Monday, December 31, 2012

Unnecessary pain

There is absolutely nothing novel in the talking points of today's neoliberal austerity ghouls.  The inane economic theories of the Victorian era British economist Alfred Marshall have merely been computerized.  The incredible economic blunders we are seeing in 2013 have been around since the dawn of industrialization.  It stems from a failure to understand the nature of Producer Class potential.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Progressives and neoliberals

Thank you for this Mr. Black.  For most of my adult life, I have watched the political party of my youth, the Minnesota DFL, go from a party of Producer Class empowerment, public virtue and investment, and the pro-prosperity economics of the Populists / Progressives, to a party of dozens of competing little identity groups who thought of nothing greater than how they got laid, whose ancestors had been most tormented, or who could get the rest of us to change the way we talked.  The switch in focus from economics to identity politics / political correctness produced a strange creature—the sincere progressive who is, unfortunately, a right-wing ghoul when it comes to the important basics of economics.

Here Black cites three obvious examples of what I am talking about.  Since there are thousands of other good ones, Black could have continued this piece for a very long time.  Neoliberalism swept through the left while they were focusing on cultural issues and became the default economic assumptions almost as completely as on the Reaganite right.  Anyone can easily cite examples from their own experience.  My favorite comes from a dinner party I once attended filled with an educated and politically very correct liberal arts faculty who were abuzz because they had just discovered The Economist.  Apparently, neoliberal goofiness sounded just fine by them if it was delivered with a British accent.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

On criticism for my "Polish Coal-aholics" post

I suppose this is a milestone to be remarked upon passing.  It seems I picked up an angry critic who seems especially annoyed at my take on climate deniers.  According to him, my outrage was last Sunday's post entitled "Polish Coal-aholics" which contained an extended clip from a Der Spiegel post entitled Poland Wages War on Efforts to Save the Climate.

I happened to like that Der Spiegel post because it was soooo German.  Energy policy is a highly complex subject but one thing is abundantly clear—burning coal to generate electricity is a very bad idea.  Why?  Because the whole point of changing the energy mix is to lessen the output of greenhouse gasses.  Coal is mostly carbon.  You burn (oxidize) carbon and you get carbon dioxide.  (Well, you can also get carbon monoxide but it will become CO2 in about 20 minutes.)  So coal burning is a problem—NOT a solution for climate change.  Chemistry 101 is quite clear about this.  And yet the Poles are opting for a coal-only future and an inquiring writer for Der Spiegel wanted to know why.

Yes.  Me too!  I want to know how any sentient being responds to climate change by suggesting much more of the same technology that caused the problem in the first place.  I found it funny that a German publication would couch the possible answer in the form of an addiction they called coal-aholism.  Now I am not a huge fan of "carbon addiction" as an explanation for much, but this was amusing because I have heard how some Germans I know criticize Polish drinking habits.  It was as if the author was throwing up his hands at the crazy Polish insistence on building more coal-fired electrical generation as an irrational and very unhealthy act akin to drinking Wodka at 9:00 am.

Anyway, my critic accuses me of "serious" sins.  In no particular order they are:

1) I used an article that slanders people for a technological choice.

Absolutely.  I am guilty as charged.  I reposted that article precisely because it was sort of a mild Polish joke.  However, my guess is that my critic was not so offended by the criticism of the Polish people as he was offended by the dismissive attitude people like us have for people who think like him.

2) I rely heavily on Der Spiegel for my information.

Again.  Guilty as charged.  I go to their website every day.  I understand they are a neoliberal publication in the heart of Social Democratic (SPD) turf (Hamburg) but I think their world-view is close enough to my own to make the necessary adjustments.  My people came from southern Sweden.  From the 13th century on, we have been in the economic orbit of Hanseatic League thinking.  Hamburg was the first among equals in the league.  So I go to Hansa-based site to get my daily dose of Hansa thinking.  Since these people are still among the most prosperous on the planet, I find it instructive.  However, just because I happen to like Der Spiegel does not mean I use them exclusively.  And just because my critic finds them untrustworthy does not make them wrong.

3) I am probably not as technologically literate as I advertise myself to be.

Hey, I could get into a chest-beating contest over who has more patents, or mastered more tools, or built more complex things at a young age, but whatever would be the point.  I am certainly technologically literate enough to comment on technology issues.  But let's assume that my critic is a senior combustion engineer for ABB (or similar) and really IS more technologically literate than I,  I am still dealing with a critic who actually believes that burning coal to boil water is still an acceptable way to power a society.  It is not.  The age of steam is over and we hang on to it's remnants at our peril.  It matters not at all that it is cheaper, easier, and more reliable to power a country with coal, climate change makes burning coal NOT AN OPTION!  Because it absolutely essential we figure out how to live without most kinds of fire if we are going to survive, reminding us again how wonderful fire is, is not exactly helpful.  It really doesn't matter how technologically literate one is, if you aren't interested in deploying your talents designing and building the post-fire society, you are a long, LONG way from the leading edge.  History will not look kindly on technologists who defended an obsolete technology that was clearly destroying the atmosphere.

4) The German effort to power their society with renewables has been given up as a failure and now that they are about to phase out their nukes, they will be building new coal-fired plants too.

Yes, I understand the Germans are having some second thoughts about their commitment to renewable energy.  Most of these doubts stem from the fact that renewables are expensive at a time when the zeitgeist preaches austerity.  But the science of climate change is not in doubt in German society.  As a young German explained to me last summer, "We have climate change deniers, too.  We just don't treat them seriously nor let them close to important jobs."

There were probably other sins but I didn't read his piece especially carefully.  I make it a habit not to waste time on climate deniers and I removed some nasty little comments here by some of his acolytes.  But it was my first brush with denialism and it sort of rattled me because I carefully place myself in the middle of the global mainstream of climate change opinion.

And no, I am not going to link to the site that took time to criticize a reasoned and reasonable post.  I really have no interest in debating climate change deniers.  Just knowing there are people out there who can deny so much factual evidence is quite depressing.  And there really is no point in arguing with them—if they can ignore the evidence of just 2012, what could I possibly say to them that would change their extremist positions.

Saturday toons 29 DEC 12

Yes indeed Mr. Keillor, you and I grew up in the same state and attended the same University.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The vultures get stuffed (again)

No matter the slapstick elements of this story, it is actually very important.  There is a ton of un-payable, illegitimate, garbage debt out there that simply must be restructured.  If the vulture funds are able to sabotage restructuring  agreements, then there really is no hope for emerging from the current economic mess that overwhelms the global economy.

