Adult Onset Atheist

Monday, March 20, 2017

Brezhnev and Trump's Medals

The other day AYD and I were discussing which former Soviet despot the current president of the US is most like. I thought he might be most like Uncle Joe Stalin because of his anti-science, anti-art and degenerative moral edicts. In fact I was sure, for a short span of minutes, that the Uncle Joe comparison was a slam dunk for best; then AYD outlined her case for Leonid Brezhnev.

Western media at the time of Brezhnev’s reign (1964-1982), and then history, found him to be extremely boring, but the Soviet media hung on his every word and action. Leonid also published numerous books –several autobiographical- that outlined his grand communist ideals, and even told stories of incredible bravery in battle. These were effectively locked behind a wall for me; a wall built partially of a language barrier (I’ve never learned Russian) and partially because I considered Leonid too boring to spend much attention on. Time has made Brezhnev's time in office more interesting; in part because of the reasons he was so easy to dismiss closer to his life. Brezhnev still was boring.

“Our press has so much praise for my latest book, I am becoming curious. I think maybe one day I’ll read some of it myself” - Purported comment by Brezhnev to an aide.

The most exciting things about Brezhnev was his hair and his chest heavy with medals. Trump has interesting hair as evidenced by the amount of time people spend talking about it.  Brezhnev's exciting hair was displayed as a bushy pair of eyebrows that at times would grow into a mega-monobrow. The collection of military medals he wore to public gatherings was so huge as to even inspire at least one rock and roll band to name itself “Brezhnev’s Medals”.

It was the medals that clinched the comparison to Donald Trump. As one of the most powerful humans in the universe Brezhnev could give anyone a medal for whatever he wanted, and he wanted to give himself medals for all sorts of things. He would give himself medals just for having a birthday. It is easy to imagine Donald Trump giving himself a medal for the biggest inauguration crowd ever. By the way, my readers should note that Donald’s birthday is coming up on June 14th, which will just sneak up on you if you don’t watch out.

“Q: What is the difference between the Constitutions of the USA and USSR? Both of them guarantee freedom of speech.
A: Yes, but the Constitution of the USA also guarantees freedom after the speech.” -- Soviet “Armenian Radio” joke

Brezhnev rolled back the cultural reforms that the fiery Khrushchev had tried to put into place. These proposed reforms are widely believed to be the reason Khrushchev was unceremoniously removed from office in 1964. Khrushchev attempted to light the fuse of repressed revolutionary sentiment, and the shadow of that spark is most certainly his secret 1956 speech “О культе личности и его последствиях “ ("On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences" ). Shortly after the speech some notable dissidents, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, were released from years of harsh imprisonment and exonerated.

"Lenin proved that even female cooks could manage a country.
Stalin proved that just one person could manage a country.
Khrushchev proved that a fool could manage a country.
Brezhnev proved that a country doesn’t need to be managed at all."
-- Soviet era joke

It is rather ironic that Khrushchev would be replaced by a narcissist due, in part, because of the blowback from a speech about the dangers of personality cults. 

"Lubyanka (KGB headquarters) is tallest building in the Moscow. You can see Siberia from it's basement." – Soviet joke circa 1970

Brezhnev did not so much dispose of the reforms as simply allow operatives in his government to dismantle them and hide the parts. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was not re-imprisoned, but he couldn’t publish in the Soviet Union, and he was not allowed to attend the 1970 Nobel Prize ceremonies to pick up his literature medal; they sought to ignore stuff and have it wither away in the blinding lack of attention.

Reporter: "Comrade Brezhnev, is it true that you collect political jokes?"
Brezhnev: "Yes"
Reporter: "And how many have you collected so far?"
Brezhnev: "Three and a half labor camps."
– Soviet Joke circa 1970

Brezhnev’s reign as Soviet Supreme Leader saw incredible deprivations and a weed-like growth of corrupt bureaucracy. To a westerner it appeared as if they were always at war or parading earth-busting missiles through red square to celebrate the coming end of the world.

