Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Happy Carl Sagan Day!/Space Week 2011 #7 "Back to Basics: The Cosmic Perspective"

Greetings, everyone.

So I've once again let my Space Week series drag on a bit, to the point where we are now at Carl Sagan Day. Given that Carl Sagan had an enormous influence on how I perceive the Universe, and therefore on how I interact with, think about, and envision the future of said Universe, I think it appropriate to revisit on his birthday the basic principles of a worldview I like to call the Cosmic Perspective.

I don't remember exactly when I first heard the name of Carl Sagan, but I suspect it was sometime in the late 80's, staying up to watch some random episode of The Tonight Show on which he appeared. It was probably right around the time of Voyager II's encounter with Neptune. I had always been interested in astronomy, but there were only so many books on the stars and planets at the local library, and for the time being I had moved on to other subjects. It was a little less than two years later that I took a full course in astronomy at Saturn (the school, not the planet) and learned what Carl Sagan was all about. Over the duration of the quarter I got to watch several episodes of the landmark PBS series Cosmos that first aired in 1980. Being less than three years old, I never watched it that first time, but after seeing a few hours of it ten years later I realized he was no mere talking head.

From that point on I began following the latest developments in astronomy and space exploration with fanatic devotion, and it seemed that Carl Sagan had a hand in every discovery. However, it was not until 1994, when I read his Pale Blue Dot that I truly started to understand the depth of his vision. It was he that truly helped me realize the vastness of the Universe, and how all of human thought and experience pales in comparison. At the time I was nearing the end of that long process which resulted in the final jettisoning of my theistic worldview, and in Carl Sagan I found someone who had already thrown off those shackles from his mind and faced reality with unbridled optimism. Thus his example helped me to take that final leap of non-faith and begin my own self-directed journey through the Universe.

For many years I have quietly marked his birthday in my own calendar of observances, but more recently Carl Sagan Day has been promoted more widely among the freethought community, and I happily join the chorus of those who are building a groundswell of greater public recognition for the life and work of this great man. When you are done reading what follows, head on over to the Symphony of Science to check out some awesome music videos featuring Sagan and other prominent scientists. You could also try to make an apple pie from scratch, but if you succeed I would very much like to see your recipe for Universe, which is a necessary prerequisite.

Now about that Cosmic Perspective. This is the term I use to refer to a set of principles that inform how I look at many aspects of the Universe in which we find ourselves. The first five are based on the best evidence we have available about how the Universe developed and the forces that continue to act within it and define what is possible. The last could be considered a matter of opinion, but I have a feeling most people will find it one that a sound mind should hold. They are:

1. The Universe is incomprehensibly huge.

Basically, just think of the biggest thing you can possibly think of. For most of us, it is the Universe, but just in the time it took to think that thought it has gotten bigger. And even were it not in a state of continual and accelerating expansion, it would still be pretty darn big.
2. Humanity occupies no privileged place within it.
We may be unique, but that does not make us special in the sense that anything is watching out for us. As a species, we have to deal with the same laws of physics as everyone else, including the remorseless Second Law of Thermodynamics, which economists have neatly adopted and summarize with the adage "There's no such thing as a free lunch." We may have abilities others lack, but it is up to us to use them in a coordinated manner to promote our continual survival.
3. Our existence is the result of a convergence between a number of random processes, one that may or may not have occured elsewhere.
We live in a pretty quiet part of the galaxy, and our planet is situated in a favorable orbit around the Sun to sustain liquid water on the surface. Our species is the result of billions of years of random mutation combined with natural selection, a process that does not have any predetermined outcome, and if you started with the same set of initial conditions and set the ball rolling again you might not get anything even remotely resembling us. Whether or not those initial conditions were or are present on other planets is still being determined, but their results will not affect the conclusion that at this point we are still at the mercy of forces we cannot control and are only just barely beginning to understand.
4. The continuance of that existance is not guaranteed.
A logical consequence of #'s 2 and 3 is that if we want to stick around as a species, it will have to be through our own hard work. The list of cosmic level events that could snuff us out before we even had a chance to react is long and sobering (read Neil de Grasse Tyson's Death by Black Hole if you want more on this), so we may be doomed regardless, but fooling ourselves by thinking we are invincible or under some special protection is neither a healthy or effective way to deal with this fact.
5. The development and settlement of outer space and other worlds is the best strategy for continued existence.
While some good things could be said for trying to downscale or transform our industrial civilization to a point where it does not put the biosphere in imminent peril, and such efforts definitely need to continued, the old phrase "Don't put all your eggs in one basket" is in operation here. Given the reality of #4, remaining on Earth is not a viable long term survival strategy, since unless we can slow down or stop the Sun's gradual increase in output, the Earth is doomed in the long run no matter what we do. And if we do develop the capacity to affect the Sun's development, it will likely be as a result of continuing expansion into the Solar System and eventually to other stars.
6. All else being equal, existence is preferable to non-existence.
As I said, in the strictest sense this is a matter of opinion, but if you disagree with it there is not a great deal we can talk about.

So there you have it. I am now going to listen to "A Glorious Dawn".

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Space Week 2011 #4 "Red Rover, Red Rover, send Curiosity right over."

Greetings, everyone.

Since their arrivals on opposite sides of Mars in January 2004 the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity have performed above and beyond anyone's wildest dreams. After more than six years on the Martian surface, Spirit ceased transmitting in March of 2010, and while many attempts to re-establish contact were made, none were successful and the book on Spirit was officially closed in May of this year. Opportunity remains operational and has logged over 21 miles during its investigations. It is currently on its way to a feature called Cape York, where it will spend the winter in an area favorable for maintaining power to its solar batteries. Pretty impressive when you consider they were each given life expectancies of only 90 days. While I will make no predictions on how much longer Opportunity will last, if the combination of good engineering and favorable surface conditions continue it may very well live to see itself become obsolete.

