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Wednesday Pre Tax News

Good morning Conflucians!!

Mmm, doing taxes. Nothing better. Oh wait, a stick in the eye would be better. OK, lots of things would be better. Let’s see what’s happening today.

Imagine a world in which the US no longer leads, or hardly even participates in space exploration. Imagine waking up to news of amazing discoveries of new aerospace technology and basic science figured out by the new exciting Chinese (or other countries) space program. Imagine waking up to new moon landing done by someone else. Imagine watching years of progress with a moon base, people getting to mars, brand new amazing technologies in air travel and space travel and other discovered technologies because of those efforts, all by people other than the US. Imagine sitting back and watching other countries lead the way with us only occasionally invited as a tacit acknowledgement that we used to do that. Good you say. We don’t need to spend money in those areas. We should take care of our people in need instead. I won’t argue that we don’t have high priorities and people suffering, but if a group doesn’t push the envelope in science research and in leading edge exploration, then that group is not helping humankind. Yea, that’s a big presumptuous thing to say I agree. But we’re on this little rock in a vast space. Either we explore and figure out what’s out there, and frankly get ourselves spread around a bit, or we’ll go the way of the dodo bird. Here are a few things on what Obama is doing to our space program:

Neil Armstrong had this to say the other day:

President Obama’s plans for NASA could be “devastating” to the U.S. space program and “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature,” three legendary astronauts said in a letter Tuesday.

Neil Armstrong, who rarely makes public comments, was the first human to set foot on the moon. Jim Lovell commanded the famous Apollo 13 flight, an aborted moon mission. And Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan remains the last human to have walked on the lunar surface.

In statements e-mailed to the Associated Press and NBC, Armstrong and other astronauts took exception with Obama’s plan to cancel NASA’s return-to-the-moon program, dubbed Project Constellation.

Armstrong, in an e-mail to the AP, said he had “substantial reservations.” More than two dozen Apollo-era veterans, including Lovell and Cernan, signed another letter Monday calling the plan a “misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.”

The statements came days before Obama is to visit Kennedy Space Center on Thursday to explain his vision for NASA.

Not all former astronauts have come out against the plan. Armstrong’s crewmate Buzz Aldrin, the second man to stand on the moon, has endorsed Obama’s plan, which includes investing $6 billion to develop commercial space-taxi services for astronauts traveling to and from the International Space Station. Aldrin said the proposal will “allow us to again be pushing the boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth.”

The plan would also extend the space station operations through 2020. It would cancel Project Constellation and the Ares rockets, which NASA has been developing for six years at a cost of more than $9 billion. Obama would retain the Constellation project’s Orion capsule. The capsule, which was to go to the moon, will instead be sent unoccupied to the International Space Station to stand by as an emergency vehicle to return astronauts home.

Administration officials told the AP that NASA will speed up development of a rocket that would have the power to blast crew and cargo far from Earth, although no destination has been chosen. The rocket would be ready to launch several years earlier than under the moon plan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to not detract from the presidential announcement.

The former astronauts said, “It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus-billion investment in Constellation. … Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downward slide to mediocrity.”

I agree. Of course some of us remember that during the campaign Obama actually promised to cut NASA funding. Somehow the Obots and others who just coasted along with lots of assumptions about who he was, didn’t really noticed that. And so it goes.

Obama is heading over to NASA to explain his vision:

President Obama will seek to promote his vision for the nation’s human space flight program on Thursday, just two days after three storied Apollo astronauts — including Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon — called the new plans “devastating.”

In an announcement to be made at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the president will personally talk for the first time about the sweeping upheaval of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s human spaceflight program outlined in his 2011 budget request: canceling the current program that is to send astronauts back to the Moon, investing in commercial companies to provide transportation to orbit and developing new space technologies.

A senior administration official said Mr. Obama would describe a vision “that unlocks our ambitions and expands our frontiers in space, ultimately meaning the challenge of sending humans to Mars.” The official spoke with administration approval, but on the condition of anonymity so that the comments would not upstage the president’s remarks.

Mr. Obama’s budget request called for the cancellation of Orion crew capsule, which was to be used to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and then to the Moon, as well as other components of the current program known as Constellation.

The president will propose that a simpler version of the Orion be used as a lifeboat for the space station. Russian Soyuz capsules currently provide that function. Because the Orion lifeboat would not carry astronauts to the space station, it could be launched on existing rockets.

