GOP bills all the way (don't forget the GOP controlled congress for most of Clinton's admin), with Phil Graham leading the way. It takes a special sort of cognitive dissonance to think that McCain represents any sort of sanity economic policy wise.

The current GOP (movement conservative) answer to any economic situation is two-fold... deregulate and cut taxes. We are well past the point where the necessity of some regulation and reasonable levels of taxation should be clear to anyone not wearing blinders. I'm generally an economic conservative (as is Dr Brin I believe), but blindly following an ideological prescription regardless of conditions is not conservative, or even sane.

And what the hell is with assuming liberal sources (Pacifica, Kos, the Nation). I for one get most of my economic info from the Economist. That sort of silly 'accusation' makes you sound like a delusional moron... hopefully you'll reply with something to show that impression is wrong, but I doubt it.

PS: FYI, there is often quite well reasoned info posted on Kos (it is a huge community forum). I personally find the SNR too low to spend time there, but trying to slander a point by saying someone on Kos said the same thing is pretty ridiculous. It shows either a complete lack of understanding of what Kos is, or else an inability to distinguish between stereotype and reality.

runaway serfer said...

@ J McConnell:

I'm having a hard time figuring out who you will vote for in November. Will you vote for the guy representing the party that caused the Great Depression -- the same party that caused our economic troubles? Or will you vote for the guy representing the party that fixed our economy, in the hope it will fix our current bad economy?

Since you emphasize you plan to vote against someone in November, I predict you will vote against yourself -- against your economic health and your physical well-being.

After all, partisans vote to improve their country, and you're no partisan!

Tony Fisk said...

I can see the rash is breaking out again.

J McConnell is entitled to vote as he wills. There are quite a few economists out there, and not all adhere to the same theories. Some even (*gasp*) suggest it's time to look at something more than GDP to measure the vital signs.

Among the poor countries of the world state failure, resulting in generalised civil war or bouts of genocidal violence, is becoming frequent.

I thought the signs were that this was improving.

Now, my prediction of a dozen years ago was that, with no external threat to distract it, the US would turn in on itself and attend to some unfinished business. Please prove me wrong.

David Brin said...

Two quick points.

1) Congress passes laws and the executive enforces them. Under Clinton, the SEC, FTC etc were active, run by folks who wanted to enforce the law. Under Bush, most departments were put under control of direct enemies of the laws they were charged to enforce.

Is this minutia? Note that JM does not deny or refute this, he simply shrugs it off.

As for the laws he decries? Where was his plaint against them ever since the Republican Congresses post 1994 enacted them?

2) I know a heckuva lot more about these topics that JM rashly and completely lacking evidence, assumes. One of my good friends, John Mauldin, is a top investment analyst, "investor of the year" runner-up after Warren Buffet... and lifelong close friend of George W. Bush. Like adults, we don't let politics ruin a good friendship based on love of sci fi and futuristic speculation. But even John M is making it clear where he sees great fault.

Lately he's been printing huge commentaries by ne angry investment specialist and champion of transparency is Michael Lewitt of Hegemony Capital Management (, who is scathing about how the rules have been tweaked and the civil servants distracted, allowing the development of... ”...beggar-the-poor, boost-the-rich policies... or a capitalism-for-the-poor, socialism-for-the-rich economic model that American financial authorities have adopted over the past two decades.”

JM typically assigns my beliefs to "partisanship" even though anyone here can attest that I am NOT rigorously partisan. My habit is to tweak in all directions and if this were just a matter of left-vs-right or liberal-libertarian-conservative, I would be all over the place.

But, again, that is NOT the issue. The issue is that the right has gone completely stark jibbering insane, abandoning nearly ALL of its basic values, REVERSING many of them, wallowing in contradictions in order to avoid seeing the truth.

That we (and their movement) have been hijacked by a bona fide criminal gang.

me said...

In other news:

Tony Fisk said...

Now this is interesting. Not only does McKnight point the finger at the source of climate change denialism, he partially answers the question of what those superannuation funds are doing...

Who is behind climate change deniers?

In May this year, the multibillion-dollar oil giant Exxon-Mobil acknowledged that it had been doing something similar [to the tobacco lobby]. It announced that it would cease funding nine groups that had fuelled a global campaign to deny climate change.

Exxon's decision comes after a shareholder revolt by members of the Rockefeller family and big superannuation funds to get the oil giant to take climate change more seriously...

Boot said...

A personal goal of mine is to build tools which will lead to a better democracy. One of my first goals is to give people a way to work towards lowering their Taxes.

A very early version of a tool Tax Evaluation tool I'm working on is available

It will have email/print features so that it can be sent to one's elected officials.

I believe that making information and involvement easier for people will lead us more towards democracy. The question is how to make it genuinely useful.

An area for discussion on each information source would be important. Statistics are a liar’s friend, so it can be really hard to determine which selection one ends up using. The well studied can help point out the right sources/methodologies. I plan to have Editor’s picks, but not remove anything that isn’t flat out a lie.

Can you tell me what features it needs to be genuinely accurate, fair, and useful to you? (Please note that the current version is only good enough to get a feel for it. It needs tons of work and refactoring.)

Travc said...

'Animal Rights' activists/nutjobs firebomb a UCSC researcher's home with him and his family inside. No one really hurt, luckily.

Profoundly ignorant and dangerous people abound. Damn modern day Luddites.

zorgon the malevolent said...

Dr. Brin asked:
Why will no one raise the plight of the civil service -- and law itself -- as THE main issue in this election?

Actually I think you'll find that this remains one of Obama's primary foci in this campaign. Here's an excerpt from Obama's speech in Titusville FL on 2 August:

But what we also have to remember is that our economic problems aren’t simply due to changes in how our economy works, and they aren’t just a normal part of the business cycle. They’re also due to irresponsible decisions that were made on Wall Street and in Washington. In recent years, we have relearned the essential truth that in the long run, we cannot have a thriving Wall Street and a struggling Main Street. When wages are flat, prices are rising, and more Americans are mired in debt, the economy as a whole suffers. When a reckless few game the system, as we’ve seen in this housing crisis, millions suffer and we’re all affected. When special interests put their thumb on the scale, and distort the free market, the people who compete by the rules come in last. And when our government fails to meet its obligation – to provide sensible oversight and stand on the side of working people and invest in their future – America pays a heavy price.

Brin goes on to mention that investment banker Michael Lewitt is scathing about how the rules have been tweaked and the civil servants distracted, allowing the development of... ”...beggar-the-poor, boost-the-rich policies... or a capitalism-for-the-poor, socialism-for-the-rich economic model that American financial authorities have adopted over the past two decades.”

Wow. That's mind-blowing. Lewin is quoting Noam Chomsky practically word for word. And the guy is a heavy-duty investor. What were you saying about Brin and Chomsky being polar opposites, B. Dewhirst...?

Brin ends with:
The issue is that the right has gone completely stark gibbering insane, abandoning nearly ALL of its basic values, REVERSING many of them, wallowing in contradictions in order to avoid seeing the truth.

That we (and their movement) have been hijacked by a bona fide criminal gang.

Let me give just one specific example of the evidence that backs up Brin's claims:
So-called "conservative" websites are now selling T shirts proclaiming I'D RATHER BE WATERBOARDING.

Think about that.

Let that sink in for a moment.

As matthew Yglesias remarks, this is what conservatism has now mutated into. "...we see conservatives deciding to embrace torture as constitutive of conservative identity. If you're a conservative, you like torture. If you're against torture, you're not a conservative."

Travc said...


Firstly, nice work. I'm assuming you want criticism and suggestions, so don't think I'm 'hating on you' ;)

Start will all tabs/categories collapsed.

The % slider could be much smaller, making room for some other info such as...

