How Social Media is Changing Disaster Response

Subcommittee Hearing: Emergency MGMT 2.0: How #SocialMedia & New Tech are Transforming Preparedness, Response, & Recovery #Disasters #Part2 #Govt/NGOs
The House Committee on Homeland Security

July 9, 2013

It is nice to see Congress keeping up with trends, and judging from all of the hashtags in the title above, you have to hope some of our distinguished Solons know the difference between Twitter and Facebook.

Social media can be a massive time-suck. It can also be a powerful tool at the right time and in the right hands. The Department of State figured that out, and is now working on its toolkit. Apparently, so has the American Red Cross, and several state and local governments. These hearings are a ray of hope that the DHS will as well.

GAO: Government Struggles to Track Money and Performance

Unaccountable Government: GAO Reports Show Feds Struggling to Track Money and Performance
Committee on Oversight & Government Reform
July 10, 2013

Pork Barrel BBQ
Pork Barrel BBQ (Photo credit: joshbousel)

Three more incidents that highlight management issues in the government, specifically the IRS, the National Park Service, and the Bonneville Power Administration. Naturally, these are anecdotal, but they hint at a more widespread problem.

Debates I have had with liberals have them suggesting that the real problem with government is not wastage, but too much defense spending and corporate welfare. When I have the same discussion with conservatives, they say entitlements are the issue.

The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere in the vortex between the three positions. First, there are programs for which the government should not be paying, and those exist in the pet projects and pork barrel coming from both sides of the aisle. But at the same time, there is a constant stream of evidence that we are wasting vast sums via poor management, ineffectiveness, and outright malfeasance.

This is not a matter of “what to attack first.” It ALL has to be attacked. We don’t need to expand government or contract government as much as we need to right-size the levels of regulation and expenditure. In order to do that, both what government does AND how it does it must be on the table.

An Open Postcard to the Koch Brothers

Selfishness is the root of big government.

To wit: when we strive solely on behalf of our own interests, we create a social vacuum into which government is drawn as light into a black hole.

For this reason, those who would demand less government must thus first make it unnecessary.

A tiny hint to the Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch, and other American plutocrats. Take a hint from Bill Gates and put your money to work solving the problems that afflict our nation and our planet, rather than pouring it down the sewer of political patronage. Not only will you whittle away at the need for government to take action, you will also leave a legacy of more streamlined government for future generations.

All it takes is wise vision, rather than the myopia of ideology.

Toward a New Moonshot

NASA (Photo credit: Luke Bryant)

William H. Gerstenmaier’s “Our Brick Moon” in the Summer 2012 issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly does a passing fair job at explaining some of the benefits America and mankind have derived from the International Space Station.
He talks about the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an instrument that allowed scientists aboard the ISS that is helping investigators in 16 countries to understand the composition of the universe. Space-grown superbugs have led to better vaccines, including a pathway to a vaccine for the virulent methicillin-resistant staph, or MRSA, that kills nearly 99,000 people in the US alone each year, and one for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy. Liquidmetal, an ISS-developed material with the strength of titanium and the moldable properties of plastic, has been licensed by Apple for better, lighter electronic devices.
He explains how the environmental control system developed for ISS recycles up to 80% of the water used by the crew, and an oxygen generation system that is totally self-contained. Aside from the implications for deep-space travel, there are lessons to be learned for an increasingly thirsty world. What is more, doing all of this taught NASA – and everyone involved with these projects – how to make multinational efforts work more smoothly in space and on the ground. As someone who has spent a quarter century running cross-cultural workplaces, I can attest this is no small triumph. Finally, the ISS has made possible a new era in government-private partnerships that have led to the development of promising firms like SpaceX, Orbital Systems, and dozens of subcontractors. A new space-economy is born.
It is a shame, however, that he stops here, because in doing so he either overreaches, underreaches, or both.
Let me explain.
America does not need lengthy eloquent justifications for money the nation has already spent on space. We get that. Microwave ovens, freeze-dried food, microprocessors, countless technical breakthroughs and the competitiveness that each of those innovations have bestowed on the nation were spinoffs of the space programs from Vanguard to the international space station. Open-sourcing the innovations that came out of nearly six decades of tax-payer funded effort was a part of the bargain that brought funds to NASA in the first place.
If, however, Mr. Gerstenmaier expects American taxpayers to continue their financial support of NASA manned space programs because of those benefits, he is mistaken. If he believes that he will get American taxpayers underwrite future manned space programs because of what Apollo did for computers, or the IIS as did for esoteric biomedical research, he overreaches. American taxpayers understand that past results do not guarantee future results.
Yet if he only wishes to extol the accomplishments of his pet programs he under reaches. What NASA needs more today than ever as for its senior administrators to explain to the American public why the United States still needs the space agency when its roads are crumbling for lack of highway funds.
America needs a vision for its space future. That vision needs goals, it needs a vision that incorporates a public–private partnership, but incorporates NASA’s role as a driver of key research, that frames benefits beyond those that are bestowed upon the largest government contractors, that lays out the programs in the payoffs therefrom, gives a timeline, and provides practical route of funding.

