Friday, September 22, 2017
That's the title of an article over at The Vulgar Curmudgeon's new blog site (and if you followed him on Blogger, you'll want to update your link to reflect his new home). He provides a number of interesting charts, showing how prices and affordability of various assets, etc. have changed over time in comparison to income. Here's one example - automobile prices.
When you look at the increases over the past couple of decades, and consider that real incomes have largely decreased over the same period, things become clearer. It's even more brutal when you reflect that the "official" rate of inflation has little or nothing to do with the real rate of inflation.
Go read the whole article. It's worth your time.
I'm pleased to see the new Secretary of the Navy do some plain speaking.
The 10 deaths aboard the USS McCain last month and the seven aboard the USS Fitzgerald in June have many causes, which Spencer addressed in a Senate hearing yesterday. But the fundamental problem is a collision between a shrinking fleet, growing operational demands, and erratic funding for training and maintenance.
“When I said yesterday that the Navy has a problem and we’re going to fix it, (that means) we’re going to have to come to ... some sort of balance between supply and demand,” said Spencer. “The COCOMs (Combatant Commanders) are going to have to understand it, and the Hill is going to have to understand it.”
The Navy has been operating according to a “false math… that we couldn’t afford,” the secretary said. “We have been punching way above our weight and possibly robbing Peter to pay Paul to get our missions done, and now the bills are coming home.”
Longstanding Navy culture will have to change, Spencer said, to make it acceptable to say “no, we can’t” when an already overtasked or undertrained unit is given a new mission. “You truly have an organization, as you all well know, that is biased to action and the word ‘no’ is just not in the lexicon,” Spencer said. “We have to find a balance ... because the pure blind answer, yes, without assessing the risk is non sustainable.”
The accidents only make the problem worse by taking two ships out of circulation. The Fitzgerald will be in repairs for over a year. The McCain’s assessment is still ongoing but the damage looks to be less extensive. Repairing the two destroyers will cost an estimated $600 million, money which Spencer noted is not in the Navy budget. The service will have to ask Congress for supplemental funds, and “it’s going to have to be sooner rather than later,” Spencer said, almost certainly before the 2019 budget request in the spring.
In the medium term, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has prioritized plus-ups to readiness funding for all four services – in many cases deferring modernization. The goal is to catch up on the years of cancelled training and deferred maintenance that resulted from the 2011 Budget Control Act capping defense spending even as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on and new threats arose from China and Russia.
The long-term solution is a larger Navy. The fleet has shrunk from its 1987 high of 594 ships to 278 today, even while the number of ships deployed outside US home waters at any given time has stayed roughly constant at about 100. That means ships and sailors must deploy more often and for longer, putting more strain on humans and machines alike with less time for recovery and repair ... Unless the demand for ships drops – which is unlikely – then the supply of ships must rise.
There's more at the link.
I lay the blame equally at the doors of the politicians and the Navy's senior leadership. Politicians wanted to have more money available for entitlement programs and other vote-getting projects, so they short-changed our armed services. The armed services, on the other hand, wanted the latest in flashy, gee-whiz hardware and weapons (e.g. the bloated, long-delayed, unbelievably expensive F-35 program), so they short-changed other elements of their responsibilities such as maintenance, training, etc. The result is damaged ships and dead sailors in 2017.
I worry about that in the light of the current crisis over North Korea. Are our armed forces really ready for action there? I guess there's only one way to find out . . . and I hope and pray that doesn't become necessary.
Australians have always been a resourceful, inventive people . . . but I'm not sure about this news.
Australia’s biggest carrot oversupply in 25 years has prompted farmers, along with chefs and winemakers, to get creative and use the popular vegetable in foams, consommes and infuse it in vodka.
. . .
Mr Hinrichsen put the excess in vegetables down to optimal growing conditions, big crop yields and Russia’s ban on European imports for having a domino effect on the world carrot market.
“It seems there’s been a perfect storm of events which have led to an absolutely flooded Australian carrot market,” Mr Hinrichsen said.
One solution to use up excess and “wonky” carrots unsuitable for sale was the creation of carrot vodka.
