Wasting Tax Dollars — High-Speed Edition

They’re talking about building a high-speed rail connection between Las Vegas and Victorville, California.  Of course, they’ve been talking about that idea for years.  The difference now is that our government is seriously considering making a $4.9 billion loan — that’s billion — to help finance the project.

Amazing, isn’t it, that after the disastrous failure of Solyndra the federal government would still consider making any loans to private firms, much less loans of billions of dollars?  That’s not the only amazing thing about this proposal, however.

For those who aren’t familiar with California geography, Victorville is 68 miles from Los Angeles.  The concept for the “DesertXpress” train thus envisions L.A. residents bound for Vegas white-knuckling their way through the appalling southern California traffic and then, just as they reach the wide open spaces of the High Desert, getting off the road and waiting for a train!  If they want to play golf in Vegas, they’ll wrestle their clubs onto the train, too!  And then, after a ride that is only about an hour shorter than driving, the train will deposit them at a station in some remote part of Vegas, so they can catch a cab to get to the Strip!  And they’ll happily pay at least $50 one-way (or more than they would pay for gas, even at today’s high prices) for this privilege!

Nothing wrong with that well-conceived concept, eh?  Skeptics might contend that our leaders should follow a simple rule:  if a business plan is so fantastic that even venture capitalists won’t buy in, the federal government shouldn’t, either.  If DesertXpress can’t convince capitalists to invest, taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to fill the void — no matter what kind of phony feasibility studies or rosy projections of increased employment might be cited in support of the project.

Remember, too, that the United States doesn’t have money on hand right now.  If we loan money to DesertXpress, we’ll first have to borrow it from other sources and pay interest.  And when the DesertXpress goes toes up, as common sense dictates it must, our loan won’t be repaid, and we’ll have to dig even deeper into our own pockets to pay off what we borrowed.  Can our government seriously be considering putting us in such a position?  Seriously?


The Raccoon Beneath The Grate

A raccoon, and perhaps a family of raccoons, appears to live in the storm sewers in our neighborhood.

Once, on a morning walk, I saw a hunched shape scrabbling across the street and toward the sewer grate in the pre-dawn darkness.  The raccoon plunged into the sewer.  When we passed by a few moments later, it was there, wearing its mask, perched just beneath the grate, its beady black eyes glittering with the reflected light from a nearby street lamp.  The dogs lunged toward it, and it vanished.

The encounter gave me the creeps.  I have no interest in dealing with potentially rabid creatures, and I don’t like the idea of raccoons using the storm sewer as a kind of vagabond superhighway underneath our neighborhood.  Now, whenever I pass the sewer, I can’t help but look to see whether those black eyes are there, staring back.  Usually they aren’t, and I start to think that perhaps the raccoon is gone.  But every once in a while the eyes are there again, following our movements as we quicken the pace to get past the grate, and I shudder anew.

I don’t remember my dreams when I awaken, but I’d be willing to bet that those beady black eyes through the sewer grate have appeared in a nightmare or two.


Farmers On The Move

How did humans stop wandering and start farming?  It’s a crucial question, because farming allowed our ancestors to move beyond itinerant lifestyles into more permanent cultures.  When farming was adopted, and people saw the benefits of having food at the ready, early humans put down roots (pun intended), established long-term structures, and began to defend their territory and protect their possessions.  Civilization as we know it was the ultimate result.

There are two competing theories.  One is that early farmers migrated from their home area and brought their seeds, tools, and farming concepts with them.  The other posits that hunter-gatherers saw the benefits of farming and decided to adopt the farming lifestyle.  The latter theory seems a bit far-fetched, because it’s hard to imagine hardy hunter-gatherers appreciating the benefits of farming and radically changing their transient ways.

Now DNA studies have lent support to the former theory and indicate that farming was spread through Europe by migrants.  The study found that a Stone Age farmer was genetically distinct from hunter-gatherers of that era, and suggests that farming began in the area now known as Turkey and spread north and west, as farmers looked for tillable acreage where their crops could thrive.  The study also suggests that modern Europeans have more genes of the early farmers than they do of the hunter-gatherers.

