Thursday, October 8, 2015

Are the big utilities finally waking up?

Of all the contributors to the CO2 in the atmosphere, coal-fired electrical generation is arguably the nastiest—mostly because burning coal not only adds CO2, but also mercury, radioactive particles, NOx, and an assortment of other pollutants.  Fortunately, burning coal is possibly the easiest energy habit to kick.  And now the utility companies are discovering that electricity generated by wind and solar is actually cheaper than burning coal—which has long been considered THE low-cost option.

This could not have happened a moment too soon.  We all should be thankful for little signs of progress—however small or late.  First up we see the the thinking at Bloomberg's New Energy Finance.  According to them, wind is already the low-cost option in England and Germany—and soon the rest of the world.  Then we have a local article from the Minneapolis Tribune about the decision-making process concerning Xcel's big Sherco coal-burners.  They intend to replace them in the 2020s.

Yes it is progress but I would be more impressed if they planned to do it starting five years ago.  I mean, Xcel already has a large and well-run wind division.  What they lack is a necessary sense of urgency.  Yes, it is good to see cautious people operating something as important as electrical generation.  But they seem to confuse caution with foot-dragging.

Solar and Wind Just Passed Another Big Turning Point

It has never made less sense to build fossil fuel power plants.
Tom Randall  October 6, 2015

Wind power is now the cheapest electricity to produce in both Germany and the U.K., even without government subsidies, according to a new analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). It's the first time that threshold has been crossed by a G7 economy.1

But that's less interesting than what just happened in the U.S.

To appreciate what's going on there, you need to understand the capacity factor. That's the percentage of a power plant's maximum potential that's actually achieved over time.

Consider a solar project. The sun doesn't shine at night and, even during the day, varies in brightness with the weather and the seasons. So a project that can crank out 100 megawatt hours of electricity during the sunniest part of the day might produce just 20 percent of that when averaged out over a year. That gives it a 20 percent capacity factor.

One of the major strengths of fossil fuel power plants is that they can command very high and predictable capacity factors. The average U.S. natural gas plant, for example, might produce about 70 percent of its potential (falling short of 100 percent because of seasonal demand and maintenance). But that's what's changing, and it's a big deal.

For the first time, widespread adoption of renewables is effectively lowering the capacity factor for fossil fuels. That's because once a solar or wind project is built, the marginal cost of the electricity it produces is pretty much zero—free electricity—while coal and gas plants require more fuel for every new watt produced. If you're a power company with a choice, you choose the free stuff every time.

It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. As more renewables are installed, coal and natural gas plants are used less. As coal and gas are used less, the cost of using them to generate electricity goes up. As the cost of coal and gas power rises, more renewables will be installed.

Wind and solar have long made up a small fraction of U.S. electricity—about 5 percent in 2014. But production has been rising at an exponential rate, and those two energy sources are now big enough to influence when coal and natural gas plants are kept running, according to BNEF.2

There are two reasons this shift in capacity factors is important. First, it's yet another sign of the rising disruptive force of renewable energy in power markets. It's impossible to brush aside renewables in the U.S. in the same way it might have been just a few years ago. "Renewables are really becoming cost-competitive, and they're competing more directly with fossil fuels," said BNEF analyst Luke Mills. "We're seeing the utilization rate of fossil fuels wear away."

Second, the shift illustrates a serious new risk for power companies planning to invest in coal or natural-gas plants. Historically, a high capacity factor has been a fixed input in the cost calculation. But now anyone contemplating a billion-dollar power plant with an anticipated lifespan of decades must consider the possibility that as time goes on, the plant will be used less than when its doors first open.

Most of the decline in capacity factors is due to expensive "base-load plants that are being turned on less because of renewables," according to BNEF analyst Jacqueline Lilinshtein. Plants designed to come online only during the highest demand of the year, known as peaker plants, play a smaller role. In either case, the end result is that coal-fired and gas-fired electricity is becoming more expensive and the profits less predictable.

