Tuesday, July 7, 2015

STILL building coal-fired plants?

Actually, outside of the little matter of the environmental devastation it leaves behind, burning coal to generate electricity is a pretty good idea.  It's reliable using machinery that has been highly developed over many decades.  The investor classes know how to read the documentation that justifies spending the money.  

Only that environmental matter has turned critical.  There in simply no way to pump more CO2 into the air in the process of making electricity than to burn coal.  It's simple chemistry—coal has a higher percentage of carbon than any other material so when we oxidize it, it makes more CO2.  Ironically, the ugly pollutants that come from coal burning like mercury and sulphur oxides (acid rain) are the things that can be "cleaned up."  With CO2, this is already the cleanest possible outcome so long as we burn carbon.  

What this means is that no matter how easy or convenient is may be to build coal-fired electrical power plants, we simply cannot do it any more.  Never.  For any reason.  And because a shiny new coal burner will last at least 50 years, the threat one poses is utterly unacceptable.  This fact is so obvious even the head of OECD understands.

In the second article, we see a story of the teething problems of replacing the fire-based power systems.  I am not absolutely convinced that wind and solar demand new organizational arrangements, but since this sort of experimentation came with the first electrical systems, we should not be surprised that the new green systems would trigger the same sort of social innovation.

New coal plants 'most urgent' threat to the planet, warns OECD head

Governments urged to rethink plans for new coal-fired power plants as study estimates they will release more than 500bn tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050

Fiona Harvey, Friday 3 July 2015

Governments must rethink plans for new coal-fired power plants around the world, as these are now the “most urgent” threat to the future of the planet, the head of the OECD has warned.

In unusually strong terms for the organisation – best known as a club of the world’s richest countries – its secretary general Angel Gurria, told governments to think “twice, or three, or four times” before allowing new coal-fired plants to go ahead.

“They will still be emitting years from now,” he warned. As a result, many could turn into “stranded assets”, having to be mothballed decades before their economic lifetime had expired. “We are on a collision course with nature,” he warned.

New research, published by the OECD on Thursday, has found that, on current trends, coal-fired power generation will result in more than 500bn tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere between now and 2050. That is the equivalent of about half of the “carbon budget” – the amount of greenhouse gas that we can safely pour into the atmosphere – for this half-century, if we are to stay within the 2C limit that is widely agreed as the threshold for dangerous climate change.

Gurria said that financing from rich countries to provide access to renewable energy in developing nations as an alternative to coal should form a key part of the discussions in the run-up to the crunch UN climate talks in Paris in December. Governments are hoping to agree a new deal on greenhouse gas emissions involving all countries, to take effect from 2020 when current commitments expire, and with absolute cuts in emissions from the rich nations and curbs on the growth of future emissions from the poor.

Coal has become a more popular form of generation in recent years as it has fallen drastically in price. This is one result of the shale gas boom in the US, which has seen gas prices tumble, with gas-fired generation taking off in turn, and a glut of cheap coal thrown on to international markets. In addition, many developing countries have coal mines but no indigenous gas resources, making it seem an attractive option for cheap power generation.

Gurria argued, however, that coal was “not cheap” when the full costs – including climate change impacts, air pollution and its effects on health – were taken into account. “Governments need to be seriously sceptical about whether coal provides a good deal for their citizens.”

He said the cost of renewable energy was reducing rapidly, and so it represented a good investment for developing countries and donors to them. “Prices have been falling very, very fast, to [levels] that we would not have imagined a few years ago,” he said, in comments to journalists ahead of a lecture at the London School of Economics.

Although rises in global greenhouse gas emissions have been slowing, Gurria warned that “we have our work cut out for us” to bring about the falls needed to meet the carbon budget necessary to keep within 2C of warming compared with pre-industrial levels. more

Investors rescue wind developer Prokon

nz/pad (AFP, dpa, Reuters) 02.07.2015

North German wind park developer Prokon went bankrupt in January 2014. Now, in a gesture of commitment to a green energy future, its investors have voted to retain ownership by turning it into a cooperative.