Alice Gorman and Gen Windley from Kalfresh teamed up with a winemaker to create the carrot vodka which Ms Gorman described as clean and refreshing with a hint of carrot flavour.
Restaurants have also helped farmers get through excess carrots by juicing, roasting and turning the vegetable into a foam to compliment items on their menus.
Rydges South Bank Brisbane executive assistant manager Dominic Rose said the hotel’s restaurant Bacchus were making the most of the oversupply.
“We were in the process of changing the menu and just lightening it up for spring and we put a duck dish on there and it’s a duck ravioli but it’s got a consomme that goes with it,” he said.
“When you make it you put carrots through there as it gives you that nice amber colour.
“Then the dish sort of evolved and the chef that was in the restaurant was working with it and we ended up putting a carrot foam on there and grilled carrots as well.”
There's more at the link.
I know that almost anything can be fermented and/or brewed and/or distilled into some form of alcohol, but carrot vodka? Sounds like the Soviets won the Cold War after all! And what's "carrot foam"? I think of foam as something I see on top of a beer, or on the surface of the sea. I've never eaten foam on top of my food . . . and as for a foaming (or foamed) duck, that brings to mind rabies rather than a rattling good meal!
Oh, well. I suppose next, they'll come up with skin cream made from carrots, and claim it's healthy and good for you, because one of the ingredients is beta-carrotene.
Thursday, September 21, 2017
Here's a Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber making a very, very long takeoff run. He only just got his wheels off the ground before the tarmac ran out.
You might say that's a military analog to the (in)famous Ilyushin Il-76 long takeoff run in Australia, which we've seen in these pages before.
Both are nailbiters - or, as we used to say in the military, "you'd have to pull hard to get the seat cushion loose from your pants after that!"
. . . this time on Saturday, September 23rd - and I'm betting it'll turn out to be just as false as all the previous ones.
Seriously, why do people listen to this nonsense? The latest claim is from someone calling himself a "Christian numerologist", who's identified a series of recent events as lining up with Biblical prophecy. He's also rehashing the old, tired nonsense about a non-existent Planet Nibiru (which, if it were about to collide with Earth as he claims, would long since have been visible to the naked eye, never mind telescopes).
To me, the most telling give-away about all this nonsense is the source's claim to be a Christian. If he is, his faith is no more than skin deep - because he's ignoring one of the fundamental tenets of Christian revelation (which, as a retired pastor, I take seriously, even if some of my readers may differ). You'll find it in Matthew 24:36.
"But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only."
That says it all. Jesus admits that not even he, the Son of God, knows the day or the hour that the end of the world will come. Therefore, if anyone else claims that they're a Christian, and they've worked it out, and that they know more than Jesus does . . . they're saying they know more than the Son of God. I call BS, right there. If they claim that, they are demonstrably not Christian at all, no matter what they say!
Don't bother with anyone prophesying the end times, the Second Coming, or whatever. We don't know when it's due, and we won't know until it happens. Down the ages, countless people have thought they recognized the "signs of the times", and believed that the end was nigh . . . and they've all been wrong. I see no reason to think we know any more than they did.
For Christians, the Biblical message is that we all live, every day, in our own end times. None of us know the day or the hour of our deaths. Yesterday, Miss D. and I were driving when someone decided to change lanes - and almost hit our car, because we were in her blind spot. We could have died then and there, but for some rapid evasive action by Miss D. There's no guarantee that she (or I) will always be able to react so quickly, or have room in which to do so.
Our own "end times" can come without warning - so we'd better be ready for them, and live our lives in such a way that our actions, our entire way of life, provides evidence of our faith. That way, when the end does come for each of us, we'll be prepared to give an account of our lives before the righteous Judge of us all. As Marcus Aurelius famously said, "Do every act of your life as if it were your last." Words to live by . . . and to die by, when the time comes.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Last week I published some thoughts about emergency water supplies, in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Now Accuweather has put up two interesting articles dealing with the threat from contaminated water following a hurricane, and how to deal with the problem.
