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When Kicking the Can down the Road,

Watch For the Sign




Jay B Gaskill

We’ve all heard the popular bromide – kicking the can down the road. It has been the popular pastime of elected and unelected officials for several decades.  Now we are beginning to hear about “forcing moments”.

In the technical sense, a “forcing moment” describes an event in the life of a dynamic system that is running with some inherent imbalance (or disequilibrium) when some external push causes the system to “tip over” into a different, more stable state.  Think of an airplane’s defiance of gravity as it climbs at takeoff.  There is a fragile dynamic equilibrium between lift, angle of climb and forward motion that cannot be maintained forever without stalling.  As the stall point gets closer and closer, any minor change in airflow or the pilot’s ascent angle can be the “forcing point” that results in a stall…or a prudent leveling off for the long haul.

Of course, the ultimate stability of any aircraft is reached on the ground – ideally in one piece.  Economies, like airplanes, defy gravity only by a safe landing, not by flying forever.

Used a bit more loosely, the notion of a “forcing moment” describes those all-too-familiar times when some external event compels us to address a belated, long deferred adaptation to a growing problem.  In other worlds a forcing moment marks the place where kicking the can down the road no longer works.
Think of chronically falling behind in rent – a major forcing moment occurs when the landlord locks you out, and the deferred adaptation is when you move into cheaper digs.  In this usage, a forcing moment is an event or situation that forces a long deferred decision.


The notion of economic forcing has been introduced in an important Wall Street Journal article (it ran February 22) in connection with the national debt.  Here is the pull quote.

“The Treasury would face a difficult question after the government reaches the debt limit and continues to pay as first priority the interest on debts coming due. The situation, in essence, would be this:

“The Treasury does not have enough money to pay out all of the appropriations made;

Congress has, by law, said that the Treasury must carry out all appropriations laws and cannot refuse to carry out a portion of them (an action called “impoundment” that was prohibited years ago by law); and

“Congress has, by law (the debt limit statute), said that the Treasury cannot borrow to supplement income tax receipts to pay the government’s bills.

“In short, the Treasury would not have enough money to go around. Although the law generally does not appear to tell the President what he must do in that situation, some may argue that, as a practical matter, he would have to “just do it” and set priorities for which of the lawfully owed bills will get paid and which will not until there is more money in the Treasury to pay everything that the laws require to be paid. At some point down the road, the President could even decide to move other priorities higher than paying net interest. A President acting alone to decide which government bills to pay and which not to pay, operating without statutory authority, is anathema in a democracy based on law—clearly, something that is best avoided.”

The entire article should be carefully studied.  WSJ  – LINK ▼



The human tendency to deny vexing situations and to procrastinate doing something about them is endemic, for example, consider the matter of —:



The world’s water cooled nuclear reactors, especially those deployed before 1980, need to be supplied with more robust containment structures and greater redundancy in post shut down cooling infrastructures.  Or they need to be retired.

Because of fierce opposition (mostly uninformed in my opinion) from the “anything-but-nuclear” crowd, funding has dried up for the much safer, newer generations of nuclear reactors that, should have been brought on line to replace all of the aging reactors years ago.  The policy paralysis put political and economic pressures on the operators of the older, less safe reactors, to kick the can down the road.

The forcing moment is almost at hand in the shape of a perfect storm of three convergent developments:  [A] a huge increase in the costs of fossil fuels due to growing demand and choked supply; [B] large scale food cost inflation and [C] protracted economic stagnation – the latter two due to a growing energy shortage.


Windmills, solar panels and other boutique energy technologies will fail us when we most need to be kept warm or cool or fed or transported or safe.  At the end of the day (a phrase rich with irony here), we will have to suffer a dramatic increase in worldwide poverty or we’ll undertake a comprehensive energy production surge, utilizing natural gas, clear coal processing technologies as a bridge to generation 3 and 4 nuclear power production.  That forcing moment is close at hand.



The greatest forcing mechanism in the human story remains the inexorable laws of large scale behavior, natural and human, and the raw forces of nature, especially the laws of physics and economics and the power of water.

Leaving aside the policy, scientific and ideological arguments about the recent global warming trend (indisputable from 1947 to date, but otherwise subject to reasonable scientific debate), there is a hidden conceit: We moderns are all too prone to dramatically overestimate the human technological capacity to redirect nature.  A glimpse at Japan, one of the most technologically developed countries in history, makes the case for humility.  If we were really able to alter the world’s climate by simple changes in industrial practices, then we have arrived at another ‘forcing moment’, the one where climate alteration becomes a casus belli, the sort of thing that brings nations to war.

And speaking or war….



Two Rutgers climate scientists, Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon, have reworked the studies that first a\made the world community aware of the catastrophic side effects of a significant nuclear bomb attack and counterattack affecting urban areas.  Killing summer frosts, dramatic temperature drops – comparable to an ice age would trigger famine and starvation deaths on a biblical scale.

“A nuclear war could trigger declines in yield nearly everywhere at once, and a worldwide panic could bring the global agricultural trading system to a halt, with severe shortages in many places. Around one billion people worldwide who now live on marginal food supplies would be directly threatened with starvation by a nuclear war between India and Pakistan or between other regional nuclear power.” [My emphasis.]

Back when the US and Russia were the main concern, both governments changed policy to avert this dire outcome.  Today, Pakistan and India, among other regimes, could bring down world agriculture without any help from the original nuclear powers.

Nuclear “non-proliferation” is the sorry tale of a can being kicked down the road.

The forcing moment, may well the regional Islamic civil was now just underway in the Middle East.  This is one “forcing moment” that may not allow any second chances.







National Geographic News 2-22-11

“Even a regional nuclear war could spark “unprecedented” global cooling and reduce rainfall for years, according to U.S. government computer models.

Widespread famine and disease would likely follow

nuclear war remains a very real threat—for instance, between developing-world nuclear powers, such as India andPakistan.

“To see what climate effects such a regional nuclear conflict might have, scientists from NASA and other institutions modeled a war involving a hundred Hiroshima-level bombs, each packing the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT—just 0.03 percent of the world’s current nuclear arsenal.

“The researchers predicted the resulting fires would kick up roughly five million metric tons of black carbon into the upper part of the troposphere, the lowest layer of the Earth’s atmosphere.

“In NASA climate models, this carbon then absorbed solar heat and, like a hot-air balloon, quickly lofted even higher, where the soot would take much longer to clear from the sky.

“’Our results suggest that agriculture could be severely impacted, especially in areas that are susceptible to late-spring and early-fall frosts,’ said Oman, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“’Examples similar to the crop failures and famines experienced following the Mount Tambora eruption in 1815 could be widespread and last several years,’ he added. That Indonesian volcano ushered in ‘the year without summer,’ a time of famines and unrest.”





I remain an optimist because I steadfastly refuse to believe that, when pressed, saner heads will not step in and prevail.

But when?

To quote Hillel the Elder:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

So…Are we there yet?



The author is a California Attorney.  His novel, “The Stranded Ones”, a near-future thriller, is a highly original homage to Robert Heinlein and Michael Crichton.  For an illustrated peek, go to http://jaygaskill.com/ReadTheStrandedOnes.pdf .

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