Friday, January 27, 2017

Anniversary of a Dark Day for America's Space Program

There's a point in "Inherit the Wind" when Spencer Tracy is addressing the jury on progress. His comments were in the context of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution; while you may or may not agree with that particular theory, there can be little disagreement with what Tracy's character said about progress of any kind:
"Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it."
In that context, Tracy was speaking of the things that had to be given up to make way for the new, but it isn't always things that are sacrificed. Often it is lives.

America's space program certainly has been like that — and you would be hard pressed to find a better example of an endeavor that was undertaken almost exclusively in the name of progress.

It is also beyond dispute that the space program revolutionized our lives. Think of all that was made possible by the things that the astronauts discovered.

And the space program didn't have to pay much of a price, really, until this day in 1967.

It was on this day that the crew of Apollo 1 — Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee — perished when a fire broke out during a test of their spaceship at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Americans had become spoiled with all the successes of the space program in the '60s. Sure, there had been some problems with the unmanned rockets in the program's nascent days, and that had been costly in a monetary sense, but there had been no casualties.

Americans held their breath as the astronauts did things that would make Americans shrug and sniff just a few years later, like blast off, leave the Earth's atmosphere, then return, proving it could be done, or orbiting the Earth, proving that could be done as well. Each mission was a building block to the goal President Kennedy set for the space program earlier in the decade — to send men to the moon and return them to the Earth.

They made it all look routine, just as they did a couple of decades later with the space shuttle. Just as when the Challenger blew up on almost the same day in 1986, Americans were shocked when the fire broke out and snuffed out the lives of the three astronauts.

Grissom had been one of the original Mercury astronauts with John Glenn (Grissom was the first Mercury astronaut to die; Glenn was the last only a few months ago). White was the first American to walk in space. Chaffee would have been on his first space mission.

All the astronauts were prepared to die if necessary, but I doubt they dwelled on the possibility. That's the way people in dangerous professions have to be if they are to do those jobs the way they need to be done.

On this day 50 years ago, the quest to fulfill Kennedy's pledge and the desire for progress took three lives. It wasn't a bargain, but America paid the price — and rose from the ashes, meeting Kennedy's challenge with the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Inauguration Day

"The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer."

Donald Trump, Jan. 20, 2017

Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States yesterday.

Now there are 11 words I never expected to string together in a sentence.

I didn't get to see it happen. I was at work. But I always wish an incoming president well and withhold judgment until he has taken office and actually done something. I always hope the president succeeds, whether I voted for him or not. His success is my success.

And I really haven't had much of an opportunity to watch the highlights. I was at my part–time job this evening, just got home a short while ago, and I have seen a few highlights although probably not enough to get a true feeling for what the experience was like.

But I feel strangely optimistic tonight. It's an odd sensation for me because I really haven't felt that way much for many years now.

I lost my job around the time of the economic implosion in the fall of 2008. Technically, my job was a casualty of the George W. Bush era, but he was only president for a few months at the beginning of my period of unemployment. For more than 5½ years of the Barack Obama presidency, the best I could get was part–time work, and I struggled to make ends meet.

It was a bleak time in my life, and it was a time when I felt abandoned — by my government, by my church, by many of my friends, even by my family.

It was fashionable in the Obama years to say that the economy he inherited was the worst since the Great Depression. That, of course, was so devastating that Franklin D. Roosevelt felt it was necessary to create a New Deal for Americans. That was his mission in 1933 — to revive the American economy, to put America back to work.

It seemed to me in 2008 — and it still seems to me — that, in the worst economy since the Great Depression, it was Barack Obama's mission to forge a new New Deal — to make putting America back to work his top priority. Was there anything in his way? Democrats like to say that Republicans obstructed Obama's agenda, but that conveniently ignores the fact that they controlled both chambers of Congress in 2009 and 2010. They even had a "filibuster–proof majority" in the Senate.

Obama could have done something about the unemployment crisis, but he did not.