The opposite is true of wind and solar, as well as new battery systems that can be paired with renewables to replace some peaker plants. Wind power, including U.S. subsidies, became the cheapest electricity in the U.S. for the first time last year4, according to BNEF. Solar power is a bit further behind, but the costs are dropping rapidly, especially those associated with financing a new project.

The economic advantages of wind and solar over fossil fuels go beyond price.5 Still, it's remarkable that in every major region of the world, the lifetime cost of new coal and gas projects6 are rising considerably in the second half of 2015, according to BNEF. And in every major region the cost of renewables continues to fall. more 

Xcel Energy plans more wind, solar power and less coal — and sooner — in Minnesota

Cuts in coal, increased wind and solar planned.

By David Shaffer Star Tribune OCTOBER 2, 2015

Xcel Energy said Friday that it will accelerate cuts in its Minnesota-region greenhouse gas emissions by increasing wind and solar power investment in this decade and replacing two big coal-burning generators with a natural gas-fired unit in the mid-2020s in Becker, Minn.

The plan, submitted to state regulators who could approve or reject it, would mean a 60 percent cut in the electric utility’s Upper Midwest carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. Until now, Xcel had aimed for a 40 percent greenhouse gas reduction over that period.

Two of the three coal burners at the Sherco power plant in Becker would be retired in 2023 and 2026 under the plan announced Friday. That plant, Xcel’s largest in the region, is also the state’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. The two units, built in the 1970s, would be replaced by a new power plant fueled by natural gas, which emits half the carbon dioxide of coal, Xcel said.

“This is really a business decision about what we think is right for the future,” said Chris Clark, president of Xcel’s Minnesota regional operations, in an interview. “For us the time to move is now. We think we benefit from certainty. It is the right time to focus on the future. I think it is what our customers want us to do.”

Environmental groups led by Fresh Energy, as well as the state Commerce Department had urged Xcel to consider earlier retirement of the Sherco units. Xcel had planned to keep them running, but at a lower pace, until 2030.

“It’s a great outcome for Minnesota,” said J. Drake Hamilton, Fresh Energy's science policy director, which advocates for cleaner energy. “These commitments directly follow the recommendations of climate scientists that we need to cut carbon emissions across our economy very much like what Xcel is proposing.”

Rep. Pat Garofalo, chairman of the Minnesota House energy and jobs committee, said the plan to replace the Sherco units will eliminate jobs and drive up electricity prices, which also hurts the economy.

“A lot of people are going to pay more,” said Garofalo, R-Farmington, who placed blame on federal policies like the Clean Power Plan and did not criticize Xcel. “A lot of people are going to be hurt. These policies have consequences.”

Xcel said the prospect of expensive pollution control upgrades to the decades-old Sherco units along with the 2030 carbon-reduction targets under the Clean Power Plan make it sensible to retire the coal burners earlier. The U.S. power sector, mainly because of coal burning, is the largest source of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Gov. Mark Dayton praised Xcel for its commitment to clean energy. “And I deeply appreciate the company’s continued commitment to the Becker community, where the construction of its proposed natural gas plant would create many good jobs,” he said.

Overall, jobs will disappear at the plant. Clark said Sherco’s 310 employees would decline to 150-160 after the two older coal units are replaced with a natural gas-burning power plant, which requires fewer workers.

The city of Becker relies on Xcel property taxes to cover more than half of its budget. Mayor Lefty Kleis said the plan for a new power generator is “some excellent news” for the tax base, but he wants to see details.

Although Xcel already intended to double its investments in wind and solar power by 2030, the utility’s revised plan now calls for speeding up that effort, with significant renewable power additions before 2020. Clark said solar and wind power costs have dropped significantly, and he wants the utility poised to seize opportunities if Congress extends the federal wind production tax credit.

Xcel, which operates in eight states and serves 1.4 million electric customers in Minnesota, has been the nation’s most windpower-reliant utility for 11 years. Today, Xcel gets 15 percent of electricity from wind, and 37 percent from coal in its Minnesota region that includes North Dakota and South Dakota. If this plan goes forward, Xcel expects 33 percent of its regional electricity to be generated by wind and solar in 2030, while 15 percent would still come from coal.