IMO, the whole % slider could actually be replaced with just up and down arrows on either side of the % number text box.

Add a % of total budget / outlays for each category/subcategory. I'd suggest something visual instead of just a number, but can't think of anything that would show the values well (some very big, most relatively small) without going into a log-scale. Just a text box would work well enough I think.

Compress the entries. Ideally, it would be good to see all the top level categories on one page. Alternatively/in addition, you could add a pie or bar chart... for the top level cats, perhaps with a chart for each expanded sub cat as well.

I'd suggest making the main $ numbers use different units. Maybe T$, B$, and M$ (though SI prefixes would be my choice... I'm a geek). Using a different color for different units could highlight it.

Also for the main $ numbers, go for fixed with... and if you don't use powers of 3 units, definitely add in ','s.

A bit more ambitious perhaps. How about allowing the user to group categories/subcategories together themselves? Could be done by letting the user tag a cat/subcat with a label (defining a new cat to which all the cats/subcats get grouped into). This would allow the user to much more easily play around with just the items they find 'questionable'.

When the user changes the % on a category, all the subcats should adjust.

Also, what are you thinking of a the 'money shot' so to say. There needs to be a chart and/or values showing what the changes do. An easy one would be total expenditures... maybe total expenditures - expected revenue (deficit), and/or tax burden per person (maybe calculated off of current tax burden or (if you are being lazy) just per-capita mean.)

Travc said...

Boy, I can't type today...

I'm suggesting fixed *width* font for the numbers. All the other typos should be parseable I hope.

Tony Fisk said...

...Which is why I think we should start reserving 'conservative' for the traditional sort of person who doesn't really deserve to be associated with this crap, but who continues to support the label, and coin a new term for the nerocon guys who have pole-vaulted the shark...


Tony Fisk said...

... I was referring to Zorgon's post, not travc's typos!

Boot said...

Hi Tony,

Thanks for the comments. I am hoping for feature requests. At the moment it looks horrible and will get a lot of work in that area once its useful.

Tony Fisk said...

Boot, I think you mean travc.

(We are all getting tangled up today!)

Boot said...

Ophs. Sorry Tony, travc.

Gilmoure said...

Trying to plug leaks? KBR orders all contractors in Iraq to turn in personal cell phones.

From the Trust us. We're the government department: TSA has laptop stolen, with 33,000 CLEAR people's PI on it, unecrypted. CLEAR is the airport security pre-check/bypass the lines program. The PI includes SSN, DoB, and passport info. All of this was stored on a laptop, unencrypted. WTF?!!! Ever since that damn VA laptop was stolen, after being taken home by a manager, DHS has been requiring all government and government contractors to encrypt PI. I work in tech support and have been on the ground with this, for the last 3 years. Is major PitA and is costing a fair bit as well (unfunded mandate). And yet here, a part of DHS, is running around with citizen's data in the free and clear. Is the farking incompetence of the little hogs that are feeding at the trough that really pisses me off.

huxley said...

And how did investors do under Clinton vs. Bush? The Dow Jones Industrial Average went up from 3253 to 10,587 under Clinton (325%). It has gone up to 11,503 under Bush (8.7%). The S&P 500 went up from 447 to 1342 under Clinton (300%). It has gone DOWN to 1279 under Bush ( 4.7%). The NASDAQ went up from 700 to 2770 under Clinton (395%). It has gone DOWN to 2347 under Bush (-15.3%)

When Bush took office oil was $31/barrel. Now it is roughly $125/barrel. (That’s what happens when you put oil men in the White House.)

When Bush took office it took 93 cents to buy a Euro. Now it takes $1.56 to buy a Euro.

When Bush took office gold was around $250 an ounce. Now it is $915 an ounce.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The US economy did MUCH better under the fiscally-responsible “high tax” policies of Clinton than under the irresponsible “borrow and squander” policies of Bush.

Dr. Brin -- Good grief, another rich vein of your anti-Bush polemics.

Comparing the Bush era with the Clinton era is problematic. History is not a double-blind experiment nor a game of duplicate bridge.

It was Clinton's fortune that he came into office with the end of the Cold War, when the US had eight of its sunniest economic years since the Roaring Twenties. There was the marvelous hi-tech, internet boom that drove the stock market and employment to amazing highs that were not sustainable. There were no terrible wars or international crises. Oil was cheap because of overproduction. Competition with China and India over energy and jobs was only starting to becoming an issue.

It was Bush's fortune to be president and then be hit with 9-11 and the dotcom bust in his first two years. It's not surprising that the Bush years were tougher than the Clinton years. Oil production has plateauing. Competition with China and India over jobs and energy has become fiercer.

To be sure the Iraq War has not made this easier. You oppose that war. I don't. I believe in the long run it was better than leaving the menace of Saddam Hussein to become a worse problem later. We could agree to disagree about that. However, your preference is to label my thinking as "psychopathology" in that charming, civil way that you debate people on my side.

Bottom line: President Al Gore would have had worse economic stats than Clinton too.

Cliff said...


You never answered my questions about Bush and the EPA!

Tony Fisk said...

Hi, Huxley.

You oppose that war. I don't.

Actually, while I opposed that war from the start, David did not. The real bone picks are 1. why that war was pursued, and 2. the way that war was conducted.

Where is Donald Rumsfeld these days?

We can, indeed, agree to disagree. Lay out our various points and counter-points, and let others form their own opinion.

Speaking of which, is this an acceptable paraphrasing of your earlier comment?
The democrats are selling the US down the river because we are in an existential war with radical Islam which the democrats will not acknowledge.

Travc said...

Ok, this is perhaps going to cause a massive derail, but the topic is pretty important IMO.

Anthrax attacks from Oct 2001...

Well, if there isn't some sort of conspiracy going on (at least a cover-up), the stars have aligned to craft the perfect conspiracy theory fodder.

Glenn Greenwald is apparently all over the story. If you aren't up to date, at least skim through his posts since Fri (Aug 1st).

If we believe the current 'official' story (assembled through leaks, since conveniently there is no official official story), the best-case interpretation goes something like this. (bits broken up for clarity)

A mentally unstable bioweapons scientist

with all sorts of clearances working at Fort Detrick

took a culture of anthrax, weaponized it (produced stabilized fine powder containing spores)

and mailed if off to some congressman and some people in the media

including very unconvincing notes to finger Islamic extremists.

Samples of the Anthrax were sent to Fort Detrick (and probably/hopefully other places) for analysis,

where their US military origin (which should be pretty obvious IMO) was missed

and somehow 'very well connected' sources started leaking that they contained a tell-tale compound...

a compound (supposedly) only the Iraqi bioweapons programme ever used.

Lots of politicians (including McCain on the Letterman Show Oct 18th and Lieberman a few days later) picked up the Iraq connection and ran with it.

[Timeline note, I'm not clear if the earliest bentonite media stories predate or post-date McCain's appearance on Letterman.]

The WH denies such connections in public at least, though Bush mentions Anthrax first in his list of scary things about Iraq in the State or the Union.

Sometime in Oct 2001, the FBI give consent (to who?) to destroy all the samples of the anthrax strain. (At very least incredibly mind-numbingly dumb, in the classical sense of incredible.)

The FBI investigation starts to focus on a domestic source... but gets criticized hard by the media and some politicians. So they devote more resources to finding the foreign connection which apparently doesn't exist.

--time passes--

The FBI fingers a researcher at Ft Detrick (Hatfill), but one who doesn't actually work with anthrax.

They hound Hatfill (openly tailing him in public) and leak a steady stream of allegations.

Hatfill gets pissed off instead of rolling over, hires a very good lawyer, and sues just about everybody (FBI, media, ect).

Things drag on a while, but eventually (right before discovery of course), the government folds to the tune of $5.82 million.