Getting Rail Spend Right

Map of planned high speed rail lines in Califo...
Map of planned high speed rail lines in California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rail renovations: The most expensive tunnel in the world
The Economist
29 July 2012

I am a big fan of passenger rail, having enjoyed high-speed rail service in Asia and Europe that is far more reliable and comfortable than air travel over the same routes. High-speed rail is no panacea for the US, even if oil prices skyrocket: we are never going to replace transcontinental flights with rail travel. But in busy corridors up to around 900 miles in length, especially those subject to frequent delays, high-speed rail may be viable, if not essential.

The biggest problem, aside from the understandable opposition of troubled U.S. airlines, is cost. Passenger rail is a government-owned public utility, which means that every mile of track laid comes out of the taxpayer’s pockets, and it is getting awfully expensive to lay track in the United States.

Yet there is reason to believe that there is money to be found right in Amtrak’s own budgets. A post in The Economist’s Gulliver blog points out why two huge Amtrak capital improvement projects will spend $17 billion and yield little in terms operational improvement and passenger convenience. One has to wonder what kind of political boondoggle is driving our cash-strapped national railroad to spend $7 billion on a facelift at Washington’s Union Station and $10 billion building a tunnel under Philadelphia.

The same money invested in the California high-speed rail project would cover nearly a quarter of the cost of the entire new-from-scratch system (at least according to the most recent California High Speed Rail Authority estimates.) Leaving aside that particular white elephant, I have no doubt that other uses could be found for $17 billion that would make a large and lasting difference for passengers in many parts of Amtrak’s system.

So why is the money being spent to reinvent the wheel in Washington and Philadelphia?

Rethinking Amtrak

Review & Outlook: Amtrak’s Banner Year –

If this editorial was not such a naked appeal on behalf of petroleum-dependent passenger transportation industries, we would have enjoyed it a lot more.

Amtrak P40DC #832 pulling the now-discontinued...
Amtrak P40DC #832 pulling the now-discontinued Desert Wind. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The editors are right: there is something wrong with a passenger rail system that loses a half billion dollars after enjoying a banner year.

Where the editors are wrong is in condemning passenger rail altogether. Buses and airplanes are fine substitutes for passenger rail when Brent crude is selling at $88.34 a barrel. Once that price begins to rise – and it will – rail is going to become an essential mode of travel for a growing number of people.

The way I look at Amtrak – right or wrong – is as the seed corn for a new passenger rail industry that we will need at some point in the foreseeable future. That said, it is time we started digging into how to make Amtrak more efficient – even if it means dropping some money-losing routes.

Government Trough Alert: The GSA

GSA executive traveled to Hawaii, South Pacific after warnings –

Amid all of our partisan debates about big government vs. small government, we are missing out on the most important opportunity we have to get more out of our taxpayer dollars: eliminating FAT government.

Fat Government is our term for taxpayer money that is used to pay for activities that neither contribute to nor support the broader goals of government and the nation, that is wasted due to inefficiencies,  that is lost to corruption, or that is siphoned by government employees who are “working” the system.

Paying for a GSA employee, regardless of his level, to take non-essential travel is wasteful. Paying for him to travel on what were essentially junkets is worse. Where he went is irrelevant: if he spent the government coin to go goof off in Bethesda would have been morally every bit as reprehensible as flying off to Napa Valley, Hawaii, and the South Pacific.

