Archive for March, 2017

Consolidate and save

People in New York, especially those in the fifty or so counties called Upstate New York, love to complain about how high their taxes are. Granted, taxes in the state are among the highest in the country but that average is somewhat skewed by New York City. There are some good reasons why taxes are higher here than in southern states. Our climate makes highway maintenance much more expensive than in areas without the freeze/thaw cycles we have or the seven feet of snow most of us see every year. Our public schools are among the best in the country. And we take care of one another through various social programs. The deindustrialization of the Northeast has hit New York State particularly hard, significantly reducing the tax base, especially upstate. Some of these things we have no control over, others we choose for the greater good. But at least some of the reason our taxes are so high is that we stubbornly cling an antiquated governmental structure.

Take Broome County as an example. Situated on the Pennsylvania border about halfway between New York City and Buffalo the county is home to just under 200,000 people on a modest 716 square miles. Most of the county is rural with about three quarters of the population concentrated in the greater Binghamton area along the Susquehanna River valley. It is whiter than the country or the state: 87% vs. 70% for NY and 77% for the US. And it is poorer with 17.7% living in poverty compared to 15.4% for the state and 13.5% for the country. Only 6.3% of the population is foreign born which is much less than 22.5% of New Yorkers born abroad and the 13.2% of all Americans who were. Still, with an education level nearly the same as the national average, although a bit below that of the state as a whole, Broome County is fairly typical of Upstate NY.

One might think that Broome County would be managed by two governments: one city and one county. No, in fact we have 25 local governments: one county, one city, 16 towns, and seven villages. You might expect that Broome County’s 30,000 elementary and high school students would be accommodated by a single school district. Again, no. We have 12 public school districts plus a thirteenth that provides some shared services. But surely you say, the county needs only two local law enforcement agencies: city police and county sheriff. Hardly, we have five police departments not including the Sheriff’s Department, the Binghamton City police, or State University police. How about fire departments? Forty. Rescue squads? Twelve.

Let us look at some detailed numbers. All these data come from the Official Broome County website: gobroomecounty.com. Note that these are 2010 population numbers. Since then the population of the county has dropped by nearly 3% but, of course, the government has not shrunk.

The total number of elected and appointed officials at the county level is roughly 120. That includes the eleven county executive and legislative officers, 44 department heads, 47 judges and other officials, and 19 legislators. That comes to one county official for every 1,658 residents. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. When all the local governments are added in, there is one official for every 425 county residents.

In New York, counties are subdivided into cities and towns. Towns may incorporate villages as well. The cities and towns in Broome County, along with their populations and number of officials, are shown below. Urban areas are indicated by an asterisk.

Jurisdiction

Population

Officials

Residents/official

City of Binghamton*

47,376

44

1,077

Town of Barker

2,732

19

144

Town of Binghamton

4,942

14

353

Town of Chenango*

11,252

16

703

Town of Colesville

5,232

15

349

Town of Conklin

5,441

14

389

Town of Dickinson*

5,278

16

330

Town of Fenton

6,674

15

445

Town of Kirkwood

5,857

15

390

Town of Lisle

2,751

16

172

Town of Maine

5,377

15

358

Town of Nanticoke

1,672

16

105

Town of Sanford

2,407

15

160

Town of Triangle

2,946

12

246

Town of Union*

56,346

19

2,966

Town of Vestal*

28,043

20

1,402

Town of Windsor

6,274

17

369

County total

200,600

351

572

 

In addition to these are the seven villages in the county.

Village

Population

Officials

Residents/official

Deposit

819

15

55

Endicott

13,392

16

837

Johnson City

15,174

14

1,084

Lisle

320

5

64

Port Dickinson

1,641

12

137

Whitney Point

964

10

96

Windsor

916

7

131

Village totals

33,226

79

421

 

In a rational state, urban parts of the county would be consolidated into the City of Binghamton, bringing its population to roughly 148,000 which could be served easily by the 115 officials currently employed by the jurisdictions that it would comprise. The rural remainder of the county could surely be managed by a small fraction of the 183 officials we taxpayers are currently paying for in those areas—a total of one for every 286 residents.

Reorganizing the county to more closely resemble those in the south, which area residents point to as examples of great government, would trim more than 200 redundant positions supported by our taxes. Consolidating the school systems as well as police and fire departments would reduce the burden by another couple of dozen. Note that this does not mean closing schools or fire stations or police stations. It means eliminating unnecessary administrative overhead. County high schools would continue to compete in sports. Paid and volunteer fire departments would continue to work together. And the same number of police would be on the streets. The only thing that would change is that petty fiefdoms that have been in the same hands for generations would be cut. No one will miss them.