Ok, I'll end here. The recent events are still being sussed out a bit, but make this string of insanity look relatively credible, competent, and honest.

Really, if you aren't up on this story, read Greenwald, "Anthrax Vaccine", or at least something (Google News is you friend). It truly is breathtaking.

PS: I should mention that the "new DNA test" stuff is pretty much BS. I could have probably done testing to identify the specific strain myself in 2001 (or even the mid 90s)... and I know several labs which most certainly could have done it easily (one of which even has the right clearances and facilities to handle Anthrax.)

There may be some sort of 'new' officially approved (cheaper? commercial?) testing method. Basically identifying regions and primers to target SNPs... but those SNPs could readily enough be identified by a more brute force method, especially when they are throwing at least 100s of thousands of $ at it. And that is just the obvious approach I actually know.

Travc said...

The actual anthrax mailings were Sept 2001 of course. I have no clue why I put Oct up there near the top... (looking at too many dates perhaps, and being astounded at how much actually happened in Oct.)

David Brin said...

Tony, please don't bother with this guy. Yes, he's beginning this round behaving like a reasonable adult, but we know where it will go.

In fact, Tony, I have wanted us to go back and finish the job with Saddam ever since 1991, when Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld - who had kissed that monster on the lips and succored and supported him his entire career (as they did Osama Bin Laden) used our army to trash his army in defense of OTHER Bush family friends.

One of the worst stains on our national honor, ever, was Bush Sr going on radio urging the Shiites of Iraq to "rise up! We are on our way!" Then leaving them in the lurch, not even giving them the air cover that we gave the Kurds. Cheney/rummy dusted Saddam off and gently propped him back up. He was a monster. So are they.

I wanted to finish the job, but there were a hundred ways to do it other than the stupidest of all possible ways, which is what Ch/rummy did. And I will not waste any time on people with so little imagination that they could not come up with DOZENS of better ways than chosen by the monster/liars/morons/thieves.

The proof is in the United States Military officer Corps, which hates Bush and Cheney with a greater passion than they have EVER hated any US president, in all of our history. Crewcut, deeply conservative men are becoming democrats faster then your eyes can blink. Now go to the FBI and CIA (I have friends in both). Or the SEC or any other government agency charged with actually making LAW work.

There has never been a president or administration more deeply loathed.

Final bit. The dems still represent the poor, right? Immigrants, poorly educated... so why is it that the average education level of democrats is now much higher than the average level for republicans? Answer: because almost every person in America with a post graduate degree -- even conservatives and libertarians -- has come to realize that these monsters are not "republicans."

They are a criminal gang.

zorgon the malevolent said...

Guys, these self-styled "center-right" folks are rushing over here because the cognitive dissonance between reality and their own claims has become so gigantic that the only way they can assuage it is to convince everyone else that the crazy stuff they're saying is actually gospel truth.

If and when one of these visitors answers each and every one of your questions specifically, tony, then engage him in debate. Otherwise, just refuse to answer him and keep asking and re-asking and re-asking the questions he refuses to answer, over and over and over again, not giving an inch, not budging, just stubbornly demanding that the guy answer all of your questions with specifics (not some off the cuff dismissal like "that's crazy liberal talk") if he wants a discussion of any kind.

Otherwise, if the guy never answers any of the your questions and never rebuts any of your arguments but merely ignores 'em, it's not a's a monologue. And none of us has any obligation to stand around listening to monologue by a visitor if he steadfastly refuses to engage us in reasoned debate.

travc, I hate to sound like a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist...but, man, a lotta this dead guy's scientist colleages at USAMRIID are coming forward to say he couldn't have done it.

Anthrax suspect who died called `homicidal'

Okay, yeah, that's the official story, but then...

Colleagues divided over guilt of anthrax suspect


Scientists question FBI probe on anthrax

And this is the Washington Post here, not the National Enquirer or the Moonie Times. And the WaPo reports that some of this guy's scientific colleagues are saying it was physically impossible for him to have taken the anthrax out of USAMRIID because he didn't have physical access to it.

...Colleagues and friends of the vaccine specialist remained convinced that Ivins was innocent: They contended that he had neither the motive nor the means to create the fine, lethal powder that was sent by mail to news outlets and congressional offices in the late summer and fall of 2001. Mindful of previous FBI mistakes in fingering others in the case, many are deeply skeptical that the bureau has gotten it right this time.

"I really don't think he's the guy. I say to the FBI, 'Show me your evidence,' " said Jeffrey J. Adamovicz, former director of the bacteriology division at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, on the grounds of the sprawling Army fort in Frederick.

This thing can get cleared up fast with a full release of all the forensic evidece and a congressional hearing. Why do I intuit that the FBI will not release any of the forensics in this case and there will not be a congressional hearing on this incident?

99% of the time I don't buy conspiracy theories because they're an affront to common sense. Too many people would usually have to be involved in the conspiracy and coverup. That kind of thing would never work in the real world. Some low-level pfc would squeal to the National Enquirer for a big paycheck and a book deal, some bozo would've forgotten to delete computer backups, pretty soon there'd be evidence all over the place and it would be Iran Contra all over again.

But a conspiracy like this is a little different because you would only need maybe two people. One guy high up inside the West Wing ordering someone at USAMRIID to take some weaponized anthrax, and the guy in UNSAMRIID who actually does it. Mailing letters filled with that crap wouldn't be hard for a trained scientist. You put on a biohazard suit inside a clean room, fill up the letters, seal the letters inside a couple of heavy-duty evidence bags, then exit the clean room and run your biohaard suit and the sealed bags with the sealed letters of anthrax through a bleach wash and a rinse with muriatic acid and then carbolic acid and then you just wear a couple of layers of gloves when you open the sealed evidence bags inside the bin of the mailbox to mai the letter and there you go.

The big problem I've got is the specific information ABC News claims it got from 4 separate highly-placed reliable sources. All 4 different government sources claimed the weaponized anthrax contained bentonite -- which, as it turns out, it did not. Now, only Saddam's biowaepons facilities used bentonite.

So what I want to know is: Who the hell are these 4 highly-placed sources? They can't be innocent bystanders. This isn't another TWA Flight 800 deal, where local yokels come forward but turn out to be imagining things. A bystander wouldn't know whether the samples contained bentonite. These 4 sources have got to be inside sources, people inside the U.S. government. So why are 4 different people inside the U.S. government lying about bentonite to ABC News?

This sounds like a rerun of the lies fed to Judith Miller on the New York Times about Saddam's alleged WMDs, which turned out not to exist either.

Anybody smell a conspiracy here?

I hate to talk like this, but, seriously, this is starting to remind me of the film The Parallax View.

9/11 conspiracy, no. Anthrax conspiracy designed to create a climate of fear in the wake of 9/11 and grease the skids for an invasion of Iraq? I dunno. Far-fetched, but doable. Smuggling a small vial of powder out of USAMRIID, mailing a couple of envelopes filled with the stuff...that's hard but not crazy-outlandish, like the looney toones controlled-demolition fantasies about 9/11. Especially considering that the dead USAMRIID scientist was reportedly an extremist dominionist fundamentalist Christian.

Okay, look, probably it's nothing. But this one just smells funny. I'm waiting for the other shoe to fall, like maybe heavy bruising on the arms and neck of the scientist who was supposed to have committed suicide. Like maybe no alcohol in the guy's stomach but a really high blood alcohol level and a mysterious injection mark on his arm.

Maybe I've seen too many 70s movies. But this one smells fishy. I mean, like, where are all the fundamentalist Christian letters this guy would've been writing in his home warning of armagadden and the corruption of Christendom, like the extremist anti-technology letters Ted Kazczinsky filled his Montana cabin with? The FBI had no problem releasing all that evidence. Why aren't getting the same kind of evidence released about this dead scientist?