"He was sentenced to three years, served five, and then he got lucky and was released ahead of time." – Soviet Gulag joke

Great works were attempted. Shortly after Brezhnev entered office (October 1965) they began developing the Soviet manned moonshot program (N1-L3). This program was fast-tracked, and a great deal of effort was spent trying to best the American Apollo (Saturn V) program. Sergei Korolev was the genius behind the N1superlifter design that would become the basis for the N1-L3 moonshot rocket. Like many Stalin-era intellectuals he was imprisoned for years, released and exonerated during Khrushchev, and then suffered during Brezhnev; in the case of Korolev the Brezhnev-era suffering took the form of gulag-induced kidney disease that caused the heart attack that took his life on 14 January 1966. The rockets were eventually built, and on four occasions (21 February 1969, 3 July 1969, 26 June 1971, and 23 November 1972) tested. All the tests were unqualified failures. The second attempt, which occurred a little over two weeks before the Americans would land a man on the moon (20 July 1969), was the most spectacular failure in human space travel; the explosion at Baikonur Cosmodrome would release four Tera joules of energy (1 kiloton), and be one of the largest non-nuclear accidental explosions ever experienced by humans. The Brezhnev media machine would simply deny that the N1-L3 program was ever a reality, and information that described it would not be released until 7 years after Brezhnev’s death.

"With Lenin, it was like being in a tunnel: You‘re surrounded by darkness, but there’s light ahead.
With Stalin, it was like being on a bus: One person is driving, half the people on the bus are sitting and the other half are quaking with fear.
With Khrushchev, it was like at a circus: One person is talking, and everyone else is laughing.
With Brezhnev, it was like at the movies: Everyone’s just waiting for the film to end."
-- Soviet era joke

Brezhnev was not nearly as harsh as Stalin. Trump’s insistence that the inauguration crowds were the biggest ever sounds like it could have been either Brezhnev or Stalin, but in order to be the complete Stalin he would have had to bus in people from labor camps to pose in photographic proof that they were the largest crowds ever. Trump's insistence that millions of people voted illegally could be either Stalin or Brezhnev, but in order to be the complete Stalin he would have to nullify the results and publish corrected figures. Trump’s insistence that the hotel he stays at was wiretapped could be either Stalin or Brezhnev, but if it was Stalin there would be forced confessions of the people actually installing the wiretaps, and anyone who might suggest there was no wiretapping program might disappear.

Q: What has four legs and forty teeth?
A: An alligator.
Q: And forty legs and four teeth?
A: Brezhnev's Politburo.
-- Soviet era joke

The US has had Presidents that appear, at least in light of history, to be unsuited to the job. Reagan was accused of “sleepwalking through history” while he was in office, and would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease before he died. George “W” Bush was widely described as a pawn of Dick “Doctor Evil” Cheney. However, neither of these POTUS suffered from Trump’s brand of pathological Tweet-splattered Narcissism. George W Bush’s twitter feed is “protected”, and Twitter was started (21 March 2006) after Reagan had died (5 June 2004). Meanwhile the current POTUS tweets every day, and each new tweet is just as likely to be an insult aimed at HRC or Obama, or some kind of crazy alt-right emboldened conspiracy theory.

The common western view of Brezhnev’s effect on the Soviet Union is somewhat positive: “Things got so bad that the USSR collapsed”. While this sentiment may contain a grain or two of divine objective truth it ignores the plight of those people in the USSR for whom things “got so bad”. I have begun hearing that trump’s plans will eventually lead though severe dysfunction to a better America. Do we really need to allow tens of thousands of uninsured people to die prematurely in order to create universal healthcare in the US? Do we really need to devalue our currency through rampant inflation in order to reign in the national debt? If modern history has taught any lessons the fact that things can get very bad if you let them is one of the most important.

The comparison with Brezhnev would be severely compromised if Trump declares war or engages in some massive first strike activity. Unless, that is, he gives himself a whole slew of medals just for starting the war while being President Donald Trump.

And remember that Donald’s birthday is on the 14th of June.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Happy Bede-day

The year was 703, and Saint Bede the Venerable had just published his tome on time (“De temporum ratione” or “The Reckoning of Time”). The main purpose of the book was determining a way of calculating when Easter would be, but Bede slipped in a very exact date (18 March 3952 BC) for the incarnation (The day the earth was created on).

Bede became the butt of several raucous drinking songs; a fact that made him rather anxious. He, in one of the two surviving letters he wrote (Epiflola Apologetica ad Plegavinan Monachum), would accuse Bishop Wilfrid of accusing him of heresy by allowing one of these songs to be sung at his table.