It is hard to tell what the actual savings would be, but they would be substantial. Maybe the people of Broome County do not mind paying a few hundred dollars a year for redundant government but at least they need to know what their quaint 18th century government really costs.

The cat

It has been said that cats domesticated themselves. They discovered that if they caught mice around human habitations they would be allowed to share the warmth of their fires. They learned that, as large as we are, we humans were not inclined to eat them. As time went on, humans developed agriculture, raising grain that attracted rodents, making cats even more useful. And those cats thrived in warm barns. A few were even invited into the humans’ homes where their duties came to include providing companionship. As people left the farms cats accompanied them, having largely abandoned the pretense of being useful as mousers.  Today, cats have come full circle and have domesticated us.

There are many reasons, I suppose, why we like cats. They do, on occasion, rid our living spaces of the odd mouse or bug…or bird. It has been suggested that their wide faces, large eyes, and physical size remind us of human newborns, triggering our parental instincts. And they do exhibit behaviors that we interpret as affection…and which might actually be such. Who can resist a cat cuddled up in one’s lap purring contentedly? Granted, they can be a bit of a nuisance in the morning when they think they will expire from starvation if we do not leap out of bed and feed them. But there is a sort of pleasure to be had from a cat walking up and down one’s body and nibbling at one’s elbow.  I even think that their bladder massages may prevent kidney stones. Anyway, who wants to waste a perfectly good morning in bed?

Cats have earned places in our literature from the ridiculous to the sublime. The Cat in Hat and Puss in Boots anthropomorphize them into children’s heroes. Alice in Wonderland makes them smile enigmatically. Poet T. S. Eliot’s practical cats became Broadway stars. Of course, some writers seem not have lived with cats. Shakespeare, for example, rhapsodized in Hamlet about man being the paragon of animals. Ok, paragon, let’s see you jump to the top of the refrigerator in one effortless bound and lick your butt. And I am quite sure that Carl Sandburg never had a cat if he could write about “fog roll[ing] in on little cat feet.” Cf, the previous paragraph about cats’ morning ritual, to say nothing of the sound of a cat galloping playfully around the house.

Nor should we forget the role of cats in technology. Would the internet exist without cat memes? Would auto-correct have been developed absent cats prancing helpfully over keyboards? Would nightlights have been invented had someone not tripped over a cat in the dark? And what purpose do vacuum cleaners serve besides picking up cat fur. I could mention tennis rackets as well, but let’s not go there.

Whether we love them, as most of us do, or hate them as do nasty cretins, cats are part of our lives. No animal has so successfully trained another to care for them. No other so perfectly blends magnanimity and disdain. But perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from our feline masters is never to act against your own self-interest. No cat would ever have voted for Trump. They are smarter than that.  

Shameless name-dropping

Perhaps I might be indulged in some personal reminiscence. Now in my 71st year I look back in amazement at some of the people I have been privileged to have met, worked with, known as friends, or even just crossed paths with. Living in Washington DC for much of my adult life brought me into contact with many famous, accomplished people. Without any intent of pretending that these contacts have made me other than the simple person that I am, I would like to share some of them.

My first brush with celebrity came when I was in the Air Force and selected to participate in a special mission. My teammates and I were summoned to the office of the Director of the National Security Agency, then Vice Admiral Noel Gaylor. Tall and resplendent in his gold-trimmed dress whites, the former test pilot made quite an impression on a 24-year old Air Force Staff Sergeant. Along with the rest of the mission participants I received a personal letter of commendation from Admiral Gaylor after the successful conclusion of the program, something I treasure to this day.

After I left the Air Force in 1972, I went to work at the University of Maryland as a laboratory technician. The department in which I worked hosted a number of famous scientists including Jan Oort who discovered the Oort cloud from which comets visit our region of the solar system. I remember him as a short, stooped man with white hair and a dignified air. The director of the institute was Jim Yorke who not only was a key player in the development of the mathematical field of chaos theory, but the person who coined the term “chaos theory.” It should hardly be surprising that I was entirely intimidated to be appointed as the staff representative to the department faculty senate. I never became comfortable addressing the distinguished scientists I worked with by their first names, no matter how much they insisted that I do.

During this same period, the professor I worked for convinced me to do est. Aside from whatever value I derived from it—rather more than I expected, actually—I got to meet a future Nobel laureate, NASA scientist John Mather, and a world-class musician, violinist Joshua Bell. Both were utterly charming and entirely unimpressed with themselves.