2,000 people representing about 75,000 investors showed up in Hamburg on Thursday for a special creditors' vote to decide the future of Prokon, a wind farm developer founded in 1995 by controversial entrepreneur Carsten Rodbertus and two partners.

Critics say it was mismanaged into insolvency. The company had been handled by Dietmar Penzlin, a lawyer specialized in managing firms through an insolvency process, since it registered for bankruptcy a year and a half ago.

Penzlin presented the investors with a choice: Turn the company into a cooperative owned by its investors and creditors, accepting all the risks and benefits of ownership - or sell it to EnBW, Germany's third-largest electricity company for 550 million euros ($610 million).

The investors, who had purchased a form of dividend rights rather than ownership shares, had paid in about 1.4 billion euros - so a sale to EnBW would have involved accepting a substantial loss. But it would also have given them cash-in-hand.

"Either path would bring Prokon into a stable future," Penzlin said. He didn't take sides on which option creditors should vote for.

Creditors had a clear choice: Sell Prokon to a major power corporation for cash-in-hand, or take ownership of the company. They chose to become owners

Corporate subsidiary or citizen-held cooperative?

Others, however, lobbied hard. EnBW did its best to persuade investors to take their cash and walk away. On the other side, Friends of Prokon, representing 10,000 investors - one of eight investors' groups - joined up with social-enterprise bank GLS and renewable electricity retailer Naturstrom AG to lobby for the cooperative option.

Auditors had estimated the value of the cooperative at 660 million euros - more than the payout offered by EnBW - but if investors chose the cooperative option, they would retain all the risks of ownership as well as its prospective benefits. Accepting EnBW's offer would mean walking away with cash-in-hand, and no further involvement in Prokon's ups or downs.

In the end, it wasn't a close-run thing. Nearly 90 percent of the votes - including the majority of all eight of the investors' clubs - went for the cooperative option. With that, the deal was sealed. Prokon's investors and creditors have converted their claims on the company into ownership shares. Rather than being folded into a big power company, Prokon will carry on building and operating wind farms as an independent cooperative.

Most of the creditors will be compensated for their claims on Prokon with two distinct instruments: Membership in the ownership cooperative - whose value was estimated at 23.3 percent of the nominal value of their claims - plus fixed-interest corporate bonds with a 15-year maturity, whose value was estimated at a further 34.5 percent of the nominal value of claims.

Creditors who do not want to become members of the ownership cooperative will be paid out 23.3 percent of the nominal value of their claims in cash, as well as being given Prokon bonds. The payout money will be raised by selling Prokon's interests in a pallet manufacturing company in Torgau, a town in Saxony northeast of Leipzig, and some timberland in Rumania.

Committed investors

The basic reason why 90 percent of the creditors voted for the cooperative option: Most of Prokon's investors were passionate supporters of Germany's transition to a renewable energy future - citizen investors who had invested modest amounts, motivated as much by conviction as by pecuniary interest.

EnBW CEO Frank Mastiaux expressed regret at the creditors' decision. "Prokon and EnBW would have been a good fit," he said. EnBW is in the midst of a major corporate re-orientation toward renewable energy - and away from nuclear power, which is on its way out in Germany.

Critics had accused founder Carsten Rodbertus of causing the company's bankruptcy by mismanagement - the basic business model of wind farm development was sound

At the same time, Mastiaux expressed "great respect" for the creditors' strong connection to Prokon, and said he wished the company, its employees and new owners "much success for the future."

"It's an important step that Prokon isn't being put in the hands of a giant energy company, but will instead be a broadly held citizen-owned cooperative," said Lukas Beckmann, head of GLS bank's trusteeship division. His sentiments were echoed by GLS Bank CEO Thomas Jorberg, who said: "This is good news for the Energiewende" - Germany's national transition to renewable energy.

Naturstrom AG's CEO Thomas Banning also welcomed the decision. He said that as members of a cooperative, the former creditors, now owners of Prokon would have "the chance to participate in steering the fortunes of Prokon and being a living part of the citizen-driven Energiewende."

