Friday, July 29, 2011

Resolving the U.S. Debt and Deficit Difficulties

by Richard Crews
While waiting to earn my Boy Scout Merit Badge in Punditry (when, at the last minute, President Obama eloquently declares that the Congress is intransigent and he is "forced" to invoke the 14th Amendment to abolish the debt ceiling and save the nation), I have been contemplating just what steps the government should take to balance the federal budget and reduce the nation's debt.

The first few of these are short-term stimulus measures to reinvigorate the nation's recovery from the Great Recession. For example, the current payroll tax relief which is due to expire at the end of this year should be extended at least one year if not two. Programs to support state governments should be robustly fortified so that states do not lay off tens of thousands of workers--people such as teachers, police, and fire fighters as well as those in less politically hot-button clerical and administrative jobs. Programs are also important which invest in clean energy (solar, wind, and geothermal) and 21st century infrastructure (high-speed rail and mass transit rather than one-passenger superhighways, fiber-optics rather than wires, and a "smart grid" to distribute energy efficiently).

While these may seem like expensive government programs, they would, in fact, strengthen the economy which is the best source of deficit and debt reduction in the long run.

The feds should abandon the imaginary "War on Drugs" ("Prohibition" didn't work either) and release the 80% of the prison population who did not commit violent crimes--release them to programs for rehabilitation, job training, and social reintegration. (Note that the U.S. incarcerates a far greater percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world--ANY! including China, Russia, and Iran.) Along these lines, the U.S. should outlaw solitary confinement which is currently used for tens of thousands of prison inmates; solitary confinement has been ruled internationally a form of "torture" but it is invoked as an "administrative measure" so it is not unconstitutional as "cruel and unusual punishment." In addition to being barbaric, with regard to the topic of this essay, solitary confinement costs the government $40,000 to $50,000 a year per inmate, so eliminating it would save several billion dollars per year.

For savings that are more long-term, the government should reduce military expenditures by 50% ($350 billion a year) over ten years. This includes closing bases in such places as Germany, South Korea, and the Philippines where we haven't been fighting wars for years.

The Income Tax laws (14,000 pages of "institutionalized corruption") should be revised and simplified, eliminating special favors for tax havens and subsidies for ethanol, farm products, oil, etc. The Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy should be eliminated. A Value-Added Tax should be enacted; almost every advanced, post-industrial country other than the U.S. has a VAT.

The FIFA contribution income maximum should be raised from $109K to $180K.

The U.S. should establish universal medical care with competitive generic drug use, limited malpractice liability, and salaried (not fee-for-service) pay. The Social Security retirement age should be raised to 70--gradually, over 15 years; the population has aged considerably more than that years since the Soc Sec retirement age was installed.

The federal government should reinstall campaign-finance reform (thrown out last year by the Supreme Court in the "Citizens United" case). And it should strengthen lobbying supervision and reduce conflicts of interest. This would reduce wasteful pork-barrel spending.

In addition, the federal government should develop meaningful regulation of Wall Street (for example, regulating derivatives, eliminating obscene pay, and tying incentives to long-term performance--they're working on this, the so-called Dodd-Frank legislation, but it is not going well).

Finally, the federal government should divest itself of much of the U.S. land area that it owns (in some states the U.S. government owns MORE THAN HALF of the land area of the state), thereby recovering both equity and tax revenues. This is a complicated problem with many facets--commercial, environmental, political, etc. But it is worth a long, hard look.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


by Richard Crews
To review briefly, I have talked about the observations in astrophysics that the Universe is fine-tuned for human existence, and the ideas, called the Anthropic Principles, (1) that some creative force must have seen humans and their needs coming many billions of years before there were any humans around (that's called the STRONG Anthropic Principle) or (2) that there are many, many kinds of universes around and that the one we see is, of course, the one that would be just right to create us to see it (that's the WEAK Anthropic Principle).