I highly recommend reading both articles, as well as my earlier article and a longer one that I wrote on the same subject some years before. Many people put some effort into storing emergency food supplies, but pay little or no attention to their need for water, keeping only a few flats of 16-20 ounce bottles of water on hand. That may supply drinking water for a few days, but it won't be enough for cooking, personal hygiene, etc.
Furthermore, I'm hearing many reports from survivors of both Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that sewer lines 'backwashed', flooding bathrooms (if not entire homes) with the contents of sewers pushed back up into toilets, baths and basins by overflowing storm water. This is particularly problematic if you plan to fill your bath in an emergency, to use it as a water reserve. Even the smallest backflow will ruin that water. As the old saying goes, "If you add a glass of wine to a barrel of sewage, you have a barrel of sewage. If you add a glass of sewage to a barrel of wine, you have a barrel of sewage!" What's more, any sewer backflow that overflows your toilet(s), basin(s), bath(s) or shower(s) will cause a major contamination problem, one that will probably require (expensive) professional attention to clean up.
It begins to look more and more desirable to install a sewer backflow valve to prevent this problem, particularly in flood-prone areas. FEMA has instructions on how to do that (link is to an Adobe Acrobat file in .PDF format). Even though we don't live in a flood-prone area, I'm going to look into that as part of our next residential upgrade.
We've spoken before about Illinois' budget woes - follow those four links for more information.
Now comes this news.
Illinois’ pile of unpaid bills topped $16 billion for the first time as the state deals with the fallout of an unprecedented two straight fiscal years without complete budgets, the state comptroller’s office reported on Tuesday.
The bill backlog is growing despite the enactment of a fiscal 2018 spending plan and income tax increase in July that ended a budget impasse between Illinois’ Republican governor and Democrats who control the legislature.
. . .
A provision in the budget enacted by lawmakers over the vetoes of Governor Bruce Rauner authorized the sale of up to $6 billion of general obligation bonds to pay bills from vendors and service providers that are accruing late payment penalties of as much as 12 percent.
. . .
But on Monday, the governor told reporters that the bonds do not solve any problem because lawmakers failed to set aside money to make principal and interest payments over the 12 years the debt would be outstanding.
“We need to come up with roughly half a billion (dollars) of cuts just to be able to service a bond offering,” he said, adding that he planned to meet with legislative leaders for discussion.
There's more at the link.
So, Illinois wants to borrow another $6 billion . . . to pay current bills presently totaling about $16 billion . . . but the state has made no budgetary provision whatsoever to pay the interest on those new borrowings, let alone the principal? Does that sound like something the average bond investor will find attractive? I don't know about you, dear reader, but to me, it sounds absolutely insane.
Illinois' current population is reportedly about 12.8 million people. That means every resident of Illinois, man, woman or child, is on the hook for $1,250 of currently outstanding short-term state expenditure, over and above the state's longer-term debt (estimated to come to $5,041 per resident), and over and above the state's $130 billion backlog in pension funding (equal to another $10,156 per resident, all of whom are liable for the shortfall). In case you were wondering, that's a total of $16,447 in state government debt owed by every resident of Illinois. (That leaves out questions of their share of the US national debt, of course - but let's focus on state-level finances here.)
Even leaving aside federal debt, if Illinois owes you money in any way, shape or form - a pension, payment for goods you've sold to a state agency, reimbursement for expenses, whatever - I suggest you urgently begin examining ways to survive financially without it. I suspect you're not likely to be paid in full - that is, if you're ever paid at all.
(There are, of course, many other states that are almost as badly off, and to which the same caution applies.)
. . . given the abysmal failure of the War On Drugs: is it time to just let this stuff come in, and allow the drug addiction problem to solve itself through natural selection? After all, drugs - particularly 'hard' drugs - are today much easier to find, and far more affordable, than they were at the start of the War On Drugs in 1971.
And then there's this:
Methinks Einstein had the right of it:
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again
and expecting different results.
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Here are a few bits and pieces that have crossed my path, or my consciousness, in recent weeks.