While there are seemingly endless opportunities for vulture-funded corruption, the legal system has long ago come to the conclusion that a civil society simply must have ways to rewrite debt agreements.  So mega-vulture Paul Singer has not only lost a bunch legal battles, a court in Belgium recently has ordered that he pays everyone's legal fees.  I am not sure this will slow Singer down because he obviously enjoys jerking around sovereign nations and has the money to fund his perverse little hobby.

About those Japanese nuclear power plants

Well, that didn't take long.  On May 5, 2012, Japan turned off its last nuke.  With the election of Shinzo Abe, the zero-nuke policy is up for grabs again.

Actually, this doesn't surprise me one little bit.  Countries that have nuclear power generation take great pride in the notion that THEY are fully capable of understanding the risks and can manage them.  Even when confronted by a catastrophic failure such a Fukushima, the Japanese can say, "Well, just look at the natural disaster it required to bring down one of our plants?  You simply cannot tell me that ALL of our power plants are equally dangerous."

As so after a few months of looking at perfectly good power plants sitting idle while the nation scrambled to replace the electricity they generated, the pressure to restart a critical element of their infrastructure has become damn near overwhelming.

I think the interesting question now becomes, will Germany reconsider her zero-nuke stance?  She is under the same pressures as Japan (plus a few extras including neighbors like France who think they have gone crazy.)  The BIG difference is that Germany has a well-established Green Party that is in fact part of the current government.  There are Germans nearing retirement age who have been anti-nuke activists since they were teenagers.  As a result, reversing Germany's zero-nuke decision will encounter a great deal of organized resistance.  Even so, my Institutional Analysis is that the facts on the ground will lead to a modification of her zero-nuke policy as well.  It is just that the capitulation will be nowhere as easy or complete as in Japan.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Banksters are criminals running the economy

More and more people are awakening to the fact that even those big bankers who have been considered pillars of the community are in point of fact, just expensive criminals who go to work every day trying to figure out new ways to break the few laws left on the books that would circumscribe their actions.

The EU's biggest problem child may be Deutsche Bank.  Because they came relatively late to the crime spree, they weren't very good at it and have wound up holding the bag for a lot of banksters in New York and London.  It can be argued that the massive austerity programs being foisted on the peoples of Europe are simply maneuvers to cover up the crimes and stupidities of German banks—especially their big daddy Deutsche Bank.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Japan threatens the monetary cranks

This story is destined to be one of the most interesting of 2013.  Japan's new prime minister is calling for the Bank of Japan to monetize a $10 Trillion Yen stimulus package.  The ability of a central bank to monetize debt is always an option available to them but it's an option that terrifies / angers / worries the hard money boys.  And for a politician to make this a winning campaign promise has the inflation hawks in a near-state of apoplexy.

Japan has an interesting problem.  Her currency is very expensive.  Now usually an overpriced currency is a problem of the oil countries because they have something everyone wants.  When Holland was shown to have offshore oil and natural gas reserves, her currency skyrocketed.  Good for the average Dutch consumer because now all imported goods could be cheaper, bad for the Dutch worker because now his labor was priced out of the international markets.  The guys who set the price for currencies understand commodity wealth, but the wealth created by human excellence and genius is far less likely to be evaluated accurately.  For example, gold bugs often claim that fiat money is "backed by nothing" because it can't be exchanged for a rare commodity.  But Japan is one of those few exceptions—her currency is expensive because of her ability to manufacture highly desirable goods.

Japan actually would benefit from a much cheaper Yen.  For example, the Prius sells for roughly $30,000 or 2,543,700 Yen.  If the Yen were at 140 instead of 84.79, that same car could sell for $18,169 (everything else being equal.)  A lot more people could buy an $18k Prius than a $30K one.  And suddenly, Toyota and all her suppliers would have to put on an extra shift.

So our Mr. Abe has discovered that if he could push down the value of the Yen, he could bring some much needed prosperity to Japan.  And supposedly, the best way to drive down the value of his currency would be to get the Bank of Japan to print a lot of free money—to horrify the world's bond vigilantes by actually monetizing the debt.  So his plan will not only improve his trade standing, but it will pump a bunch of money into his domestic economy.  Now all he has to do is terrorize those dullards over at the BOJ into going along with his plan.  Suppose they will whine about how they are supposed to be "independent?"  Does the sun rise in the east?

The truth is, Abe can spend money like a drunken sailor and not do any lasting damage to his currency.  This is because his country knows how to convert intellectual capital into world-class production.  His is a nation that can just about validate any amount of money they can print.  In fact, if he actually puts this plan into place, he could trigger a bout of prosperity that would discredit the hard-money guys for a generation or two.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Winter light

It's Christmas Eve.  For those of us who tend towards skepticism about things like God coming down to earth and being born of a virgin, or far worse, Santa delivering toys to all the corners of the earth on one night, Christmas can easily become a season of genuine psychological pain—too much commercialism, too much fattening food, or too much time spent with people with whom you share little except maybe a last name.  The Christmases of my childhood were so traumatic that it took a couple of decades before I could begin to relax.

And yet in my later years, I have discovered there is much about Christmas to celebrate.  There is the music—no other religious holiday has 1/10th the music. Much is transcendentally beautiful.  But lately, I have come to more fully appreciate the cultural gifts of those who have celebrated Christmas over the years.  Much is actually related to the topics I cover on this blog.  Whether it is honesty in public affairs, building sustainable societies, inventing ways that make the whole community more prosperous, or coming up with ways of keeping crooks from destroying the community, the folks who seem to do it best come from places where winters and darkness are major issues.  Christmas is one of the ways to cope.  And while it has plenty of problems, it's probably not worse than ice fishing as a diversion from the cold.

Besides, Christmas has some real advantages;
  • It's an excuse to feast.  It going to be awhile before you eat produce from the garden.  Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we eat oatmeal again.
  • It's an excuse to light candles.  Before electric light, anything that pushed back the darkness was an expensive luxury.  Candles were often kept in locked trunks.
  • It's an excuse to make music with your neighbors.  Some people are very talented so Christmas music ranges from children's carols to Bach's Christmas Oratorio or Handel's Messiah.
I happen to have a favorite Christmas composition from Bach's Oratorio BWV 248.  It is the Pastorale and when I was growing up, the people I knew called it the shepherd's song.  The reason the shepherd story is important to the Christianity of the North is that it teaches that the birth of a Messiah was first announced to folks working outdoors.  Now, it does not matter that this story is very probably not true, the lesson is still important—that people who do the important work of the community should be respected.  After all, look what your God thinks of them!  Here Bach wrote a purely musical tribute to the story of the shepherds—to the virtue of humility.  It is utterly beautiful.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Polish 'Coal-aholics'

It is abundantly clear that the Poles have ample historical reasons to hate all things German.  But just because the Germans believe burning coal is a disaster for the environment does not make it untrue—no matter what you believe about German thought processes.