The cooperative's new board of directors and the current management will next need to sort out a detailed plan for the cooperative. "We've got to set up a to-do list and then work it off," said Wolfgang Siegel, head of the Friends of Prokon and an influential member of Prokon's board of directors.

Since Prokon will stay in business, Prokon's roughly 300 employees can breathe a little easier - their jobs are secure for now. more

Monday, July 6, 2015

Greece votes NO to austerity

It wasn't even close.  Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis told everyone that if the NO vote lost, he would resign.  By Saturday night he was explaining that this was essentially an empty threat because he felt assured that that his side was going to win.  But I'll bet that even he was surprised by the margin of victory. (Update: Varoufakis quits anyway.  Considering what he has gone through in the last five months, I don't blame him one little bit.)

However as big—and significant—as this vote was, this fight is FAR from over.  The creditor classes are justifiably famous for their untrammeled greed and if little Greece escapes their clutches, what's to stop Spain, Italy, Portugal, etc. from pulling the same stunts.  The answer is—not a damn thing.  Which is precisely why this vote was so important.  The Predator/creditor classes have to be stopped before they destroy everything of value on the planet.

As for Greece, I would only offer one tiny piece of advice.  As you progress through the minefields of default and possibly the re-introduction of the Drachma, remember that all the answers you need can found in the history books.  You are certainly not the first debtor or debtor nation to file for bankruptcy.  You are not the first nation to issue new currency.

Greece, these are big stakes you are playing for.  You have already exposed the evils and cruelties of neoliberalism.  You have already demonstrated that when the situation become desperate enough, people find a fountain of courage somewhere even when being deliberately terrorized by Predators who are experts at destruction and spreading fear.  You have demonstrated that whatever idealism went into the creation of the EU, it is now being run by sociopaths.  And Paul Craig Roberts seems to think you are necessary to avoid WW III.

That's quite a list for a tiny country.  Damn, maybe the modern Greeks ARE related to the ones we read about in high school (my favorite was Euclid.)

Friday, July 3, 2015

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Milne on Greece

One of the more interesting things about John Perkins 2004 book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is that it was made into a documentary in 2009 by a Greek – U.S. production house and directed by Stelios Kouloglou.  So at least a few Greeks had an idea of just how thoroughly evil the banksters really were.

And yet, Syriza was elected believing these folks could be reasoned with.  And with next Sunday's referendum, they seem to believe that all the debate needs is some more democracy.  Well Seumas Milne over at the Guardian wants to remind everyone that the banksters are not about to let something as trivial as democracy stand in their way of grabbing everything of value in Greece.  Milne is probably right—it's just that some day someone WILL stand up to the moneychangers and their lies.  And when that day happens, the whole financial edifice will be in serious trouble because it is nothing more than an illusion anyway.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Producer Class keeps moving forward

Recently, the Pope demonstrated that even with the best intentions, the Leisure Classes have precious little to offer the climate change debate (and it is damn difficult to be more classically Leisure Class than a Pope).  One reader wrote me an email demanding that I admit the Pope Francis is correct when he says that making a commitment to address climate change is a "moral" issue.  I am not willing to admit to any such thing.
  • Every living human on earth produces CO2 every minute of their lives,  It's damn difficult to make a moral issue out of something we all do by merely living.
  • The really big contributor to climate change is the lavish human use of fire.  But even though I don't know all the religious traditions, I don't see fire condemned in any I know of.  In Christian teachings, fire is sometimes used to describe the presence of God from Moses's burning bush to the fire of Pentecost in Acts.  Difficult to describe a synonym for God as evil but absent fire, there is barely a climate change problem.
If fire is the main issue, then climate change is by definition a Producer Class matter.  So it is encouraging to see that the Producers have been pressing forward with solutions even though the Predators are doing everything possible to screw things up these days.  In our first story, we see the Japanese unveiling a 7 MW floating wind turbine.  Because Japan is a volcanic island group, they don't have a large offshore shallow area like we have off the east coast of USA or in the North Sea.  This means that all their really good offshore wind sites are already in very deep water.  Floating wind turbines solve this problem but they will be crazy-difficult to build.  Good thing Producers LIKE complex and difficult projects, huh?