And I have talked about the observations in quantum physics that consciousness is king over the physical world; that light, for example (or any other member of the sub-atomic world) can be either a wave or a particle depending on how it is observed. If a beam of light is studied as if it were an energy wave, it is found to have frequency and amplitude, to undergo diffraction and interference--attributes which it cannot possibly have as a particle. On the other hand, if it is studied as a particle, it is found to have discrete (quantum) values for such attributes as charge, spin, or mass--attributes which it cannot have as a wave. (It is a common misunderstanding when someone hears that light, or another subatomic entity, can be either a particle or a wave, to think--sure, sometimes it is one and sometimes the other. The excruciatingly unreasonable point is that whenever the entity is observed in one state--by preference of the observer--it shows attributes it cannot possibly ever have had, or carried with it, in the other state.)

I also spoke of the limitations of the human brain computer: it evolved by solving problems using temporal sequencing and causal relationships in three-dimensional space. It does not think outside those boxes.

Trying to think beyond those limitations and use the observations of quantum physics to resolved the paradoxes of astrophysics, here is an intriguing theory of creation--one that takes the absurdities of "luck" out of the picture: Perhaps the Universe as we experience it is created retrospectively by the imposition of human consciousness on a malleable cosmic screen. In other words, perhaps as we look "back" on the astrophysical scene, we shape it--in accordance with quantum physics theories and experiments.

Be that as it may, consciousness or mental intention is a powerful force. We are all familiar, in the healing arts, with--
(1) psychosomatic illness (and the "mind over matter" power of psychosomatic health),
(2) symptom substitution (for example, as the heartache gets less, the headaches get worse),
(3) the placebo effect (measurably responsible for about 35% of any medicine's effects),
(4) the widely reported efficacy of chiropractics, acupuncture, homeopathy, ayurveda, and forms of "spiritual" healing (despite their having no reasonable explanation in terms of Western anatomy or physiology).

I have personally done considerable research into alternative healing methods, and have come to the following conclusion: The ONLY common element among effective systems is the INTENTION OF THE HEALER. The patient does not need to believe in--or even know about--the therapeutic intervention. Moreover, there does not need to be any particular physical or psychological interaction at all. The only essential factor for healing to take place is a deep and powerful psychological intention on the part of the healer. This is impossible to explain and difficult to teach, but it is easy to experience.

Finally, in intellectual or physical "combat," it often appears that one side or one person is luckier than the other. But as Sun Tzu emphasized in his eternal epic "The Art of War," success depends on knowing the battlefield, knowing the enemy, studying the options, etc. In other words, success may seem to be a matter of luck, but it is determined by mental preparation.

So where are we with understanding luck? It has been said in financial maneuvers, in tactics of war, and in games of sport or chance that "chance favors the prepared mind." It is clear in astrophysics and quantum physics that the world of thought rules the physical world. And it is clear to me that in the healing arts the psychological intention of the healer is of paramount importance.

Perhaps that is what "luck" is all about: mental preparation and the power of thought, sometimes hidden, often complex--even conflicted--but subtly and pervasively ruling the roost.

Monday, July 25, 2011


by Richard Crews
Continuing two threads I was discussing about "luck": (1) the STRONG versus WEAK Anthropic Principles, and (2) where is God in all this?

The Anthropic Principle takes note that we live in a Goldilocks world where all those tricky astrophysical numbers are just right for humans to come to life--a world where none of those numbers is even a tiny bit too big or a tiny bit too small, although there doesn't seem to be any good reason why they shouldn't be. So why are they "just right"? The STRONG version of the Anthropic Principle says that whatever brought the Universe into being 14 billion years ago (with the "Big Bang") must have had humans in mind even way back then, more than 13 billion years before there were any humans (or any life at all, for that matter). The WEAK Anthropic Principle says, "Nah, we were just lucky"--very, very trickily lucky, it's true--but (and here's the "explanatory" part), "If we hadn't been so lucky, we simply wouldn't be here at all looking back and being astonished by the coincidences--nobody would be here at all."

So the STRONG Anthropic Principle puts God right in there at the moment of the Big Bang, setting things up nicely for humans to come along 13-plus billion years later. Admittedly, 13-plus billion years ago is a long way from "give us this day our daily bread," but scientists hate to put God in anywhere--they consider it a cop out, a violation of the basic principle of science that everything--EVERYTHING--has a logical cause. So when the WEAK Anthropic Principle came along and said, "Nah, we just lucked out," there was a general sigh of relief.