First off, buckshot. I highly recommend Federal's Flite Control rounds as one's primary buckshot load for defensive use. I prefer the #1 buckshot reduced-recoil (i.e. slower muzzle velocity) cartridge (15 pellets per load), but others choose 00 buck in standard-velocity or reduced-recoil rounds. The special Flite Control shot cups hold the load together quite a long distance from the muzzle, so that even out to 30 yards, most of the pellets will hit a human-size target. Most 'conventional' buckshot is lucky to get half as far without some of the pellets drifting off target, and at 30 yards, you'll be lucky to get two or three buckshot pellets in the kill zone.
However, it's often hard to find Federal Flite Control buckshot. Many stores simply don't stock it, partly because it's a premium round (and therefore more expensive), and others because they concentrate on hunting rather than tactical firearms and ammunition. There's a good, and reasonably low-cost, second choice; Sellier & Bellot's 12-pellet 00 buckshot round. It's also hard to find, but if you do an online search, you're likely to locate some. (Note that I'm talking about the 12-pellet round here, not the cheaper 9-pellet load. Be sure to search for the former.) It patterns very tightly in most shotguns in which I've tried it. Tamara tried some a couple of years ago, and found the same thing (and also noted the superior tightness of the Federal Flite Control pattern).
So, if you want good defensive buckshot rounds, Federal Flite Control is still top of the heap; but the 12-pellet 00 buckshot Sellier & Bellot load isn't bad, and it may pleasantly surprise you (or unpleasantly surprise someone on the other end of your muzzle). As always, test some of the rounds in your own shotgun to find out how it patterns for you. Here's an article on how to pattern your shotgun for birdshot rounds; for buckshot, I recommend shooting at 25 or 30 yards instead of 40, and a human head-and-torso life-size silhouette instead of a 30" circle.
Next, a couple of folks have complained that ported firearms such as the Taurus Tracker or Model 44, which I've reviewed and recommended in their .44 Magnum versions, are too 'noisy' for prolonged use. I have to admit, they have a point; but I don't know anyone who uses these things for casual plinking, without ear protection! They're meant to be used with earplugs and/or muffs. Given that protection, the louder noise from the ported barrels isn't a problem at all. Certainly, I'd hate to have to fire one inside a car, or in my bedroom at night - but I don't use them for that purpose. I have other firearms, better suited to such environments. The ported barrel does make recoil control easier, and enables faster repeat shots. That's what it's there for. The added noise is not pleasant, but given proper equipment, it's not a problem, either.
Finally, here's a US Marine showing us how to cook bacon in the field . . . er . . . sort of.
I'm finding it difficult to post one-off articles about friends' books, so I'm going to try doing a more-or-less regular book roundup article in which I'll mention new publications from friends and fellow bloggers. I hope you'll give them a try. I've found a lot of good reading material among them. I'll limit coverage to books by friends and colleagues, those whom I've come to know in person or in cyberspace. I'll list them in the order in which I was told (or learned of) their release, to be fair to all concerned. (I'll also do stand-alone reviews of certain books now and again.)
First off, I recently reviewed Tom Rogneby's short story, 'The Boogeyman'. He's just released two more starring his new character, in a compilation called 'Working Vacation'.
The blurb reads:
Martin Shelby, called the BoogeyMan by friend and foe, returns in two new stories.
In “The Devil Drinks Sweet Tea”, a young Shelby thought his Grandpa was just being grouchy about having to help out with the gardening. That is, of course, until Grandma's geraniums spontaneously burst into flames and the lilies started chanting in Latin.
In “Working Vacation”, the BoogeyMan just wants to relax on the beach with his wife, but his plans change when an old friend tracks him down to call in a debt. Shelby races against the clock to find a missing client before the full weight of the world falls in on his quiet vacation.
I'm enjoying Tom's new protagonist. This looks like it might develop into a worthwhile series - perhaps even a full-length novel or two.
Next, Margaret Ball has returned from her decade-long hiatus in writing. Her new novel is titled 'Insurgents', and is the first book in her new Harmony series.
The blurb reads:
Can one man make both love and war – at the same time?
Harmony, one of the first settlements from Earth’s Age of Expansion, has a totalitarian government which uses the bleak continent of Esilia as a dumping ground for political dissidents. Now they’re surprised that the dissidents want to secede.
