December 30, 2016

Re-imagining Veteran's Affairs

I've been thinking about Veteran's Affairs quite a bit recently. After all, it has been in the news almost daily as a tiny subset of the many problems President-elect Donald Trump has promised to pro-actively address once he takes office. The current Veteran's Administration is a vast federal bureaucracy that like all government bureaucracies no longer exists to serve veterans. The core problem with any government bureaucracy is that once the bureaucrats develop a taste for power and easy money the bureaucracy becomes self-perpetuating and self-expanding, constantly expanding funds for the bureaucrat's pay and benefits while shrinking funds devoted to providing the services they were set up to provide. Eventually we have the situation we have now, where VA hospitals cannot afford tongue suppressors or toilet paper but every year the bureaucrats get a 4% annual pay raise. Even worse, like all government bureaucracies, the operations have been slowly grinding down to a complete stop. Streamlined services and efficient resource allocation are never a feature of government bureaucracies and the current Veteran's Administration is certain proof.

There are two core problems with the Veteran's Administration: identifying veterans and then providing their services to those veterans. Now it might seem obvious and simplistic to state the problems in this way, but there is a key reality here that must be addressed before genuine reform can take place. The first problem, and the most difficult to address, is correctly identifying who is and who is not a veteran. As a result, elaborate systems are in place to identify veterans, triage those veterans into priority need groups, and then find ways to deliver services to those veterans whose needs are determined to be of the highest priority. In order to prove you are a veteran, you must take your DD214 or a certified copy of it down to a Veteran's Administration office along with identification proving you are the veteran named in the DD214. If you move, you must go through this process again and re-register at the VA office in your new city. Because of poor computerization and communication, your records may or may not manage to follow you from one place to another. If something happens while you are traveling, things rapidly become even more complicated. Worst of all, in an emergency when there is no VA hospital or VA representative, you can find yourself forced into commercial hospitals, private clinics, and so on. It might surprise most people to learn that the Veterans Administration actually offers a huge range of services beyond simple healthcare. The problem is, not all of those services are available in every office and most people within the Veterans Administration itself cannot seem to see beyond providing healthcare. As a result, we wind up with an estimated 50,000 homeless veterans that cannot receive healthcare, financial services, counselling services, or job placement services so we casually dismiss them as having "fallen through the cracks."

There are two key solutions to this mess that have nothing to do with healthcare. In fact, these two solutions have the potential to transform the Veteran's Administration from a massive parasitic bureaucracy into an efficient provider of services that not only reaches every American veteran within our fifty states, it can assist veterans living overseas and might even produce a fund surplus that could some day be used to help expand veterans services into other areas of life or even help repay our national debt.

The first part of this solution is a Veteran's Credit Union with branches in every major city and secure online banking services for every veteran who lives outside the cities. Banking is fundamental to life in our modern world. People love to hate banks. The reason they hate banks is that they feel no ownership of the funds they deposit into the bank and they chafe under the burden of repaying loans they take out from the bank. A Veteran's Credit Union would make every depositor an owner. Participation in the credit union would not only provide access to all the normal banking services, it would also provide the member an annual vote in how the credit union is managed. Because it would be a credit union and not a bank, anyone who has an account could be nominated for any of the management offices and be voted by other members into a paid position within the credit union for a limited term (usually one year, but can be up to ten years depending on the position itself as well as how the credit union is organized). Joining the Veteran's Credit Union would provide the individual veteran with the second key solution: a federal identification card that doubles as a debit/credit card.