While at the University of Maryland and for some dozen years after I worked on a variety of NASA contracts through the university and several aerospace companies. During that time, I was fortunate to have met a number of astronauts. The most interesting was General Tom Stafford who flew on Gemini missions six and nine as well as into orbit around the moon on Apollo X. He was especially proud of having participated in the joint US/Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. After lunch, he presented me with a signed copy of his book. My colleague who had set up the meeting warned me that I had better read it because if I met again with the General, he would quiz me on it.

At one point, I decided that pursuing a master’s degree in satellite systems engineering would benefit my career. Life intervened and I never did get very far in the program but I did have the honor of having Mike Griffin, later to become Administrator of NASA, as one of my professors. Mike was, and I presume still is, a true space cadet in the best sense of the term. His enthusiasm for space was infectious. I think that NASA would be better today had President Obama kept him on.

Besides meeting interesting people, I occasionally got to visit some interesting places. One such was the laboratory at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California where Ted Maiman invented the laser. Since a good bit of my career involved work on lidar—laser radar—that was particularly meaningful. Some years later, on a business trip to the United Kingdom I stayed at the Brownsover Hall hotel in Rugby where Sir Frank Whittle developed the jet engine just before World War II. His work room is preserved as a museum.

The year I spent working in the Washington marketing office of the Hughes Aircraft Company gave me a small taste of insider DC. It turned out that owning a tuxedo and being able to get a date on short notice made me one of the go-to people when a company bigwig was unable to make an event. One afternoon I was asked whether I could attend a dinner hosted by the American Enterprise Institute at a downtown hotel. After quick phone call to a friend and a dash across town to change I found myself among a who’s who of the Republican establishment. The keynote speaker at the dinner was Dick Cheney who was at the time considered a possible 1996 presidential candidate. At the next table sat Ed Meese, formerly Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General, and Jack Kemp, former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and Congressman from Western New York. A couple of tables over were Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. My date accosted General Colin Powell as he passed and asked to shake his hand, to which he graciously agreed. At the end of the evening we passed Justice Scalia on a payphone in the lobby trying to summon a cab. I was tempted to offer him and his wife a ride, but chickened out.

Another dinner I attended was to honor the country’s astronauts. The evening’s speaker was Al Gore. At the time, I bore a strong resemblance to the Vice President and was amused when a Secret Service agent did a double-take as I walked past him.

My years as a member of Mensa also brought me into contact with some fascinating people among them Adrian Cronauer, memorialized by Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam, and the late Tandyn Almer, whose writing for the Beach Boys included Along Comes Mary. At Mensa gatherings on the West Coast I even got to meet a couple cartoon characters, or rather their voices: June Foray (Rocky the Flying Squirrel) and Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson).

Then there was the time when I left a famous person fumbling for words. I was introduced to Ted Koppel at a reception at the National Press Club. I was struck by how short he is. Anyway, as I shook his hand I said, “Mr. Koppel, I hold you personally responsible for my being chronically late for work,” referring to the late hour at which his program Nightline aired. He stuttered something about getting a VCR as I moved away as gracefully as I could.

There have been others, of course. Some I have forgotten and a few have names that are not especially well-known. One of the latter being a losing gubernatorial candidate who had been president of a company I worked for. Even though he was a Republican I would have voted for him if I could have. I still find it odd to have been on first name terms with retired generals and admirals as well as a couple fairly high-ranking government officials. But, with a few exceptions, the more famous those people were, the less presumptuous they were. In the end, we are all just people and, in our country, equals. Still, it is fun to bask in a bit of reflected glory from time to time.

Goose, meet gander

Everyday it is becoming more apparent that Russia interfered in our recent presidential election. As unsettling as that is it is also rather ironic considering that the US has a long and sordid history of doing just that to other countries. A brief review is in order:

Perhaps the most famous example of US interference in another country was the 1953 CIA-engineered coup in Iran that restored the Shah to the brutal Peacock Throne. The animosity that intervention engendered boiled over in 1979 and underlies the tensions between our two countries to this day.

A year later the CIA the overthrew the president of Guatemala and installed the first of a fifty-year line of right-wing dictators. The poverty these despots have allowed to persist continues to play a major role in driving Guatemalans to immigrate illegally to the US. And the malign hand of the US in Central America was not lost on the young Che Guevara who witnessed that coup first hand.