One more time.  The reason that Peak Oil and climate change are not being meaningfully addressed is because they are problems of applied science—Producer Class problems.  It doesn't matter IF Al Gore is fat or is a mega energy hypocrite, climate change is still a fact beyond rational debate.  It doesn't matter if it's the Germans who want you to phase out coal-fired plants, it's still a good idea.  There is nothing quite so strange as hearing political arguments being used to try to discredit hard science—it's like children debating adults.

We really must work on this problem.

In the meantime, I would like someone to explain to me how the people of NW Denmark just went ahead and built a remarkably sustainable infrastructure while less than 500 miles away, a country actually chooses to invest in the most dirty lifestyle imaginable with no "reason" for doing it except to make a statement about an historical outrage.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Winter solstice 2012

The tiny little village of Welch MN roughly 10 miles from where the Cannon River empties into the Mississippi.

The Cannon River at Welch

Food and the drought

The Corn Belt drought grinds on.  We have a few inches of snow on the ground here in Minnesota but it would have been more like 18 if it had been slightly colder when the front moved in.  But the extent of the drought can most easily be seen by the incredibly low levels of the Mississippi.  The following story describes the low water below St. Louis so this drought also affects the Missouri basin.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Those lying economists

Neoliberal economics (monetarism, Austrian School, etc.) insists on teaching so much that is so demonstrably false, the rest of us have no idea whether these folks are drooling morons or pathological liars.  For years I have tended to believe in the "father forgive them for they know not what they do" explanation.  Now there is actual research that seems to show that the economics "profession" is indeed overrun with liars.

That IPCC report

Some of the defenders of the carbon-based order have gotten their hands on a preliminary IPCC draft.  According to them, the IPCC isn't quite sure if climate change is man-made.  The IPCC scientists were trying to be absolutely accurate and this is how they are rewarded.

The carbon defenders like to call themselves "skeptics" when in fact they are the exact opposite.  [sigh]  The dark ages are closer than I had feared.  I wonder how long this "debate" will continue.

Nanostructures triple organic solar cells' efficiency

There is something slightly ridiculous about this story even though I find it very interesting.  What has happened is that a guy at Princeton has figured out a way to make PV cells more efficient by placing a mesh over them punched with holes so tiny, they are actually less than the wavelength of light.  This mesh traps light—especially light coming in at odd angles. And since any PV array that is fixed operates a lot of time with the light coming from sub-optimum angles, this should dramatically increase the cells' efficiency.

Of course, this experiment was made possible because someone figured out how to punch a hole less than a lightwave in diameter.  I am sure it is very hard to do.  And probably expensive.  And probably impossible to get reliably high quality control.  And the resulting mesh will probably be damn near impossible to clean.

But other than that—it's probably a good idea.  Keep in mind that there are plenty of places ready-made for PV installation.  We already have a supply glut of PV cells we know how to make.  And so I'm not sure increasing the efficiency of PV cells is the best use of a Mr. Chou's talents.  Problems such as transmission and storage are MUCH more critical to a solar future.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On driving an old car

Cars are freaking expensive to own.  The only way around the expense is to drive an old car.  The downside of this strategy is that now you are responsible for maintenance beyond what's specified in most owner's manuals.  And then there is always the possibility something breaks that leaves you beside the road with all the hassles and expenses that involves.  And there comes the day when something breaks that is WAY more expensive than the car is worth.

But I got hooked on the process of caring for old cars while driving a Saab 900 296k miles (476,000 km).  My strategy was if, for example, a rubber hose needed replacement, all the rubber hoses needed replacement.  I never was stranded and the poor car was still running fine when it died in a tennis-ball-sized hailstorm.  The other rule was care for the paint.  Replacing the engine is easy compared to fixing damaged or rusted sheet metal.  Paste wax, friends.  The BEST investment you can possibly make.

Gave my old Lexus its fall paste wax job on Thanksgiving Day.  Not bad for a car 17 years old with 165k miles—note the reflections of the trees. This is Minnesota—it was 61°F when I started, 39°F when I finished two hours later.

I am still learning to care for my 1996 Lexus.  A low beam goes.  I toy with the idea of replacing it myself.  I went to the Sylvania website and download their replace your headlight video.  They want to make you believe it is easy.  Not on the LS.  Lexus of Maplewood wants $65 (plus the 50+ mile drive to Maplewood).  So while I contemplate my options, I notice one tire is low.  I drive past several gas stations with no noticeable air hoses and wind up at the local Goodyear store where I know the location of the air hose.  I run into my fave mechanic taking a break.  He says he'll replace the bulb for "$15 if it's easy, $25 if it's hard."  He has to pull the air filter to get to the back of the headlight housing.

No more coal fires—a thousand times NO!

There are those who would argue that the completion of the Keystone Pipeline will mean "game over" for the planet that sustains us.  I would argue that we are already dooming ourselves by building more coal-fired electrical generation.  It seems the IEA agrees with me.

As far as I am concerned, we should be trying to permanently suspend the burning of coal.  Burn something as carbon-intensive as coal, and you WILL inject CO2 into the atmosphere—chemistry offers no other options.  But such a ban faces serious obstacles.  Humanity knows a very great deal about finding coal and turning its energy into electricity.  We have been building the equipment that can do this for well over a century and are extremely good at it.  All the alternatives to coal-fired electrical generation have way more problems.  In fact, were it not for the smokestack gasses, coal would be the perfect solution for powering the modern society.  Unfortunately. those gasses are already causing calamities that are just a warm-up for the even greater calamities to come.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

2012 wildfires

The way things are going, 2012 could turn out to be one of the good years.
DEC 16, 2012

2012 extraordinary year for wildfires in US

Check out this map. The year 2012 has been extraordinary for wildfires in the United States.

Oh that scary IMF

The IMF is threatening to kick out Argentine for—get this—fudging her statistical data.   (Ohhhhh!)

If that has now become a crime, we in USA are in real trouble.  I have been following the debate over how USA measures inflation and unemployment for decades and while the published figures tell us something, they don't tell us much.  Inflation numbers don't include food and energy—the two most important numbers there are.  The jobless numbers only include people who have been laid off and are receiving unemployments benefits—a tiny fraction of the jobless.