Gabrel is totally devoted to his colony’s battle for freedom. Isovel, daughter of the enemy’s invading general, knows exactly why Harmony should continue to rule the exiles. When she is taken hostage by his guerrilla group, he has to draw a line between his personal inclinations and his duty to the insurgency, while Isovel has to remember her duty to escape. There can be no future for two people on opposing sides of this war – so Gabrel will just have to win the war. And the peace.
Margaret's been previously published by Baen Books, and has a well-established writing pedigree. I think this is her first independently published book.
Last but not least for this week, Dragon Award-winning author John C. Wright has just released the sixth book in his amazing 'Moth & Cobweb' series. I love the first three books in the series, and I'm planning on reading the next three as soon as I can find the time. (Isn't it odd that writers are so busy writing that they usually have less time to read than their readers do? Seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn't it?)
John's new book is titled 'Tithe to Tartarus'.
This is listed as 'Young Adult' reading, but I find it equally gripping as adult fiction. The blurb reads:
Inflicted with amnesia, Yumiko Ume Moth has managed to discover the identity of the lost love she cannot remember. She has also learned the bitter truth of her mother's murder. And the party responsible for the absence of the one and the death of the other is the same: the Supreme Council of Anarchists.
Now Yumiko hopes to rescue the brilliant young man who may or may not be her fiance while seeking vengeance for the Grail Queen, her mother. But her only allies are a scatter-brained fairy and the Last Crusade, which despite its grand name consists of a young knight and his dog. Nevertheless, the Foxmaiden will not turn from her path, though all the dark forces of Tartarus stand in her way.
If it's anything like as good as its predecessors in the 'Moth & Cobweb' series, this one will be un-put-downable. I'm looking forward to reading it.
I'll have more book news soon.
That's the question posed by CNBC. It holds profound implications for the mortgage financial sector.
New estimates suggest as many as 300,000 borrowers could become delinquent on their loans and 160,000 could become seriously delinquent, that is, more than 90 days past due, when banks initiate foreclosure proceedings ... That is four times the original prediction because new disaster zones were designated and more homes flooded when officials released water from reservoirs to protect dams. The total number of mortgaged properties in disaster zones is 1.18 million. Houston disaster zones contain twice as many mortgaged properties than Katrina zones, with four times the unpaid principal balance.
After Hurricane Katrina, mortgage delinquencies in Louisiana and Mississippi disaster areas spiked 25 percentage points. The same could happen in Houston, as borrowers without flood insurance weigh their options. They will get some federal relief, but if rebuilding would cost more than the principal in their homes, they could decide to walk away.
There's more at the link.
Zero Hedge adds:
Combining the preliminary estimates for both Harvey and Irma suggests that over 3.3 million total mortgaged properties are located in Irma and Harvey-related FEMA Disaster zones, while the dollar amount of total unpaid mortgage balances in these two zones is massive: between Irma's $517 billion and Harvey's $179 billion, the total potential damage could impact as much as a $696 billion in notional mortgage values, which banks could be on the hook for if current occupiers decide to simply walk away.
Again, more at the link.
This highlights an anomaly in US mortgage finance law, one that does not exist in most of the rest of the world. In several US states, a mortgage is classified as so-called 'non-recourse debt'; i.e. it's secured only by the property against which it is granted. If the mortgage holder defaults, the property may be seized and sold to pay off as much as possible of the mortgage bond, but the holder's other assets may not be seized in the same way, and the holder may not be sued for the balance (if any) of what was originally owed. In other states, there is a right of recourse, but it may be more or less limited according to local law.
This issue exposes the mortgage holder to much greater risk when it comes to hurricane-damaged properties. If the homeowner discovers that his insurance payout is much less than the present value of his home, and/or much less than what it will cost to repair his home, and if the mortgage holder's recourse is limited, he may simply decide to walk away from it, cease paying the mortgage, and let the mortgage holder deal with the problem.
I posed this question after Hurricane Katrina, when I wrote:
What about mortgages on properties that are now underwater? The occupants can't and won't pay, but the mortgage holders will demand payment. We could end up with massive foreclosures on property that is worthless, leaving a lot of folks neck-deep in debt and without homes (even damaged ones).