And now for something completely different:
Eleven reasons why America is the top new socialist economy

zorgon the malevolent said...

Ivins anthrax case gets even murkier.

Travc said...

On the Iraq war... I was of the opinion that there probably was a pretty compelling (reality based) case to be made. However, since no one was actually trying to make that case, I opposed the invasion.

Quite simply, a cabal of different interests got together, each wanting war with Iraq for different reasons, and cobbled together propaganda and lies to sell the war. For some it was about oil, for others about WMD, others wanted lucrative contracts, some felt the needed to demonstrate the 'transformed' military doctrine, and still others were lusting for a sandbox to try out their pet economic theories.

No way in hell such a cabal (unholy alliance of convince) could possibly have done the invasion 'right'... too many different (and wrong) reasons and too many cross-purposes.

Travc said...

Zorg, I'm pretty much right with you on the anthrax thing.

Here is a very nice timeline of at least what we know so far.

A few reasonable assumptions. The anthrax strain really did come from the US military (almost certainly Fort Detrick). As reported, the bentonite result never existed (no false positive).

I'll also assume no grand conspiracy. Not even one official ordering one 'patriot' to do it... No reason to go there (at least yet) IMO. And I'm definitely not a conspiracy theory fan (except in fiction).

First off, if 'false flag' doesn't necessarily mean officially ordered... this is a 'false flag attack'. A very successful one at that.

Secondly, You are in good company focusing on the bentonite story. That is some sort of smoking gun... The most innocent version I can come up with is that the '4 separate sources' were being lied to by a single person (they were not really separate). Assuming this was someone attached to the military, the most 'innocent' motive for that lie is ass-covering, which is only necessary if he/she/they had self-incriminating evidence (like evidence the anthrax came from the US military).

That is the best-case I can think of... which is still grounds for at least one person to end up rotting in Ft Leavenworth.

Another interesting tidbit that real journalists have uncovered today... Bruce Ivins was a registered Democrat who voted in every (closed) Dem primary since at least '96. Keep in mind that the big targets were all 'liberals' who were being vilified by the right-wing noise machine. The two government targets were the biggest potential obstacles to the Patriot Act.

Also turns out the letters to the editor he sent to his local paper are decidedly a mixed bag ideology wise.
full text here
There definitely is religious stuff there that rings alarm bells to me, but I'm particularly sensitive. There is also some very reasonable stuff too. There is a lot of tolerance mixed in with those strong religious views (not really inconsistent, but not the right-wing version).

If Ivins really did send the anthrax as a lone homicidal nut... he seems to have undergone a large shift ideology and personality wise in a pretty short time (9/11?). Possible, but also not consistent with the story being leaked out (homicidal nut-job since grad school).

This is a really fascinating and terrifying topic. We just don't know what the real story is, but the story being sold is really fishy.

PS: As for the free-drying equipment some media is now reporting as highly unusual and indicative of Ivins weaponizing anthrax... One of the SciBlings (Science blogs) demolishes that story. Ivins not only used such equipment fairly routinely (as mentioned in his publications), he officially checked it out leaving paper trail a mile wide, and even holds a patent for using freeze-drying with the anthrax VACCINE.

Travc said...

One more anthrax note...

It seems that many drinkers of the right-wing kool-aid still think that the anthrax came from outside the US military. Possible, but very doubtful.

Bacteria mutate rapidly (certain regions very very rapidly), and it is not particularly difficult to construct a phylogenetic tree relating strains that are only thousands (or even hundreds in some cases) of generations apart.

The 'new' DNA evidence (which we really should have had 6 years ago, since it isn't a new method) isn't just saying that the anthrax from the letters is the Ames strain... it is much much more specific than that. If they can't pin it down to a specific lab or it is many generations removed, then we could start wondering where the hell it came from.

I could be wrong... but that would mean that the FBI and all the investigators they have contracted to analyze the samples are either profoundly stupid or grossly dishonest. The tests I allude to are the obvious thing to do, and not even really difficult (other than the difficulty of handling anthrax safely.)

Lying about this sort of forensic analysis is very risky, since it is pretty easy to be caught and many people have access to the actual data. So, I'm willing to believe it for now... (If they never release the results, then we should start calling BS.)

zorgon the malevolent said...

You've just given the best description of the probably causes for the Iraq war I've ever heard.

Historians will be debating about why the hell American ever invaded Iraq in 2003 for hundreds of years. Nothing about the whole situation makes sense. Saddam's behavior was absolutely nuts. He acted exactly as though he had nukes...then, it turned out he was bluffing. Wait, what? When the U.S. was threatening to invade and Saddam had every reason to believe we meant business? Pretending to have nukes and continuing to play games with the U.N. inspectors under those circumstances is just plain crazy. Yet that's what Saddam did.

The Decider deciding to invade Iraq was even more crazy. Whatever psychopathology was involved here, it was weird, and psychoanalysts will be debating it for many years to come.

And why did the Demos vote for the resolution that enabled the Iraq war insanity? Was it those brain parasites from the second Star Trek film? You want to lift up your head and shout "KHAAAAAAAAAAN!"

And how did upstanding sensible solid people like Colin Powell get suckered into the whole mess? This was a guy with a good shot at the presdiency in 2008 or 2012, and he pissed it all away to tell lies for a creepy vindictive pig-ignorant frat boy. It's just mind-boggling.

How the hell did all these smart people get sucked into this vortex of dementia? You've got people like Condi Rice with a PhD and a long history of smart insightful behavior, suddenly telling crazy whoppers like "We don't want the first warning to be a mushroom cloud." How the hell does that work???

In the TV show Babylon 5 evil aliens had these organic critters they would put on somebody's shoulder to control their minds. Sometimes I think that's the only explanation for the 2003 Iraq invasion. How the hell did all these smart highly-educated people run straight off the cliff like Wile E. Coyote and not even notice their feet were pedaling in thin air until 5 years later?

Cliff said...

You want to lift up your head and shout "KHAAAAAAAAAAN!"

I do that every day already, just on general principles.

On the anthrax issue, another item (pointed out by Glenn Greenwald)that struck me was the attempt by the AP to portray Ivins as a crazed pervert. They claimed he was obsessed with a sorority, because the sorority owned a building that sat less than 100 yards away from the mailbox used to mail out the anthrax letters.

Now hopefully, rational people will be saying, "Okay, that's kind of tenuous." It gets dumber - the sorority building is only used for storage. And the last instance of Ivins' "obsession" was in 1981, when he visited several sorority houses.

Good going, AP:

Cliff said...

Bah! I think blogger ate the last part of that link.

Right now it's the second story down the page.

Travc said...

The sorority thing is pretty bloody odd. Actual facts are sparse, but all the details I've seen lead to a much less creepy picture.

Seem like Ivins was friends with or dating a member of the sorority (nothing odd about that). I'm guessing he hung out with her and her friends/sorority sisters, and probably made some contacts/friends (that is the primary function of greek chapters after all).

The "visited several chapter houses" sound all stalky and creepy, unless of course he knew (or at least had friend-of-friend contact with) people in those chapters. Given the way the academic diaspora works, that is a pretty likely scenario IMO.

More details would be very illuminating. Did he make special trips, or was he at the different campuses (or nearby) for conferences or whatnot (a very common occurrence in my experience)?

Anyways, at best we are only getting bits and pieces of one side of the story.

Cliff said...

I agree completely, Travc. And even assuming that his motives were completely creepy (and I'm not), the last stated event was 27 years ago. Substantial enough for a tabloid, perhaps, but I would expect the AP to have higher standards.

Sadly, I am almost certainly wrong on that last count.

Travc said...

More anthrax stuff...