Mrs. Kirchner doesn't much care for IMF anyway and so may actually be provoking the IMF to kick her country out their front door.  Saves the trouble of quitting the organization her late husband believed (with ample reason) to be merely a tool of imperialist theft.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Peak Auto

I have already taken to calling the LFA "Peak Auto." I mean, who else has the skills, resources, and management commitment to throw into a ten YEAR project that has no other goal than to showcase the abilities of the world's largest and most influential auto maker? And like the original LS that was so superbly built it made the S-class Mercedes look like it was hammered together using anvils, the LFA has now set the bar so high that no one will ever equal its sophistication in our lifetimes.

As an automobile, the LFA is highly impractical.  As an engineering demonstration, it is magnificent.  It's flashy enough to draw a lot of attention to itself while demonstrating breakthroughs in carbon-fiber fabrication—among a host of other wow! accomplishments.  And being a Lexus, it demonstrates that human beings really can build nearly-perfect things.  This is what can be accomplished when grow-ups build.  This is good.  The sustainable society will require a lot of such near-perfection to work.  Thank goodness, Toyota has told the rest of the world how they do it.

Guess I'm not the only one

Who thinks that big conferences will do nothing about climate change.  The poor Germans (who have done more about climate change than anyone with the possible exception of much-smaller Denmark) are discovering how frustrating it is to be cooped up in a room full of people who barely understand the basic science of the subject.  Note in the article below, they are talking about abandoning the 2°C targets to concentrate on hardening their own infrastructure in order to better cope with the ensuing catastrophe.

I know how they feel.  I live in a country where even those who admit the climate is changing refuse to acknowledge the social and economic changes necessary to do anything about it.  Example: (perhaps the most vocally active organization addressing the subject) has decided the answer to the climate problem is a consciousness-raising bus trip.  Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters would be SO proud.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

What happened to USA economic muscle?

It was destroyed by financial vandals who have NO concept of the extent of their destruction.  Why do I say this?  Because as far as I am concerned, the most interesting factoid of the 2012 USA election was the genuine astonishment by the establishment press that Romney should be facing serious opposition because of his role at Bain Capital.  For them, Bain might be a tad tacky and nouveau riche, but it is hardly the stuff of Bastille storming.

Unfortunately for those of the receiving end, Bain and operations like them ruined their lives and their rage could last 50 years.  In the following essay, Fraser mentions the problems of Youngstown Ohio.  I remember when they shut down Youngstown Sheet and Tube in 1977-79.  I was watching a television documentary about retraining of "rust-belt" workers for the "new economy."  There was a scene where some very young functionary was explaining to a man who had helped create seamless tubing that he was now classified as "unskilled" for the purposes of government statistics.

Making steel is so insanely difficult, the few in history who could do it were world-famous back when steel was made by hand in small batches—witness the reputation of Damascus Steel.  In Japan where steel is a very big deal, the guys who can still do it the old way are designated as "living national treasures."  Not surprisingly, forming a seamless tube of steel is especially difficult—mostly because doing anything sophisticated with any material so hot is extremely dangerous.  Doing this was many things—unskilled was most certainly not one of them.

It was that evening I decided to make it part of my mission in life to explain the importance of those Producers who run the real economy.  Because anyone who can classify as "unskilled" a person who can make seamless tubing from steel is dangerously ignorant.  If someone actually believes making steel is an unskilled task, that person is extremely unlikely to have any comprehension of what it will take to build the sustainable society.

Shades of Humphrey-Hawkins

In what was probably Keynesianism's last gasp, Jimmy Carter signed a piece of legislation on October 27, 1978 called the Humphrey–Hawkins Full Employment Act.  Essentially, Humphrey-Hawkins made full employment the required primary goal of Fed monetary policy.  Hubert Humphrey was dying of cancer—he would only last until January.  So even though Carter was the first neoliberal Democrat, he cynically signed the bill as a nod to a dying lion of liberalism knowing full well he would ignore it.  And then soon enough, Reagan would become president and then Humphrey-Hawkins was really ignored.

So after 35 years of central banks making price (wage) stability their sole focus, we have a Fed chairman who is at least pretending that unemployment is legally one of his concerns.  He is discovering two truths: 1) The forces that made inflation-fighting the only goal of central banking policy are well entrenched to the point where their opinions are accorded the status of convention wisdom, and 2) Slowing growth is at least 100 times easier that stimulating growth.  The old Keynesians called this second problem "pushing on a string."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Finance capitalism and its discontents

Last summer, I got into an exchange about how the country should deal with its geometrically expanding debts.  I was talking with an old-time DC insider.  Because he was spouting the conventional right-wing, Creditor / Leisure-Class view that a debt crises would be the perfect opportunity to take a whack at old-age pensions and medical care for the poor, I pretty much tuned him out.  Well as fall becomes winter and news seeps out about the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, it turns out he wasn't this random doofus, he was parroting the accepted party line of the DC "establishment."  Apparently, plenty of people with important (expensive) jobs in Washington think USA hasn't had enough austerity yet so some more would help.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Chasing Ice

Yesterday, I finally got to see this amazing documentary about the effects of climate change on some of the planet's major glaciers. Had some video documentarians with me who were actually squirming in their seats watching the intense and sometimes dangerous efforts required to capture most of the film's important footage.  If you are like me and do NOT need any further evidence of climate change, this movie is still worth seeing if for no other reason than the spectacular photography.

Even though Chasing Ice has some of the best graphics ever created to describe the problems caused by the accelerating levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, and head photographer James Balog speaks to his conversion from being a climate change skeptic to a man climbing around dangerously unstable ice formations to track its effects, this film is mercifully short on preachiness.  After all, the man has a ton of superb footage to show you and most of it is breathtakingly beautiful.  My personal favorite was a shot at night taken from deep in a glacier melt hole.  The sky is shimmering from the northern lights.

The most amazing footage is of an event where a Manhattan-sized iceberg calves off from the Ilulissat glacier in Greenland.  The clip below shows some this action.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The "left" hates rationality too

Growing up around religious people means that I got to know a bunch of folks who took inordinate pride in believing the unbelievable.  It doesn't matter much that most of these beliefs are easy to refute—these people want you to believe anyway and can get quite graphic in their descriptions of the eternal damnations for those who cannot or will not believe the unbelievable.

My refuge from this stream of bullshit and guilt was science.  What I loved most about science is that no one actually made you believe anything and even better, had proven methods for finding a right answer—and ways of then finding an even righter answer.  It was enough so I could ignore those well-meaning folks who would tell me that if did not actually believe in Noah's flood, I was going to go to Hell!  Not surprisingly, I get pretty protective about science and empiricism.  It got me through a rocky childhood.