In the second article, we read that because of the plunging costs of solar cells, countries like China and India may be able to power themselves indefinitely with a $12 trillion investment.

I mean, it's nice the Pope is spiritually on board but I am MUCH happier that the Producers are out there actually solving problems.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Krugman and Stiglitz vote NO to more Greek austerity

Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz share quite a bit in common.  Both won the Riksbank (Nobel) Prize when they were young and enthusiastic neoliberal free traders.  Both seem to have come to their senses since then and have an extensive following among those who believe neoliberalism is an ongoing disaster.  And now both have come out in favor of a NO vote in the upcoming referendum on the latest austerity package being offered them by the Predators who have gotten their hands on Europe's economic levers.

NO seems the smart decision.  Of course, I would have voted NO back when the decision was made to join the EU and adopt the Euro.  I mean, what were they thinking?

Good luck to the Greeks—they're going to need it no matter how this referendum turns out.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Delphi Declaration

The recession of 1981-82 was deliberately triggered by the Federal Reserve when they decided that what the economy really needed was a 21% prime interest rate.  The carnage was widespread, deep, and horribly cruel.  There were literally millions of absolutely innocent victims world-wide.  As someone who grew up during the Cold War, I was quite aware that a handful of people sitting in underground bunkers in western North Dakota (and other places just as desolate) could literally destroy the world by pushing a few buttons.  1981 made me painfully aware that boring people in nice suits could cause damn near as much damage pushing a few buttons that regulated the money supply.

The problems facing Greece are neither new or novel.  Anyone paying attention would have seen the economic catastrophe in 1997 Asia, when the screwed-up banksters triggered a meltdown that reverberates to this day.  Unfortunately, the same people who ignored the failing middle-sized farms in 1981 were even more oblivious to Asia's problems in 1997.  For most of us, the main economic consequence was cheaper gasoline as the world petrol market lost of a bunch of Asian customers.

I suppose that if Greece is any different than Bolivia, Malaysia, or any of the other unfortunate people who have been subjected to bankster economic wisdom, is that that they are so obviously a part of Western civilization.  This criminal behavior by the creditor classes is now something we are doing to ourselves.  Of course, the blame-the-victim industry has gone into overdrive to dehumanize the Greeks.  But for once this hasn't worked so well.  This is Greece, after all.  There are Greek places named in the Bible, our academic fraternities have Greek names, as do hundreds of cities in USA.  Besides, Alexis Tsipras and Yannis Varoufakis are just so damn handsome and we have been educated to believe that beautiful people are also interesting and important.

In my more hopeful moments, I can imagine that Greece is where the banksters finally meet their Waterloo.  At some point, their criminal reign of terror and incompetence simply must end or we are all doomed.  History has demonstrated that these bandits can be slowed down even if they cannot be put out of business entirely.  If the pushback is to start anywhere, Athens would be a damn fine address.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Cool Spring Power Museum, June 2015: The first internal combustion engines

It’s easy to forget our place on the historical timeline of human development. Republicans, conservatives, and neo-liberal economists do it all the time. For example, they are emphatic in their belief that the American way of life involves motorized vehicles burning gasoline. The historical reality is that the internal combustion engine is a relatively recent development, and the technologies which will replace it have already been developed. In the 8,000 years of recorded human history, the era of the internal combustion engine will have lasted less than two full centuries.

Last week I was at the Cool Spring Power Museum (CSPM) spring show, attempting to make a living as a humble itinerant bookseller dealing in industrial and transportation history. The CSPM is just south of Brookville, Pennsylvania, a small burg of not quite 5,000 souls, exactly 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Formally chartered in June 1985, CSPM contains the largest collection of historically significant, early internal combustion engines in the country, and probably the world. There are over 250 engines, most built between the 1870s and the 1920s, displayed in 20 buildings. In 2001, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers recognized the importance of the Cool Spring collection by inducting the museum into ASME’s History and Heritage Landmarks Program.

