I am a firm believer that having the government support or run many areas of endeavor is not a bad thing. But there are ways to dramatically reduce the overhead involved in administering these programs.

What should government be involved in, and why?

I spent most of my working life working for the government ion one way or another. Most of this was spent at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).  ORNL is primarily supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) which is the successor the ERDA and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). DOE is a cabinet-level department and is in charge of energy research and all things nuclear including power plants, bomb factories, waste disposal, and our nuclear stockpile. It also has ancillary missions such as education, ecology, and providing user facilities to promote industrial research (especially in high-performance computing, materials research and nanotechnology). Some Republican candidates for President proposed eliminating DOE. This is foolhardy and short-sighted. Here are some examples (many from my own experience) of government suppor being essential:

  • Nuclear fusion research - Nuclear fusion is the ultimate solution to our energy problem.
    • The deuterium in our oceans provide an essentially unlimited source of fuel
    • The only radioactive waste is the irradiated stainless steel plant itself (safe to bury forever)
    • There is no terrorism potential since there is nothing dangerous to steal, and in the event of a failure, the fusion reaction just stops
    • It is a 24/7 power source that is independent of time of day, weather, wind, etc.

However, nuclear fusion (and its underlying science Plasma Physics) is among the hardest problems that mankind has ever tried to solve. I originally hoped that I would live to see a successful fusion power plant, but now I doubt it. Nonetheless, it is essential to mankind that expensive research to achieve this goal be continued. And this is a world-wide effort, with many countries supporting the $15+ billion tokamak ignition machine called ITER, being built in the South of France. A slightly less expensive fusion facility (NIF) has been built in California to test whether zapping a cryogenic pellet of deuterium and tritium with laser beams is a better approach to ignition. NIF is also used for Defense purposes to simulate nuclear bombs.

The point is that the research is essential to mankind, and there is no near-term commercial payoff, so only the Federal Government can provide support for this. A similar case was made to support the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, which recently discovered the Higgs Boson--the particle that is responsible for mass.

  • Sub-angstrom microscopy -

At ORNL there are multiple electron microscopes that have sub-angstrom (10-8 cm) resolution and can see actual atoms. Needless to say these are very expensive, and they are so sensitive that special buildings are required to isolate them from vibrations and magnetic fields (e.g., from the ac power lines). Putting them into a government-run user facility that is staffed by experts at helping users is the most efficient way of making them available for industrial and university research.

  • FEMA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency ((when headed by emergency experts instead of political appointees) has certainly proved its worth for Hurricane Sandy. Only a federal agency can stockpile resources across the country and preposition them when an emergency is forecast to occur. Unlike some politicians who think that states can best handle these events, it is impossible to do so when all of the state;s resources are damaged and/or overloaded.

  • NOAA

Yes, the weather predictions for Sandy were spot on, and occurred far enough in advance to allow preparation. While there are private forecasting services, only the government can provide, position, and maintain the devices necessary to obtain the massive amounts of data needed to create the weather forecasts. I also note that NOAA has placed its large supercomputer at ORNL to take advantage of ORNL's expertise in the management of high-performance computing facilities (HPCF). NOAA has also contributed some of the funds needed to build ORNL's new Titan supercomputer in exchange for running time on this the world's fastest computer. Government agencies can cooperate to prevent duplication of infrastructure and support personnel!

  • EPA

Despite the TV ads from AmericasPower.org. all of us needed the Environmental Protection Agency to save us from unscrupulous coal mine operators and users of coal.

I interviewed for a job in Chattanooga, TN in 1971. At that time, due to coal dust, your white shirt turned gray just walking down the street. People with any money lived atop the nearby mountains (which held in the pollution) to avoid respiratory diseases. Chattanooga's downtown is now a vibrant and clean place that is a pleasure to visit, and which has served as a growth and jobs engine for the area.

I now live in Oak Ridge, TN and every day I must stare at the despoiled Cumberland Mountains, the skyline of which is now a staircase due to strip mining. The EPA now requires that the land contours be returned to their original state to save other's skylines. Our rivers and streams were polluted with industrial and mining runoff. The EPA-mandated cleanup has allowed wildlife and recreation to return to our waters. In today's paper there was an article about repopulating the sturgeon in the French Broad River. And yes, we must sometimes pay to be clean. Oak Ridge was threatened with a huge EPA fine if it did not repipe its leaky sewer systems. I gladly pay the increased sewer rates this entails (and had to fix my own leaky sewage pipe after it failed a smoke test).

Of course coal is not the only villain in the environmental venue. We must preserve our water aquifers both from depletion and pollution. In the near future, clean water may be a resource that limits our growth. Atlanta almost ran out of water a few summers ago due to an extended drought. Republicans keep accusing the Obama administration of losing jobs by not yet approving the pipeline running across Oklahoma; but this crossed an environmentally-sensitive aquifer and needed a reroute.

  • Obamacare and Medicare/Medicaid

It is absolutely essential that everyone have health insurance. I strongly object to paying for the care of people without insurance; they clog the emergency rooms of our hospitals (the treatment place of last resort), delaying emergency care for people with insurance. Because the uninsured usually ignore preventive care, when they get sick, they cost us more in the long run. Why is it worse to force people to get health insurance than forcing me to pay for their care? Republicans just give the knee-jerk response that government health care is bad.

I am now on Medicare, and really like it. I expect to have an operation soon, and expect to receive no bill (due to my supplemental insurance). And it is already privatized--all my statements come from United Healthcare! It is worse to fight a for-profit insurance company for needed treatment than it is to appeal to Medicare. My only worry is that because payments to doctors are being reduced every year, it will soon be impossible to get a doctor to accept Medicare coverage.