Unfortunately, science is harder than it looks.  Most people don't have the time, inclination, skills, or resources to view their world scientifically so they look for explanations that are short and descriptive.  I have many educated and "progressive" friends who have rejected scientific rationality as thoroughly any of the religious extremists of my childhood.

I have a difficult time hiding my disappointment.  I was so sure that if I could escape the Jesus-wants-you-to-be-an-idiot crowd, I would be safe from the crazy people.  I was so wrong. (sigh)

Harden the infrastructure!

So a brand-new subway system that cost $527 million to build is going to cost $500 to repair due to Hurricane Sandy's storm surge.  When climate change denial reaches into half-billion dollar projects, we are talking major rejection of reality.  What is even more interesting, whatever changes they must make to build a station that can occasionally be flooded (or whatever they decide to do) it will probably triple the cost.

Just remember, expensive infrastructure projects are good for the real economy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Argonne and the Volt

For 35 years, we have been told by fools that governments, and their employees, cannot do anything of importance.  Well, once upon a time, the guys at Argonne did things like invent the critical parts of nuclear power—its existence was the result of the first chain reaction.  Whatever one thinks of either Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction or nuclear power, it cannot be argued they weren't important.

Now they have turned some of their considerable intellectual horsepower on the subject of storage batteries.  One of the happy results is the Chevy Volt—from all accounts a perfectly wonderful automotive idea, beautifully executed.  The car guys have given it every important award they have.  Now whether you believe that it's good to turn weapons-grade researchers loose on a problem that touches both climate change and Peak Oil, or you simply want a demonstration that public institutions and public service are more than speech-making and "raising awareness," this story will make you happy.

Naturally, the excitement over the Volt drives the right wing nuts.  And there are real problems.  USA may still have Argonne but the batteries for the Volt can only be made in South Korea—rechargeable batteries, another difficult and important thing we stopped making in USA.  Hey, our high-priced economists told us manufacturing wasn't important anymore and otherwise mostly sane politicians believed them.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Doha grinds to an end

This is it.  Expensive bureaucrats toting expensive Powerpoint presentations fly to the capital of an oil emirate and what is accomplished?  An extension of Kyoto.  You know, the 1997 agreement the Clinton-Gore administration didn't even bother to submit to congress for approval.

Considering the urgent nature of the climate-change problem, the folks who go to these gatherings seem remarkably casual about getting anything done.  Of course, being good members of the Leisure Classes, they believe that actually solving problems is something they cannot be bothered with—it's why god invented the serving classes, after all.  You know, it's a damn shame the highest virtue of the Leisure Classes is uselessness.

When in doubt, just make shit up

So USA State Department climate envoy Todd Stern goes to Doha.  And since the record he must defend is indefensible, he just lies.  And while lying over at State is apparently as routine as breathing, lying about science or climate matters is a pathetic waste of time.  Instrumentation will show up falsehoods very quickly—which means Stern's lies are of the-dog-ate-my-homework variety.

You gotta wonder what poor career move Stern made at State to get such an  embarrassing assignment.  Perhaps it was something simple like he isn't one of the folks with family money.  Maybe he even believes what he says.  All I know is that I am furious that my country is represented by such a buffoon.  Just once before I die, I would like to see USA out in front of some important issue instead of wasting everyone's time—time we clearly do not have.

Peace Prize scandal

They are really going to do it.  Today.  The Norwegians really are going to give the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union.  This is the same country that twice rejected, by large margins, a chance to actually join the E.U.  Of course, all the "respectable" Norwegians were in favor of joining the E.U. so this crazy award is probably a way for that social stratum to reassure the rest of Europe that Norway would be a member were it not for its great unwashed.

As someone who was raised around pacifists, I am both stunned and appalled by this seemingly absurd decision.  Yes I understand that folks can quite easily be stampeded into supporting a war.  But absent some serious lying by some persons or individuals, most folks are fairly peaceable at heart.  Unfortunately, the E.U. is one of those institutions that makes the world a more dangerous place.  It might claim that its war-organizing in simply another way to juice the economies of it member nations.  But even though War Keynesianism is a known economic stimulus, it isn't very effective and is a serious drain on projects that really do need doing.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

It's finally snowing

And oh, that first one is so beautiful!  Looking out my front door.

Yes we are coming up on holidays that promise the light will return.  Of course, the astronomical promise is always fulfilled.  But man, I sure could use a little return of the Enlightenment.  Intellectually and spiritually, we really have sunk back into another dark age.  I mean, just the other day, a US Senator claimed climate change was a hoax because it wasn't in the Bible.  In 2012.  I am NOT making this up.

Ellen Brown lectures on Public Banking in the land of Adam Smith

We who seek change in how our culture operates must admire Ms. Brown.  On one hand, she gets up every morning convinced she has discovered one of the best ideas in economics and has decided to use her considerable energy to promote it.  On the other hand, she has to see that in USA, only one state has managed to get a state-owned bank up and running effectively—and that state is out in the middle of freaking nowhere.  It takes a real leap of faith to come to the conclusion that you have seen the future while walking the streets of Bismarck, North Dakota.

Yet here she is, spreading her good news in Scotland—the country that gave us Adam Smith, after all.
DECEMBER 9, 2012
From North Dakota to Scotland

Exploring the Public Bank Option


The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and the Bank of Scotland have been pillars of Scotland’s economy and culture for over three centuries. So when the RBS was nationalized by the London-based UK government following the 2008 banking crisis, and the Bank of Scotland was acquired by the London-based Lloyds Bank, it came as a shock to the Scots. They no longer owned their oldest and most venerable banks.

Another surprise turn of events was the triumph of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election. Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom, but it has had its own parliament since 1999, similar to U.S. states. The SNP has rallied around the call for independence from the UK since its founding in 1934, but it was a minority party until the 2011 victory, which gave it an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament.

Scottish independence is now on the table. A bill has been introduced to the Scottish Parliament with the intention of holding a referendum on the issue in 2014.

Arguments in favor of independence include that it will allow the Scottish people to make decisions for Scotland themselves, on such contentious issues as having nuclear weapons in their seas and being part of NATO. They can also directly access the profits from the North Sea oil off Scotland’s coast.

Arguments against independence include that Scotland’s levels of public spending (which are higher than in the rest of the UK) would be difficult to sustain without raising taxes. North Sea oil revenues will eventually decline.

One way budgetary problems might be relieved would be for Scotland to have its own publicly-owned bank, one that served the interests of the Scottish people. True economic sovereignty means having control over the national currency, credit and debt.