“Haec tristi mox admistione confudit addendo videlicet quod me audires a lascivientibus rusticis inter hsereticos per pocula decantari” -- Epiflola Apologetica ad Plegavinan Monachum

This accusation of heresy is widely reported as being because everyone who was anyone knew that the incarnation occurred in the year 5500 or thereabouts. The Byzantine calendar dated the incarnation to be 1 September 5509.

This puts the creation of the everything about 168 years after Mount Mazama exploded with a force 42 times that of the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens. That eruption created Crater Lake.

Today many people would make fun of people who insisted that their exact and unverifiable date for the creation of the universe should be taken seriously. I am unaware of any celebrations of the creation of the world on either September 1st or the 18th of March. Part of that is due to the fact that the Bishop Ussher would swoop in and claim that the world was created on 23 October 4004 BC, but we don’t celebrate creation day in October either. Part of that could be due to the change in calendars that occurred shortly after Ussher’s setting the incarnation date; that would have pushed the date to November 6th, but we don’t celebrate on that day either.
Byzantine mosaic of the Creation of Adam on 1 September 5509 from
Byzantine mosaic in Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, by way of Wikipedia

My theory is that we don’t celebrate on any of these days because everyone who might throw an interesting party does not believe this crap. I have a feeling that Bede was not invited to many good parties, and probably did not throw very good ones. That in turn might have better explained the drinking songs that made fun of him.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

America First Budget

Donald trump presented his first budget proposal to the world today, he even gave it a name: the “America First Budget”. Since two thirds of what a government does is tax and spend this is a third of everything we can expect on the Trump administration's want list. We say things when talking about a society like “fought a war”, or “built this thing”, but we really mean we paid people who did this, and so what we are going to pay people to do is a really big deal; especially if the numbers are really big. Looking at the America First Budget it appears as if we will be saying a lot more “fought a war” than “built this thing” in our future history books.

The big number is the 10% increase to the Department of Defense. This is a 54 billion dollar increase. That is a lot of bang for a country that is not (only in advisory roles) currently at war. By comparison the French military budget for 2012 was only 62.6 billion in total. Russia only spent 90.6 billion dollars on their military in 2012; up from 78.3 billion in 2011.

Because of cuts to the arts and a desire to only focus on approved scientific topics it will be possible to draw parallels between the Cultural Revolution in China and the budget choices as they get implemented. I hope the lack of imprisonment and torture will render all those comparisons hyperbolic, but there is a lot of work to do to get this America First Budget implemented.

I should point out that reading through this budget has created a condition of shock and sarcasm that might leak into my prose. I have never seen a budget that includes statements like “the President means business”, and uses adjectives like “bold” for the President’s agenda, and I think that counts as leaky prose as well. I would rather leak sarcasm onto an often snarky blog than leak narcissism onto a Presidential Budget proposal.

The point man for the budget is Office of Management and Budget Director John Michael "Mick" Mulvaney. He has already been given what could be interesting new powers in a couple January executive actions that Trump signed. He was taking a tour of news shows today. He was being unnervingly excited by this budget proposal.

Instead of just jawing about the America First Budget let me give you some numbers and quotes extricated from it.

Donald introduces his budget by using a bunch of complete sentences. This is a nice departure from his speeches. He makes at least one point that is intriguing and a little vague. He is going to get the rest of the world to pay "its fair share", but I am not sure if that means a fair share of this America First Budget, or if there is another shadow budget.

“ask the rest of the world to step up and pay its fair share.” – Donald Trump in the forward to the America First Budget

Another shadowy part of the budget is the “21st Century CURES Act”. Discussion of the funding for one of the last bills Obama signed into law looks like it is tacked onto the rest of the budget. It gives 6.3 billion dollars towards a hodgepodge of things, and has been called a “moonshot for cancer cures”. This act appears to be fully funded, but most of that funding appears to be offset by a decrease in the funding for the National Institutes of Health. Most everything else lurking in the shadows of this budget is scary.

The summary itself boasts of the agencies that are eliminated in the budget. The list is long, but they got it into one sentence with a liberal use of semi-colons.