About every two years the positions of Earth and Mars in their orbits allow for an optimal trajectory between the two planets. 30 days from now we will be in the next of these launch windows and the latest Mars rover will be sent on its way. Scheduled for liftoff at 9:25 AM CST, on Nov. 25th, (the day after Thanksgiving in the U.S, so you have no excuse not to watch on NASA TV or follow it online) the Mars Science Laboratory aboard the rover Curiosity will be the largest and most complex robot ever sent to the Martian surface. The size of a small SUV, the rover is packed with a multitude of scientific instruments that will study the atmosphere, the geology, the chemistry, and (potentially) the biochemistry in and around its intended landing site. Also, upping the awesomeness quotient by a factor of 100, it will be the first rover ever equipped with a frickin' laser defense system! Oh alright, the laser is technically part of the science payload, and its primary purpose will be to zap rocks and let other instruments examine the gases that are created or escape as a result, but if any little green men get too close...

Other fun Curiosity features include a 7-foot robotic arm for taking soil samples (the laboratory has tools to run many experiments on Martian dirt), tons of cameras, and a plutonium-238 power source, as solar panels would be unable to generate the energy necessary to run the rover's many systems. And for all you GD hippies now worried about radioactive contamination, keep in mind that with the thin atmosphere and lack of a magnetic field, the Martian surface is quite irradiated already, so Curiosity's impact will be negligible. The chosen landing site is the floor of the Gale Crater, a feature about 90 miles in diameter right along the Martian equator. Of the 30 sites that were considered, it rose to the top of the heap for having terrain that was both scientifically interesting and not too difficult for the rover to traverse. It would have been off limits to previous rovers, but improvements in our abilities to both build rovers and to land them precisely put the site on the table.

What will Curiosity find there? Who knows? And if we did know, what would be the point in going? So make it a point to watch the launch next month before you head off to the mall, though you might just want to make sure you pre-order the Curiosity replica (a must-have item for this holiday season, laser sadly not included) to put under the tree for junior just in case. Then, if all goes well, Curiosity will land in Gale Crater in August of 2012 to begin its 23 month (a full Martian year) primary mission. Those of you in need of more technical details can head over to the Mars Science Laboratory home page and geek out for a bit, and anyone with the Google Earth software can instantly call up the most up to date satellite images of the Martian surface and explore to their heart's content.         

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Space Week 2011 #3: "50 Years of Human Spaceflight"

Greetings, everyone.

I know its been a while since the last one, and sadly writing/blogging is still something I do only as a hobby. Now it is only a coincidence that I am writing this on Oct. 22nd, the day after the latest failed prediction of the Rapture. Interestingly enough it also happens to be Darkness Day, the annual ritual at Surly Brewery where they sell their most excellent Russian imperial stout, called Darkness (I got mine, thank you very much). In a way I was almost hoping the Rapture would actually happen, since then the Tribulation, or, as most people call it, the Republican presidential nomination campaign, would have been blessedly over, but unfortunately it looks like we still have another year and few weeks of stupid bombardment to endure from the candidates. On to the topic at hand.  

The first official Space Week was celebrated in 1999, and one year later I began my annual article series in honor of it. Space Week and its attendant activities are coordinated loosely by an organization called the World Space Week Association (WSWA), which works closely with the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) to plan events and generate publicity. For the past several years the WSWA has declared a theme for Space Week, and for 2011 the theme was "50 Years of Human Spaceflight". This was highly appropriate since April 12, 2011 was the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic orbital flight aboard Vostok I. This day has long been celebrated in Russia, and some other former Soviet republics, as Cosmonauts' Day, and the commemorations there featured massive public ceremonies with all the pomp and circumstance that comes with them. While this may seem quaint to westerners we should remember that of the many legacies the Soviet Union left behind, the Soviet space program and its early achievements are one of the few of which Russia can be justly proud. Thus I am more than willing to let them whoop it up in Yuri's honor (having read a few things about him, I think he would heartily approve), but I also hope that one day April 12th will be celebrated worldwide on the scale it deserves.

Now that the hoopla has died down, though, we can look back on those 50 years with a more sober eye and ask ourselves "What have we really accomplished?" Regrettably, when I consider human spaceflight specifically I think my answer has to be not all that much, especially in comparison with how robotic exploration has fared. We started out pretty good, going from one man completing an orbit or two to sending crews of three to the Moon and back in barely eight years. But since then we have been stuck in low Earth orbit, with no nation or coalition of nations willing to make the investments necessary to truly push out into the Solar System. Why we have yet to make good on that early potential is a subject on which I can pontificate at length, but in a nutshell the reasons have more to do with the political (Cold War detente in the 70's turned the Space Race into a crawl) and economic (putting people in orbit is pretty damn expensive) environments than with any scientific barrier. Now, however, I think we might finally be ready to get going again, and the catalyst for this, oddly enough, is the retirement earlier this year of the Space Shuttle. Like many of you, I watched the final launch with a tear in my eye, nostalgic for the class of vehicles that for my entire lifetime has been the way NASA sent people into space. But look again at that last sentence. If the phrase "my entire lifetime" didn't jump out at you...well it should have.

I was born in 1977, so can no longer consider myself a spring chicken. Think for a minute how much computer technology has advanced from that time to today and you might be able to understand my disappointment. But hopefully that is water under the bridge. The shuttles were never meant to be around as long as they were, and we are capable of making something much better, so now that they are finally out of the way perhaps we will. This motivation coupled with two other factors are what I believe will help us get human exploration rolling again. Firstly, the last 30 years haven't been a complete waste, far from it. Thanks to the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) and the research now going on there we now know a lot more about how the human body might fare over the course of a long-term space voyage and the hazards from which it will need to be protected. Secondly, renewed and increased competition, both from other nations and from nascent private companies, will require NASA to up its game. The Chinese became the third nation to send their own people into space in 2003, and I will not be surprised if other emerging powers such as India or Brazil do so by the end of this decade. Also, the first private spaceport is now under construction in New Mexico, and later on we will take a closer look at how that industry is faring. For the next few years ISS crews will be using single-use Russian Soyuz capsules to get to and from orbit, but it is hoped that eventually private carriers could perform that function (though sadly you will be SOL if you bought a ticket to space from Pan-Am in 1968).