“The vision here is great, the challenge is to do it at a competitive price,” said Bill Blazar, senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which has argued before regulators that rising industrial power rates are making the state less able to compete.

Clark said the proposed investments are expected to raise customers’ rates by 2 to 3 percent, but offered no details on the dollar impact.

Nuclear power would remain a key carbon-free source, and the utility told regulators they need to look toward the 2030s, when its three Minnesota reactors’ licenses expire. At that point, the plants in Monticello and Red Wing will be 60 years old, and the question of further extending their licenses is sure to be complex and controversial.

The announcement was a revision to Xcel’s 15-year business plan released in January. Utilities are required to submit such documents to the state Public Utilities Commission. It has authority to approve or reject major investments by investor-owned utilities like Xcel, and likely will act on this proposal next year.

Xcel also said it wants by 2025 to build a natural gas-fired generating unit in North Dakota. Xcel further has committed to energy efficiency investments, including smart technologies that Clark said can help shift power usage to low-demand periods.

“I am really excited about what we are doing,” Clark said. “I think we are going to be industry leaders, but we are really doing this because we think it is the right thing for our customers. It provides certainty to our community and our employees about what our plan is. It lets us focus on the future.” more
Sherburne County Generating Station
Common name: Sherco
Owner: Xcel Energy.
Location: Becker, Minn., 45 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, on the Mississippi River.
Generating capacity: 2,222 megawatts, largest power plant in the state.
Unit 1: Online in 1976, would cease coal generation in 2026.
Unit 2: Online in 1977, would cease coal generation in 2023.
Unit 3: Online in 1987; co-owned by Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency. No retirement plans, likely to operate into the 2030s.
*1 megawatt is 1 million watts.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Michael Hudson on the baleful effects of banksterism

Regular readers already know I am a big fan of Michael Hudson.  He is one of the very few economists who has managed to keep his thoughts together in the face of the neoliberal onslaught.  Actually, considering how easy it is to poke holes in the various arguments of financial capitalism, there should be hundreds of Hudsons out there, but there are not.  And that alone tells a huge story of why economics is only minimally aware of the reality of those of us who exist outside their circle of pseudo-theological ideas.

Hudson and I do not agree on everything.  The crowd I call Predators he insists on calling parasites.  This isn't a large argument because we are describing mostly the same people doing the same things.  But even though he has just published what is likely to be an important book called  Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy, I'll stick to my description of Predators.  Why? Because the term 'parasites' usually describes some primitive creature like a tapeworm.  But 'Predators' describe dangerous and cunning creatures like panthers.  And human Predators are nothing if not incredibly cunning.  Parasites may not be especially cunning, but they can certainly be extremely dangerous.

And with that intro, please enjoy this interview with Hudson on Counterpunch Radio about his new book.  He pretty much lays out all the serious arguments against the parasitic / predatory views of the bankster's hirelings.  This is import stuff to know.  Think of it as economic self-defense.

The full interview comes after the jump.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ellen Brown on funding the economic bottom

One of the uglier aspects of supply-side, neoliberal economics is that they took one of the best sayings in economics and completely reversed its meaning.  The phrase is, "A rising tide lifts all boats."  When the New Deal economists used the phrase, they meant that the best way to raise the economy was to pump income into the lower economic strata.  And this worked.  When money goes to the poor, they immediately spend it distributing that money to every landlord and businessperson up the ladder.  When the neoliberals got ahold of the saying, they were selling trickle-down—the idea that if the rich get richer, they will eventually spend enough money to stimulate the whole economy.  (A rising Yacht lifts all tides.  Doesn't work—has never worked!)

So when the financial institutions got into trouble in 2008, their pals decided to reflate those banks who presumably would have extra money to lend.  Big problem—there aren't all that many people who have much room to go deeper in debt.  So the money sits in the banks doing essentially nothing—even when interest rates go to zero.