This year's show was extra special, as it featured "flame licker" engines - the earliest internal combustion engines, designed and built before spark plugs and electric ignition systems were perfected and put into use. These engines are the advent of the petroleum age - which we now must bring to an end. But they are marvels of mechanical design and machine precision, fully embodying the "instinct of workmanship." Visit Cool Spring, and you will immediately realize that you are in "producer class" heaven. (I believe that Marx's class analysis is all wrong, but that Thorstein Veblen gets it right - the big class difference is between producers and predators. Veblen termed the latter - much too politely in my opinion - "leisure class.")

Extremely cool pictures below

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Denmark and energy

Those of us who have been preaching that economic growth is not dependent on increased energy use have been ridiculed as idle dreamers for decades.    Of course, it doesn't help that most of the folks who would encourage less fossil fuel consumption usually prescribe policy positions that rely on increasing energy prices.  Anyone who is just scraping by doesn't want to hear anything like that.  So rich and poor in USA believe that it is in everyone's best interest to do what it takes to keep energy cheap and plentiful.

And then there are the Danes who have been taking energy seriously since forever (and certainly since the oil disruptions of the 1970s.)  Now comes the news that their energy consumption is at a 42-year low, even though they have had more or less continuous economic growth in that time frame.

How they actually accomplished that feat is a long story but suffice it to say, they have delinked economic growth from increased energy consumption.  So it can be done.  Folks like me are technological pragmatists—NOT idle dreamers.  And hopefully this lesson will spread—the survival of human life on earth depends on it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Are sanctions destroying the German economy?

There are times when the German economy seems to defy the laws of gravity.  Under normal circumstance, being surrounded by dozens of countries with major economic difficulties would suggest that it would be difficult to sell your products.  A consumer who wants your goods and actually has money is a rare commodity—especially if your products are expensive.  This is especially true if your customers are living in shrinking economies.

Then there are the problems caused by neoliberalism itself.  This economic philosophy was invented to make the rich richer at the expense of everyone else—most especially their prosperous Producing Classes.  Not surprisingly, this is also extremely effective in drying up the pool of customers with money.  This problem can be managed for awhile by making credit more easily available but eventually this doesn't work so well as consumers max out their credit lines.

And then, for whatever reason, the Germans chose a foreign policy that cut them off from their Russian customers.  Large books will be written for why these normally sane people went so bugfuck insane, but at the core is their belief that "we're #1 (in Europe) and neoliberal economics got us to that position, so more of the same should make us even richer and more powerful."

From the outside, this looks like a recipe for economic disaster.  ONLY the abilities of the German Producing Classes has prevented the above factors from plunging her into a serious economic catastrophe.  Now we see that Germany is really beginning to feel the pain that was as predictable as dawn when they started to drink the neoliberal kool-aide.  And while it may be possible to defy the economic laws of gravity for a while, you will come crashing to earth if you allow the big economic decisions to be made by doddering fools like Wolfgang Schäuble.  It only needed a trigger and sanctions against Russia are beginning to look like that trigger as they expose some of the major fairy tales about the German economy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Greek debt crisis is coming to a head

Watching the Greek debt crises unfold is throughly depressing because no matter how virtuous the Greek position may seem to be, they are the debtors and usually the creditors win.  And in this case, the creditor institutions have been especially ruthless with Greece.  No amount of grinding poverty seems to satisfy them.

When the essentially powerless fight the powerful, it is usually very easy to find something about their tactics to criticize.  In the case of Greece, the flaw in their tactics is their unwillingness to cut themselves free from the Euro—an instrument designed from day one to put them in bondage.  And yet the only way to escape the bondage is jettison the Euro.

It will be very interesting to see if Greece finds itself outside the EU.  Even more interesting will be the question—did they leave or were they pushed?  The articles below seem to argue that because of considerations more important than the desires of the creditor classes (WHAT? you mean there ARE considerations more important than what the rentier classes want?) Greece will NOT be forced out of the Euro zone.  These include the strategic location of Greek ports in the Easter Mediterranean, the possibility of a transit corridor for Russian natgas, and probably most importantly, the positive example Greece would provide if it thrived economically outside the Eurozone.