This handoff should then allow the folks at NASA to focus on the next big target, whether that be a return to the Moon, a near Earth asteroid, or even Mars. Anything that gets us beyond low Earth orbit on a consistent basis really, and the sooner the better. Though to expect advances in human spaceflight at a rate comparable to that in computing is pretty unrealistic, significant progress is possible when there is a clear goal and a reliable commitment of resources to make it happen. It will be expensive, certainly, but not beyond the pale, especially when many nations pool their funds and expertise, and investments of that type often pay off several times over as they spawn new technologies and create a more highly skilled workforce. I can think of nothing better to get this country out of the collective funk it has been in since late 2008, in both the economic and psychological sense, and look forward to the day when going into space will be as routine as air travel is currently.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Space Week 2011 #2: "Hmm... That's Funny..." or "Dem Wacky Neutrinos"

Greetings, everyone.

Before jumping in to today's topic I'd like to point out that yesterday (Oct. 5th) was the birthday of one of my favorite living scientists and public intellectuals, Neil de Grasse Tyson. For those of you who don't know about him, he is currently the director of the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He has held that position for several years, and over that time he has been one of the leading promoters of astronomy and planetary science to the general public as well as a likeable and articulate advocate for skepticism, critical thinking, and the scientific method. A couple of years ago I wrote that Tyson has in the estimation of many, myself included, come to occupy the place in our culture once filled by the late Carl Sagan, so it was fitting that earlier this year PBS announced that he is being tapped to host an updated version of Sagan's epic Cosmos series from 1980. I can't wait to see it.. Also, just so you know, both he and I would agree that the fact that his birthday happens to fall during Space Week is a simple coincidence. Uncanny certainly, but nothing more.

To start off today's discussion, I will refer to another person I greatly admire, Isaac Asimov. One of the towering science fiction writers of the 20th century, he also wrote a great deal of non-fiction (about 75% of everything he wrote, actually), and while I can't remember in what essay or article I read it, a quote of his seems very applicable to the recent news about neutrinos: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the only one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!', but rather, 'Hmm... that’s funny...'."

While particle physics does not usually make headlines, a couple of weeks ago some jaw-dropping results from an experiment conducted by the Center for European Nuclear Research (CERN, the acronym for the laboratory's name in French) were made public and set the media on fire. Situated on the border between France and Switzerland, CERN had been sending a stream of neutrinos to an underground detector several hundred miles away in Italy. It was a pretty routine experiment to see how often one type of neutrino changed into another, but the folks in Italy noticed that the neutrinos were arriving just slightly a bit sooner than they should have been. Now neutrinos are thought to have no mass, and so like other massless particles (photons, principally) they travel at the speed of light. Thus their early arrival at the Italian detector, even if only by a few billionths of a second, appears to indicate that these neutrinos were traveling faster than light. Let that sink in for a minute. For more than a century one of the cornerstones of physics has been that nothing, yeah you heard that, nothing travels faster than light. The speed of light has been measured countless times, with ever growing degrees of precision and accuracy, and countless experiments have been conducted which without exception have confirmed this absolute speed limit. So if the CERN findings are confirmed it means we need to seriously rethink the two main theories that underpin our understanding of the Universe: Einstein's Relativity (both Special and General) and the Standard Model, which is the basis for quantum physics.

Lost in much of the ballyhoo that attended the CERN announcement was the fact that the potentially trailblazing results were not even related to what the original experiment was studying. So somewhere some scientist saying "Hmm...that's funny..." (or its French equivalent) is what started all of this. Now interestingly enough, it appears that this was not the first time neutrinos were observed breaking the light barrier. A few years ago a similar experiment that was conducted by Fermilab in Illinois produced the same eyebrow raising data when the neutrinos reached the detector at the Soudan Underground Mine facility in northern Minnesota (I've been there, it is a cool place, especially if you are a Battlestar Galactica fan). However those results were within the boundaries of experimental error, and so did not generate nearly as much publicity. But in the wake of the CERN announcement they are being revisited and laboratories around the world are racing to replicate the results. At the moment, the jury is still out on whether we will have to incorporate a new factor into the equations that describe reality, and it may be that some other team will find something that explains the discrepancy, but that is how science works. The CERN scientists combed over their results for six months, trying their best to account for anything that may have introduced an error or affected their calculations, and only after their searches turned up nothing did they reveal the findings to the rest of the scientific community. While nothing is sacred in science, you want to be pretty damn sure your observations are spot on when they could challenge a theory as rock-solid as Relativity, and if those observations can't be replicated then they will go down as a (for now) unexplained fluke and the theory will continue to be the standard.

Even though it has only been a couple of weeks since the announcement, many possible explanations for our supraluminal neutrinos have already been proposed. Some involve extra dimensions they take a shortcut through, others more prosaic things like flaws in equipment calibration, but all are highly technical so I'll spare the details. How will this all play out? I have no idea, but in order to truly make one's peace with the Universe you have to get comfortable with uncertainty, and not just in the narrow Heisenbergian sense. These are the sorts of situations that get science buffs like me extremely excited, because this is when science is at its best. For in science the news that something we thought was true might be wrong, even in only the most tiny of ways, is cause for exhilaration, not dread, and I can only imagine how the scientists actually working on the CERN results are feeling. We live in interesting times, folks, and have once again been reminded that the three most revolutionary words in the English language, or most any other for that matter, are "Hmm...that's funny..."  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Space Week 2011 #1: "The Dawn of a New Era"

Greetings, everyone.