The Veteran's Credit Union Bankcard should be a photo identification card with an embedded RFID chip and possibly even a fingerprint (an index finger or thumb perhaps). This card would of course allow the individual veteran access to their credit union services including debit services, credit services, personal loan services, reverse mortgage services, and so on. All of their credit union services would be accessed from the same photo identification card. Because they must be a veteran to participate in the credit union, this card also becomes their Veteran's Administration healthcare services identification card, giving them access to their local Veteran's Administration Hospital or Clinic with no change in their current life beyond a simple deposit in the Veteran's Credit Union. This eliminates the need to register with the Veteran's Administration as well as the need to re-register every time the veteran moves. As a bonus, this would also clear the way for billing the federal government when the veteran seeks healthcare at a private clinic or in an emergency. Billing would happen after the card is presented to the healthcare provider and would occur through the same administrative channels as normal insurance, medicaid, or medicare. This single card would also serve as proof of military service in every federal, state, and local government office, allowing the veteran access to whatever additional services are available through local governments, or from the Veterans Administration after moving to a new city. In private businesses where veterans are provided additional services such as discounts or small premiums, the Veteran's Credit Union Bankcard would provide proof of military service so the veteran does not have to carry around a copy of their DD214 in their wallet. By allowing the card to be issued to anyone who keeps a minimum deposit in the credit union ($1 perhaps, or some other arbitrary amount up to $10), requiring card renewal every five years, and making renewal dependent on maintaining that simple, small deposit, it also provides the credit union with a guaranteed reserve.

If the card is renewed every five years then as time goes on it might even be possible to apply stamps, seals, or special marks to the Veterans Credit Union Bankcard which demonstrate driver's license status, commercial driver's license status, pilot's license status, concealed carry weapon permit status, and so on. Congress, naturally, would have to pass laws ensuring that such additional qualifications are valid in all fifty states. Overseas veterans who participate in the Veteran's Credit Union might even be allowed to use the card as a passport, as official identification at American Embassies worldwide, and so on. Instead of a dozen different credit cards, debit cards, and identification cards, the veteran would be able to carry a single card and have access to their entire banking, licensing, and proof of identification requirements. As long as the card has a photograph, a secure RFID, and a fingerprint, it cannot be used by anyone except the individual veteran if it is lost or stolen. Over time this might even become the model for all sorts of other simplified identification cards such as state-issued driver's licenses, individual bankcards, or perhaps a new form of single card passport issued by governments around the world. There will be some who fear loss of privacy, government intervention in their daily lives, and so on, but this can be countered by pointing out there is no legal requirement to join the Veteran's Credit Union while there are a whole host of benefits to doing so.

Naturally, to participate in the Veterans Credit Union and receive the official identification card, initial identification would have to be established. Presentation of a birth certificate along with a DD214 would serve in the vast majority of cases. For someone who is homeless, who never had a birth certificate, or who has lost their DD214, alternative forms of identification would have to be used such as fingerprints for law enforcement background checks, DNA tests, collaborating testimony from current credit union members, and so on.

In order to insure that this credit union fulfills its primary mission of simplifying Veterans Administration services it should be a joint venture 51% owned by the Veterans Administration and 49% owned by the members, but operated and managed as a private enterprise controlled by the members. This gives Congress final approval over unsafe investment schemes, attempts to bleed off veterans deposits through exorbitant service fees, and other scams common to the banking or credit union industry. It also creates a way for the credit union to provide a revenue stream independent of taxation in the form of dividend payouts to the Veteran's Administration. Hopefully over time this might even allow the Veterans Administration to eventually become self-funding. Possibly the Veteran's Credit Union might some day even generate enough revenue to contribute to the general budget of the federal government. Also, as long as the credit union charter guarantees membership control and management, it prevents Congress from robbing the credit union to fund their deficit budgets in the way they have robbed Social Security. As the credit union expands and becomes more profitable, it could branch into other life services such as legal advice, investment advice, or private insurance (possibly through purchasing or partnering with an existing company such as GEICO or USAA). Expansion would also increase revenue flow to the Veteran's Administration so they could expand their healthcare services into areas such as life maintenance, aging maintenance, rehabilitation services, and so on. The key difference between a Veteran's Credit Union and failed schemes such as Freddie Mac and Fannie May is that the Veteran's Credit Union would be owned and managed by the members, and not by managers hired from outside, presidential appointees, federal bureaucrats, and so on. Nor would it be a burden to the federal government because there would be no provision for government subsidy, government contribution, or even direct Veteran's Administration involvement in the daily operation. A Veteran's Credit Union would be strictly for and by the participating veterans. The only reason for the partnership with the Veteran's Administration is to streamline identification of individual veterans and to provide a legitimizing authority for tying the Veteran's Credit Union Bankcard into the VA healthcare system.

