March 24, 2011

Airplanes Falling from Sky

By now you have likely seen multiple breathless stories about how two airplanes miraculously landed at Washington D.C.'s Reagan National Airport while the tower controller was sleeping. The tone of the stories is that this was a catastrophe avoided.

It is what I have come to expect from people talking first and researching second. In this case, the only sane reporting probably comes from CNN's Miles O'Brien who is a licensed pilot.

I got my pilot's license 40 years ago, logged 2,000 hours flight time in everything from a two-seat Cessna to a Mitsubishi prop-jet, and have landed at DCA several times. That doesn't make me an expert, but at least I know more than the well-groomed folks on CNN or MSNBC. (Full disclosure: I let my pilot's licenses lapse several years ago.)

A few facts that make the story a lot less important than it appears on first blush:

Airplanes, including commercial flights, land at airports without towers every day. I learned to fly at three different airports in the Lansing area: Capital City, Mason and Charlotte. The latter two have no control towers. For several years the Lansing tower was closed from midnight until 6 a.m., but airplanes still landed 24/7.

Last time I checked the only airport in the northern part of the lower peninsula with a control tower was Traverse City. Pellston, Boyne, Petoskey, Mt. Pleasant and Mackinac Island are among the more popular Michigan destinations with no tower.

Pilots don't need tower controllers to land. The job of the tower is to sequence planes in the traffic pattern along with those preparing for takeoff. There are standard procedures pilots learn from Day One of flight training for entering the traffic pattern and then landing at an uncontrolled airport. There are published standard traffic patterns, and they communicate with other planes on designated radio frequencies.

There are redundant air traffic control systems for air-carrier airports, especially DCA. You can't fly within 25 miles of the largest airports without the advance permission of air traffic controllers staffing the enroute control centers (ARTCC) or the airport radar approach control facilities (RAPCON).

Every pilot planning on landing at National, Dulles or Baltimore-Washington International is in constant radio contact with enroute or approach controllers who watch them on their radar screens. Those controllers routinely advise the pilots of other traffic in the area. Approach control generally doesn't hand off the plane to the tower until it is within a few miles of the airport. If there is a problem (as happened in DC) the pilot can stick with approach control right up to the point the wheels touchdown.

For Washington D.C. there is additional unspecified monitoring added in the aftermath of 9/11. Fly anywhere near Capitol Hill or the White House without the proper clearance and you may have an up-close-and-personal encounter with a military fighter jet, or even a sudden collision with anti-aircraft weapons.

The tower controller should not have dozed off, and the incident should not have happened. But the biggest problem with the situation is that this sleepy (and now suspended) civil servant violated the twin rules of public relations:

• Don't screw up on a slow news day, and
• Don't screw up in a town that is loaded with reporters looking for something to do

24/7 news channels are often a welcome improvement in our information infrastructure. But when you hear the breathless stories like this, remember that the first obligation of news media is to fill the airtime or the web/print space with "compelling" content so they have something in which to wrap the advertising.

"Compelling" doesn't necessarily mean "important." Remember this the next time you see a story on some splinter group of three whack-jobs or "grass roots event" ginned up by someone hoping for some free news coverage.

Just because it is on the internet doesn't make it true. Just because it's on the TV doesn't make it important.

March 17, 2011

Balancing the books

Everyone is talking budget cuts. Even though polling shows statewide and nationwide support for some tax increases, everybody wants to cut government spending. Nobody can agree on what needs cutting but, in our dysfunctional world, we all agree that something needs to be done.

Let's start by repealing Prohibition. It didn't work in the 1920's (except for Al Capone, Joe Kennedy and the Purple Gang). It still doesn't work.

We can save tens-of-billions of dollars by simply legalizing marijuana. Pot laws are like speed limits: many people take great pleasure in ignoring the law, and most get away with it.

Even so, a lot of people actually get caught and punished for doing what so many others are doing every day.

A recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance stated that in New York City alone, there were 50,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2010 which cost taxpayers $75-million. That's just one city!

I'm willing to wager that a secret poll of Congress would show that a majority of members have, at some point in their lives, used marijuana. Our last three Presidents have all admitted that they partook of the vile weed (yeah, I know ... Clinton didn't inhale).