So with no way to lower interest rates much further, the central banks are out of their ideas.  The only working alternative is revive the bubble-up plans that were embodied in the old saying "A rising tide lifts all boats."  Here Ellen Brown describes such an intellectual change as a "Nuclear Option."

Monday, October 5, 2015

Volkswagen troubles from a German perspective

The story of how Volkswagen's "clean" diesels actually failed the NOx emissions tests continue to unfold.  There hasn't been such a juicy Producer Class story in a very long while.  For while the TDI line of diesels are some of the cleanest ever built, the fines and lawsuits for this environmental crime could top $100 billion.
  1. The number of affected Volkswagen and Audis is around 480,000 sold from 2009-2015 (roughly 80,000 per year).  USA isn't a huge market for VW's diesels (by comparison Toyota sold 428,606 Camrys in 2014 alone).  Worldwide, VW has sold 11 million TDIs.
  2. VW, it seems, is not the only manufacturer to build production diesels that regularly emit more NOx than the vehicles tested for certification.  The other offenders include: Volvo, Renault, Jeep, Hyundai, PSA (Citroen, Peugeot) and Fiat.
  3. In every meaningful way, VW did not cheat its customers.  The TDIs it sold were objectively better (better mileage AND performance) than ones that met the legal NOx limit.  Already Wired magazine explains that VW's USA customers are NOT going to like any of the proposed fixes.
  4. The rest of the German manufacturers are PISSED at VW for endangering the "Made in Germany" brand.  With good reason—it takes decades to build such a brand.
Complicating all this is the very real fact that Germany is the greenest industrialized country on earth with a very effective environmental movement.  Mostly because of their superior mileage, VW was marketing their TDI diesels as a green solution.  And yet these are the people being accused of cheating on emissions tests.  So what went wrong to trigger this possible $100 billion calamity?

All arrows point to one culprit—the NOx standards.  The very thing that makes diesel engines more fuel efficient (higher combustion temperatures) is what causes the formation of NOx.  This means that almost anything that decreases NOx will almost certainly decrease the efficiency of the engine.  Now whether the standards are legitimate is a whole other question but since almost everyone is forced the cheat to make an acceptable car, (2 above) and the customers will hate the legal cars (3), maybe the regulators came up with standards that effectively barred the sale of diesel cars.  VW will almost certainly stop selling diesels in the USA market.  They sell over 10 millions cars a year—they hardly need these problems to sell a mere 80,000.

What really makes this such a fine Producer Class tale is that at Volkswagen, the Instinct of Workmanship triumphed over all other considerations.  VW was simply not about to sell an inferior product just to meet rules that were set by people who don't actually have to make real hardware that conformed to them.  Faced with the prospect of selling less that they could build, they as a huge corporate giant decided to ignore the regulations.

This should be a warning to all those who think that if we can just agree to lower CO2 emissions, the solutions will arrive just like the pizza you ordered.  Well this doesn't work.  If you want to do something very difficult—and trust me, lowering CO2 will be very, VERY difficult—you need to make your plans around what is physically possible.

In the meantime, Germany is beginning to recover from this blow to one of their trophy industries.  The first two articles below come from Deutsche Welle (an official voice of the German government.)  The last is from RI and addresses the question of whether VW's woes will lead to the end of EU sanctions on Russia.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Council of Foreign Relations and Neoliberalism

When Jimmy Carter first came on the national political scene, I was hardly the only person who wondered, "Who the hell is HE?— A peanut farmer from Georgia?  And why did he choose Walter Mondale as a running mate?  And who, pray tell, is Zbigniew Brzezinski?"

Turns out they were buddies from the Council of Foreign Relations—a nasty little club organized by Rockefeller (David) money.  And in one fell swoop, Wall Street had taken over the Democratic Party.  Soon the process of deregulation took hold—starting with trucking and telecommunications.  Paul Volcker was named to run the Fed and soon the very real sin of usury became respectable.  Foreign policy became very aggressive with generous funding for anyone who could bring the fight to USSR—most notably the creation of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  And when the CFR's pet despot was overthrown in Iran, they made sure that the Shah would be flown to USA to get premium medical care.  That move triggered the 444 day hostage crises that still sours USA-Iran relations to this day.