Anthrax Vaccine (blog) has an interesting shoot-down of some of the newly released FBI 'evidence'.

BTW: The author of that blog is a real expert... check out her CV.

PS: Off topic... wow, that is a good idea. Make your CV a google doc. I must steal that idea ;)

Travc said...

Yet more anthrax...

This article from 2002 by Dr Nass is really good IMO. It lays out exactly what the FBI should have been looking at back then as well as who gained from the attacks. There have been some very big winners financially.

Robert said...

On a slightly more amusing political note... Paris Hilton recently launched a Legally Blonde-esque "commercial" in response to Senator McCain invoking her and Brittney Spears in an anti-Obama commercial.

The commercial is amusing enough, but I must admit to admiring McCain's political ju-jitsu by retorting that Hilton's energy policy was more in-depth and reasonable than Senator Obama's.

Chalk one up to the old white-haired guy. ;)

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

zorgon the malevolent said...

Anthrax case gets even more turgid.

However CNN now reports that the source of the anthrax spores was a particular flask under Ivins' control.
"We were able to identify in early 2005 the genetically unique parent material of the anthrax spores used in the mailings," Taylor said. "The parent material of the anthrax spores used in the attacks was a single flask of spores, known as RMR-1029, that was created and solely maintained by Dr. Ivins."

Okay, let's say that batch of anthrax was "created and solely maintained" by Ivins. That still doesn't tell us whether Ivins was the only person at USAMRIID who had access to it. I don't think so. It seems highly unlikely that Ivins was the only guy who had access to that particular flask. Not in a government lab of that size, with other researchers who also worked with anthrax.

The problem with this kind of media report is that the news media has echo-chambered other false reports about the anthrax previously, e.g., the bentonite report that turned out to be 100% dead wrong. So how can we believe this report? Especially when it seems designed to mislead us with that "solely maintained" claim, which a casual reader might mistake for indicating that only Ivin had access to that particular flask?

"The government's press conference was an orchestrated dance of carefully worded statements, heaps of innuendo and a staggering lack of real evidence -- all contorted to create the illusion of guilt by Dr. Ivins," attorneys Paul Kemp and Thomas M. DeGonia said.

The CNN article goes on to claim:
Authorities took the unusual step of laying out the case to the public after FBI Director Robert Mueller earlier Wednesday briefed survivors and relatives of victims of the attacks on the investigation.

As far as I can tell, this is flat out not true. Where is the case "laid out" by the DOJ? Show me the place where the hard evidence is laid out -- I've seen the DOJ website, but that's nothing but pdfs of search warrants and affadavits, all involving vague circumstantial bunk like "extra time at the lab." All I'm seeing on that DOJ website (aside from the flask number) is innuendo and "coulda woulda shoulda" circumstantial allegations such as "Dr. Ivins had access" to this or that, and "Dr. Ivins was not able to adequately explain the extra hours he spent at the lab."

Let's think about that. If you asked me to adequately explain the "extra hours" I spent going to a movie 7 years ago, could I explain it? Asking someone for a convincing explanation complete with specifics for "extra time" they took to do some task 7 years ago sounds pretty thin to me. I doubt anyone on this forum could give specifics to back up a claim about how much time they spent perfomring some activity 7 years ago. This all sounds like smoke and mirrors from the DOJ, vague allegations, circumstantial "evidence" and rumour and innuendo. For example, one search warrant specifies the Camus novel The Plague in Ivins library. C'mon, now. Is that evidence of anything...?

We learn from the DOJ, for example, that: "[Ivins] was also said to have received immunizations against anthrax and yellow fever in early September 2001, several weeks before the first anthrax-laced envelope was received in the mail."
Notice the use of hearsay: "he was said to have..." That's incredibly weak. You can't bring hearsay into a court of law except in a conspiracy case. Second, wouldn't you expect a guy working at USAMRIID working with anthrax to get periodic vaccinations against anthrax? And, third, how many other scientists aside from Ivins at USAMRIID got anthrax vaccinations in early Septmeber 2001? Was this some annual vaccination program where everyone gets a jab? If so, it's means nothing. We need to know the context here.

In fact, I have not seen any detailed evidence brought forward except:
[1] The assertion about flask RMR-1029. However, that assertion by the DOJ is being contradicted by Ivins' scientific colleagues, who claim he had no access to the materials required to produce anthrax.
[2] The assertion that "Investigators also traced the envelopes that contained the spore-laced letters to the Frederick, Maryland, area where Ivins lived, Taylor said."
Exactly what does that mean?
Apparently the envelopes that held the letters were “federal eagle” envelopes, so-named because of the eagle perched on a bar bearing the initials “USA” in the upper right-hand corner, and bore tiny but tell-tale defects that searchers determined were bought from a post office in Maryland or Virginia, the official documents relate.

But that just means the envelopes were bought at a post office in Frederick MD. So what? Ivins lived in the same metropolitan area as that post office but so did millions of other people -- everyone in the USAMRIID lab lives in the same metropolitan area as that post office in Maryland. That doesn't prove anything.
A statement like "investigators...traced the enveloped" seems just about meaningless because they were only able to identify the post office at which the envelopes were bought. That's so nebulous it's worthless as evidence.

Has anyone else been able to find any hard specific evidence released by the DOJ that would point to Ivins?

Here's a link to the DOJ website that contains the unsealed anthrax documents. Most of these documents seems to be search warrants (which doesn't tell you much) and affadvits (an affidavit is just a claim, in most cases, not evidence in itself. An affadavit not backed up by forensic evidence is pretty much worthless).

The one DOJ claim I've been to find that involves specific hard forensic evidence is the flask number. That's hard evidence, but it's circumstantial. Ivins was supposed to have access to it, but other people at USAMRIID apparently also had access to it. There's a claim that Ivins was one of the few people at USAMRIID who knew how to use a lyophilizer, but again, this is circumstantial. The claim about the envelopes used to mail the anthrax seems so vague as to be meaningless.

Is that it? Is that all? Is there anything else anyone has heard from the DOJ that would give any other hard forensic evidence connecting Ivins to this case?

Lastly, the DOJ has apparently not yet closed the case because there remain "administrative details" to be dealt with.

And what does that mean?

Three guesses.

Boot said...

Let me guess...
String or Nothing.

zorgon the malevolent said...

Regarding the anthrax investigation, there seem to be two explanations: the innocent obvious one, namely, that the FBI got fixated on a suspect (Hatfill) and ignored compelling evidence pointing toward other people. The second, more far-fetched, explanation is that Ivins was involved in some kind of conspiracy to stimulate passage of the neocon agenda after 9/11.

The "FBI screwed up by obsessing about the wrong guy" explanation sounds a lot more comforting and frankly more plausible. But there's a whopping big problem with that explanation.

Namely, some important omissions from the timeline travc posted. We learn from that timeline that in October 2001 the FBI was working with scientists to identify the strain of anthrax used. I recall from news reports around that time that it was identified as the Ames strain fairely quickly. So clearly someone sequenced the RNA of the anthrax in the envelopes by October 2001.

But here's the huge omission from the timeline: we learn in that CNN article I cited that in 2005 gene sequencing of the anthrax spores established that the source of anthrax was Ivins' flask RSR-1029.

So the $64,000 question is: Why the hell did it take 4 years after sequencing the RNA of the anthrax in the envelopes to compare it with all the existing anthrax cultures used in every U.S. government lab and U.S. university and private U.S. medical research esbtalishment?

4 years?

I can understand a delay of 4 months, maybe even 8 months. But 4 years??? I mean, c'mon. You've just sequenced the RNA of the anthrax used in the attacks. What's the next thing you do? The very next thing?

D'oh. You compare that genetic profile with the genetic profile of every anthrax sample used in every government facility and every private medical research establishment, right?