Let me finish by emphasizing that this is a very broad concept, not an action plan and not a business plan. I do believe it neatly solves a huge variety of problems while improving the federal government's ability to identify who is entitled to veteran's benefits. By reducing the vast administrative bureaucracy of the Veteran's Administration into a single card provided by a private credit union, it also paves the way for a reduction in the size and scope of the Veteran's Administration which should lead to a smaller budget. Hopefully, this would help it become self-funding sooner rather than later. Eventually this should also lead to an expansion of available services as well as more efficient delivery of those services. If creation of a Veteran's Credit Union is combined with a similar joint public/private ownership of the healthcare services arm of the Veteran's Administration, there is a very high potential for very rapid reform within the Veteran's Administration itself. Last but not least, the Veteran's Credit Union would take over financial veteran's benefits such as home loans, business loans, and financial advising, moving these services off the federal budget and onto the private credit union's budget while still managing those benefits in accordance with rules and regulations set forth by Congress.

December 24, 2016

2016 Christmas Cookie Recipe

There a great deal of chaos in the world this year both politically and economically. I could easily write up a thousand words or so providing my own, unwanted opinion on world affairs. I could go into great detail about how we arrived at this mess and how we might best find our way back out of it again. However, I'm going to stick my head in the sand instead, ignore all of it, and bake some cookies.

2016 Christmas Cookie Recipe

2 cups stone ground all wheat flour
1 cup pure cane brown sugar
1 stick (1 cup) pure, unsalted butter
4 teaspoons lemon extract
2 cups butterscotch chips
1/2 can caramel flavored, sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup almond milk (for a drier dough, reduce the amount of almond milk)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Soften and cream butter. Mix condensed milk and flavor extract with softened butter. Stir in baking powder, brown sugar, and flour. Add butterscotch chips. Dough will be very dry and crumbly. Add almond milk and mix everything thoroughly. Dough should form a thick, sticky paste.

Place parchment paper on cookie trays. Drop about one tablespoon of dough onto parchment paper for each cookie. Be sure to leave plenty of room between cookies because dough will spread as it bakes.

Bake for 15-20 minutes depending on how precisely the oven controls temperature. Immediately remove from oven. Immediately remove cookies from cookie sheet and place cookies on slightly elevated open-air cooling rack.

Allow about half an hour for the cookies to cool. Once they are cool, they can be decorated with icing and sprinkles if desired.

One batch makes approximately 2 dozen cookies.

December 17, 2016

The world is still on the cusp of global war

Apparently only fifty-five people in the entire world read my August 15th post, "War is Coming". I touched on this theme again in October in two posts, "Putin vs Clinton, beating the drums of nuclear war" and, "The countdown to nuclear war has begun". Naturally, when Donald Trump won the election on November 8th I breathed a great sigh of relief because even though I knew that war was still possible, it was no longer certain. However, I did not take into account President Barack Obama's ability to stir the pot during the final days of his tenure in office.

There are many reasons why Hillary Clinton lost the election. The most important of these is that her mishandling of the Arab Spring during her tenure as Secretary of State led directly to the first assassination of an American ambassador since World War II. Make no mistake, the current chaos in both Libya and Syria are the direct result of Hillary Clinton's incompetence. When she followed up on her record of failure by making "common sense gun control" a primary issue in her campaign for president, she insured there was almost no possibility she could win against a solid Republican candidate such as Jeb Bush or John Kasich. (As I pointed out on November 14th: Hillary's stance on gun control may have helped Trump win). The final element of her defeat fell into place after Donald Trump won the Republican Primary by reigniting the wave of anti-establishment revulsion first given light over thirty years ago when the "Moral Majority" movement swept Ronald Reagan into the White House.

The Electoral College will vote on Monday and, barring a complete revolt on behalf of State Electors, Donald Trump will win by a landslide. This election, just like the election of Ronald Reagan and the re-election of George W. Bush, is exactly why we have an Electoral College instead of a straight popular vote. In a straight popular vote, the twenty counties that contain our most densely populated cities would dictate national politics to the rest of the nation.

If President Obama were a true leader, then the results of the November 8th election would have settled it. At first, it appeared he would indeed act in a mature, responsible manner. Following the election he immediately met with President-Elect Donald Trump to discuss the transfer of power. At the time, it appeared President Obama had finally become the intellectual giant his supporters believed him to be. I was pleasantly surprised at the press conference the two of them held after their meeting. For the first time in a very long time, I began to feel optimistic.