Welcome to the first Space Week article of 2011. Fifty-four years ago today (I am publishing this on the 4th, but just barely) the first artificial satellite Sputnik I was launched into orbit, marking the beginning of humanity's exploration of the Universe beyond our planet and its atmosphere. Today's topic has to do with the Dawn spacecraft, and I admit I was seriously considering "Breaking Dawn" for the title, if only to get some stray "Twilight" fan-girl traffic directed here, where they would then read something of value for a change. Maybe just having the phrase in the previous sentence will be enough, but in any case let us delve into the matter at hand.

Those of you who have been Space Week readers for many years may recall mentions of the Dawn spacecraft and its mission in previous editions. The mission is of great interest to me for three major reasons. First, it is the first spacecraft to orbit and study any object in the main asteroid belt. Other missions have made brief flybys of such objects en route to their intended destinations, but this time the main belt is the destination. Second, it will be the first spacecraft to orbit and study one object, and then break orbit and travel to and study a second distinct object. Dawn has already reached its first target, the main belt asteroid Vesta, and is currently in the middle of its year-long investigation of this fascinating not-quite-planet. Next summer it will leave Vesta and travel to Ceres, a dwarf planet and the largest object in the asteroid belt, arriving in February 2015 for a stay of at least six months. Third, Dawn is the first full-scale mission to employ the ion engine as its primary means of propulsion.

So why the asteroid belt? Well, it is quite an interesting place. There are, however, a few myths about it that should be addressed before proceeding further. The most prominent of them is that it is the Solar System's equivalent of a shooting gallery. While it is true that there are a lot of asteroids that orbit in the main belt (otherwise it wouldn't be the main belt, would it?) the distances between them are so large that one could easily pass through the whole thing without running into a single one, and in fact many spacecraft have. Though the boundaries are somewhat diffuse, the main belt is usually considered to begin at around 2 AU (astronomical units, a measurement defined as the average distance between the Sun and the Earth, around 93 million miles, and useful when dealing with distances within the Solar System) and end around 3.25 AU. This is from slightly beyond the orbit of Mars to about half of the distance between that planet and Jupiter. That is quite a large amount of space, so even if it were populated by millions of asteroids, as some have theorized, there is more than enough room to both accommodate them and ensure that anything traversing the belt does not get pulverized (assuming that is its goal).

Also, the asteroid belt is not some sort of time capsule, filled with leftover material from the formation of the Solar System that has remained there until the present relatively unchanged. Though there are some objects in the main belt that fit this description, the belt itself and its residents have changed over time, mostly due to the presence of the planet beyond its outer edge. I have written before of the dominant role Jupiter has played in the evolution of the Solar System, so suffice it to say here that its gravitational influence has worked both to keep the material in the belt from initially forming into a planet and to subsequently mess with the orbits of everything that happens to be there. Thus many asteroids that are in the main belt now did not start there, and many that did are for various reasons no longer around. And while it most definitely is not a shooting gallery, there are collisions between asteroids that alter their compositions. Finally, some of the larger ones may be subject to geologic forces similar to those found on Earth, pushing them even further from their initial state.

That being said, one of Dawn's primary purposes is to shed light on the formation and evolution of planets. Its two targets, Vesta and Ceres, are the largest objects in the asteroid belt (#2 and #1, respectively), and have stayed more or less where they were to start out. However, they are very different from each other, and studying them will help to solve important questions about how various processes play out over time. Vesta, following Ceres' reclassification as a dwarf planet, is the most massive of the asteroids, having an irregular shape but a differentiated interior (meaning various types of rocks have congregated together under internal gravity, rather than remaining randomly distributed). One question Vesta may help to answer is how and when magnetic fields arise on planets. Apparently Vesta's rocks are more strongly magnetized than those of Mars, possibly as the result of a massive collision it suffered around a billion years ago, so data from Dawn may help us understand how and why Mars lost its magnetic field, and how our own may change in the future. Ceres is by far the largest object in the asteroid belt, and since it is spherical it is now considered a dwarf planet. Ceres has a great deal of ice on its surface, could have seasonal polar caps, and may even harbor an ocean below its icy shell, all of which make it a place of great interest. One question Ceres could help answer is how the oceans formed on Earth. There are a few theories out there, and one of them involves a number of objects similar in composition to Ceres, though not as large, being thrown at us by Jupiter during the early period of intense and heavy bombardment the Earth sustained before things calmed down a little. So data from Dawn may help us understand whether or not this theory is plausible, as well as give us another example of how water and ice work to shape a planet over time.

The thing that will enable Dawn to do all of this is its ion engine. First tested by the Deep Space 1 probe in the late 90's, the ion engine has the potential to open up many new regions of the Solar System to exploration. Much more compact, more versatile, and longer lasting than traditional chemical rockets, the ion engine uses the thrust generated by charged particles (in Dawn's case Xenon gas) to move a spacecraft. It starts out slow, but since an ion engine can operate continuously over periods of several years, it can build up speeds similar to those rockets can provide while being more efficient, less bulky, and more reliable. It is also what will enable Dawn to leave Vesta and travel to Ceres for the second leg of its mission, something that would be extremely difficult for a traditional rocket powered spacecraft. Of course, Dawn did require a rocket to leave Earth's gravity well, but after that it has been clear ion sailing. The other feature of ion engines is that they take a long time to get you where you want to go (Dawn took a little less than four years to reach Vesta, and will take another 2.5 to get to Ceres) but when you consider that an ion engine needs a lot less fuel to get there, and that traditional rockets and their fuel is expensive (usually to the tune of around 50% of any mission's total cost), it is well worth the wait. Thus I hope that the ion engine will soon become the method of choice for robotic exploration, and that Dawn's success will inspire many more ambitious missions that will unlock the secrets of our Solar System.