So the Creditor classes will try all their tricks to keep Greece inside the club—but subject to humiliating and debilitating rules.  The most obvious, and the one that has worked in so many corners of the world, is to install a new government of puppets willing to sign anything the creditors demand.  There always seem to be an unending supply of enthusiastic puppets willing to sell out their country's economic interests for a small cut of the action.  But once in a while, people become so desperate, that even this trick doesn't work.  The Syriza government has roughly a 66% approval rating—mostly for standing up to the creditors.  Toppling these folks will be harder than it looks.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Pope on climate change

There seems to be a lot of joy in the climate change community that the Pope of the actual Roman Catholic Church has issued an encyclical calling on the faithful to get serious about global warming.  Considering the incredible damage that right-wing Catholics have visited on the Democratic Party, the Supreme Court, public education, and a realistic discussion of end-of-life medical decisions, etc. in the last 45 years here in USA, it should not be especially surprising that the rest of us would jump for joy at any sign of enlightenment in that viciously dangerous and corrupt organization.  There's even an appropriate passage in the Bible that explains the celebration.
12. How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
13. And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.  Matthew 18
The Catholic Church has an abundance of institutional flaws:
  • A highly stratified bureaucracy with WAY too many layers.  This ensures that nothing meaningful ever gets done. It also means that corruption is easy and effective.
  • A clergy that is selected from a group of people who promise to refrain from normal human reproductive activity.  The Catholics claim this leads to virtue.  Mostly it leads to some really sick behavior.  And here in Minnesota, the legal claims piling up from all the perversion will financially handcuff the organization for decades.
  • A belief set that leads to property management that can only be called "conspicuous waste on steroids."  The Catholics are probably proud of their grossly overbuilt houses of worship.  The rest of us are disgusted.
And then there's the biggie.  In order to sustain a corrupt organization shot through with scandals like rampant child abuse, it is highly advantageous to keep the sheep in the dark.  For a long time, Catholics brutally murdered people who did things like translate the Bible into languages people could read (Tyndale) or explained the virtues of skepticism (Bruno).  They threatened to torture a world-class astronomer for wanting to explain the cosmos (Galileo).  Before the Reformation, all the leading world-class universities were in strongholds of Catholicism like Italy.  By the time the Counter-Reformation reached peak madness, all the great universities of Europe were in the Protestant lands.  This is something that has not changed—no matter how proud the Catholics are of their schools.  Not surprisingly, making war on human knowledge has its consequences—the most obvious is economic under-development.

So it is not really surprising that the chief cleric of an organization with a 500-year history of promoting ignorance has produced a document on climate change that is pretty lame.  There are a few good things in there but overall, a party platform of, say, the Social Democrats in Denmark in 1991, probably had a much more nuanced understanding of climate change and its implications than the Pope's encyclical.  In fact, MOST of the Pope's document isn't really about climate change at all.

What is most disappointing is that the Catholic Church actually could do something about climate change if they would take a little responsibility for their own actions instead of pointing fingers.
  • The Pope is a man whose carbon footprint is ENORMOUS. It is probably bigger than all but (maybe) a thousand people on earth. Does he outline a plan for how he’s going to reduce his own “sins” against the planet? (Are you kidding?)
  • The Catholic Church has thousands of extremely energy-wasting buildings that are used but a few hours per week. Does our Pope suggest how his institution can address this problem? (Nope!)
  • The biggest problem facing the planet is a population explosion that has left us with over 7.2 BILLION people—all who would join the western middle classes in a heartbeat and the energy consumption that requires. And what does our Pope have to say about population control? (Crickets!) In fact, the Catholic position on population control is so backwards, it makes their positions on pedophilia look positively enlightened by comparison.
Since the Catholic Church claims some association with Christianity, the quote from Matthew about cleaning up your own act before worrying about your neighbor's should apply.  I mean, the Church isn't going to develop new solar cells or energy-efficient transportation systems so that's the least they could do.
3. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
4. Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
5. Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.  Matthew 7

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Wendell Potter on free-market "medicine"

Over the years, I have found that Wendell Potter's views on the state of USA medicine most closely resemble my own.  And in the article I have reproduced below, he hits a home run because he tackles THE fundamental issue facing our thoroughly dysfunctional system—whether for-profit medicine is even medicine.  Obviously most countries do not believe a free-market system delivers good medicine.  And of course, they have a wealth of evidence to back them up.  While USA has easily the most expensive medical care on earth, the health outcomes rarely crack the top 30.