But not for long--for two reasons: first, the WEAK Anthropic Principle just kicks God back up the road a ways. After all, where did it all come from in the first place? In fact, the key existential questions is, "Why is there SOMETHING rather than NOTHING?" And if that question doesn't pull the rug out from under your comfort zone, you haven't thought about it enough.

The second reason the WEAK Anthropic Principle doesn't help with the God dilemma much is this: If we just happen to be in the "lucky" Universe--the one that just happens to be just right for life and humans to come along--where are all the other "unlucky" universes? You see? It kind of implies that there are lots and lots of other universes out there somewhere that didn't quite make it.

Quantum physics introduces another complexity into these considerations. Quantum physics establishes--backed up, unreasonable as it seems, by air-tight mathematics and many kinds of experiments--that reality doesn't take its final form until it is observed. Yes, consciousness is king over the physical world. A beam of light, for example, may be flitting along in space for a billion years or more, but it doesn't decide whether it is a particle or a wave until someone looks at it--and it can't be both--and whichever one it chooses (or the observer chooses for it), it can never have been the other--NEVER. It has, once observed, characteristics (such as charge, position, amplitude, polarization, or diffraction potential) that it simply could not have if it ever had been in the alternate form.

My resolution of these paradoxes? The human brain evolved to hunt, compete, and survive by solving problems using temporal sequencing and causal relationships in three-dimensional space. We simply do not have the biological computer hardware or software to answer the questions posed. It is like asking someone, "How do I get from #25 Third Avenue to #100 Lolly Street?" if the person has never been in the particular town in question and doesn't have a map. Worse, let's say the person is blind and doesn't speak English. Or the "person" you are asking is a cow. They can "mooo" all they want to, but they can't begin to conceive of the question or how to answer it.

Neither can we. It's humbling but realistic.

Enough for now--maybe more on "luck" later.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


by Richard Crews
What is "luck"? Why does it cast its blessings on one person now and another person then, in a big way here, but only a small way there--and sometimes run contrary to our hopes and dreams? (You may have heard the lament, "If it weren't for BAD luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all.")

Before I continue with this topic, a disclaimer is in order: I borrow ideas and observations from such self-righteous fields as physics and astronomy, but also from self-apologetic fields such as mythology and spiritual healing; along the way you will probably at least disagree with me, if not decide that I am deluded, even certifiable. My justification for talking about this subject is that I have thought about these things for more than half a century, which doesn't make my ideas right but it does give them a peculiar weight--as a little cartoon figure I saw years ago said, looking at an abstract painting,"Don't SHUSH me, lady--I'm 74 years old and to me this is a DIRTY picture!"

First, the easy part: Many people attribute much of what I would call "luck" to religious--or at least to unknowable, ununderstandable, "spiritual"--factors. Generally if they do, there is no arguing with them.

Some say that such people--those who "believe"--do so because otherwise there is a terrifying existential void that pursues us every second, every moment in everything we do. To live untouched by "grace" is to cower, terrified and unproductive, from the darkness that closes in on all sides--that ultimately annihilates our consciousness in death.

Many thinkers of a psychological bent would say that such existential terror can be traced back to deep, unsatisfied emotional needs. Those who learned to feel protected and loved when they were very young and vulnerable, continue to feel happily safe--for whatever reasons they come up with--when they are older.

But setting aside those existential terrors, psychological vulnerabilities, and inflexible beliefs, let's look at some objective observations here and there. (As Jack Webb on "Dragnet" used to say, "The facts, ma'am, just the facts.")

In the realm of science--in astrophysics, to be precise--it appears that several universal constants (like the force of gravity and the charge on the electron, for example) are carefully tuned to support human existence. In fact, there are a dozen or so physical constants that, if they were less than one percent bigger or smaller, would make human life--or any life--impossible. Our atoms would blow up or collapse or suffer some similar existential catastrophe long before they got together and got organized to make us.

This peculiar set of observations has led to a theory called the "anthropic principle": basically this theory states that some sort of Great First Cause--ok, "God" if you will--must have had life and humans in mind when He (or She) tweaked creation several billion years ago. How else could one explain all those tricky astrophysical constants coming out just right?