The Public Bank Option

It was in that context that I was asked to give a presentation on public banking at RSA Scotland (the Royal Society of Arts) in Edinburgh on November 22nd. Among other attendees were a special adviser and a civil servant from the Scottish government. The presentation was followed by one by public sector consultant Ralph Leishman, Director 4-consulting, who made the public bank option concrete with specific proposals fitting the Scottish context. He suggested that the Scottish Investment Bank (SIB) be licensed as a depository bank, on the model of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota. Lively debate followed. more
Brown goes on to describe how North Dakota's Public Bank works in practice.  I have lived in North Dakota.  It requires actual courage to get out of the car because conditions are so harsh.  People who choose to live in such conditions while going to work at a bank that pays civil-service wages are culturally quite unique.  But Brown believes the numbers these tough westerners use to prove the soundness of their thinking.

Of course, maybe she is missing something obvious like...perhaps the reason only North Dakota has their Public Bank is that only there were conditions so harsh that the theological bullshit that keeps bankers in power becomes so ridiculously trivial compared the hazards of just getting to work.  Since those folks cannot afford to fight both the climatic reality of the high prairie and Predatory banking simultaneously, they choose to create a replacement for Predatory banking so they could survive.

Anyway, the Scotsman (which looks like a real newspaper / website with paid writers) dispatches a guy to cover Ms. Brown's presentation.  This is what he wrote.

Grain prices and animal farming

The problems for any farmers raising animals for markets continue.  They have been running in the red since August when drought worries caused grain prices to spike.

I don't know about the rest of the country, but the drought marches on here in Minnesota.  A couple of guys I know went out last week to take video footage of the installation of some deep-soil moisture sensors.  The probe went down through the topsoil looking for some indication of trapped water.  At 6.5' (2 meters) the probe hits the clay layer without triggering any sign of soil moisture.  This finding is especially worrisome for two reasons.  1) Even when things are dry, water is usually found in less than a foot.  2) There are damn few places on earth where topsoil is two METERS thick.

This means our current drought is affecting some of the richest and most fertile land known to humanity.  It's supposed to snow tonight.  Any moisture from the sky is welcome but if we get a real snow cover, it means the time to recharge the soil moisture has passed for the year.  Water that comes after the ground has frozen usually winds up just running off in the spring.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Doha—Friday's update

It is no surprise that USA is the skunk at Doha.  It was inevitable.  In most of the world, the science supporting climate change predictions are beyond rational debate.  As a young German told me last summer when were discussing denialism, "Of course, we have climate change deniers in Germany.  They just don't get close to any important jobs."

There are countries at Doha who are literally 25 years ahead of the public positions of USA.  They stopped debating whether climate change was happening and would cause serious damage a generation ago.  They have already changed their building methods, made serious adjustments to their electrical generation mix, and have invested in industries that promise a low-carbon future.  There is a HUGE cognitive distance between questioning the reality of climate change and installing the systems that actually reduce the CO2 output of a society.

Poor damn Germans keep hoping that some single event will awaken the USA to the seriousness of the problem.  The disappointment in this not happening permeates the article below.  Personally, I have pretty much given up on the disaster scenario of changing things in USA.  I saw humans last summer who lived through the biggest drought ever in parts of the Corn Belt ignore the evidence because they literally do not know what to look for.

Transparency International's 2012 corruption index is out

There are dozens of metrics out there that measure the success (or lack thereof) of a given society—GNP, trade balance, quality of life measurements, tolerance for ethnic and sexual minorities, etc.  But for me, the single most significant measurement is "How pervasive is honesty?"  Trust is the glue that holds societies together.  Honest societies are cheaper to govern, have better relationships with their neighbors, but most importantly, have much more sophisticated and prosperous economies.  Actually measuring honesty is the hard part so Transparency International efforts here are to be applauded.

Looking at the top-ranked countries show that it's pretty obvious that if corruption (or its lack) isn't the best measurement of a successful social order, it will do until something demonstrates that it is better.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Union Depot to re-open

$243 million seems like a LOT of money for a light rail station.  But it includes a quite beautiful rehabbed building from the 1920s.  Even so, considering that the Minnesota Twin Cities had one of the most comprehensive light rail systems in the nation until the late 1940s, it seems especially wasteful to spend a quarter billion to get back a tiny fraction of it.

It's stories like this that make me believe that building a sustainable society will cost at LEAST $100 trillion.

Norway to Japan through the Arctic Ocean

Still at the level of a demonstration project, Gazprom just sailed an LNG tanker from Hammerfest Norway to Japan—with a little help from three nuclear-powered icebreakers.

Back in early September, I covered a story of some Swedish sailors who managed to sail a 31 ft yacht through the N.W. Passage.  If someone can make it with a pleasure craft—could a commercial vessel be far behind?  LNG tankers are not exactly the sort of ship I would have tried first but one made it—with a little help from the best icebreakers ever made.

Climate change opened the N.W. Passage.  It is probably appropriate that the first commercial cargo through the Passage should be liquified methane—one of the more robust greenhouse gasses we know of.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Take Five—Dave Brubeck RIP

I actually got to perform with Dave Brubeck.  It was 1970 and he had written a "Jazz Oratorio" called "A Light in the Wilderness."  I was in The University of Minnesota Choir and he was coming to Minneapolis to perform one of the first examples of this work.  We worked VERY hard on our parts but to be perfectly honest, it was pretty weird to count out 42 measures while waiting to sing ten, etc.  Finally, Brubeck and company show up for dress rehearsal.  Those long pauses were for when he and his band did their thing.  Oh My!

Concert night arrives.  Our choir dressed in tuxes and black evening gowns for concerts so my fellow singers looked spectacular.  About a half hour before we went on, Brubeck stops by to thank us for all our hard work—and it WAS hard.  Because of the complexities of Brubeck's time signatures, his music was more difficult to sing than Bach or Mozart.  My female fellow singers damn near swooned around Brubeck—he was an amazingly handsome guy to go with his obvious musical genius.

We went out and swatted one out of the park.  The audience went nuts—the standing ovation lasted around 20 minutes.  Now I am sure that 98% of that ovation was for Brubeck and crew, but it was great of fun to stand on stage and listen to the waves of sound wash down from a crowd of 5000.  I have had NO problem understanding why folks go through the suffering it takes to be a good musician after that night.

On necessary debt restructuring

The MAIN reason the world needs to restructure the insane amounts of existing debt is that they are crippling the possibility for doing anything about the serious problems we face.  I mean, just TRY to imagine Greece or Ireland trying to do anything significant about their CO2 emissions.  They cannot even afford basic services now because so much of their public income stream has been channeled to debt service.