There are many reasons why for-profit medicine doesn't work very well in any other measurement than the pay scales of health-care executives or the costs of prescription drugs.  Book have been written on the subject.  My favorite reason is that when money becomes the primary outcome, it destroys the trust between a doctor and patient that lead to all sorts of bad decisions.  It doesn't take long for a patient to wonder, "Are all these expensive tests necessary to diagnose my illness or does the doctor own shares in the MRI lab?"  This is especially true if the patient is paying these crazy bills out of pocket.  The question is especially corrosive if the doctor actually does have a financial stake in a diagnostic lab.

It wasn't always this way.  Between 1971 and 73, I was sentenced to work as a surgical orderly for my "crimes" of opposing the Vietnam War.  The hospital was a big sprawling affair attached to Minnesota's primary medical school.  This teaching hospital pretty much invented open heart surgery during the 1950s so while almost all the giants had moved on or retired, the reputations still dominated the surgical suites.  Heart trays were filled with instruments named for doctors who once walked the halls.

Most of the Twin Cities hospitals in those day were either state or county institutions or were large affairs owned and run by religious organizations.  There was still a tradition that medicine was to be a benevolent affair run for the benefit of the sick.  But the big greed had already begun to set in.  The head nurse of the OR, my boss, had bought stock in Medtronic when it was still being run out of a garage.  She obviously only came to work out of love for medicine because when Medtronic had gone public, she had become a wealthy woman.  The transplant doctors were already anticipating the world they would inhabit when Medicare started paying for dialysis and transplants.  So while there were still surgeons whose big goal was to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association for describing some breakthrough treatment, there were also the greedheads who were paying for their offshore horse ranches.

So Mr. Potter, contrary to your claim that Arnold Relman coined the term "medical-industrial complex" 35 years ago, I can assure all us conscientious objector orderlies at the UM Medical School were calling it that in 1971.  But yes, what we found disgusting and offensive was nothing compared to standard medical practice these days.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

King coal is (dying?) dead

Vattenfall is a Swedish company that produces much of the hydropower generation in Sweden.  Vattenfall, after all, translates to waterfall.  So, it's not like they don't have experience with renewables.  But the problem is, the number of good hydro sites is clearly finite and the vast majority of them have been built out.  So over the years, they have gotten into nuclear and even brown coal power generation.  They also have extensive holdings in wind generation.

So while Vattenfall can sell themselves as seriously green, in fact they are basically agnostic when it comes to generation.  They're in the business of selling volts and operating a wide assortment of generating methods has seemed essentially prudent.  Well, not exactly.  They face serious criticism for burning dirty brown coal, they have been ordered to shut down their German nuclear power plants by the government (many lawsuits) and now, one of their brand new, start-of-the-art hard coal plants in Hamburg is being used as the perfect example of why concerns over carbon emissions will probably turn this investment into a stranded asset.

Here in Minnesota, environmental activists went a few rounds with the big utility company in the 1970s over nuclear power.  Activists stopped the construction of major plant.  Turns out, this action saved the utility millions of dollars.  When it comes to energy, the bottom line is that everyone is on the same side no matter how contentious these debates become.  I don't know this for a fact, but I imagine the building of the hard-coal plant in Hamburg was quite contentious.  I would also imagine that there are Vattenfall execs who wished they had not built this financial white elephant.  Climate change is real, and the biggest target will be shutting down the carbon-intensive fires of coal.  And this is true no matter how sophisticated the new power plant.