There are, of course, many online resources for those who wish to learn more about Dawn, the asteroid belt, and ion propulsion. The best place to start is the Dawn mission home page, and to follow your curiosity after that. Next up we will discuss some recent news that has the potential to really shake up physics as we have understood it for the past century.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Space Week 2011 Kickoff

[For those of you new to this, every October since the fall of 2000 I have written a series of space-related articles in honor of the United Nations World Space Week that runs Oct. 4-10. Though they cover a broad range of topics, many of them touch on public policy, economics, or political issues, and are thus appropriate for this forum. Now on with the show.] 

Man, where does the time go?

I've been working on a couple of other projects over the past several weeks, so it only recently hit me that SPACE WEEK STARTS TOMORROW!! Maybe today if you read this after midnight on the 4th, which is likely most of you.

Yes, our annual extravaganza of all things supraterran is about to begin. Once again to keep things manageable I will be posting articles throughout the month of October, but since I already have more than enough timely and interesting issues to write about, not to mention a backlog of requests from previous years, I am forgoing the usual topic solicitation.

The lineup for this year is as follows:
1: "The Dawn of a New Era"
2: "Hmm, That's Funny?" or "Dem Wacky Neutrinos"
3: "50 Years of Human Spaceflight" (official WSW 2011 theme)
4: "Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Curiosity Right Over"
5: "Is the Private Space Industry Ready for Takeoff?"
6: "The Voyagers and the Making of a Space Geek"
7: "Back to Basics: The Cosmic Perspective"

As always, I welcome any questions, comments or suggestions these pieces may inspire.

I hope you all enjoy the ride.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Constitution and Child Poverty

This past Saturday I made my annual pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair. Earlier in the day I had dropped my wife off at the Park and Ride lot closest to our house so she could complete the first of two volunteer shifts at the Pro-Choice Resources booth (she serves on their board, give them a donation). I then took my son home so he could have his afternoon nap, and when he awoke we returned to the same lot and took the bus to the fairgrounds where we met my wife and spent a few hours taking in some of the many cultural, educational, and gastronomical offerings available at this most Minnesotan of gatherings. While there I had an interesting idea (for an invention of sorts, it will take a bit of research before I know whether or not it is feasible), and for the rest of the day my brain was just clicking. Later in the evening back home I was catching up on news and read this excellent op-ed in the New York Times. While digesting the piece and posting the link with a bit of commentary on my Facebook feed I was struck by the thought than when looked at in a certain way, the phenomenon of child poverty in the U.S. is not just tragic, wasteful, and entirely avoidable if certain resources were redirected, but is a gross violation of the terms of that great, often misunderstood document, the U.S. Constitution.

In Article III, Section 3 the Constitution defines what will be considered treason under U.S. jurisprudence, and the section includes the clause "The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted." Now treason is a pretty serious crime, one of the most serious a person can commit given its potential to enable the large scale destruction of lives and property depending on the specific content of the treasonous act. At the same time, however, the writers of the Constitution wanted to be very clear on what treason actually was. Having recently thrown off British rule, many of them were keenly aware of how fuzzy the definition of treason can be when one is the subject of a monarch, no matter how limited his or her powers may be, and they knew it had often been applied unjustly to people who had simply disagreed with the Crown or Parliament but had done nothing to aid or abet its enemies. Thus they specified that treason "shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." Having done this they then wrote the clause above about the punishment of treason. As we can see, Congress is given latitude to decide this, but with a couple of interesting restrictions, especially for the time. In England, part of the standard punishment for treason was that strange term "Corruption of Blood", which basically meant that if a man was convicted of treason, not only was his life and property forfeited to the state, but his (most likely innocent) children were disinherited. Such unfortunate children were barred from inheriting not only from their father (whose property had of course already been forfeited), but from any other living relatives such as a grandfather or uncle. As a rule this punishment was reserved mainly for nobles, and it effectively ended the hereditary titles and political influence of any family thus attainted, so it is interesting that the term appears in the founding document of a nation that has no noble class (at least in theory) and grants no hereditary titles.

Now I am no Constitutional scholar (though having majored in political science as an undergrad and more recently earned a masters in public policy I believe I can reasonably assume I have studied it a good deal more than the average citizen), but it seems to me that the inclusion of the clause first quoted sends a pretty powerful message, one that at the time was considered somewhat radical: children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents. By prohibiting Corruption of Blood as a punishment for the most serious crime, one can infer that the framers did not intend for it to be a consequence of lesser crimes either. Yet that is exactly what is happening in the U.S. today from a social, a legal, and most crucially an economic standpoint. And it is true not only for the children of those who have actually been convicted of a crime, but for the children of those who fall into a class that might as well be considered criminal, the poor.

It wasn't always this way. We used to have this thing called the American Dream, and up until 30-40 years ago it was entirely possible for someone who had been born into poverty to break into the ranks of the middle class or the wealthy if they were lucky or talented or had a halfway decent work ethic. It had its challenges, certainly, and in the social arena who your parents were did have an influence, but these were not insurmountable, and there was always the option to pick up and relocate since in those days your past didn't follow you as closely. Today, however, that Dream is dying, and while its decay was in progress long before the current recession, these past few years may have given it a blow from which it might not recover. Today being born into poverty is no longer just a stumbling block coming out of the gate, it is like being shot in the leg before the race even begins.

As detailed in Blow's op-ed, child poverty rates are on the rise, and the consequences for those unlucky enough to be born into it are myriad and debilitating. Such children rarely get adequate pre-natal care when they are in the womb, and when born suffer from poor nutrition, unstable living situations, and a lack of nurturance from parents who are overworked, underpaid, and overstressed. These conditions often lead to diminished brain development, low educational attainment, and increased vulnerability to both physical and mental illness. While some of these children will defy the odds and grow up to be productive members of society, and maybe even the occasional Oprah who shoots into the stratosphere, most of them will be doomed to the same low economic prospects that doomed their parents, ensuring the continuance of the vicious cycle into yet another generation. To me, and I will wager to many others, this situation constitutes a de facto imposition of Corruption of Blood on the children of both actual criminals (whose standard of living plunges when a parent is incarcerated) and the poor (who may as well be criminals, considering how they are treated by the more "respectable" elements of society).