But nothing the CFR did with their anointed President can ever compare to their biggest triumph—the global marketing of Neoliberalism.  That madness has vanquished all intellectual competition to the point where no other economic school of thought—no matter how rational, historically successful, or currently relevant it may be—is given more than a cursory dismissal.  Today's essay is how they pulled that off.  What is so astonishing is that neoliberalism triumphed, not because it represents the best economic thinking, but because it benefits a powerful minority who are happy to pay for any rationale that can continue to confuse the herd.  In fact, neoliberalism is the most primitive economic thinking in 150 years and is a monumental failure for the vast majority of the earth's inhabitants—not to mention the earth itself.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Paul Craig Roberts on neoliberalism

Paul Craig Roberts has been a favorite ever since I discovered him writing for Business Week.  He was writing at at the time when finance was taking over industry.  He liked very little of the process and took great joy in pointing out the absurdities of what was then called "supply-side" economics.  So even though he had been an assistant Treasurer for the Reagan Administration (which made him nearly a certified devil), he was obviously one of the good guys.

Well, he's still at it.  Still pointing out how utterly absurd most people in positions of responsibility really are.  Still shaking his head what we now call neoliberalism.  Perhaps it isn't so important that Roberts is getting it right because he has been doing that for decades.  But he seems to think that the pendulum is about to swing back.  So do I.  The question is, "Do things change fast enough to stave off disaster?"

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Putin at the UN

Not that it will make a bit of difference to anyone in any responsible position in the USA government, but V. Putin gave a pretty interesting address to the UN on Monday.  What make this interesting is that the world has grown sick to death of USA.  It isn't that USA wants to run the world, understand, it just that they are doing such a piss-poor job of it.  So the question becomes, is Putin's Russia able to step up to offer a reasonable alternative.

In the English-speaking world, Putin has been so demonized that the notion that he and his plans would offer a legitimate counterpoint to the Anglo / American / Neocon hegemony will hardly be considered.  Right now, I am not sure even Putin believes the established powers can be dislodged.  But if he keeps putting forward rational ideas in a world where the alternative is neocon craziness, who knows what the outcome might be.  There are many times (like now) when craziness seems to winning, but in the long term, the best ideas usually win.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Killing investment in oil and gas projects

This had to happen.  Without $100+ per barrel, it simply made little (no?) economic sense to get oil and gas by hydro-fracking—or any other expensive extraction process.  So now we get to see a severe depression in the oil patch which can only get worse if prices stay low.

For the rest of us, there is a little breather.  How long this lasts is anyone's guess.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Greider on the "populism" of Sanders and Trump

IMHO, William Greider is easily the best political analyst of his generation.  His only serious competition was the late Lawrence Goodwyn, whose seminal work on historical Populism will long be the defining work on that subject.  Today's treat is Greider analyzing the political "populist" strategies of Sanders and Trump using Goodwyn's insights.

For me, Populism is personal.  Both my grandfathers were Midwestern farmers and while one (mother's father) was an order of magnitude more radical than the other, the core politics were the same because the economic problems were the same.  The political movements of the agrarian radicals were not taught in my schools, so politics in the age of Kennedy and Johnson did not make any sense to me at all.  So when I first read Goodwyn, he answered more questions than I knew how to ask.

But the big joy was turning Tony on to Goodwyn.  In many ways, he understands Goodwyn's writing better than I because as a Chicago kid, he brings an academic detachment to the subject I cannot even fake.  If you put Goodwyn in the "Search this Blog" box, you will discover most of the great posts on Goodwyn and Populism were written by Wikrent.