There have been a few countries that have actually restructured their debts.  Argentina is perhaps the finest example.  Once they redid their debts, they have been a model nation making on-time debt payments.  But this was not enough for Paul Singer of Elliot Management—a vulture fund.

Singer has a long nasty history but is probably most notorious for what he did to Delphi Automotive during the GM "bailout."
The facts are simple. Mitt Romney's blind-trust invested more than a million dollars in a "vulture fund" managed by Paul Singer, a Romney adviser. In 2008, while Delphi Auto Parts was in bankruptcy, Singer's fund bought, for twenty cents on the dollar, Delphi bonds -- lots of them. With Delphi under Singer's control, he threatened to shut it down unless the taxpayer bailed it out -- holding General Motors and Chrysler hostage, because if Delphi shut down, the companies would lack steering columns and other essential parts. After getting his way, and a $7.3 billion bailout from the public, Singer then closed all but five U.S. plants to move these operations and 25,000 jobs to China.
So this Predator is looking around for other targets of opportunity.  He discovers there are Argentine Bonds that were not covered under the various restructurings and since they are now non-performing loans, they are now about as worthless as Confederate Bonds and can be bought for pennies on the dollar.

So now that Argentina is mostly back on her feet and is making regular payments on her restructured debt, Singer figured he may as well try to collect on his defaulted bonds.  He finds a crooked judge to sign off on an order demanding that Argentina pay Singer 100 cents on the dollar.  The crooked judge even allowed Singer to seize an Argentine tall ship used by their navy for basic training.  In other words, Singer is willing to anger a nation and the rest of the honest investors to collect a "debt" he is clearly not owed.

Here's the big problem.  If white collar crooks like Paul Singer are allowed to throw wrenches into something as basic as a simple debt restructuring, how will it ever be possible to reform the economy so it can address problems like climate change?  The answer is—it cannot.  So right now, we are stuck with the situation where the planet cannot save itself because some greedhead who already has more money that he can meaningfully spend wants to collect money that should be going into better things.

The global economy cannot do its job when every good idea can be sabotaged by thieves.

Go Argentina!  I know you have your share of problems these days but on this issue, you are clearly on the side of the angels.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A very bad year for greenhouse gasses

Say what you will about Doha, it has been an occasion for the publication of new scientific findings.  The findings are much more grim than we had ever imagined.

The only two of the top-10 polluting countries to lower their CO2 output are Germany (natch) and ta-daaaa, USA.  Since there have been no programs that are anywhere near big enough to trigger a CO2 decline in USA, the only explanation is economic.  Turns out there really were enough frivolous trips that eliminating some of them actually caused an emissions decline.  Works for me—it's been a LONG time since I have been stuck in traffic.  Of course, all the emissions reductions of USA and Germany were easily overwhelmed by increases from China and India.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Making the solar society work

It took me most of my life to learn life's most profound truth—NOTHING is as easy as it looks.  So please take the following article with a large grain of salt.  Because even though the Danes have made their conversion to renewable energy sources LOOK easy, they have many cultural advantages that made their conversion even possible.
  • Rural Danes tend to be technologically literate.  This saves a lot of steps when selling new technology to the people who will have to run it.  My favorite quote from below "...the most famous wind turbine in Denmark, indeed at one time famous all over the world, the 2MW turbine built in 1978 at the Tvind school. While Germany was building the Grosse Wind-Anlage Growian, and NASA with Boeing and GE the Mod series, and the UK the Orkney group of turbines - all embarrassing and expensive failures - volunteers in Denmark built the Tvind machine..."  This isn't an Amish barn-raising, folks!
  • Viking societies have been organizing small-scale yet complex projects since at least the 800s—not a bunch to sit around waiting for permission to do something.
  • Going to sea tends to select for folks who take cause-and-effect seriously.  Notice these Danes decided to act based on the 1973-74 oil embargo.  Some folks understand problems right away—other need to be beat about the head with a 2 x 4.  At sea, folks who let problems fester tend to wind up dead.
Thanks to KF for turning me on to this story.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

LOWER the retirement age

One of the original goals of Social Security was to give older Americans a reason to retire so their job would go to someone younger.  Even by the 1930s, there were more people who needed work than there were jobs.  So if you could give older workers a reason to get out of the job market...

Flash forward to 2012.  In much of the world, youth unemployment is around 25%—and that is probably being generous.  And a major cause of these absurd levels of unemployment is that between looted retirement plans and public policy changes, more older workers are hanging on to their jobs.

This is crazy.  People should work while they are young.  Youth unemployment destroys their futures.  They are furious for good reasons.  The boomers had their chance—now it is time for them to get out of the way and see if some new energy can help.

Of course, my argument is that there is PLENTY of work that needs doing—more than enough to keep several generations very busy.  Getting serious about hardening the infrastructure alone should result in full employment.  Get the money out of the hands of the banksters and put it in the hands of the problem-solvers, and many of the BIG economic problems could vanish like the morning dew.  Or would if we stop listening to the crowd who believes that the goal in life is to feel groovy.

Time for new energy!

Sticking the Producing Classes with the bills

One of my blessings in life is that I have been privileged to know members of the Producer Royalty.  Generalizing about those who successfully invent or organize difficult projects is hazardous task but it can be done.  Topping the list of their similarities is that at some point, all of them have come to the realization that the general public not only does not appreciate what they do, they will never even understand it.  So the Producers go to work every day knowing that their work makes existence possible for folks who don't want to even think about them.  This they must learn to accept.

But paying the bills for Predator stupidity is a bridge too far.  Was it the fault of a design engineer at General Motors that a gang of crooks decided to play video games with home mortgages?  Of course not!  But even though the current existential crises faced by the automobile industry is their history's most severe because transportation must provide alternatives to petroleum power, the bean-counters look at what a design engineer costs them and hope they can build the next generation of vehicles without their Producer Royalty.  And so the Predators wind up posing an existential threat to the livelihood of the very sort of person we need if we are to survive.

I have a friend who went to Harvard and is easily convinced that the ruling classes know what they are doing and have erected an elaborate institutional apparatus to make this plunder possible.  These guys didn't get into Harvard by accident, he argues.  The are extremely clever, shrewd, and cunning.

My response is that they have NO idea what they are doing.  They steal because they are stupid fucks who have no other skills.  And in their theft, they wreck things they don't even think about because they don't begin to understand them.  So they can organize a theft.  How exactly does that solve a problem like climate change?  It doesn't.  So even IF we cannot send all these crooks to jail, the very least we can do is stop listening when they pontificate about the real economy.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Japan fights deflation

This was like predicting the dawn.  The BOJ probably had a "serious" meeting with Abe.  And he says he will behave if elected and not make public pronouncements on monetary policy.  But it is clear what he wants.  Of course, this is exactly what the Central Bank's defenders do NOT want.  The reason is obvious—Abe's plan has a 100% chance of success and its good example would humiliate the bankster defenders for a generation or two.