The earthquake that recently struck the Washington D.C. area was described by some as the result of the Founding Fathers collectively rolling in their graves in disgust at the current state of this country. While I do not idolize that group as some do, I give them credit for crafting a Constitution that has stood the test of time and for leaving a great legacy for future generations to aspire to. They were wise to recognize that children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents, and it is time their successors, us, stood up to eradicate the morally abhorrent, economically wasteful, and unconstitutional condition of child poverty. It is not only a wise investment, as decades of research have proven, but it is the ethical thing to do, and by doing so we not only leave a better future for everyone's children, but renew the promise of the contract that binds us all as citizens.           

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ron Paul, Warren Buffet, and job creation voodoo.

This past Saturday through the excellent technology of DVR I spent about an hour and 40 minutes in that bizarre alternate universe that was the R presidential candidate debate. Sponsored by FOX News and originally airing the Thursday evening prior to the Iowa straw poll, the event had a surreal atmosphere throughout, and even when a candidate was saying things that were relatively sane I felt a general uneasiness, as if I was peeking into someone's window and seeing something not meant for public view. For the R presidential nomination process is very much akin to watching sausage being made, and for this left-leaning moderate the phrase "In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king." came to mind very often. While it would take much too long to go over all of the inaccurate, misleading, and hypocritical statements that were made during the course of this unsettling affair, my personal favorite was hearing Rick Santorum of all people chastise Iran for "trampling on the rights of women and gays". To say that the debate had a "winner" would be unfair to both the candidates and the viewers, since in a forum that included eight hopefuls there was no space to give any of them enough airtime to make a coherent statement of their platform (though the Bachmann-Pawlenty snipe-fest was definitely entertaining for this Minnesotan), but to me the one-eyed man was Ron Paul. While, as is the case with anyone who would seek the R endorsement, he and I agree on very little, he seemed the most genuine of the people on stage and earned points with me for his more thorough understanding of the U.S-Iran relationship (he cited the 1952 CIA-led coup against the democratically elected Mossadegh) when that topic was being discussed. A shame that he is the Rodney Dangerfield of the R field.

Of the many topics that were discussed at the debate, the economy was at the top of the list. Recently I wrote about how there has been, nearly three years after the 2008 financial crisis, and the huge rise in unemployment that it triggered, little movement on the most pressing problem this country faces: getting those unemployed back to work. While in the weeks since the debt deal there has been a bit of an uptick in the mentions of the job issue in political rhetoric, I have yet to see anything resembling a coherent plan from any part of the spectrum on the issue. But listening to the R candidates pontificate on this during the debate, it is clear to me that they are stuck in their own echo chamber, and epitomized the adage that if you keep repeating a lie enough times, eventually people will believe it. I don't know where they got this notion (Grover Norquist, maybe?), but they all appear to think that job creation is somehow inversely tied to tax rates. Judging by their statements, they believe that a business person makes the decision whether or not to hire a new worker based solely on how lightly or heavily their profits are being taxed. Market considerations are apparently not a factor, nor are the internal needs of the firm. While maybe the debate was not the best forum to display a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the economy, the talking points uttered are pretty much the same things we've been hearing from the Rs for several years. So please forgive me if my estimation of their potential to do something positive with the economy is virtually nonexistent.

Now don't get me wrong, I am well aware that tax rates do influence business decisions (all those tax incidence problems in grad school did get the message across), but I have never heard of any business person passing up a good investment opportunity just because they think the taxes on any money they make from it will be too high. Warren Buffett's editorial in Monday's New York Times states this quite eloquently, and he deftly exposes the hypocrisy of R calls for "shared sacrifice". The way I see it, people like Buffett who are already well off and are successful within a system that is designed to help them continue being successful are not the ones that need help. Nor, in contrast to much R rhetoric, are they delicate flowers who's purchasing power will wilt at the slightest movement in their tax rates back toward the historical average (although some might throw a hissy fit). Not to mention, quite a few of the wealthiest people in this country are on the record saying they wouldn't mind paying more in taxes, what with the crumbling infrastructure, hard-pressed schools, rising rates of child poverty and such. And any wealthy person who does whine that they are paying too much in taxes is either not paying attention or willfully ignorant. Last I checked, effective tax rates for the highest earners were near their historic lows, so what is there to complain about? And if, as the Rs say, low taxes are the key to job creation, then WHERE ARE THEY? Taxes on the very wealthy have been down and going down for the better part of a decade, yet net job growth has been near zero over that stretch. True, quite a bit else was happening in the economy, much of it enabled by lax regulation in the financial sector, but the R trope about how any raise in taxes will hinder "job creators" simply doesn't hold water when one looks at how the economy has actually been functioning (or not, as the case may be).

When I look at R statements about "job creators" I get the impression that they must believe that job creators are synonymous with very wealthy people and large corporations. While it is true that the demand for goods that wealthy people create inspires other people to cater to that demand, and that large corporations do hire people on occasion, most of the data on actual job creation shows that new jobs come primarily from small, young firms, aka start-ups. I take this to mean that the "job creators" are not people (or corporations) with money, but rather people with ideas. While it definitely takes money to put an idea into practice, as stated above good ideas should not have trouble obtaining funding no matter what the tax situation happens to be at the time. The much more murky question is that of the regulatory environment. Rs would have us believe that there is too much regulation across the board, but to me the pertinent question is who is doing the regulating, and for a long time the answer to that has been large corporations through the strategy of agency capture. This has happened gradually over the course of both D and R administrations, but by now almost every agency that regulates either a specific sector of the economy or a cluster of industries is for the most part filled with people who have worked for, lobbied on behalf of, or otherwise benefited personally from, the largest firms in those sectors or industries. As such it is no surprise that a lot of regulation favors large firms and leaves any potential start-ups at a huge disadvantage should they choose to enter the market.