The problem is likely to be much worse after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which affected a much larger area between them. To make matters worse, more storms are already active in the North Atlantic Ocean, and may potentially strike this country.
This problem, in turn, means many financial institutions may have to take a long, hard look at whether or not it's still profitable to grant mortgages in areas vulnerable to such natural disasters. If they can't adequately protect their investments by insurance or other means, then is it still worth making them? That may affect potential homeowners in those areas for much longer than the hurricane damage will take to repair. Some sort of state guarantees may be necessary to persuade financial institutions to continue to finance home construction and purchases - yet another burden on already over-extended state budgets, and on taxpayers.
Monday, September 18, 2017
George Friedman makes a very interesting point.
The US had little to gain from a war with North Korea; it wanted only to destroy the North’s nuclear program. The war plan was complex, and though it was likely to succeed, “likely” is not a term you want to use in war. North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities were scattered in numerous locations, and many were underground or in hardened sites. And the North Koreans had massed artillery along their southwestern border, within easy range of Seoul. In the event of an American attack on North Korean facilities, it was assumed those guns would open up, killing many South Koreans. Destroying those batteries would require a significant air campaign, and in the meantime, North Korean artillery would be firing at the South.
The US turned to China to negotiate a solution. The Chinese failed. In my view, the Chinese would not be terribly upset to see the US dragged into a war that would weaken Washington if it lost, and would cause massive casualties on all sides if it won. Leaving that question aside, the North Koreans felt they had to have nuclear weapons to deter American steps to destabilize Pyongyang. But the risk of an American attack, however difficult, had to have made them very nervous, even if they were going to go for broke in developing a nuclear capability.
But they didn’t seem very nervous. They seemed to be acting as if they had no fear of a war breaking out. It wasn’t just the many photos of Kim Jong Un smiling that gave this impression. It was that the North Koreans moved forward with their program regardless of American and possible Chinese pressure.
Another Player Enters the Game
A couple of weeks ago, the reason for their confidence became evident. First, US President Donald Trump tweeted a message to the South Koreans accusing them of appeasement. In response, the South Koreans released a statement saying South Korea’s top interest was to ensure that it would never again experience the devastation it endured during the Korean War. From South Korea’s perspective, artillery fire exchanges that might hit Seoul had to be avoided. Given the choice between a major war to end the North’s nuclear program and accepting a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea would choose the latter.
With that policy made public, and Trump’s criticism of it on the table, the entire game changed its form. The situation had been viewed as a two-player game, with North Korea rushing to build a deterrent, and the US looking for the right moment to attack. But it was actually a three-player game, in which the major dispute was between South Korea and the United States.
The US could have attacked the North without South Korea’s agreement, but it would have been substantially more difficult. The US has a large number of fighter jets and about 40,000 troops based in the South. South Korean airspace would be needed as well. If Seoul refused to cooperate, the US would be facing two hostile powers, and would possibly push the North and the South together. Washington would be blamed for the inevitable casualties in Seoul. The risk of failure would pyramid.
There's more at the link. It's well worth your time to read the article in full.
This explains, to my mind, why the US response to North Korea's undoubtedly aggressive moves has been so muted. There is no doubt that the USA could turn the whole of North Korea into a radioactive desert - but that would poison parts of China and most of South Korea with fallout, which neither country will accept. Short of such an all-out nuclear attack, any US military intervention in North Korea must inevitably involve South Korea. If South Korea is not willing to permit its territory, or its airspace, or its waters, to be used for that purpose, the USA is effectively stymied.
I see only one way to break the logjam, and force the issue. That would be for the USA to announce that, in view of North Korea's aggressive actions and stated intentions to become a nuclear power, it is willing to sell nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea. Note that I said "sell" - in other words, not station US nuclear weapons in those countries under US control, but give each country its own nuclear warheads and delivery systems, under its own sovereign control. China would instantly have kittens - a nuclear-armed Japan must be close to its worst nightmare, and a nuclear South Korea wouldn't be far behind that. If anything could force China to rein in the North Korean regime, that might do it.
Frankly, I see no other way of breaking the stalemate over North Korea. Can readers suggest anything better?