How else, indeed! Along came the idea that, sure, all those constants are set just right for humans to emerge because if they weren't there simply wouldn't be any humans looking back to remark on them. The first perspective--that the Universe must have been designed for humans from the get-go--has been called the "Strong Anthropic Principle." The second--that when we look back and see things are "tuned just right," well, of course they are, because if they weren't "tuned just right" we wouldn't be here looking back at all--that idea has been called the "Soft (or Weak) Anthropic Principle."

I have a lot more to say about "luck"--from observations in quantum physics, the healing arts, financial investing, and elsewhere--but I have overrun my self-imposed essay-length constraints. (I have a rather short attention span, so I assume my readers do too.) Perhaps I shall return and say more about this subject in the future.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Two Games--Chess and Go

by Richard Crews
The two most intellectually challenging games ever invented are CHESS and GO.

In the West (for example, in the U.S.), the most clever and sophisticated gamesmanship is thought of in terms of chess.

Chess has complicated rules. The six different pieces (pawn, rook, knight, bishop, queen, and king) each have different allowed moves, and, in fact, the moves or powers of a piece may change depending on the progress of a particular game (for example, a pawn can move one or two steps forward but can only capture another piece diagonally, and it can be transformed into a queen or knight if it reaches the far edge of the board).

Chess is essentially a military game. The highest strategies in chess involve using one's own pieces in complex combinations to attack and capture the opponent's queen and, ultimately, king.

In the U.S. we refer to complicated business maneuvers as "playing chess." Similarly, national diplomacy is viewed that way. Diplomats solicit allies and conduct artful negotiations involving trade agreements, sanctions, monetary aid, etc.

On the other hand, in the East (for example, in China), the most clever and sophisticated gamesmanship is thought of, not as chess, but in terms of the game of go.

Go has very simple rules. There is only one kind of piece, and the two players move alternately, each laying out one piece on the board at each move. The goal is to encircle a larger area of the board than the opponent.

Chinese international diplomacy involves go-like thinking. The Chinese's clever strategy in cornering the world production of rare earth metals can be understood in this light. Similarly, their quiet purchase of vast farmland, mine, and other resources in Africa and South America represents a go-like strategy to encircle and control territory.

What happens when one team in a game is playing with one set of rules, and the other side is playing with another? Envision a "football" game in which one side is trying to play American "football" and the other, European "football" (which in the U.S. is called "rugby"). Each side tries to follow its rules and advance the ball to the other side's goal line. It is hard to imagine any result other than chaotic misunderstanding.

The underlying gamesmanship paradigms are profoundly different between the East and West. Understanding this clarifies much of the confusion and misunderstanding in these important diplomatic realms.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Homo siliconensis: A Question of Philosophy--and Strategy--in Looking Toward the Future

by Richard Crews
First, a Parable

A man had two sons (please forgive the sexism in this tale; it simply seems to flow better this way): both were strong and healthy, of good nature and good will, bright and well tuned to the questions and challenges of their day. But one was a lover of sweets--sweet music, sweet tastes for the palate, good and sweet friends: he reveled and rejoiced in the bounty and beauty of the Earth. And the other? He enjoyed these things too, but he was of a more thoughtful nature; he puzzled about the world around him; he was pursued by questions and questions and questions; worries and doubts haunted his mind. Yes, he richly enjoyed the bounty and beauty of the Earth, but with a furrowed brow, a thoughtful mien.

As they grew to manhood, their paths diverged more and more.

And the man pondered and puzzled about them: To which should he leave the weight of his worldly treasures, the highest of the heritable honors he could pass on to them, the esteem of his name and his domain? Which should be his true and major heir?

Second, the Setting

Over the past few billion years, because of a thousand rare adventures in astronomical benevolence; through the chemical miracles of DNA, chlorophyll, testosterone, and much more; through a myriad of fortuitous happenstances of history--through a thousand ages come and gone--our species, Homo sapiens, has survived and thrived and come to the fore. We have taken over planet Earth so that everything, living and dead, now bows to our command.