It didn't last long. Over the past two weeks President Obama has taken up his own war drum and begun pounding out a steady series of accusations against Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to the White House and a long list of mass media talking heads, Putin is behind the hacking of John Podesta's email which makes him centrally responsible for Donald Trump winning the election. Some of them, including White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, have begun to claim that Vladimir Putin himself rigged the entire American election process in order to put Donald Trump into the White House. This is a very dangerous accusation, especially if it is true! However, it seems to me this entire scandal is nothing more than an infantile rant that has no relationship to reality. Either the current administration and Hillary Clinton's massive supporter base are all suffering from the same mass delusion or President Obama is working very hard to manipulate the United States of America into a global thermonuclear war with Russia. Thanks to the Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship signed by Russia and China back in 2001 and strengthened several times over the past decade and a half, if either China or Russia enter into a war with the United States, the other must immediately join the fight.

Just yesterday, Chinese navy personnel stole an underwater survey drone right out from under the hands of the unarmed American naval research ship sent to retrieve it. A Chinese naval vessel followed the American ship until they located the drone, then swooped in and scooped it up before the American naval personnel could conduct their own retrieval. There is no doubt the Chinese navy knew exactly where that drone was located and they could have retrieved it at any time, but they waited until the Americans were present to insure we knew exactly who had retrieved the drone. It is entirely possible that they did this in response to President-elect Donald Trump accepting a phone call from the President of Taiwan and then stating in a press conference that he was prepared to shelve permanently the fiction of "one China" that has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy since President Richard Nixon put it into place back in 1972. Yesterday China also conducted the initial live-fire exercise with the first aircraft carrier the Chinese Navy has ever owned. In this case, a refitted Russian aircraft carrier they purchased and renovated a few years ago. Just before these events by China, Vladimir Putin's office issued a press statement demanding President Obama either provide proof of the Russian hacking of John Podesta's email or cease making claims about Russian interference in the American election process. It seems clear to me that these two actions taken by the Chinese Navy were done in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin's ultimatum.

I cannot understand why no one in our government or in our media has put the two together and recognized the significance of the timing of these events. This is the clearest, loudest, most flagrant and overt challenge to American naval and diplomatic supremacy that our world has seen in over half a century. Over the past forty-eight hours our world has been catapulted from moderate international tensions over the slaughter of innocents in Aleppo to a point one very small step short of a total declaration of war against the United States by the combined forces of Russia and China. We have arrived here in large part as a result of the flawed, feckless, and apologetic foreign policy blunders of President Barack Obama in conjunction with the diplomatic incompetence of Secretary of State John Kerry. Furthermore, I cannot determine from publicly available sources if this consistent movement we have seen over the past twelve months which is leading us into a direct military confrontation between the United States, Russia, and China is a hidden agenda of President Obama himself or if it has simply resulted from the sheer incompetence of his foreign policy team.

Fox News: China Adds Point Defense Weapons to South China Sea Islands
Fox News: China Steals US Navy Underwater Survey Drone
Fox News: China's First Aircraft Carrier Conducts Initial Live-Fire Exercise
CNN: Russia Challenges US to Prove Election Hacking Claim
The Diplomat: Behind Russia and China's "Special" Relationship

December 09, 2016

Healthy, whole wheat pancakes from scratch

There are numerous things I could discuss today. The political world is, as always, in turmoil. The U.S. Senate just passed quite possibly the stupidest censorship bill in all of human history. The U.S. House of Representatives has a bill at the committee level that would make a state-issued Concealed Carry Weapon permit applicable in every state in the nation, regardless of which state issued it. China is growling about President-elect Donald Trump speaking on the telephone with the President of Taiwan and addressing her as, "Madam President". But, I am going to ignore all of it.

A couple days ago I went searching the internet for pancake recipes. I knew that the recipe could not be difficult, because so many variations are available in the boxed variety. Some boxed varieties require so many additional ingredients I've often wondered if the box itself contained anything beyond finely ground, bleached wheat flour. Every recipe I found recommended flour, sugar, milk, baking powder, eggs, and butter. Some recipes added baking soda in addition to the baking powder, some recipes added salt, some recipes added vanilla extract. Most of them had the flour, sugar, and milk in basically a 3-1-3 relationship, but some varied slightly from that foundation. Since I wanted to avoid bleached flour and bleached sugar, I knew my own pancakes would taste considerably different, but the health benefits gained from whole wheat flour and brown sugar seemed worth the risk of failure.