In short, the farmers won the Darwinian contest.  Their lifestyle might have been boring compared to that of the hardy hunter-gatherers, but with their steady diets, domesticated animals, and focus on building for a better harvest next year, they were more likely to survive and pass down their genes.

Geek Squad In The ‘Hood

Yesterday I noticed that there was a Geek Squad truck in the neighborhood.  I should have realized that one was nearby, because the very air crackled with geekiness and several people were lying comatose by the roadway after having received needlessly technical explanations from Geek Squad members.

I like the Geek Squad idea, and I bet it works well for Best Buy.  After all, everyone — even the biggest frat guy or stud athlete, who would otherwise sneer at the citizens of geekdom — knows that there are times when you really need a geek.  Installing a home theater system, as this Geek Squad was doing, is one such instance.  And pretty much anything that requires you to talk about a “router” or “portals” also makes meaningful geek participation mandatory.

After I saw the truck, I realized that I have never seen a member of the Geek Squad.  They must be elusive, moving from one geek crisis to another with no waste motion, filled with geek excitement at the looming technological challenge.

I found myself wondering what the uniform of the Geek Squad might be.  I concluded it probably involved horn-rimmed glasses taped together at the nose bridge, a faded paisley short-sleeve shirt buttoned up to the neck, green pants worn at flood tide length, white socks, and black shoes.  Then I realized I had just described my appearance in my seventh-grade class picture.

Gray Brushstrokes Above

It was cold, wet, and overcast all day yesterday, and on this morning’s walk we saw that the last few clouds were being swept away, leaving a powder blue sky behind.  Low on the southern horizon the delicate wisps of clouds looked intentionally placed, as if The Great Artist had decided that the canvas called for a few deft, gray brushstrokes in the air in order to frame and complete the scene.

As we walked the high-altitude wind continued to work on the cloud shards, pushing them eastward and shredding them at the same time.  Five minutes later, the delicate brushstrokes were gone.

Cloud formations teach you to enjoy the moment.

I Really Don’t Care About The Money

We’ve got a hot U.S. Senate race in Ohio this year:  incumbent Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, is looking to fend off the challenge of Republican Josh Mandel.

I’ll write more about the race as we get closer to the election.  For now, I’ll just say that I’m mystified by the tactics of the Brown campaign.  I get their e-mails constantly, and they all are about money.  How much money Mandel is raising, how much money “special interests” are contributing to support Mandel’s candidacy, how many TV ads have been purchased as a result of the money contributed to the Mandel campaign, and how much money the Brown campaign needs to make up for the cash landslide that is tumbling into Ohio.

Money, money, money!  Obviously, the Brown campaign believes that the constant drumbeat of news about what donors have contributed to Mandel’s campaign will spur me to open my checkbook, again and again, to give money to Sherrod Brown.  My question is:  why do they think that is what will happen?  Isn’t it equally plausible that I’ll just get sick to death of being hit up for money and immediately delete their e-mails, unread?  (After all, we’re still six months away from the election — how many more money-grubbing e-mails do they think I can bear?)  Or that I’ll just give up because the money lead for the Mandel campaign apparently is insurmountable?  Or that I’ll conclude that the Brown campaign doesn’t care about anything except cold, hard cash?

Political campaigns used to be about candidates, issues, speeches and rallies, now they are about money, money, and more money.  We are all the poorer for this.

Time To Rely On Character, Not Guidelines

The Secret Service’s response to its embarrassing Colombian prostitute scandal — like the GSA response to its infuriating Las Vegas spend-a-thon — says a lot about the bureaucratic mindset.

In an effort to prevent agents from engaging in future drunken romps with hookers, the Secret Service has tightened guidelines.  Agents working overseas now are “banned from drinking on duty, visiting ‘disreputable establishments’ and bringing foreigners into hotel rooms.”  These are viewed as “common-sense enhancements” of existing rules, and will be accompanied by more “ethics sessions” for staff.  In short, the Secret Service, like the GSA before it, is relying on more regulation and more bureaucracy to solve its problem.