Wikrent believes that the Populists were the most successful progressive political movement in USA history.  He has a plan to emulate their strategies.  Actually, so do I.  My video series on what can still be done about climate change will be heavily influenced by Greider and Goodwyn.  How could it be otherwise as nearly everything I write is influenced by those two.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Climate refugees

The cheery folks who tell us that the incredible crush of refugees about to overwhelm Europe are essentially a good thing.  Multiculturalism, we are told, leads to broader, more humane thinking.  Migrants will fill in the employment gaps created by the demographic collapse in place like Germany and Italy and provide the energy necessary to care for an aging population.  New populations will be good for the economy.

Well, I don't believe the glad tidings of the optimists.  Not with these numbers!  New populations often create massive and dangerous outbreaks of hatred that can last generations.  Existing populations that have taken generations to adapt to local conditions will very likely turn on the newcomers who understand neither the history or culture of their new lands.  The likelihood of some ugly political movements like Greece's New Dawn is extremely high.  And that doesn't even get to the problem of how to feed, house, and educate the newcomers and more importantly, who is going to pay for all this. 

And folks, this is just the beginning.  MOST of the planet's populations live within a few meters of sea level including virtually all of the important cities.  Raise the sea levels by three meters and there will be millions of climate refugees.  And this is only a small part of the problem.

We are about to discover just how expensive doing nothing about climate change will really be.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Volkswagen busted for emissions cheating

The Diesel engine—a remarkable invention that uses a less-premium fraction of the barrel of oil, gets significantly better mileage than the spark-ignition engine, and in most applications, are remarkably durable.  But there is one problem—nitrogen-oxide emissions.  At high temperatures, the nitrogen in the air combines with the oxygen in the air.  High combustion temperatures are precisely why the Diesel engine is more energy efficient.  A well-running Diesel engine is also going to make a bunch of NOx—it just is.  So if we want such engines, we must clean them up with post-combustion, downstream methods.  The bad news is, not many of the downstream solutions work very well.

Volkswagen's customer base includes a lot of folks who want very low fuel consumption.  So over the years, VW has come up with a line of Diesel engines for their cars that are powerful, quiet, durable, and don't emit visible smoke like old Diesels used to.  And in much of the world, that is enough.  But for the USA market, they had to meet some nearly impossible standards for NOx emissions. They cobbled up some band-aids but truthfully, nothing worked well enough while still providing the performance necessary to keep up with normal commuting conditions.  So it looks like they cheated.  They used one set of computer instructions to pass the EPA tests and another to sell their cars to the public.  I have driven some of their TDI offerings and they did not seem crippled—so I have no problem believing this story.  My reaction was along the lines of "This seems impossible but maybe those German engineers really are clever enough to make a clean Diesel."

The other tip-off should have been Toyota.  They know how to make and sell Diesel engines and many people encourage them to import them into USA.  Instead, we are sold Hybrid cars which are insanely difficult to make well and cost Toyota a fortune to perfect to a commercial level.  My guess is that they tried to fix their Diesels to meet USA standards and decided that for them, it really was impossible to do.

The question now becomes, what can be done about the Diesel cheaters that VW sold in USA.  VW can be fined, but that doesn't actually fix anything.  They could be forced to cripple their cars to match the ones they gave the EPA—which would infuriate those owners that like cars that work properly and cause a black market in the cheater engine management chips.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Bringing a clock to school

"Never ascribe to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence.” 

Last Monday, a 14 yo kid in Irving Texas made the mistake of bringing an electronics project to school.  It was a clock.  Not an especially clever project but hey, it's pretty good for a kid.  And obviously WAY too complicated for the intellectual "heavyweights" that run the schools down there in Texas.  They had him ARRESTED for the obvious crime of clock-building.

It is easy to laugh at the the fools from Texas—home to Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and Louis Gohmert.  But up here in Minnesota, I live in pretty town with expensive colleges—lots of teachers with fancy degrees. The POV I seem to keep hearing is, "Considering the clock LOOKED suspicious, the guys running the school in Irving Texas correctly erred on the side of caution."

How a simple timing device could be considered a bomb is beyond my comprehension. Of course, I am "handicapped" by the knowledge that a bomb needs more that blinking numbers, it needs explosives. Since too many people get their information from movies, I suppose it is an "honest" mistake to confuse blinking numbers with a bomb. I mean, that's what they showed us in Goldfinger.