This is the recipe I finally created:

Whole Wheat Pancakes from Scratch

1 cup whole wheat flour
3 heaping tablespoons brown sugar
3 level teaspoons baking powder
1 level teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
2 tablespoons pure, unsalted butter (melted)
1 extra large egg

Sift dry ingredients together in a bowl. Form a hollow in the center, add the egg, almond milk, and melted butter. Mix well.

Heat a flat-bottomed, shallow pan over a medium flame. Test with a half-teaspoon of batter. When the batter cooks without burning, use a large ladle to pour in enough batter for a 4" diameter pancake. Cook until bubbles stop rising (about 3 minutes). Use a teaspoonful of batter to fill bubble holes, then flip the pancake. Allow it to cook about 2 minutes. Place onto a plate and serve.

However, I am much too lazy for sifting and mixing and all that bother. So I grabbed my handy Nutri-Ninja, softened the butter with 20 seconds in my microwave, and threw everything into the Ninja mixing server. Instead of using the blunt plastic blades designed for cookie or bread dough, I used the steel blades designed for fruit and vegetables. I made this choice to insure the finest level of mixing possible. Close enough to sifting for a simple experiment.

Notice I left the egg out of the ingredients photo. I am sorry about that. No excuse, really, just a simple oversight on my part. Rest assured I did use 1 jumbo-size egg in the mix. I'm not sure what purpose the egg serves, but I assume it helps everything stick together.

The first one turned out almost perfect. The second one fell apart when I tried to flip it. The other two turned out well enough that I could get three pretty pancakes for the photo at the top of the page. I used my Gotham Steel, Titanium-Copper Ceramic coated pan. Naturally, this meant nothing at all was ever in any danger of sticking to the pan. Those who use a normal pan will probably want to coat the surface with a dab of oil or butter. Also, I used a small amount of cinnamon for flavoring. Naturally, other people might want to use vanilla extract, additional sugar, whole milk instead of almond milk, flavored milk, chocolate sauce or even some chopped fruit. Whatever it is they normally like to use for flavoring when they make pancakes.

The wheat flavor was very strong, which is something I happen to like. However, there is nothing sweet about these pancakes when made in accordance with the ingredient proportions above. They are not bitter or earthy in the way anything made with whole wheat can be, but they are not sweet. Anyone who expects pancakes to taste like sugar is going to want to add a lot more brown sugar.

December 07, 2016

December 7th, 75 years after the fact

I wrote this poem on June 5, 2012, while sitting at Haneda Airport waiting for a plane. This is poetry, and by definition all poetry is fiction, so naturally some of the "facts" are presented poetically rather than historically. 75 years ago today the Japanese Imperial Navy caught the American military sitting around sipping coffee on a pleasant tropic morning and kicked our ass in a surprise attack on both the Pearl Harbor Naval Base and US Army's Schofield Barracks on the island of Oahu. Today, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan will visit the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. That makes this the perfect opportunity to post this poem.

once upon a time this meter-deep concrete runway
lay ten meters beneath the still
pale-gray long-polluted waters
of tokyo bay

industrious people that they are
old men from noble families backed by government bonds
sipped bitter green tea served by
granddaughters of leatherworkers and undertakers
while commanding armies of younger men
eager to close the burning gap
between a war-impoverished nation
and the wealthy conquerer intent on
stealing away their sisters with tiffany promises and
designer jeans
to build!

and the young men built
casting their father's burned out war toys
beneath the gentle waves
raising up artificial islands which in turn
they buried beneath these meter-thick concrete slabs
bringing in tourists, athletes,
businessmen and bankers
transforming their ruined, ash-strewn city
into the economic miracle of modern asia

somewhere beneath my feet lies a rusting tank
that fired a salvo in defense of
a tiny hamlet on iwo jima
wounding my grandfather and
making possible the runway which
brought me here
to marry the tank commander's granddaughter

"history," i tell my teenage sons
"is never boring"