Solving this particular issue will require a good deal more effort than tweaking any particular tax rate, and is thus a tougher nut to crack. Also, since there is no single source to target for action on regulatory reform, and any proposed action is likely to affect different parts of the economy in different ways, gains on one front will be diminished by losses on another. So, unfortunately for the soundbite and talking point obsessed media and the candidates who kowtow to its sensibilities, there are no easy answers and no one magic bullet that will get things back on track. But for a plan to have any chance of success it must focus on helping the people with ideas. Those with money are doing just fine, thanks.      


Friday, August 12, 2011

Open letter to toy manufacturers

A couple of weeks ago I celebrated my son Liam's second birthday. It was a multi-day extravaganza that featured three parties attended by various elements of our extended family, lots of cake consumed, and plenty of gifts. For a while most of the gifts sat in several bags in our basement, but earlier this week I got to the task of sorting them all out, compiling a list of who gave what, and extricating the toys from the boxes they came in.

In regards to the latter I feel compelled to ask: Has the theft rate of childrens' toys gone up so much in the past 20 years to really require all of the layers of packaging, tape, cardboard tabs, twist ties, and little plastic thingies, some with screws to take out, one now encounters in the process of taking said toys out of their boxes? Working with my pocket knife, scissors, screwdriver, or whatever else was necessary to open these toys up, it often took me a half-hour on just a single item before it was ready to be played with as intended. Maybe I am some sort of ignorant fool and these things are just to hold the toy in place so it looks good on the shelf or have to do with some other marketing strategy, and are in no way a security measure, but whatever the reason behind this explosion of packaging paraphenelia it annoys the frak out of me as a parent when I need a Swiss army knife just to get the toy out of the box. Then there is dealing with all the unnecessary waste this generates and making sure none of the small parts in the elaborate scheme end up in either the kid's or a pet's mouth. In short, toy companies, you are taking something that should be simple and joyful (at least I hope some parents find joy in opening and setting up toys given to their children) and turning it into a complex, exasperating slog. Just the fact that I need to use terms like "process", "elaborate scheme", and "slog" to describe the experience should indicate something is wrong. And while I don't know exactly how much all of this extra material costs, it ain't nothing and someone (manufacturer, buyer, or some combination) is ultimately paying for it. As a result of all this I will not be buying toys that come packaged in this manner, not for my child or for anyone else's. I hope you're happy.

Amid all of this there was one notable counterexample. One of the items Liam received was a recycling truck made by the aptly named Green Toys. In addition to making all of their products from recycled material (primarily milk cartons), said products come in a simple cardboard box with no other extra fluff. So the next time you are looking for a gift for a young child, check them out. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bad ideas win again

Before I even looked at the details of the proposed debt ceiling deal I had a strong feeling there was not much about it I was going to like. It is, after all, a deal designed to cater to the Republican majority in the House, which in the several months since this Congress was sworn in has shown nothing even resembling a desire to enact legislation that would help get this country out of the deep hole it is currently in. Instead, it has pursued a strategy that has as its central tenet the continued enrichment of the small slice of the population that funds its campaigns at the expense of everyone else. What we have just seen in the debate on the debt ceiling is old-school Mafia tactics being applied to fiscal policy. It is as if a bunch of thugs with brickbats walked up to a storefront that has "U.S. Economy" on the door and said "Nice (though "barely functional" might be the more apt description right now) place you have here. Shame if something were to happen to it." And the store owners (us) are paying up, in the form of obscene tax giveaways to corporations and the top 2% of earners, spending cuts to safety net programs that have widespread support, and the decay of our physical infrastructure. The worst part of it is that through all of this latest Washington sideshow there was little if any discussion on what the real problem is: jobs, or the lack thereof. Though budget deficits and the growth in the national debt that they cause are definitely issues that should be addressed, the proposed deal does so in a way that severely dims the prospects for any sustained economic recovery. By passing it Congress will, in effect, be cutting of the economy's nose in order to spite its face.

But of course nothing about how this particular round has turned out is at all surprising. For some time now the influence of conservative mass media has exerted a persistent pull on rightward end of the political spectrum, giving a platform for more and more extreme views. Thus we have a situation where what was considered conservative a few years ago is now no longer conservative enough. Case in point: Tom Coburn was recently called a RINO (Republican in Name Only) by Tea Partiers ( Combine this with the way our voting system is set up to grant victory to candidates who win only a plurality, the tendency of primaries to weed out all but the most puritan ideologues, and widespread voter apathy (in many ways a result of the previous two features), and we get the situation we have now where the Republican party is so consumed with falling over itself in the race to the bottom that it is in no way qualified to actually govern. Not that the Democrats have made a good name for themselves in this either, but at least there are folks in that party who at least try to run the country effectively when they are in office. Also, the tendency of liberals to be less deferential to authority and value evidence means the leftward end of the spectrum has been less subject to mass media hysterics and thus remained relatively stationary.

Thus, as the old saying goes, we are getting the government we deserve. While economic disaster may have been averted for the time being, the current media environment and existing voting system is setting us up for more of the same down the road. Since I happen to like the First Amendment and the freedoms it protects, no matter how unscrupulously some might use them, I grudgingly accept that conservative media is likely not going away anytime soon. However, the voting system is a construct of law and tradition, and we should be able to tinker with it in ways that will produce a more accurate reflection of public will. This is why I am a ranked-choice voting advocate, and hope that while the bad ideas may have won this round, they will open the way for this particular good idea to gain a stronger foothold in the national consciousness. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Shutdown blues II

So it has been two weeks since the Minnesota state government shut down all services save those deemed essential by Ramsey County Chief Judge Gearin.
How many offers has Governor Dayton made to resolve the budget gap? Several.
How many offers have Republican leaders? A big fat zero.