Does anyone really think, however, that the wording of regulations is what caused this scandal?  Does the Secret Service really believe that the agents who got drunk in a strip club and took Colombian streetwalkers back to their hotel rooms consulted the employee guidelines before they guzzled their first shot of vodka?

The problem is not with regulations, but with people.  If the Secret Service has hired agents who thought their behavior in Colombia was acceptable, then the problem runs a lot deeper than tweaking the terms of Regulation 12.3(b)(iii).  The processes that led to the hiring of the agents failed, and the training that helped to shape their behavior also failed.  The Secret Service needs to take a comprehensive look at how it selects and schools the people who protect our President.  It needs to figure out how to identify, hire, and promote individuals with qualities like responsibility, dedication, and judgment — because the agents involved in the Colombia scandal sorely lacked those crucial qualities.

It’s time our government understood that we must put our faith in people, not regulations.  You can’t regulate reckless people into responsible people.

Why Can’t Life Be Like Beach Blanket Bingo?

It was a long, grueling day at the office today.  As I walked to my car afterward, the sun hanging low in the sky, I noticed a bunch of swimsuit-wearing young people throw down blankets and start twisting furiously, while Frankie and Annette gave each other a split-second, soulless, sexless kiss, a chorus sang of “lads” and “lassies,” a girl wasted a perfectly good ice cream cone on a “fresh” guy’s mug, and a dude named Moondoggy wore a curious hat.

Well, okay, that didn’t happen — but wouldn’t it be something if just once life were like Beach Blanket Bingo?

Bob Dylan And The Congressional Medal Of Freedom

The White House has announced that Bob Dylan soon will be receiving the Congressional Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.  He will be joined by fellow recipients Toni Morrison, John Glenn, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

I’m skeptical of such honors — often they seem motivated more by political considerations, or a desire for higher ratings for the awards show, than by an effort to recognize those who truly have had a profound impact on our society — but there is no doubt that Bob Dylan is deserving of such recognition.

In fact, you could argue that Dylan’s entire career has been about freedom.  Starting from his roots as a folk singer who wrote classics like Blowin’ In The Wind and The Times They Are A-Changin’, to his famous decision to go electric, to his leadership role in the protests against the Vietnam War, and then to his willingness to experiment with different musical styles, including involvement in the Traveling Wilburys, as his career progressed, Dylan always has been willing to challenge authority, display his sharp wit, and follow his own star, wherever it might lead.  His uniquely American personal journey has produced a staggering amount of tremendous music, too — great albums like Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, The Basement Tapes, and, more recently, Modern Times, and a huge library of great songs like Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Positively 4th Street, and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.

America’s leadership role in the world is as much cultural as economic or military.  Bob Dylan’s songs have demonstrated, for all the world to see, what memorable beauty a free person in a free country can create.  His music has been a great ambassador for the concepts of personal liberty that America was founded to preserve.  I’d say it’s about time our government formally recognized what Dylan’s fans recognized long ago.

Help Us, Trent!

Tonight is the first round of the NFL draft.  The Browns made a bit of a splash by swapping first round picks with the Minnesota Vikings — and giving the Vikings three later round picks, to boot — and then drafting Trent Richardson of Alabama.

Every Browns fan knows the team is cursed and can expect only miserable failure come draft day.  Against that backdrop of complete and utter pessimism, I have to say that . . . I think Richardson is a good pick.

Richardson was a mainstay in the Alabama attack last year.  He gained 1679 yards on the ground in 2011, averaging 5.9 yards a carry, and caught 29 passes for another 338 yards.  He scored 24 touchdowns and showed the ability to make big plays with long runs and pass plays.  Equally important, he played well in the big games, including running the ball effectively against the tough LSU defense in the BCS championship game.

The Browns need offensive punch — their offense somehow managed to both suck and blow last year — and Richardson looks like someone who can make the defensive coordinators on opposing teams sweat a little.  Now, if only the Browns can find another playmaker (a speedy wide receiver would be nice) and somebody to block, they’ll have taken their first, tentative steps toward respectability.