Taking pot out of the criminal justice system brings huge immediate benefits:
* Law enforcement could spend more time on crimes that actually constitute a clear-and-present danger to society, like drunk driving and white-collar offenses
* Same goes for prison, prosecutors and the courts
* We'd relieve a lot of the pressure along the Mexico border (illegal marijuana fuels border crime; legal marijuana creates a job-producing industry)
* We would eliminate a major source of revenue for organized crime
* Regulating and taxing marijuana in a manner identical to our regulation of liquor would raise billions that could rescue our education system and maybe even help balance the budget

I have heard the arguments against legalization and I just don't buy them:
* "Marijuana is a gateway drug to the opiates and meth." No, that would be alcohol.
* "Marijuana abuse will increase other criminal activity." Have you ever seen someone who is stoned? I'd rather deal with a stoner than a drunk any day.
* "Smoking marijuana simply isn't healthy." Probably true, but the same can be said of smoking cigarettes, getting drunk or eating at McDonalds. The libertarian in me says pot should be a matter of personal choice, not government edict.

To me the most important reason to legalize, though, isn't about money. It is about hypocrisy.

Alcohol and nicotine are the two most destructive addictive drugs in our society, the two major causes of preventable deaths, and major drivers of healthcare costs. They are legal and even glamorized by popular media.

Marijuana is no worse than alcohol or nicotine, but we sometimes put people in jail for simply possessing it, even as many of us wink at its use just as we giggle when Charlie Sheen talks about using cocaine. Marijuana is today's version of 1920's bootleg liquor.

I have no problem jailing people for anti-social behavior resulting from marijuana abuse (such as impaired driving), but the double-standard has to end. What message do we send to our kids with such a transparent hypocrisy?

March 11, 2011

Term Limits Bite Us in the Ass

It has taken a decade, but the damage to our state from term limits has now fully taken root.

Term limits started as a well-intentioned but incredibly naive idea that government works best when run by amateurs. Voters with minimal knowledge of governing (garnered mostly from superficial general news coverage) figured that the few examples of ineffective, corrupt or morally bankrupt elected officials represented the norm. Thus, they voted to change the entire system.

The irony was that it was approved during the administration of John Engler, arguably the most effective Governor in state history. Engler was the quintessential career politician: elected to the state House at the age of 21, serving for two decades in the Legislature before becoming Governor.

We lost the benefit of having legislators who understood the process and complex issues involved in leading a $40-billion enterprise, people like Bobby Crim, Lynn Jondahl, Dave Hollister, Harry Gsst, Bill Ryan, Paul Hillegonds and dozens of others who served with distinction for 10-to-25 years.

Term limits took hold in the Granholm years. For the first time, we had a Governor and legislative leaders who had minimal (or no) experience in political leadership. Combined with split control of the Legislature, it led to eight years of stalemates, confrontation and bickering which put a premium on short-term political advantage and zero premium on long-term policy. They were unprepared to deal with the fiscal crisis imposed on Michigan by national and world economic forces.

Now we have a government trying to deal with the impact of continued international and national economic turmoil, and it is run by amateurs:

• Governor Rick Snyder, with no government experience at any level
• Speaker Jace Balger, in his third year as a legislator after four years as a county commissioner
* Senate Majority leader Randy Richardville, in his first Senate term after four years in the state House

(Snyder has the additional disadvantage of having no core constituency. He won the Republican nomination only because three other candidates divided up the core conservative GOP vote, and won the general election because it was a year in which just about any Republican was preordained to win.)

All three are very smart people. But none of them has the knowledge of leadership in a political setting that can only be gained with time. And none of them has had the time to build the personal relationships that lead to trust, something critical in a political setting. (Just look at the dysfunctional Wisconsin government!)

More than half of the House members are rookies; 30 of the 38 Senate members are in their first term.

It's on-the-job training for the leaders of a $40-billion enterprise. What business would survive with such a poorly prepared leadership team? How would you like having our war in Afghanistan being run by someone with four years Army experience, instead of career soldier David Petraeus?