This is just so obvious it's staring you in the face. Once you know the full genetic profile of the anthrax used in the attacks, all you have to do is compare it with every sample of anthrax in the U.S. That's a big job, but not a colossal job. It doesn't take years.

If I were in charge of that investigation the number uno thing I would've done would be to run a full-out crash maximum resolution gene sequencing on the anthrax in the envelopes. And I'd use 3 different teams of the best available people using the best available equipment with maximum safeguards against contamination, and then I'd compare all 3 results.

Then I pull in a sample of every anthrax culture in existence everywhere in the U.S. and line them all up and test them. Once the Ames strain got identified as the source, and since simple electron microscopy could identify that the anthrax in the nevelopes had been milled to a very precise 3 to 5 micron size for maximum lethality, we could rule out a natural origin. This was lab-brewed stuff. So it had to come from a U.S. lab because of the Ames strain origin and the size of the spores.

All that might take 5, 6 months at the outside. I can't imagine it would take longer.

So by mid-2002, common sense suggests we should've narrowed in on Ivins' flask RSR-1029.

Why the HELL did it take until late 2005?

I'm trying very hard to avoid conspiracy theories but unless the FBI are so grossly incompetent that no one there ever thought to compare the sequenced genome of the anthrax spores in the envelopes with all the samples of anthrax currently used in U.S. labs (privcate and government), it's very hard to explain why no one in the FBI seems to known Ivins was the source of the anthrax until late 2005.

huxley said...

Huxley! You never answered my questions about Bush and the EPA!

Cliff -- No, I didn't. I looked at your links and this stuff is something of a shrug to me -- it's more of an issue of where one draws the line on government control.

The hostility between Republicans and the EPA is not mysterious. Of course they want to trim back the power of the EPA. They may even have been corrupt in how they did so, but is this a hanging offense? FDR shamelessly tried to pack the Supreme Court, yet somehow we manage to remember his presidency with high regard.

I voted for Bush in 2004 (though not 2000) and overall I support his administration but that doesn't mean that I consider the Bush administration pure as the driven snow and faultless in all its execution.

huxley said...

Where is Donald Rumsfeld these days?

Speaking of which, is this an acceptable paraphrasing of your earlier comment?
The democrats are selling the US down the river because we are in an existential war with radical Islam which the democrats will not acknowledge.

Tony Fisk -- I don't know where Donald Rumsfeld is these days. As far as I'm concerned he did a remarkable job of revamping the US military to the 21st century, conducting the first phase of the Iraq War, and being one of the fastest thinkers-on-foot-ever when matched against a hostile press. Rumsfeld wasn't perfect of course, and he made a brilliant sacrifice to the jackals as Bush backpedaled to prepare the surge and its subsequent success.

No, I don't accept your paraphrasing. Unlike Dr. Brin, I don't presume to mindread my opponents or assess their mental health. For me, it's enough to note that Democrats have largely opposed, blocked and subverted the war with radical Islam. I'm not sure why. I imagine there's a range of reasons. I suspect that many Democrats are simply ignorant about Islam and focusing on their partisan enemies -- the Bush administration, neocons, and to some extent Republicans and conservatives in general.

If you want to carry the flag for that position and explain it, I would be curious to hear what you have to say.

huxley said...

Tony, please don't bother with this guy. Yes, he's beginning this round behaving like a reasonable adult, but we know where it will go.

Dr. Brin,

You are wise not to engage me directly. From what I've read, you can't manage a substantive response to my posts. So far your responses have been condescension, insults, and ranting. I feel like I'm listening to a loudmouth in a bar.

For example, my earlier post took you to task for arguing that Democratic administrations are superior to Republican administration when it comes to finances by comparing some raw economic statistics of the Clinton administration to the Bush administration, while ignoring all the historical differences between those two eras. Neither you nor anyone else in this discussion bothered to defend your reasoning.

Ordinarily I would call that a fallacious argument, but since you have been so ill-mannered in your interaction with me and basically called me a psychopath, I will be blunter and say that is a stupid argument, and nothing more than propaganda.

huxley said...

The proof is in the United States Military officer Corps, which hates Bush and Cheney with a greater passion than they have EVER hated any US president, in all of our history. Crewcut, deeply conservative men are becoming democrats faster then your eyes can blink. Now go to the FBI and CIA (I have friends in both). Or the SEC or any other government agency charged with actually making LAW work.

There has never been a president or administration more deeply loathed.

Dr. Brin -- That's not proof. As usual, no cites, just anecdotal handwaving. I know that there are some military people who disike Bush. Nonetheless in the 2004 election "By an astonishing 72 to 17 percent margin, the active-duty military personnel who took the survey favored Bush over Kerry ." Whose Military Vote?

Recently, Rasmussen reported that Today Military Veterans Favor McCain 56% to 37%. On July 4, 2008The largest reenlistment ceremony in the history of the U.S. military took place in Baghdad.

As to the CIA, FBI, and the State Dept as well,-- yes, the Bush administration has shaken up the status quo and is in dire conflict with those groups. Which doesn't make either side right. Everyone gets their vote and ultimately history sorts it all out.

Remember that Churchill was loathed before and after WWII by the status quoists. That didn't mean Churchill was wrong.

huxley said...

Dr. Brin -- Should you engage me with your current approach, I predict that you will lose most, if not all, of your arguments with me. Not because I'm smarter or better informed, but because I don't overreach, I'm aware of the difference between facts and my opinions, and I'm not trying to bluff and browbeat people to my position. I grant that informed citizens often disagree.

Please understand that on other subjects I consider you to be a smart, informed, affable fellow. I look forward to anything you have to write about science fiction or SETI.

Travc said...

Zorg, you make a few errors (out of understandable ignorance).

Now, I'm fairly ignorant too. I don't know exactly what methods were used or even what the state of the art is... but from what I do know:

The Ames id may have been RNA based, but only the sequence of a particular ribosomal subunit. That is not nearly as informative as you seem to think it is.

Typically one would just use PCR to amplify a specific region of the genome between to 'primers'. The region is selected to have conserved regions at the end that match the PCR primers, flanking an easily amplified length of sequence which is different between strains (more variable).

Selecting such a region is tricky and involves a lot of 'art'. Getting primers that work reliably (or at all) isn't trivial, and finding those conserved sequences flanking a region of code which is actually different between the strains makes it downright tough. Because of this, when someone develops a good set of primers for a particular diagnostic they tend to get standardized.

Ribosomal RNA is very highly conserved, so the primers tend to work on a large variety of organisms. That is why it is so commonly used. However, since it is so highly conserved, it isn't going to be different between different sub-strains (or even strains in many cases)... pretty much useless for figuring out what lab/flask the culture came from.

For that more detailed analysis, you need a much more variable region of DNA to look at. Now, I'm skeptical (right there with you Zorg) that it would take so long to actually do this analysis. It isn't like anthrax isn't a well studied organism, and it isn't like people hadn't thought of doing forensic genetics to track it back to its source before 2001.

What can be said confidently, tracking the small mutational differences between different cultures of the same strain of anthrax isn't easy. I would have gone looking for SNPs (single nucleotide changes) in the actual sequences using a brute force method... expensive, but straight forward. There are doubtless more clever approaches I don't know of.

All that said, the chain of custody of the actual samples (as far as I can find info on it) seems a mess. At this point I'm even somewhat skeptical that whatever analysis was done was actually on the strain from the envelopes.

The fact that the most probable point of origin was also involved in the initial analysis also fails to inspire confidence. If you were working on it and discovered that the anthrax matched strains in your lab, what would you do? Cover-your-ass (not to mention your employer and/or the Army and/or the government)?