This alone should be an indication of which camp in this sorry affair is actually willing to move a little to bring the shutdown to a close. Now today the news comes out that Governor Dayton is offering to accept the last Republican offer before the shutdown began, with a few extra conditions:
Star Tribune Story

My take on this is that it is a bad deal to end an even worse problem. The school funding shifts are more of the same that we got from Pawlenty, and borrowing against the tobacco settlement does nothing to solve the revenue imbalances that got us into this mess in the first place. The added conditions are reasonable and might do something to mitigate the long-term unemployment crisis that is one of the root causes of this and similar budget deficits in other states, but at this point they are only drops in the bucket. I just hope that Minnesota voters have memories longer than most, and that when Nov. 2012 comes along they will punish the Republican party for all of the unnecessary suffering it is causing.

At the same time we really need to start tackling the issue that, while not responsible for the budget crisis itself, is the reason why the budget crisis has gone unresolved for so long: our voting system that stifles reasoned debate and rewards fearmongering and extremism.  

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Shutdown blues

As a resident of Minnesota, it irks me to no end that my state is once again in the national and international news for all the wrong reasons. Our government shutdown is now one week old, and to hear the pundits talk, how the budget impasse that created it is resolved will have a large influence on budget discussions at the federal level. In the meantime, some 20,000+ state employees (at least one of whom is a good friend) are laid off, parks and highway rest stops are closed, and state run or funded programs like child care assistance (which one of my sisters receives) are on hiatus. While it hasn't affected me personally yet, the longer this drags on the more the misery the shutdown is causing will spread. Scratch that: this morning I noticed that the tabs on the car I drive expired the day the shutdown began. I don't remember seeing a renewal notice in the mail, but since most of the places to do renewals are not even and you can't do it online, can I still get pulled over for not being in compliance? (If you work in law enforcement, please forget you just read that)

Now I read today that billboards scapegoating Governor Dayton are being put up across the state. Funded no doubt by the very same people who funded the campaigns of Republican legislators who think that any tax increase will bring about the end of civilization (wasn't that supposed to happen six weeks ago?). The same Republican legislators who wasted weeks of the regular session in debates to put a gay-marriage ban amendment on the ballot next fall, and want their pet social causes to be part of any budget deal. The same Republican legislators who seem to think that cutting spending on the very things that in the past made Minnesota a good place to live, like health care, education, infrastructure, and the environment, is somehow "pro-business". I could go on at length, and likely will at some point, about how unfair and unsustainable our current tax system is, but for now I have to wonder if anyone in the Minnesota legislature with an R next to their name has even the most basic comprehension of how and why we have a government.

As with most things in politics these days, the only beneficiary of the shutdown is that small slice of society that derives undue gains at the expense of those on the lower rungs of the totem pole. These are the folks who have already amassed great wealth through commerce (which depends on economic infrastructure and the purchasing power of consumers), inheritance (which depends on the crapshoot of parentage) or ownership of valuable resources (which depends on random distribution, either genetic or in the physical world) but feel some sense of entitlement as "self-made men" (they are most always men). It was nearly a year ago that I earned my degree from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and there is a screen that is posted above the main reception desk that displays various quotes from the Happy Warrior. My favorite one says "The worst thing a man can think is that he got there on his own." There, I think is the crux of the matter. Those who are already well-off have become so because of a system that is rigged in their favor, yet they cannot acknowledge that fact because if they did their entire case for why they do not need to pay their fair share of taxes evaporates. This is why they, and their bought and paid for Republican legislators, both in Minnesota and nationally, are fighting tooth and nail to keep the public from waking up to the realization that the wealth and privilege this small slice enjoys is based on a system that legitimizes a scheme of Robin Hood in reverse. It was not always this way, and does not need to be this way. Making the system more fair will be challenging, and will only be accomplished amid the incessant howling of those who will be losing the unfair advantages they have enjoyed, but in the end we will all benefit, even those who would be howling. Giving in to the absolutist demands of Republicans in either the state or national budget negotiations means worsening the already severe case of short-termism that has infected American business and politics, so I hope Governor Dayton sticks to his guns and does not let the state he was elected to lead be taken hostage by a moneyed few.

Amid the budget mess I will admit that one good thing came out of this year's session: the tap-room law championed by the Surly brewery that removed a restriction on its and other Minnesota breweries ability to sell their own beer on their own premises. I still have a bottle of 2010 Darkness in my fridge, and I think I'll save for when the shutdown finally ends.     

Introductory Post

Greetings, everyone.

Welcome to my new blog, The Left Call. The name was inspired by my experience many years ago as an umpire for youth baseball games, and also by my determined opposition to the right-wing authoritarian agenda that has now wholly captured one of the two major parties in American politics (if I have to tell you which one, you haven't been paying attention). Its primary purpose will be to examine current issues from a standpoint that first and foremost values logic and reason, but that also takes into account the interests of those who are increasingly being given the shaft in today's economy. Like a baseball umpire, my job here is to "call 'em as I see 'em", but since in the game of life complete objectivity is impossible I will not claim to be an unbiased observer, especially because most of what is discussed here is or will be affecting me in some way.

While anything is fair game here, including and especially those topics you hope never come up at your family's Thanksgiving table, I expect any discussion that evolves to be civil and open-minded. The current polarization we see in today's political and media environment serves only the short-term interests of a wealthy few, and will be the undoing of us all if it continues for much longer, so I hope no one succumbs to it here. While as the author I reserve my right to the occasional rant, I want this above all to be a forum that is eye-opening, thought-provoking, and fun. Now play ball!