Instead he focused his political capital on the nomination of an Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court (a nomination that was never in doubt), a beer summit with a white police officer and a black college professor and the so–called Affordable Care Act.

That's when he lost me. Instead of helping Americans get their financial lives back on course, he came up with something that Americans could be compelled to buy with money they didn't have — and they could be punished financially if they failed to buy it. Is there a more draconian arrangement in American life?

Now the health insurance policy that I am obliged by law to buy costs me nearly $750 per month. That's a 54% increase over what I was paying each month in 2016. My rent just went up, too, by about $50 per month. That means I'm paying $300 more per month for those two things alone.

I just got a raise, which helps, but it's only $100 more per month. So I'm still $200 in the hole.

I can't afford it.

When I hear a president talking about remembering the forgotten, he's singing my song.

It may turn out to be more political hooey, but I'm hopeful, on this night, that it is not.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Bring Us Together

"There's a difference for voters between what offends you and what affects you."

Kellyanne Conway

In November 1968, when Richard Nixon had finally won the presidency, and he addressed the nation as president–elect for the first time, he referred to a sign he had seen a young girl holding in the closing days of the campaign. "Bring us together again" is what it said.

That, Nixon said, would be the great mission of his administration — to bring together a nation that was deeply divided. It seems to be the thing that every incoming administration promises to do. At least, it has always been that way in my memory. But it is much easier said than done.

As challenging as it was for Nixon — and, of course, he did not succeed in bringing America together — it may be even more difficult, if not impossible, for the Donald Trump administration. If you follow the news, you know that there were protests in large cities from coast to coast after Trump's election.

It really is nothing new that some of the voters are unhappy with the outcome of the election — although throwing such a tantrum over not getting your way in an election is rather new. No president is ever going to please everyone. As for bringing us together again, I would argue that Americans have seldom been 100% united about anything. Even when Congress declared war on Japan, propelling America into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a dissenting vote.

But there is something significantly different about it this time.

In what is best described as scattershooting, the Democrats have been casting wide nets to find something, however unlikely, to reverse the outcome of the election. Failing that, they pigeonhole people as good or evil, depending upon how they voted.

That is a dangerous mindset. It assumes things about other people that cannot be proven by their electoral choices. In fact, it is a claim that usually can be refuted — easily. For example, I've heard Trump voters described as racist — even though many of them voted for Barack Obama twice.

Each election is different, and each vote is based in part on how one has voted in the past, in part on whether one is satisfied with how things have gone since the last election and in part on the issues of the day. Enough voters in enough key states were dissatisfied with the status quo to flip the outcome from blue to red.

The left is engaged in stereotyping. Isn't that precisely what the left has found so objectionable about the right? And yet the left sees everything in stereotypes. All women think the same. All minorities think the same. All gays and lesbians think the same.

(Democrats don't seem to value individuality anymore, and that bothers a lot of people. The Democrats of 2016 reminded one voter of Frank Burns on the M*A*S*H TV show when he said, "Individuality is fine as long as we all do it together.")

That completely ignores the fact that millions of Americans had no interest in identity politics. They were interested in jobs, keeping one or getting one, and security.

It is a lesson Democrats refuse to learn. If they ever do, they may be able to bridge the gap that exists in America. Democrats will say that "gap" actually favors them. After all, their nominee won the popular vote — and if she had been able to sway fewer than 40,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin combined, she would have won the electoral vote, too.

Instead she piled up a huge margin in California, thus winning the national popular vote. If you take California out of the mix, Trump wins the popular vote, too.

But in neither case is it a landslide.

This country is divided — deeply — and one of the many challenges America faces in 2017 and beyond is the need for a greater sense of national unity.

As polarized as this nation is, I don't know if that can be achieved — or who can achieve it. I have my doubts that Trump can do it — but I had plenty of doubts about Trump in 2016, and he always surprised me.

The situation calls for someone who can appeal to both sides. Can he do it? History says no — but as any stock investor can tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future results.