There is now a bipartisan tide of fury growing around the “culture of excess,” wastefulness, and entitlement at the GSA. The system is not working and it needs to be fixed.

It would be delusion to believe that the waste ends there. We need not only to hunt down such institutional cultures and practices wherever they may exist in government, we must replace them with positive cultures of frugality and service.

The same applies not just in the federal government, but at every level of government in the US. Where is the fat?

American government needs a liposuction. Where else can we look?

On Patronage

Menachem Mendel Schneerson - the Lubavitcher R...
Menachem Mendel Schneerson - the Lubavitcher Rebbe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A patronizing public official who rewards the private interests of his supporters without acting for the benefit of the entire community will be rejected by all those who value the democratic process.

— Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, from In G-d We Trust: A Handbook of Values for Americans

Blight vs. Gentrification: Is There Another Way?


English: Aerial picture of Benton Harbor, Mich...
Image via Wikipedia

Now That the Factories Are Closed, It’s Tee Time in Benton Harbor, Mich. –

In an engrossing and balanced article in The New York Times Magazine from December year, Jonathan Mahler describes the attempted revitalization of Benton Harbor, a Michigan rust-belt town that despite the ravages of global economics remains the headquarters of Whirlpool, Inc.

On the one side of the town’s revitalization efforts are a the developers of a golf resort, an “emergency city manager” appointed by the state government, and Whirlpool, all of whom seem to want the Lake Michigan town to regain its vibrancy. On the other are elected officials of an apparently dysfunctional government who have been sidelined in the State’s effort to resuscitate the town, and activists who are concerned that in this mini-Detroit’s renaissance there is no room for the town’s working class.

In this day of 1% vs. 99% and Occupy Whatever, it is tempting to see in the collusion between a Republican State government, a large corporation, and a property developer the specter of conspiracy. Is this an effort to gentrify a factory town that circumvents morality, if not the law?

It might be, but Mahler finds no easy villains, no smoking gun, just the smell of something that might be pushing the unemployed, undereducated, and unskilled out of town. That he did not is significant, and he seems troubled by a hard truth.

Harbor Shores is not without precedent. Recently, a golf course helped revive a troubled neighborhood in Atlanta known as East Lake. But at this point, it seems more likely that Harbor Shores will simply bring a new population to Benton Harbor and hasten the town’s fracturing into two distinct communities: the second-home owners and Whirlpool executives who live inside Harbor Shores and frequent the Arts District — and everyone else.

The question is, can “everyone else” include a stable, working-class population, or is Benton Harbor beyond repair?

The possibility that gentrification is the only thing that will keep Benton Harbor afloat gnaws on the author, but what gnawed on me the most was nobody from a chorus of opponents – the activists, the discarded city officials, and outsiders including Rachel Maddow and the Reverend Jesse Jackson – has yet to propose an workable alternative solution, or even to suggest changes to the current formula that would be more inclusive of those who Mahler categorizes as “everyone else.”

That liberals have failed to be part of the solution is disturbing, but the silence of the right is hints at a hubris that implies that gentrification is the only path for blighted communities. This is a failure of imagination on both sides of the aisle, and it offers scant consolation to places like Detroit, where scale makes urban blight a problem unsolvable by golf resorts.

The challenge of Benton Harbor, then, is the pressing need to construct an American future that avoids the hazards of a binary economy, of the 1% and the 99%. It is the clarion that reminds us to stop proposing industrial age solutions on post-industrial nations, states, and communities.

Brown Ending Pensions for Felons



Commit a crime, collect a pension –


I was dubious about the return of Governor Moonbeam, and frankly remain so, but this measure coming out of Jerry Brown’s office warms my conservative heart.


Under current California law, public employees and retirees continue to receive their state pensions even if they are convicted of a felony and sent to jail. In essence, the taxpayers are paying the former public servant twice: the pension, and the $50,000 or so that it costs to keep that individual incarcerated.


As bad as it is to spend $5ok a year on a convicted criminal, it is good money after bad to pay the pension on top of that. Brown’s move makes great fiscal sense and should be supported.


Blog at

Up ↑