And so, the weapons-grade ignorance so common in our schools led to the situation where a proud suburb has been turned into a global laughingstock. Good JOB! folks. I am delighted to see the scientific community has got this kid's back. Anyone who takes science seriously has probably had several run-ins with the great ignorance. For most scientifically literate folks in this country, there are often days when they must remind themselves that at least they are not being threatened by the Pope with torture.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Harvard, training ground for nation-builders?

Over the years, I have come to believe that engineering, done well, is easily the most important and history-changing of all the professions.  To be good at this occupation, an engineer must be inventive, visionary, thoroughly grounded in the sciences, and decisive, among other notable virtues.  Engineers have designed how we grow our food, transport ourselves, create shelter and advanced medicines, and the rest of the umbilical cords that keep us alive.

Unfortunately, like in any other profession, the great engineers constitute a small minority of the practitioners.  Even so, Thorstein Veblen himself hoped that engineers would become the vanguard of advanced social organization.  I am quite certain if he came back, the fact that this did not come true would be among his greatest disappointments.  We had two engineers as Presidents in USA, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, and neither did a very good job.

Because both climate change and the end of the Age of Petroleum are energy related problems, they are largely the sort of thing that would be considered "engineering problems."  I would put the split at 35% economic and 65% engineering.  Almost nothing else matters.  And even IF we were to come up with the large pile of money necessary to build the fire-free society, actually pulling the off the conversion must still rely of millions of engineering decisions made by the best-trained people that can be assembled.

Which leads to the following story.  Harvard is arguably the epicenter of Leisure Class education.  That they even have an engineering school kind of baffles me. Training engineers as nation-builders has never been important at Harvard.  In fact, the New England schools including MIT have pretty much been MIA ever since they sat out the space program in the 1960s.  But now Harvard has announced an interdisciplinary engineering program to tackle large problems.  Such a degree path is devoutly to be wished—especially by folks like me who consider climate change to be an engineering matter.  But whether a school whose primary goal for generations has been to train industrial saboteurs in the form of investment bankers and hedge-fund operators, is now somehow qualified to begin turning out big-picture engineers, is highly questionable.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Violence of Neoliberalism and the State of the American Left

I am a creature of the American Left.  My parents were good FDR Democrats.  I was conceived in the fall of 1948 when they were deciding to vote for Henry Wallace.  I first became politically active during the Presidential run of the anti-Vietnam War candidate, Eugene McCarthy.  Etc.  But by the middle of the 1970s, I had become seriously disillusioned with "Liberals."  I never successfully made the transition from the political fight for economic justice to identity politics.  In fact, I never quite made the transition to environmental politics.  I am not so certain I ever really abandoned the left so much as the left left me.

But I still have a soft spot in my heart for the "liberals" who claim to represent the interests of the great masses.  So yes, I was happy to see Syriza come to power in Greece, and I harbor a small cheering section in my head for Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.  Even so, I cringe at the prospect of lefties caving to the "realities" of neoliberalism and further cringe at the talk that somehow dusting off the discredited ideas of Karl Marx is the only true way to resurrect the global economy.  I cringe because we are very near an environmental catastrophe and one luxury we do not have is to experiment with Marxist ideas only to prove once again that they aren't very good.  The green future will only work with very clever and sophisticated technologies.  Marxists actually believe that technological primitivism is a virtue.

Perhaps, the real issue is that epic-changing events like global warming or the end of the petroleum age are NOT especially political.  Maybe the only thing politics is good for is to argue such things as whether gay marriage is an act of virtue.  And seeing as a host of Democrats have enthusiastically embraced the madness of neoliberalism, maybe even political economy isn't very political any more.  We do know that neoliberalism will certainly prevent a green future and so must be discredited and destroyed as an ideology, but is the left any more capable of this task than anyone else?  I know plenty of self-styled "liberals" who religiously pay for and read The Economist.  Expecting such people to embrace the ideas that would make possible a green future is probably like expecting pigs to fly.