One solution to the healthcare dilemma (that I proposed to my Congressman and Senators, but with no response) is to offer the uninsured a free group membership. For example, I had some blood tests run, and my doctor coded them incorrectly so that they were not covered by insurance. I got a bill from the Lab for $220--a lot of money. But when the tests were properly coded, the bill was just $21. Now, most people could pay $21, but not $220. So if the only thing that free insurance did was to include everyone in the managed-cost pool, i could save everyone a lot of money and improve the level of healthcare. In such a system, the government would guarantee payment to the provider, which might cost some money. However, the government has the needed muscle to collect debts from those who do not pay. We all need to be creative in solving this problem.

The government is there to provide assistance for disasters (floods, storms, crop failures), national defense, antiterrorism, and to provide a social safety net. Accusing people of being lazy if they cannot find a job does not help anyone. We do not want social unrest and riots such has they have in Greece, or we had in Watts.. We must remember the lessons of the Romans who provided bread and circuses to the masses.

Battalion Punishment

Alvin Trivelpiece (ex-head of the DOE Office of Science and ex-director of ORNL) used the term Battalion punishment (BP) to describe the actions taken to prevent a transgression from ever occurring again, no matter what. Our government (often prodded by angry congressional hearings) applies BP over and over again to our detriment.

Most recently, this occurred due to  $823,000 General Services Administration (GSA) meeting that was held in Las Vegas. Some of the expenditures (like a mind reader for $3100, and a $95-a-person dinner) were certainly a bad idea. However, as a person who ran many meetings for the Division of Plasma Physics of the American Physical Society (DPP-APS), I can attest that there are not many cities that have the facilities to hold a large meeting (we had over 1000 people), and Las Vegas is one of them. The budget for our meeting was about $100,000, which does not include the much greater travel and living expenses of attendees. As a result of the GSA meeting, BP has occurred, and now DOE (for example) must pre-approve attendance at scientific meetings. The number of attendees has been dramatically reduced, and the usefulness of the meetings has also been reduced. Someone once said that "the mean-free-path of a Physicist is 100 yards." Large meetings are essential to exchange and cross-fertilize ideas. It is really useful to be able to see anyone at such an event. The approval procedure is never fast or very early (this is the government after all!). As a result, attendees have trouble obtaining cheap air fares, which require booking at least a month in advance, and GSA hotel rates are usually already sold out.

Another travel example. Some years ago, Lockheed Martin (which used to rum ORNL) had some scandal occur in their travel office in Maryland. As a result, we at ORNL had to take ethics training, and what was even worse, we were no longer allowed to make our own travel arrangements. ORNL created its own Travel Department that charges for its services and often is too understaffed to act in time to get the best rates. Previously, I went to a local travel agent (this was before the days of Travelocity) and haggled for my travel arrangements. After all, it was MY budget that I was spending, and a I damn well was not going to waste money on travel. The Travel Department is spending someone else's money--a big difference in motivation. The result: greatly increased travel costs and inconvenience to the travelers.

I ran many scientific meetings and did so in an extremely efficient manner. For example I ran an International Atomic Energy Agency Meeting (IAEA) for about 60 scientists. IAEA meetings cannot charge registration fees. I had a budget of about $1000 to provide coffee, snacks, and a dinner. I managed to serve a home-made ribeye roast dinner with this budget. However, someone else ran a meeting and transgressed--a young lady popped out of a cake at a dinner (why I will never understand). As a result BP occurred. We were no longer allowed to run our own meetings. A self-supporting (i.e., we paid) Meetings Office was created, and they had to be present at the meeting and to arrange details. At the next meeting I ran (using the Meetings Office), their representative collected all the registration fees and stole a good amount of the money! Who watches the watchers?

The solution

The point of all these examples is that BP costs money, dramatically increases red tape and bureaucracy, and makes it more inconvenient for everyone. What should have been done was to fire and/or jail the transgressors. Why make everyone else suffer for a person's misguided or criminal intent? Yes some money might be lost, but in the scheme of things, it is cheaper to monitor things more carefully to catch these events than it is to change the system and introduce more bureaucracy (that 99.9 percent of the time is unneeded) that costs money and makes life harder for everyone.

One final example of a lack of bureaucracy. In the 1960s I used to work for Edgerton Germeshausen and Grier (EG&G). They were in charge of the timimg and firing of the bomb tests. One of my older colleagues told me about how it used to be in the "old days." Once a week, Grier (I think) used to walk around with a paper bag and everyone would toss in the bills they had collected during the week. Grier then stapled it up and sent it to the AEC for payment. Compare this procedure with how things are done today!

Sign my White House petition to this effect!

Update: Sept 27, 2014 (from the Wall Street Journal)

GSA Official Indicted Over Lavish Conference

A federal grand jury in San Francisco indicted the former federal official in charge of the General Services Administration unit that came under fire in 2012 for holding a lavish Las Vegas conference.

Jeffrey Neely, 59, allegedly filed false expense reports claiming he was traveling on official business, then lied about it when questioned by the GSA's inspector general.

Mr. Neely headed the GSA unit responsible for administering public buildings along the West Coast and in the Pacific.In 2012, the GSA inspector general released a report describing what it called "excessive and wasteful" spending on a 2010 conference in Las Vegas that cost the government $822,751 and violated federal laws and policies. Mr. Neely faces two counts related to the Las Vegas conference. Three other counts relate to allegations that he filed fraudulent expense reports for lodging in Long Beach, Calif., Cambria, Calif., and for airfare between the Pacific islands of Guam and Saipan. Mr. Neely couldn't immediately be reached for comment, and information on whether or not he had an attorney wasn't available. When called to testify before Congress in 2012 Mr. Neely declined to make a statement or answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

—Andrew Grossman

This is of course the correct way to handle outrages such as the GSA conference. But why did it take so long to indict him?

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