PS: If you haven't looked at the article by Dr Nass from Feb 2002 I linked... I recommend it again.

tintinaus said...

Huxley, man are you the king!(High five)

In your post to Cliff you pull the "This is a non-issue tactic" that Zorgon accuses you of while still accusing Dr Brin of NOT properly debating the issues a bit later.

To Tony you say Rumsfeld was a genius(really can I get the name of your dealer, he must be selling primo S!@#), and when he added the word "existential" to your retoric (one word change), suddenly the Dems are mind readers. Where is my tin foil hat when I need it?

Lastly to prove David wrong about the level of discontent in the US Armed Forces Officer Corps, you point to two surveys in which there is a 20% drop in support for Republicans over the last 4 years(not restricted to Officers) and a re-enlistment ceremony that takes place on the field of combat. Can you imagine the pressure the guys were under not to dessert their mates?

Travc said...

Huxley said...
I don't know where Donald Rumsfeld is these days. As far as I'm concerned he did a remarkable job of revamping the US military to the 21st century, conducting the first phase of the Iraq War, and being one of the fastest thinkers-on-foot-ever when matched against a hostile press.

The technical term for what Rummy (with lots of help from others) did to 'revamp' the military is "transformation", just FYI.

A point you totally miss IMO is that a "transformed" military (smaller, more mobile, more flexible) is utterly incompatible with capturing and holding territory. This was known by Rummy and the other evangelists of transformation, but they also believed that in the 21st century the military would not need to engage in such lowly pursuits such as actually securing territory.

That is utter stupidity in my opinion and that of many other much more qualified people. It is very similar to the idea the Air Force perennially pushes that an air-campaign alone is enough to defeat an enemy... may be true in a few narrow instances, but not generally so.

The biggest mistake with respect to the Iraq war, besides starting it in the first place, was using the transformation doctrine. It looked great on TV and sounded really good when coalition (really US) forces swept through Iraq and into Baghdad... but in the rush to the capitol they simply drove around most towns and didn't establish any sort of control over the territory they passed through.

When 'decapitation' didn't magically result in secure and stable country (as any student of history or decent Army MP could have predicted), the US was left in the situation of holding a few small patches of territory surrounded by a sea of instability very quickly turning to hostility.

There is a very good reason classical military doctrine revolves around incrementally capturing and securing territory. Iraq would have turned out very different if the invasion took longer (probably more US deaths), but actually captured cites and towns along the way, setup local provisional administrations, and built supply lines.

No, Rummy was so brilliant that he decided we should *not* do what every other successful army in the history of the world had done.

PS: Yeah, many many other profoundly dumb things were done in Iraq. However, Rummy and a cabal of others (overlapping a lot with the neo-cons, but not exactly the same) wanted the Iraq war as a demonstration of the transformation doctrine. They got their wish... It succeeded spectacularly at accomplishing a goal which had very little to do with the overall (ultimately political) goal of creating a friendly (or at least compliant) stable country.

In short, if you think that attacking a country to topple the government is a sufficient goal, transformation (or strategic bombing) looks very good... but you are an idiot. Of course toppling a government will almost inevitably lead to chaos.

*Overthrowing* a government involves establishing and maintaining the conditions for the successor government to be formed and requires actually holding territory in a classical sense.

Tony Fisk said...

Huxley, it was the only logical conjugation of your statements I could think of but, since you don't accept my paraphrasing, I clearly cannot presume to understand your argument.

Dr. Brin -- Should you engage me with your current approach, I predict that you will lose most, if not all, of your arguments with me.

Now, I'd actually agree with that. The drug being peddled here is indignation and, from what I've seen, you peddle it well. (Resist the rush, folks!)

For me, it's enough to note the relative times of your comments, and Brin's next post (and his opening remarks).

Travc said...

Huxley... This is Dr Brin's blog, and you are being a complete jackass to the host. I kindof hope he doesn't just ban you, since I enjoy 'someone is wrong on the internet'. However, he would be perfectly reasonable not to put up with your crass name-calling and insults.

You probably think this is delicious irony since I belittled your whining about incivility. If so, you miss the point entirely. There is a big difference between being blunt and/or uncivil, and just insulting someone.

As for you 'take to task' over the ascribing economic plusses to Dems and negatives to the GOP without accounting for prevailing conditions... Others, including me, have addressed that. Very succinctly, there is a big difference between someone who throws gasoline around and someone who is dumping water... even if they aren't lighting the matches.

On this topic I would also suggest you read Paul Krugman's latest book The Great Unraveling which makes a very good argument that political policy really does matter for the economy. That is the underlying thesis of the book. (You will probably just dismiss Krugman out of hand, which is a mistake... he is very knowledgeable and an actual expert on the topic.)

On the growing hatred (not the word I would choose) of Bush among the CIA, FBI, and Officer Corps...
Tintinaus already hit this, but your survey citations are totally irrelevant. Military != Officer Corps. Oh, and the majority of the military are extremely 'low information voters' practically and demographically (especially when they are deployed). Oh, but now I suppose I'm 'insulting the troops'... so you can just ignore my point.

Finally, when Huxley says...
The hostility between Republicans and the EPA is not mysterious. Of course they want to trim back the power of the EPA. They may even have been corrupt in how they did so, but is this a hanging offense?

Well, I get a bit miffed. For me using government power to undermine and distort scientific findings is pretty fucking close to a 'hanging-offense'. It is worse than simply lying, though it most certainly is lying too. Yes, I am a scientist, so I get a bit touchy on this subject.

What you seem to be really missing though is the larger point about the politicization of 'professional' positions and agencies. Most of the government is not just supposed to be bi-partisan, it is supposed to be non-partisan. Just the fact so to speak. Yeah, there is routinely political pressure applied, and there are political positions in most agencies... but what BushCo have done is not remotely 'politics as usual'. They have systematically dismantled the virtual walls between political and professional and attempted (with success) to turn everything into an arm of the GOP.

You want to see a one-party state... just let the Department of Justice become a fucking political party organ. That just cannot stand in a free society (because it won't be free for very long).

The EPA shenanigans (bordering on crimes actually) are one early and very telling sign we saw of what was going on. Yeah, I do know people who work for the EPA (and CDC for that matter), and they are not actually pissed (though some of their co-workers are)... they are depressed, saddened, and scared for the country.

Yeah, it is a big fucking deal. And much more of an 'existential threat' to our way of life than Islamism actually.

Anonymous said...

Mr Brin

Glad to hear that you know "vastly more" about finance that I do. Then I'm sure you can answer a question that has been puzzling me since I read the UBS shareholders report about how they lost $37 billion plus on various securitzed products - did perhaps they use a symmetric rather than asymmetric GARCH model for calculating VaR which is how they got a figure of only 4% as the amount they should fully hedge in their portfolios? Or perhaps it was just yet another case of the dirty little secret of financial engineering that Paul Wilmott finally went public with recently - writing and exercising pricing and risk models is difficult and time consuming. It is easier just to run the simple cases and if the equations dont blow up then it is 'finished'?

The points in my first posting were carefully chosen to see if you had any real grasp of what went into creating the current financial crises. And just how serious it is. My second post was merely to confirm that you really are completely at sea on the subject. Just another partisan sloganeer it seems. Oh well....

Moving on. What first struck me in your great pontification a few posts back on "thinking-conservatives", after wading through the arrogant condescension of the diatribe, was that you could not even use the term 'liberal' correctly.

In most western democracies the word liberal is usually to be found as part of the name of one of the moderate / middle of the road political parties. Only in two counties is the word 'liberal' a term of political abuse. The US and France. In France the term 'liberal' means the diametric opposite of what it means in the US lexicon of abuse. At least when I am abused as a 'liberal' by some smug soixante-huitard middle class PS voter in France they are at least using the term correctly. It does not mean some vaguely leftist social democrat usually from the affluent middle classes. In the US lexicon of political abuse the closest term for a western-tradition liberal would be a neo-con.