You know Mr. Obama, when you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. As we ride on Russian rockets to get to the space station, the negative symbolism and utter sadness of that will eventually be noticed. But then it will be too late. Our programs will be mothballed. Other grand ideas you’re pushing will not happen. Why? Because you aren’t really planning on them happening. It’s all theatre. The plan is to shut it all down.

Here’s a nice bit from EETimes:

Shifting plans for U.S. human space exploration and the proposed termination of the Constellation program clearly call for a strategic plan taking us forward. Space planning takes years, and for us to be ready for what follows the retirement of the International Space Station around 2020, we need to consider a path to the next human steps in space and, eventually, to Mars.

Having a mighty goal or a series of goals embedded in the strategy will serve to organize NASA’s work and congressional fiscal priorities, since there will always be defined programmatic objectives that need funding.

Planning this strategy should involve NASA, Defense, NOAA and the intelligence community. There should be input from the administration’s National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. This coordination is vital because decisions made by one agency can have a significant impact on investments by the aerospace industry, and may result in the loss of capabilities that other government agencies rely on. Recent decisions at NASA, for example, will result in loss and disruption of thousands of space jobs.

What might such a strategy look like? We believe it should set out long range goals for at least a generation so long term investments can be made. A strategy must address the industrial base, our current and future workforce and space’s role as critical infrastructure. And of course, the strategy must be backed with appropriate financial resources.

Despite the financial troubles that lapped at his feet, President Kennedy stepped up to the challenge and urged us forward, with a goal and a vision and a plan. This is what we need ‘ a roadmap for the future and milestones along the way. And this is what we require ‘ leadership on an issue that has helped define our nation and proclaims in clear terms that this is who we are as Americans.

Emphasis mine. It would be nice if a bold plan happened, and was implemented. Don’t hold your breath for this president to do that. It’s hard work. And as we all know, president’n is just too hard for this one.

OK, that stuff is clearly personal for me. This former NASA scientist has a few biases in that regard. So give me a little leeway on that. Your mileage may vary.

Oh brother, people are dumpster diving for Palin papers again:

Students at Cal State Stanislaus discovered evidence that documents related to an upcoming speaking engagement by Sarah Palin were shredded and dumped after the university claimed that no public documents existed, a state senator said on Tuesday.

The students appeared at a Sacramento news conference with state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, Tuesday morning and said they found the documents on Friday in a trash bin outside the university’s administration building in Turlock.

On Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Jerry Brown said he was launching a “broad investigation” into the alleged dumping of documents and to examine finances of the CSU Stanislaus Foundation, which is hosting the June 25 event featuring the former governor of Alaska and vice presidential candidate.

“This is not about Sarah Palin,” Brown said in a statement. “She has every right to speak at a university event…. The issues are public disclosure and financial accountability in organizations embedded in state-run universities.”

The CSU Stanislaus Foundation is a private, nonprofit entity that raises money to supplement state funding to the campus and has offices in the university’s administration building.

Among the documents found by the students outside the building were five intact pages of a contract for a “speaker” who will be traveling from Anchorage. Although the speaker is not identified by name, Yee said it is clearly Palin’s contract despite the university’s denial last week that it had any documents related to Palin’s engagement.

“I never thought I would have to relive Watergate again, but to some extent this is our little Watergate in the state of California,” said Yee, who said it was a “dark day” for the CSU system and especially CSU Stanislaus.

OK, step away from the drugs. She’s only going around giving light, fluffy speeches. She’s not in government any more. And likely won’t be again. You’re not actually going to discover any secret plans of any import. Just leave it alone.

Man oh man, we’ve been having lots of earthquake and volcano activity lately. Is it me, or does it feel like the end is nye? You’ll all be sorry we can’t just leave the planet in a space ship… OK, enough on that old chestnut already. Anyway, another earthquake, in China this time:

BEIJING — A series of strong earthquakes killed hundreds of people in western China on Wednesday, badly damaging at least two schools, shattering homes and spreading fire through a remote town high on the Tibetan plateau.

The early morning quakes hit China’s Qinghai Province, an impoverished region 1,200 miles southwest of Beijing that is inhabited mainly by ethnic Tibetans. The province borders Sichuan, where a catastrophic earthquake in 2008 killed some 80,000 people.

“I heard dogs barking and the huge rumbling sound of houses collapsing,” said Li Hailong, a local finance official in Jiegu Town, a Qinghai settlement hit hard by today’s disaster. Houses made of earth and wood, he said, “collapsed the moment the earthquake struck.”