During the same period, the US intervened in the governments of the Philippines and Lebanon, not for the first or last time in either country. And, of course, this was also when the US involvement in Vietnam began as the Eisenhower administration scuttled the scheduled 1955 national referendum in that country. More than 58,000 Americas and perhaps millions of Vietnamese paid for that bit of hubris with their lives.

One of the more notorious examples of US meddling in other nations was the 1973 CIA-backed military coup that took the life of freely elected Chilean president Salvador Allende. It was not until 1993 that some semblance of freedom returned to that country after the death of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The US predilection for interfering in other countries did not begin in the mid-20th Century. Rather it dates to the early part of the 19th Century with the Mexican War when the United States wrested away a significant part of our southern neighbor. Before that we tried unsuccessfully to seize part of Canada in 1812. But that failure did not stop us from trying to grab part of Pacific Canada in the 1840s.

Sadly, the fact is that the US has been the most expansionist, interventionist country in the world almost since our inception. Perhaps getting a small taste or our own medicine from the Russians will, when dust inevitably settles, cause us to reevaluate our place in the world. Even more sadly, it is impossible to see that happening any time soon.

Trump on tap

It has become abundantly clear that Donald Trump’s response to critical news reports is to deflect and lie. The latest flap over his and his campaign’s contacts with Russian officials is a case in point. When the press reported that Trump surrogate and current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had met at least twice with the Russian ambassador to the US during the campaign, the Donald responded with angry tweets accusing then-President Obama of illegally tapping the phones at Trump Tower. Mr. Obama has denied ordering any such wiretap and both the Director of National Intelligence and of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have said categorically that there was no bugging of Candidate Trump or of his campaign. It is worth parsing these statements carefully to try to determine the truth.

First, though, let us consider the process through which such surveillance might be implemented. Before anything happened, someone at the FBI would have to suspect that some law was being broken. That suspicion could have arisen from any of a number of sources. Perhaps NSA intercepted unusual funds transfers between Russian banks and entities associated with the Trump organization or campaign. Persons with security clearances, including, one presumes, Senator Sessions, are required to file reports of contacts with certain foreign officials. Maybe one or more of those reports raised a red flag. It is no secret that the FBI monitors the activities of some, if not all, foreign diplomats in the US. Maybe they saw something that appeared questionable. And then there is always the possibility that someone within the Trump campaign blew the whistle on a perceived impropriety. In any case, if the FBI became suspicious, they might well seek a warrant for a wiretap. That warrant could be issued by a Federal Court in the District of Columbia or, if there were a national security issue at hand, by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court. In an extreme case where human lives or critical national security interests were at stake, the FBI could initiate the wiretap before obtaining the warrant but that seems unlikely in this case. With the warrant in hand, the FBI, quite possibly with assistance from NSA, would establish electronic surveillance of communications to and from the Trump offices. Most likely NSA would mount a parallel effort against the backchannels from the Russian embassy for which they would need no warrant. The information generated by the intercepts would be processed and analyzed by the intelligence and law enforcement communities then presented to the appropriate prosecuting authorities.

But this case is a bit different because of the political sensitivity associated with surveilling a nation campaign, especially against the candidate of the opposition party. Against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal everyone involved surely exercised the utmost discretion. Here is how I believe events unfolded:

Sometime in the earlier days of the Trump campaign, the FBI became aware of questionable contacts between members of that campaign and the Russians. Paul Manafort, in particular, clearly engaged in dubious activities. I would not be at all surprised if money were being channeled to the Trump campaign from Russian interests as well—a clear violation of US election laws. Being aware of the political ramifications, the FBI most likely took the matter to the Attorney General who consulted President Obama who told them to stand down until after the election. I suspect that Director Comey’s ill-timed and unethical comments about Clinton emails, that may well have cost her the election, could have been a misguided attempt on his part to be even-handed. In any case, on November 9 or shortly thereafter, I imagine that the FBI took the matter to the FISA court and obtained a warrant to monitor communications between the Trump transition team and the Russian government. After the inauguration, as Trump appointees filtered down into the Federal bureaucracy, someone learned of the top-secret wiretap and informed Trump who responded with a typical tweet storm. Go back and read the statements from Obama, the FBI, and the DNI. They are all consistent with this scenario.

And this, I believe, is the history of the matter heretofore. What emerges in the next weeks and months promises to be interesting at the least and frightening at worst. The evidence of Russian interference in our election and influence over the Trump administration is becoming difficult to ignore or to dismiss as “fake news.” There is a lot of smoke coming from Trump Tower these days and it is hard to believe that there is no fire there.