Sakozys book Ensemble gives a fairly good summary of what a true self described liberal in the tradition of Russel / Palmerston and Asquith actual believes in the world of current practical political policy. Hans Dietrich Genschers books are another source, if a little dated.

So your conservative / liberal meanderings were based on a fundamental misunderstanding due to a very parochial US-centric world-view of what the terms actually mean in the political history of western democracies. You really need to get out more. I have seen little evidence so far in your stated opinions that you expose yourself to much contrary opinion outside of your comfort zone of a fairly predictable partisan media mono-culture.

J McConnell

Travc said...

Boot, hope you are still on this thread...

A thought/question about military spending. Have there been any estimates done on standing force size needed if we only prepare for a major 1 front (as opposed to 2 front) engagement?

I'm thinking, what if we just stipulated that a major invasion or other big scenario would necessitate a draft? (Keeping enough forces for actual defense and for 'actions' of course). It would probably make a huge difference in the standing size (and cost) of the military... but I have no idea how much.

Boot said...

Most of the cost of the military is not ‘size’ of the military. I think a deficit hawk could sell reductions in the military spending by increasing the size of our military. Take the White House data which is currently displayed in the Tax program. Military Personal represents 25% of total spending. This portion could be increased while Operation and Maintenance, Procurement, and Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation are reduced.

Real spending cuts will involve reduced spending on limited-use gadgets and changes to non-government support policy. I think we need to toss all for profit companies involved in government. (KBR, Titan, Blackwater, Halliburton, etc) Either supply the service from a government worker -or- ensure that the services provided to the government are provided at cost (no loss to company) while allowing them to pursue profit with non-governmental business. Preferably just cut the service in the first place if it’s unneeded. Efficiency should also be addressed, but frankly I would hope that efforts were always made in that direction.

(Btw I think the real troop cost is less than 25%, but I used that number because its supported by the White House Hist 2007 and BEA figures.)

Cliff said...

Huxley: Thanks for responding. I hope you're still reading this thread.

Cliff -- No, I didn't. I looked at your links and this stuff is something of a shrug to me -- it's more of an issue of where one draws the line on government control.

Your response confuses me. You asked for a civil discussion, and pointed out that you can hardly refute a broad assertion of "Bush Admin = evil."
So I chose a far smaller topic, and provided evidence of wrongdoing.

Now you are shrugging your shoulders and dismissing it.
You can't have a civil discussion when you dismiss all of the other side's points. That shuts conversation down.

The instances I pointed out were of the Bush Administration interfering with climate science and global warming, as well as enforcing pollution regulations.

These aren't just paper-pushers complaining, Huxley. Dow Chemical was releasing extremely hazardous chemicals into the environment in the Midwest, and the person who tried to stop them got forced out.

Global warming is an upcoming crisis, Huxley. It means that our civilization will have to change or die. It means people have been dying, and will continue to die, as a result of climate change. The Bush Administration has suppressed evidence of global warming to avoid having to acknowledge the need for change. Because the status quo is profitable for them, and changing threatens that.
It also means that Bush thinks the End Times are here, and so he doesn't really need to bother with sustainability.

Yes, the corruption seen here should be a hanging offense, or at least an impeaching offense + jail time. As TravC pointed, it's more than usual government meddling.
It's ignoring the rule of law in this nation, which is what America was founded upon. How can you claim to be a patriot when you so casually disregard our foundations?

zorgon the malevolent said...

More doubts raised about Ivins' alleged guilt here, when FBI handwriting analysis failed to connect him with the handwriting on the anthrax letters and when he passed 2 polygraph tests, and here, where "More than half a dozen experts in law and bioterrorism pointed out yesterday what they consider major flaws in the government's case and said they were not convinced that Ivins acted alone in mailing the letters that killed five people - or that he was involved at all.".

zorgon the malevolent said...

Oh boy. Now FBI investigators are even disputing that the anthrax came from flask RSR-1029 at USAMRIID in Frederick, MD. Now they're claiming it came from Dugway proving ground in Utah.

This thing is coming apart fast.

zorgon the malevolent said...

Finally, a credible explanation:
Now, officials close to the investigation say another possible motive could have been that Ivins saw the senators as bad Catholics because of their votes in favor of abortion rights. … Officials close to the case said that they believe Ivins’ right-to-life fervor was at least part of the reason he would target Daschle and Leahy.

Okay, well, that answers all my questions.

Seriously...I'm almost afraid to suggest tomorrow's headlines because this has now reached the point of satire. But, what the heck, here goes...


"Space aliens made him do it," announced the lead FBI investigator today. "We have evidence. Ivins owned a large cache of X-FILES videos."

Travc said...

Boot... I'm not just talking about personnel. A lot of those 'operations' costs are maintaining readiness for such a large force. Procurement and maintenance are similarly functions of the size of the standing force.

As it is, the US tries to maintain sufficient standing forces (equipment included) to fight full blown wars in two geographically distant theaters at the same time. That just is not very likely at this point.

I'm just wondering what it would look like if we instead maintained sufficient standing forces for only one major war... If something did happen like another world war that required more forces (again including equipment), the standing forces should be sufficient to defend until we can get draftees trained up and industrial production retooled for war.

After all, in the case of invading a large country or other large scale scenario, a draft and real economic 'war footing' are not unreasonable. Hell, may even do some good at avoiding major conflicts by putting them in a more proper context cost wise.

Anyway, you understand what I'm thinking/wondering about here? I hope that is a bit more clear.

Travc said...

The Dugway thing is actually fairly credible sounding from what I've seen so far.

Though one big question, when did Ivins receive 1029 and who sent it to him? There are either records, Ivins and someone at Dugway conspired, or it was planted.

Of course there is one other possibility, the forensics are a just fabrication... but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

Anyway, none of this addresses the big open questions about weaponization. Even if Ivins had a flask of 1029 sitting in his freezer at Ft Detrick, the facilities and expertise there are only really good for wet aresolization, not dry powder production. A connection to Dugway, which almost certainly does produce dry powder, should raise many more questions and (more likely IMO) suspects.

Something that is very clear, I'm (and obviously Zorg) are not the target audience for this 'sales job'. Even if the evidence really is convincing, they are dribbling it out in a very unconvincing way.

PS: What is up with the 'flask' thing? Very small batches of anthrax may be grown in flasks, but it I really really doubt it is stored in them. Every lab I know of (and have worked in) stored bacteria in little cryotubes/microtubes. If it really was a 'flask', why was he growing more?

Andrew S. Taylor said...

Not sure if anyone is still reading these comments, but in reference to some of Dr. Brin's claims, it seems that the decrease in IRS audits of large corporations occurred largely in the second half of Clinton administration. Take a look:

For the largest corporations, IRS audits were nearly HALVED between the beginning of Clinton's term and the end.

1992 - 54.63%
1997 - 45.86%
2000 - 30.51%

Want to know what else plummeted during the Clinton era? Civil penalties against corporations. Check out this Olympic ski-slope of a graph!

Bush's fault? Time travel? Eh?

Andrew S. Taylor said...

Not sure if anyone is still reading these comments, but in reference to some of Dr. Brin's claims, it seems that the decrease in IRS audits of large corporations occurred largely in the second half of Clinton administration. Take a look:

For the largest corporations, IRS audits were nearly HALVED between the beginning of Clinton's term and the end.

1992 - 54.63%
1997 - 45.86%
2000 - 30.51%

Want to know what else plummeted during the Clinton era? Civil penalties against corporations. Check out this Olympic ski-slope of a graph!

Bush's fault? Time travel? Eh?