Authorities said at least 400 people had been killed and that many more remained buried in the rubble, including some 50 people entombed in a collapsed vocational school. Thousands are reported to have been injured. Chinese television newscasters said 20 people had been pulled from the school but only three of those victims survived.

China’s Earthquake Network Center put the magnitude of the strongest quake on Wednesday at 7.1, but the U.S. Geographical Survey estimated it at 6.9. Chinese authorities reported six quakes and aftershocks during a four-hour period that started with a relatively minor quake at 5:39 a.m. (5:39 p.m. on Tuesday in Washington). The most devastating tremors came at 7:49 a.m.

Here’s another article about earthquakes:

First Haiti, then Chile, and now Mexico. Why all of a sudden do there seem to be so many earthquakes?

Actually, there are no more earthquakes happening than usual; it’s just that these three quakes happened to strike areas where a lot of people live, so we heard about them.

According to Walter Mooney, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (he’s a physicist who studies earthquakes), most earthquakes occur in remote parts of the world. “There are 14 to 17 magnitude-7 earthquakes on Earth every year,” Mooney said. “Only a few are near population centers.”

A magnitude-7 quake is big enough to do a lot of damage. But how much damage an earthquake does depends on the buildings in the area. In many earthquake-prone regions, governments require especially strong construction standards so that buildings can withstand a lot of shaking. The earthquake in Mexico earlier this month, which was also felt in Southern California, was measured at 7.2, but it did relatively little damage because of strict building standards. In Haiti, though, where few structures were well built, the magnitude-7.3 quake in January destroyed huge parts of the capital city and killed more than 200,000 people.

What’s frustrating to scientists is that they have no way to tell where an earthquake will strike next; they can only make educated guesses. “As we go for longer and longer periods of time, then the probability slowly increases” that an earthquake will happen soon in a given region, Mooney said. “But the Earth is very complicated, and we are unable to do better than giving a probability.”

OK, that’s not so much news. But hey, I’m working on my taxes. Please chime in with news your finding. What’s happening in your neck of the woods.

And now for something radical and extreme: Get rid of the 401K

Last weekend, I got polled.  Er, by Harris, the polling company.  I’ve been getting a lot of that lately.  Maybe being a middle class suburbanite independent Democrat-in-exile in NJ means I have finally arrived but it’s unlikely I fit their notions of the typical polling subject.  Well, not after this poll anyway.

The first question was about my attitudes towards the military.  Would I suggest the military to a young person?  As it happens, I’m a military brat, my family has a long tradition of joining up and I have current family members who are career military.  So, while a military career is not for everyone and it’s certainly more dangerous than it was 10 years ago, I wouldn’t rule it out for someone who doesn’t know what they want to do as a career.

That first answer seemed to have put me, a lifelong liberal, on the Tea Party branch of the decision tree.  Many of the other questions after that point were kind of insulting to the intelligence.  For instance, is someone arrested for a crime entitled to speak to an attorney?  Jeez, all those years of Dragnet should have sunk in by now.  Of course they are.  What about if the crime is serious or particularly heinous?  Um, yeah, that’s when you are most in need of one to defend you.  What about if it’s a TERRORIST???  Do they get to speak to an attorney on the government’s dime if they are accused of TERRORISM?  Well, Timothy McVeigh went through the process, was represented, had a fair trial and got what was coming to him.  I think the system can work.  Let’s not start making exceptions for alleged terrorists.

Anyway, that wasn’t the section that tripped my trigger.  No, the one that got to me was about 401Ks.  I don’t know what our brilliant braintrusts in the Democratic party are up to but if they are the ones who are suggesting that it would be a nifty keen idea to expand the 401K system, we might as well all just get used to an America whose salad days are over.  The poll question was something like, “Would you approve or disapprove of expanding the 401k system to workers whose employers would not be required to make a matching contribution?”

That’s a weird question for so many reasons.  The first one is, if you allow *some* employers to opt out of making contributions, wouldn’t you just give the rest of them justification for also opting out?  And what about the Enron-esque employers who match with stock?  But I digress.  Because the real employment trend is to make everyone contractors, freeing the corporation from actually employing and being responsible for the lives of the people who work for them.  So, maybe that’s where this question is coming from.  Say you are now a contractor, forced to go through some rent collecting middle man who acts as an intermediary between the corporate entity and your paycheck.  Now YOU are responsible for your retirement accounts, not the corporate entity.  So, does the old corporation have to match your 401k contributions?  Something to think about as the traditional bonds between employer and employee are redefined.