In his 1971 book 'The Foreign Affairs Fudge Factory', Alastair Campbell relates:
Ellis Briggs, when he was ambassador to Czechoslovakia shortly after the Communist coup d'êtat in 1948 ... had been pestering Washington, without success, to cut his staff of eighty personnel ... by half ... One day the Czech government, unaware of this background, declared sixty-six of the American embassy's personnel persona non grata and gave them forty-eight hours to leave the country ... to Briggs it was a blessing in disguise. "The American embassy in Prague then consisted of thirteen people," Briggs remarked. "It was probably the most efficient embassy I ever headed."
With that example in mind, it's encouraging to read this report.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is finishing what he calls a “redesign plan” that would shrink the State Department and revamp American diplomacy in ways that already have drawn bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill.
Tillerson said he is determined to do more with less even as the Trump administration grapples with growing foreign policy challenges in North Korea, Syria and Russia.
"The most important thing I can do is to enable this organization to be more effective, more efficient,” Tillerson told U.S. Embassy employees in London on Thursday. “Because if I accomplish that, that will go on forever and you will create the State Department of the future."
Since taking office, Tillerson has moved slowly to fill traditional leadership slots at State, leaving many offices vacant or nearly so. Retirements, removals, hiring freezes and fewer promotions have trimmed staff. A few diplomats have publicly quit to protest administration policy.
Among the most vulnerable have been diplomats at programs now out of favor, like climate change and women’s empowerment, as well as special envoys. Some special fields, such as religious freedom, are being subsumed in other bureaus.
Tillerson delivered a progress report on his redesign plan to the White House Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday. It quickly prompted a bipartisan protest.
. . .
Tillerson last month denied he is “hollowing out” the department. He said that reorganization will take months to implement and that some positions are best left unfilled until all the pieces are in place.
Congress already has pushed back hard on the staffing and budget cuts.
This year, Tillerson backed President Trump’s proposal to cut State’s budget from about $55 billion to about $39 billion. He told a Senate committee in June that he aimed to cut about 1,300 jobs — 327 foreign service officers and about 1,000 civil service employees.
State has about 13,000 foreign service employees and 11,000 civil service employees.
There's more at the link.
The "swamp" is already pushing back against Secretary Tillerson's plans, as the above article makes clear; but I think they're long overdue. Part of the problem is that the State Department has been its own worst enemy when it comes to justifying its enormous cost (over $50 billion annually) and bloated bureaucracy. The Washington Examiner noted:
With its image still tainted ... by the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, the State Department has struggled to shake public perceptions of failure after spearheading a controversial nuclear agreement with Iran and failing to improve battered relationships with Russia and Israel, among others.
Its deep transparency problems were exposed in a January inspector general report, which found several examples of FOIA requests for politically charged documents that were suppressed by officials who should have had nothing to do with the FOIA process. In 2014 alone, the State Department spent $2 million of taxpayer money fighting FOIA lawsuits in court instead of simply turning over documents, as the law requires.
Again, more at the link.
There's historically been a great deal of tension between the US armed forces and the State Department, and between American businesses and the restrictions imposed by State on their overseas marketing and promotional activities. The State Department appears to have done little to justify many of those restrictions and its activities except to state that they exist "because we say so". Many of its activities in Africa have been blunders of the first magnitude. I know, because I witnessed many of them at first hand. Benghazi was only the most recent example, and one of the most publicized. There have been many more.
I think Secretary Tillerson is doing exactly the right thing. Get rid of the deadwood, streamline the State Department, and restructure the organization to effectively address today's priorities, rather than those of the Cold War. Faster, please!
Late last month I opined that there should be restrictions and/or limits on how much subsidized insurance and government funding is applied to rebuilding flooded houses after a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey. My view wasn't universally approved; some readers objected, in comments and via e-mail, claiming that I was being heartless and uncaring, or words to that effect.
Well, now comes this report, which demonstrates exactly what I meant. Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.
Brian Harmon had just finished spending over $300,000 to fix his home in Kingwood, Texas, when Hurricane Harvey sent floodwaters “completely over the roof.”