In the meantime, I suggest that Richardson promptly identify and buy the largest insurance policy he can get his hands on, and keep his eye out for falling anvils.

The Candidate Who Wouldn’t Leave

Yesterday Newt Gingrich indicated that he was finally ending his presidential campaign.  The announcement caught most knowledgeable observers by surprise, because they thought his campaign had ended months ago.

In this campaign cycle, Gingrich became the candidate who wouldn’t leave.  In recognition of his long overdue decision to face reality and get the heck out of Dodge, I offer this bit of doggerel:

Let’s raise a glass to our friend Newt

It took months to give him the boot

A white-haired whiz, great in debate

He somehow lost state after state

A stubborn cuss, he kept attacking

Only to take one more shellacking

His glibness was his main asset

That’s why he ended deep in debt

His campaign just went on and on

Long forgotten, he’s finally gone.

Trying To Maintain That Force Of Habit

When I woke up today at the regular time for my regular morning walk, we were in the middle of a gully-washing thunderstorm.  So, my normal long stroll was cut short to a quick, furtive trip around the house amidst lightning flashes — just long enough to allow the frightened, shaking dogs to do their duty.

I hate it when a morning rainstorm prevents my walk.  I have lots of bad habits and precisely one good one — taking a long, healthy, fresh air-breathing, cobwebs-clearing walk in the morning with the pooches.  I’ve been on the road recently and haven’t done it for about a week, and now I’m stymied in doing so this morning.

I’m always worried that, if I don’t rigorously stick to the schedule, my lone good habit will vanish like a puff of smoke in a stiff breeze.  Bad habits always are hard to break, but good habits are hard to keep.  That’s because bad habits typically are fun and immediately rewarding, while good habits are neither.  It’s easy to roll over in bed in the morning, snooze a bit longer, and rationalize that a short walk is good enough.  Good habits need to be treated with the daily care and attention that you might give to a rare flower in your garden.

This morning I was up and ready to go, ready to let my good habit reassert itself, when the fates intervened.  Hey, Mother Nature:  how about a little cooperation here?

The Dreaded Double Dip

Today Great Britain published statistics indicating that its economy has slid back into recession, making England the victim of a dreaded “double dip” recession.  Economic officials in the United States are holding their breath and hoping that the American economy doesn’t suffer a similar fate.

“Double dip” recessions are no laughing matter — but we can all use a laugh now and then.  And who can hear the phrase “double dip” without thinking of this classic scene from Seinfeld:

Mill, Baby, Mill!

In Ohio we are getting a first-hand look at the ripple effect in the economy when America’s energy resources are tapped — and it has been a real economic boon.

As I’ve mentioned before, eastern Ohio is home to the Utica shale formation, an incredibly deep layer of rock that apparently is a rich repository of natural gas, oil, and other highly valued “wet gases.”  Drilling wells requires steel pipe, and because the Utica shale formation is so deep underground it requires lots and lots of pipe.  As this New York Times article reports, the need for pipe caused by the resurgence in natural gas drilling in the continental United States has helped to fuel a resurgence in the Ohio steel industry, which has seen expanding steel mills and the hiring of new workers to handle the skyrocketing demand.

The effects don’t stop there.  The owners of the property on which the wells are being drilled have been paid for the privilege and therefore have more money to put into their local economies.  The fracking method used to extract the gas and oil requires lots of water, so trucking companies have expanded their tanker fleets to meet the demand.  And all of the truck drivers, oil drillers, geologists, and drilling engineers who work in Ohio’s oil patch have to eat and sleep and work, which means that hotels, motels, and restaurants in the area are busier than they’ve been in years and the demand for office space has increased, too.

In short, Ohio’s economy demonstrates the good things that can happen when energy resources are located and tapped.  As the Ohio story shows, developing our oil and gas resources — a proven commodity with a proven market that doesn’t require government subsidies or wasteful stimulus spending — is a sure means for an economy to grow its way out of this unending recession.

Thanks to Richard for sending me the linked article.