But that’s not why the 401K needs to go.  Now, I am not a financial wizard.  Far from it.  If you want that kind of expertise, check out Dakinikat’s posts, or Baseline Scenario or Naked Capitalism.  No, I am just Jane Bagodonuts from the burbs.  Nevertheless, blogging allows me to expound on any subject I like or don’t like.  And I have particular dislike for my 401k, may it grow and prosper.  Here are my reasons from a liberal perspective:

1.) It’s a Ponzi scheme.  Yep.  Unlike Social Security, which we are all required to participate in and which has actuarial expertise built into it and is a fall back retirement insurance policy, the 401k is for suckers.  It relies on lots of people dumping their investment dollars into pumping up the price of stocks.  When the baby boom generation starts to retire in earnest, it’s going to want to cash in, leaving us with funds with diminishing value.  UNLESS we get some other poor schmos who don’t have employer contributions to send their money to our 401Ks in return.

2.) Wall Street thinks the money in your 401K is there for them to use as gambling chips in some global game of roulette.   We saw this happen in 2008 when the subprime mortgage market collapsed but it’s not limited to the bond market.  Oh, sure, the stock market is more highly regulated but when the bottom fell out of the mezzanine subprime tranche CDO’s it took everything else with it.  Besides, who has time to monitor their 401K’s at every minute of the day?  Most of us follow the Ron Popeill method of financial investment: set it and forget it. Turning a bunch of naive amateurs into financial planners of their old age lifestyles has turned into a windfall for the predators on Wall Street.  What we don’t know can hurt us and we don’t know what they’re up to.

3.) Wall Street and the financial sector in general is like the Wild West right now.  Until there is more oversight and regulation, you just can’t trust them.  The constant infusion of cash to these testosterone poisoned, self centered, highly overrated gamblers who manage our money only encourages more risk taking and future financial collapses.

4.) 401Ks lead to employees betting against themselves.  The shareholder is the emperor.  The money we put into these funds increase when employers see staff as unattractive drags on the bottom line.  I’ve always preferred the word Personnel to Human Resources because it acknowledges that there are persons actually doing the work and that we are not just variable costs to be minimized for the benefit of the bonus class.  Nevertheless, when corporations cut staff, the stock goes up and everyone starts dreaming of their new retirement condo in Mexico.  That is, iff they have the privilege of actually retiring.

5.) 401ks lead to less innovation.  Well, if you have to cut staff to assuage the quarterly panic attacks of the shareholders, you don’t have people innovating for you.  It’s true.  People who no longer work for you are not required to do your thinking for you.  The people who are left are too busy preparing for their own “displacement” to do any real work.

6.) 401ks invite the bonus class to invest in emerging markets, not the American market.  They’re always chasing profits.  For themselves.  For you?  Ehhhhh, not so much.  Shareholders, that is the BIG shareholders, not you and me, have to be satisfied so the money must go somewhere.  Why not India?  Oh, sure, it means that the capital will be invested in a place that means more Americans will lose their jobs and potential American entrepreneurs will go begging for startup money. But that’s the nature of capitalism.  Suck it up.

5.) In order to get a break on taxes, which in my case are pretty ugly, you can’t take the money out until you retire.  You can borrow from your 401K but then, you have to make sure you stay employed so you can pay yourself back.  It’s not very liquid and most of us can’t afford to fund multiple retirement/savings/college funds.  In emergencies, it’s useless.

Now, I am glad that I have a 401K, for the short term forseeable future, and that my employer is rather generous in funding it.  But it’s all on paper as far as I’m concerned.  By the time I am ready to retire, it might be worthless.  Getting rid of them wouldn’t exclude investing in the stock market.  It would just not institutionalize it and make it an all-but-mandatory retirement strategy.  Maybe the financial sector would be a little bit more attentive to our needs if they didn’t have a steady stream of easy money flowing into their gargantuan gullets.  Maybe customer service would improve.  There might be incentives offered to attract your business.  Maybe the risky gambling addiction behavior would cease.

I dunno.  I can only speculate with my money averse mind. But the more I hear about the financial meltdown, the more I keep coming back to the 401K “instrument” as the root of all evil.





Early Morning OPEN Thread: Move over Susan Boyle

(the tape is poor quality homemade, but her incredible talent is obvious.)

This young lady is 11 years old?  Really?

Something tells me we haven’t heard the last from Jasmine Sullivan.


What are you doing up at this early hour?