The six-bedroom house, which has an indoor swimming pool, sits along the San Jacinto River. It has flooded 22 times since 1979, making it one of the most flood-damaged properties in the country.
Between 1979 and 2015, government records show the federal flood insurance program paid out more than $1.8 million to rebuild the house—a property that Mr. Harmon figured was worth $600,000 to $800,000 before Harvey hit late last month.
. . .
As they tally up the losses from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, government officials are looking for ways to step up purchases of frequently-flooded houses, which have become a huge drain on the financially troubled federal flood insurance program.
Homes and other properties with repetitive flood losses account for just 2% of the roughly 1.5 million properties that currently have flood insurance, according to government estimates. But such properties have accounted for about 30% of flood claims paid over the program’s history.
“We are seeing a very acute need to move far faster” on property buyouts, said Roy Wright, who directs the National Flood Insurance Program. “It’s a clear priority to address these multiple-loss properties.”
In a buyout program, homes are typically razed and the land left as open space.
Even before Harvey and Irma, the flood program owed the U.S. Treasury $24.6 billion, as payouts have exceeded the amount of insurance premiums it takes in.
The program paid out more than $47 billion in insurance claims since 2000, according to government figures.
Insurance payouts from Harvey alone are expected to total $11 billion, said Mr. Wright, noting the program had already received nearly 85,000 claims tied to the disaster as of Wednesday. It is too early to estimate losses tied to Irma, but Mr. Wright expects both storms to be among the most costly in the program’s history.
There's more at the link.
Let's assume that Hurricane Irma will cost about the same as Hurricane Harvey in terms of insurance payouts. That's $22 billion in total. Let's assume, too, that the historical average holds, and that about 30% of those claims will be repeat claims from properties that had previously been damaged by flooding. That's $6.6 billion. That money might as well be poured down the drain . . . because it's merely repeating previous repairs. What's more, if those properties are permitted to reinsure at subsidized rates, we - the taxpayers of America - will be on the hook yet again for future repairs, which are certain to arise when the next hurricane hits those properties.
This is stupid. It's sick. It's disgusting! It's our money, as taxpayers, being wasted.
The taxpayer-subsidized federal flood insurance program should be modified AT ONCE. Those who are presently insured under it should be able to keep their insurance . . . but for one future claim only. As soon as they make a flood-related claim, the payout should be in the form of a forced purchase of their property, and a razing of any and all buildings on it. The property owner(s) can use the payout to settle any outstanding debts on the properties, and apply the balance to buying or building another home in a less flood-prone area. We, the taxpayers of this country, should no longer be liable for any repeat claims on their former property - otherwise we're subsidizing failure. We're subsidizing the repair, cleanup and construction industries, as well as the property owners.
I also propose that any new or replacement construction in flood-prone areas, and any repairs to properties formerly covered by the federal flood insurance program, should be automatically denied access to that program. Those who build or rebuild in such areas should be forced to pay for insurance at commercial rates, which should not be subsidized by the rest of us. Why should we pay for damages that we know are almost certain to be incurred in future? Is that a proper use of our taxes? I maintain it's not.
What say you, readers? Are you happy at the thought that your taxes are about to be used for the 23rd time to rebuild that flooded house in Kingwood?
Today's award goes to a would-be carjacker who just wouldn't learn . . . or let go.
A carjacker picked the wrong driver to try to steal a car from, when the driver of that car refused to cooperate and drove off down the street, dragging him along the way.
The incident occurred about 7 PM on Friday, August 25 ... Video shows the suspect punching the driver repeatedly, and the driver then manages to close the vehicle’s door, and drove off.
The video shows the suspect being dragged along a busy street, with his pants falling to his ankles.
The car stopped at least once in the video, but the would-be carjacker wouldn’t give up; he tried again to get the driver out.
The driver then took off again, dragging the suspect alongside the car ... Kent police officers responded, and the suspect was tased “multiple times” after refusing to follow their commands.
There's more at the link. Here's the video. Nudity alert, if that bothers you.
I enjoyed Blue Lives Matter's closing remark on this report: "WARNING – Bare carjacker butt. Dangly bits were harmed in the making of this film."