Third, a Spawning

Yet over the past several decades, a new creature has emerged, one not based--as is all of DNA-founded life--on the infinite chemical ambivalence of the carbon atom, but rather--moving one step higher in complexity on the Periodic Table of the Elements--on the infinite electronic ambivalence of Silicon. He is stronger than we are. He soon will be smarter, able to design and build better evolutionary iterations of himself than we can.

And he is well suited to exploring the Solar System and moving out into the broader Galaxy--as we are not. He is not susceptible to the storms of radiation or to the deathly cold and vacuum of space; he is not deterred by hibernating for a hundred years--or a thousand years--and then springing to life when the prize is at hand.

Since his death is not a moral issue, the costs and complexities of computerized robotic exploration of space are one-hundredth--or one-thousandth--those of sending human beings. Moreover, he does not leave a grieving family behind, or carry with him a burden of emotional conflicts.

Fourth, Ergo...

We should save the ecology of the Earth to provide a pleasant garden of retirement for our weaker, biological offspring. But we should send our stronger, electronic offspring into space to do the work of exploring and propagating on distant worlds--work which comes so naturally to them, and is so difficult--or impossible--for us.

The Debt-Ceiling Drama Continues to Unfold

by Richard Crews
I hope you have been following the fascinating debt-ceiling "crisis" with interest and amusement. It is a wonderful study in the political maneuverings of our paralyzed, impacted federal government.

Notice that President Obama can claim to put everything, even entitlements, on the negotiating table--although to do so is astonishing, even infuriating, to much of his political base--because he is never going to have to negotiate a final deal anyway--and, as he has said, "nothing is final until everything is final."

Notice that, for the same reason, he can heroically go for the biggest deal--he can push for a four-trillion-dollar reworking of the entire tax-loopholes, subsidies, and revenues-disbursements paradigms of the federal government. He can heroically push past any smaller (one-, two-, or three-trillion-dollar) deal.

Notice that he can strenuously assert his leadership--he can preach and admonish Congress to "do their duty," knowing that they cannot, will not, and it is ultimately to his advantage that they do not do so. He gets to appear as a vigorous, courageous leader without any danger of getting his foot stuck in his mouth.

Won't it be exciting when, at the last moment, he eloquently abolishes the federal debt limit? When he points out that the Constitution's 14th amendment requires that "the validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned," and that his presidential oath of office requires him, "to the best of [his] ability, [to] preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States"?

Won't the Congress' outrage be stirring when they "discover" that raising the debt ceiling by legislation has always been irrelevant--it is, in fact, unconstitutional?

As I have said, this is kabuki theater at its finest.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Pseudo-Compromise (Debt-Limit Crisis Endgame)

by Richard Crews
So what is to become of us, as our beloved nation careens toward bankruptcy? *

As the chess game in Washington winds to an exciting close, each side--the Democrats and the Republicans--can make "sacrifices" and claim that the other side made me do it.

Of course the "sacrifices" would be a combination of, on the one hand, trivial gestures and, on the other, changes we should be making anyway.

So the Republicans can give up the absurd tax breaks for the very wealthy, big oil, corporate jets, and ethanol and other farming subsidies, and when their enraged, money-bags lobbyists cry "FOUL!" they can shrug their shoulders helplessly and plead, "Those evil, business-hating Democrats made me do it."

And the Democrats can raise the Social Security eligibility age, and when AARP says, "That does it--no one over 65 will ever vote for you again (never mind that people are living into their 80s and 90s these days)," the Democrats can just say, "It's those evil Republicans--they hate cripples and old people."

Ballyhooing so fiercely about raising the debt ceiling so that it looks like a national crisis may make this all possible. (I throw in that concept as a bone to the closet conspiracy theorists among us.) But it probably won't since the Democrats have no real reason to negotiate a compromise on the debt ceiling: they win that game--stalemate becomes checkmate.

Except and unless--and this is a big one--the Republicans decide to capitulate, cooperate, and help govern instead of maintaining their obstructionist tactics. Having a participating "loyal opposition" contribute to true bipartisan governing might be valuable enough to the Democrats for them to forgo their largely Pyrrhic victory.