“The Budget also proposes to eliminate funding for other independent agencies, including:
the African Development Foundation;
the Appalachian Regional Commission;
the Chemical Safety Board;
the Corporation for National and Community Service;
the Corporation for Public Broadcasting;
the Delta Regional Authority;
the Denali Commission;
the Institute of Museum and Library Services;
the Inter-American Foundation;
the U.S. Trade and Development Agency;
the Legal Services Corporation;
the National Endowment for the Arts;
the National Endowment for the Humanities;
the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation;
the Northern Border Regional Commission;
the Overseas Private Investment Corporation;
the United States Institute of Peace;
the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness;
and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.” – from the America First Budget (line breaks added for clarity)

Many individual department budgets are decreased by double digit percentages. There are cuts are directly targeted at climate change science in several obscure places.

Department of Agriculture 21% decrease (down 4.7 billion)
Department of Commerce 16% decrease (down 1.5 billion)

“Zeroes out over $250 million in targeted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education including Sea Grant” – from the America First Budget

Department of Defense 10% increase (up 54 billion)
Department of Education 13% decrease (down 9 billion)

The Department of Education budget actually appears cut by more since they shuffle a bit inside of the department to begin funding “school choice” programs.

“The 2018 Budget places power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children by investing an additional $1.4 billion in school choice programs.” – from the America First Budget

Department of Energy 5.6% decrease (down 1.7 billion)

The Department of Energy handles the US nuclear stockpile, and “owns” the nuclear reactors on our nuclear-powered naval vessels. The budget also appears cut by more that the gross percentage as money is shuffled from activities inside of the department that might be associated with responding to the threat of climate change to increase spending on the defense activities inside the department.

“Provides $120 million to restart licensing activities for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and initiate a robust interim storage program.” – from the America First Budget

Eliminated Department of Energy activities:
   Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy
   Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program
   Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program
   Weatherization Assistance Program
   State Energy Program
   Energy Star

I really liked the Energy Star program.

Department of Health and Human Services 17.0% decrease (down 15.1 billion)

A big portion of the cut in the Department of Health and Human Services budget, and almost enough to offset the “21st Century CURES Act” cost, comes just from the NIH budget.

“Reduces the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) spending relative to the 2017 annualized CR level by $5.8 billion to $25.9 billion.” – from the America First Budget

Department of Homeland Security 6.8% increase (2.8 billion)

The wall is housed in this department’s budget. More will be spent on homeland security efforts like the wall as there is some shuffling of priorities within this department too. Some FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) projects are cut significantly.

“The Budget would aggressively implement the President’s commitment to construct a physical wall along the southern border as directed by his January 25, 2017 Executive Order” – from the America First Budget

Department of Housing and Urban Development 13.2% decrease (down 6.2 billion)
Department of the Interior 12% decrease (down 1.5 billion)

In this department the shuffling takes money from conservation efforts and helps to subsidize mining and drilling for oil.

“Strengthens the Nation’s energy security by increasing funding for DOI (Department of the Interior) programs that support environmentally responsible development of energy on public lands and offshore waters.” – from the America First Budget

Department of Justice 3.8% decrease (down 1.1 billion)
Department of Labor 21% decrease (down 2.5 billion)
Department of State 28% decrease (down 10.1 billion)

The lion’s share of State Department budget cuts come from foreign aid, but turning away from examining climate change is a very significant portion of the State Department’s budgetary cut. The State Department’s Global Climate Change Initiative alone was $1.3 billion in this year’s budget.

“A lot of the money for climate research, climate change work, is in the state department budget, so that’s one of the reasons you see such a large reduction there.” - Office of Management and Budget Director John Michael "Mick" Mulvaney in a 16 March 2017 interview

Department of Transportation 13% decrease (down 2.4 billion)
Department of the Treasury 4.1% decrease (down 0.52 billion)
Department of Veterans Affairs 6% increase (up 4.4 billion)
Environmental Protection Agency 31% decrease (down 2.6 billion)

The EPA is cut to shreds. Lots of things cut that could be very important soon. However, climate change science contributed significantly to the slashing of the EPA budget.

“Discontinues funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts” – from the America First Budget

National Aeronautics and Space Administration 0.8% decrease (down 1.7 billion)
Small Business Administration 5% decrease (down 0.043 billion)

We have been told to expect a new tax plan soon. That should also be interesting, but in a more subtle way. Deciding who pays the bills is more of a tweaking of our social structure, and I have a feeling that there are some really aggressive tweakers in the White house these days.