A veteran local school district official said it best when he lamented that there was nobody in the Legislature who actually understood school finance. He was lamenting the fact that most legislators wanted to punish school districts for maintaining rainy day funds, something any business management consultant will tell you is smart management.

We have well meaning, intelligent, motivated people making decisions on issues about which they know little or nothing, and it is a very steep learning curve. Instead of having the facts to make reasoned decisions, they are forced to make "gut" judgements based on truthiness.

I wouldn't choose a plumber on that basis. Why should we use that as the standard for out government leaders?

(I run into it with Facebook friends all the time. They will make a political statement that runs contrary to the state of U.S. Constitution not because they are anarchists, but because they don't know better.)

No government system is perfect or even close to it. But making mandatory ignorance a prerequisite for being elected is a guarantee that the results will be bad.

March 9, 2011

The Upside of $5 Gasoline

One of the most frequent bumper-sticker arguments from politicians in tough times is that we have to share some short-term pain for long-term gain. Usually you hear it from conservatives who contend lower-income Americans will have to do with less so they have more in the future (trickle-down prosperity). (You never hear the conservatives call for a little pain for their core constituency – the well-to-do – but that's another rant for another time.)

Most days my wife and I go to the YMCA for an hour of short-term discomfort. I'll ride the stationary bike, she'll attack the treadmill, and then both of us will work on the weight machines. We get a little sore sometimes but we know the long-term benefits cannot be denied.

My feelings on energy policy are the same. We can benefit from some short-term pain, specifically the pain of significantly higher fossil fuel taxes.

It's like cigarette taxes which are now massive. It is a fact that the higher taxes have 1) raise a lot of money for vital public programs like healthcare, and 2) encouraged people to quit smoking. Duh: win-winning!

We know we need more money to repair our transportation system (roads, bridges, airports), and we know the long-term benefits of evolving our energy production to renewable resources for both economic and environmental reasons. (I also support nuclear, by the way. It is proven safer than coal, it is environmentally more responsible, the technology is proven, and it is for all practical purposes an unlimited resource.)

This isn't just a theory. Western Europe and Japan have been doing this for decades and they have reaped the rewards. Have you ever used public transportation in Tokyo? London? Berlin? Rome? It's awesome. Urban subway systems and intercity railroad networks in the rest of the world should embarrass Americans.

We drive the highest percentage of low-mileage cares of any developed nation in the world. And everyone else is now or will soon generate most of their electricity with nuclear and/or renewables, because the economics make sense.

Americans simply have been unwilling to voluntarily accept the short-term pain. Going back to my exercise comparison, it is comparable to the reluctance all of us fatties experience when we first consider starting a workout regimen. Too many of us wait for the heart attack before we actually do something.

Our friends in the oil companies are doing it for us (and doing it to us). Relying on the oil companies, though, means we'll get less benefit from the pain.

We will still be pushed in the direction towards fuel efficiency and alternative fuels, but instead of taxes being used for the public good the extra money goes into the rather humungous treasuries of Exxon-Mobil, BP et. al. I'd rather have my money fixing roads (and creating jobs) than funding 9-figure bonuses for oil executives and buying another mansion for some Saudi sheikh.

Our politicians, including the President, continue to pander to our desire to avoid pain. Republicans, unwilling to learn from a long history of environmental disasters, continue to scream "Drill, Baby, Drill." President Obama talks the talk when it comes to our energy future, but he's looking at artificially lowering the cost of gasoline by releasing oil from the strategic reserve. Bad move. He should run the political risk of walking the walk, and letting market forces move us towards a more rational energy future.

As for the rest of us, Americans should stop complaining about $3.50 or $4 or $5 gasoline and do something positive. In addition to buying a Volt, I've started riding the bus. I live one block from a bus stop and can get just about anywhere in metro Lansing in a reasonable amount of time. It is selfish and stupid for me to ignore a low-cost alternative to driving.

And I will continue to argue in favor of our governments doing what foreign governments have done for years: investing as much as possible into alternative fuel research that is vital for our economic and environmental future.

Do we really want to be held hostage by Middle East sand barons forever?