But this probably won't happen either--for two reasons: first, the Republicans are so fragmented that they cannot produce a consensus, either for bipartisanship or even for loyal opposition, and second, the Republicans have no Plan B: if continuing the obstructionism that won them the mid-term election in 2010 doesn't work, they've got no other tricks in their bag.

So here's my prediction (which could be wrong): the probable conclusion is--no "compromise" and President Obama, with great tragic eloquence, raises the debt ceiling unilaterally at the last moment. Leaving the nation puzzled, relieved, and bitter--but Democratically inclined--and totally unaware that they have been taken for a merry ride.
* At least "bankruptcy" is what you call it when a business can't pay its bills if the "business" is not the U.S. government--which can just print more money.

The Debt-Limit Crisis Explained

by Richard Crews
Everyone in Washington seems to know two things:

(1) It would be catastrophic if the debt ceiling were not raised and the U.S. defaulted on the money it owes (interest on the U.S. debt would rise, the stock market would crash, banks would fail, the whole economy would come crashing down, the unemployment rate would sore, etc.), and

(2) It's not going to happen--it just "looks" like it might happen.

So what's going on?

Truly, Kabuki Theater at its finest.

The Democrats' game: The president can, under the Constitution, unilaterally raise the debt ceiling; in fact, he has a responsibility, under his oath of office, to do so. In the past a president has never been called upon to use this authority. Many times in each recent president's administration the Congress has ceremoniously raised the debt ceiling; it's a John-Marshall move: as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court--which had close to zero power when he took up the position in 1801--Marshall repeatedly made major rulings asserting the power of the Court to decide something the way it was going to be done anyway. When he was done, the Supreme Court was seen as awesomely powerful. So, Congress has always ceremoniously raised the debt ceiling, hoping people would come to think that only Congress can do it.

So the Democrats' game is to "negotiate" hard and "compromise" self-sacrificingly with the Republicans about raising the debt ceiling (cutting government spending, raising revenue, balancing the budget, even trimming entitlements, and all that), in other words, calling the Republicans on their intransigent obstructionism, their willingness to paralyze the government to gain political points. And then the Democrats will get to say, "See, they wouldn't give an inch in favor of sensible, salvaging legislation. We just had to save the country anyway."

The Republicans game--having realized that "just say 'no' " is a winning political strategy--is to continue to "just say 'no' " hoping to run on, "See, we didn't give an inch on our principles, and they steamrolled us."

If the Republicans really negotiate on raising the debt ceiling, the Democrats will get to say, "See, they abandoned their principles." If they don't, the Democrats get to say, "See, they believe in politics more than good government--they're willing to stab the country in the back to gain political points."

The conclusion: The Democrats win it--checkmate in seven moves.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tragedy of the Commons

by Richard Crews
Humanity's present, most severe problem is the ultimate "Tragedy of the Commons," that is, when everyone may make use of common property (in the present case, the atmosphere, oceans, underground aquifers, rainforests, and near-Earth space) but no one has responsibility for its upkeep, the cumulation of self-interests will destroy it.

The oceans of the Earth are severely polluted, over-fished, and otherwise exploited.

The atmosphere is severely polluted and deteriorating.

Underground, century-old aquifers which people depend on for water around the world are becoming depleted.

Rainforests are destroyed by the millions-of-acres each year, and their climate stabilization and brilliant ecological diversity are lost.

And near-Earth space is so littered with space debris that it is dangerous for human travelers, and approaching unusability for scientific and commercial activities such as GPS, weather-forecasting, surveillance, and communications satellites.

Governments (including super-governments like the UN, EU, IMF, and Kyoto Conference), even with the work of NGOs, environmental groups, billionaire philanthropists, and scholarly dissidents (such as the Nobel Committees), do not seem up to the task of protecting these commons.

The problem is not scientific or technological--the science is clear; the technologies exist.

The problem is fundamentally sociological (or, more specifically, group psychological and political). The crucial question is, Can we build a social structure that will save our common heritage from the ravages of short-sighted self-interest so that the oceans, atmosphere, aquifers, rain forests, and near-Earth space will be available for the use and enjoyment of future generations?

That is the most pressing and severe problem of our time. Future generations will look back on ours and say either, "Thank goodness they..." or "Why on Earth didn't they...."