Japan threatens to do something about its overvalued Yen

I have been arguing for most of my adult life that so long as folks are doing something clever with their resources, money pumped into the system would produce prosperity rather than trigger inflation.  If ever a nation could so regularly prove my point, it is Japan.  They crank out world-class products with such frequency, the rest of us can only watch and marvel.  Not surprisingly, the rest of the world wants to buy these superb products.  I grew up in a world where 400 yen traded for a dollar.  Two generations of build excellence later, and the yen trades for something like 81 to the dollar—an increase in value of something near 500%.  If Japan's central bankers were actually worried about their Producer Classes, they should have done something to halt the yen's rise at somewhere around the 200 level.

Japan's expensive yen has nearly priced them out of every market there is.  The obvious solution would be to do something to drive down the yen's value.  The best way would be to do something that pisses off the inflation hawks—like going toe-to-toe with their conservative central bankers and demanding they put a bunch of money into public investment.  And after Fukushima, they have PLENTY of places that need investment.  In other words, they want to raise their inflation targets.  All of this is perfectly logical.  And someone running for high office in Japan is demanding their central bank change course.

But you can count on the purists who maintain that central banks must be "independent" and that any goal besides "price stability" is worse than heresy to write impassioned articles condemning Japan's unorthodox understanding of their economy.

Isn't that spayshul? Investors discover climate change

From the department of "you can't make this shit up" we see a group of investment fund managers issuing a document calling on governments to stop that ebil ol' climate change.  I mean, here's a group of people who could actually DO something about climate change by channeling their fabulous wealth into replacing the carbon-fired infrastructure that is causing the problem.  But no—they want to retain the status quo that made them rich and so are reduced to signing petitions like a bunch of powerless lefty community activists.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Carbon taxes?

I am old enough to remember when Brookings was a reliably "liberal" institute / think tank.  Now it is reliably Neoliberal in economics and Neoconservative in foreign policy.  The following carbon tax proposal is theirs.

Here's the deal on carbon taxes.  They make the costs of burning carbon more like the planet values it.  Serious people have done major studies that show pretty conclusively that the only way to get people to reduce their energy consumption is to raise its price.  But here's the problem.  It doesn't much matter why you raise taxes, everyone gets in line to spend the additional revenue.  Now IF carbon taxes would go into a fund dedicated exclusively to building the infrastructure necessary to reduce carbon emissions, the idea would be pretty good.  But even such a fund has potential for a lot of leaks.  Superfund—the program that was supposed to address the most toxic chemical dumping sites put roughly 15% of their funds into actual remediation and 85% into renting offices and giving each other Powerpoint presentations.

Then there is the problem that taxation is just another way of sucking purchasing power out of the economy.  I would prefer to see the efforts to reduce carbon emissions come from pure economic stimulus.  After all, every time a buck goes into capturing our energy income from the sun and replaces a buck now being spent on the planet's stored energy capital, the society grows richer.  In other words, if such a project were properly run, it would be self-financing in a real economic sense.  In such a scenario, carbon taxes would be reduced to merely regulating demand.

Toting up the disaster's costs

As the folks who calculate these things tote up the costs of the billion-dollar weather disasters of 2012, some are reaching a rather astonishing conclusion—that Hurricane Sandy was NOT the most expensive.  That "honor" goes to the great Corn Belt drought.  Hurricanes may be the most spectacular weather events but for wrecking things, nothing beats old-fashioned drought.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Plouffe says cut Medicare and Medicaid? No! Hell NO!

Plouffe's betrayal on earned benefits is exactly the crap that lots of people warned against when they argued that Obama is not really a progressive. How many times do we have to repeat this? What's driving the deficit is not Medicare or Medicaid. Over half the deficit is caused by the Bush tax cuts, which by now have proven they do not, will not, can not pay for themselves.

Desertec—another victim of austerity?

Desertec is going through a rough patch—actually most Producer Class enterprises in Europe are.  But I am reasonably certain this is one of those projects that will not die.  Why?  It make thermodynamic sense.  If that were not enough, when it comes to powering our societies without fire, there are probably no solar sources more reliable than the Sahara.

So why is Desertec on hiatus if it is such a good idea?  The question is answered with another by Desertec's backers, "Where is the tax money?"  Of course, government funding is all going to bail out the crooks of the financial world.  Projects like Desertec are so large, they can realistically only be built by governments.  So long as we believe the neoliberal doctrine that nothing useful can be built by governments, we are seriously constrained in what sorts of projects can be accomplished.

Ah yes! Neoliberalism—the perfect doctrine for people with small imaginations.  Too bad the rest of have to suffer from their pinched worldviews.

German ennui over climate change

After years of nearly universal agreement that climate change was a significant problem that required coordinated action and the spending of billions of euros, it looks like the Germans are pretty fed up with the whole subject.  One can hardly blame them—it's hard to get out in front of a subject and even harder when no one seems to want to follow your lead.

My guess is that the real decline in interest in climate change is less driven by weariness over the subject and more by the incessant clamoring by the financial sector that only they must be paid—everyone and everything else must wait.  There are damn few problems that can be solved without financial resources—building a world that runs without most of its fires is certainly not one of them.

Unfortunately, the climate change problems will not disappear even though everyone really wants to stop thinking about them.  And when the next disaster rams climate change to the front of the line again, those who have used their time to think deeply about what must be done next will have a considerable advantage over those who have done no planning whatsoever.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Milk protests in Bussels

The main reason I first learned agricultural economics is that the advisor of my model airplane club had a day job trying to sell memberships for the National Farmer's Organization.  I soon discovered that I would rather listen to him talk about the NFO because I could easily solve my own model-building problems and so much preferred to hear his explanation of how farmers made a living—and he had a well-organized rap.  The NFO had a lot of dairy farmers in its membership so was pretty radical and concentrated all their efforts towards raising the prices and keeping them consistent.

The main problem facing dairy farmers is that their product, while very desirable, it also highly perishable.  This means that if they wish to reduce their excess supply, the only realistic option is to dump their milk.  So the goal of dairy farmers facing a price crunch is to waste their milk in dramatic ways.  There were many incidents of violence associated with dumping actions during the Depression.  But what the dairy farmers pulled off in Brussels would warm the heart of any NFO organizer.  Those fancy European Parliament offices will probably smell like spoiled milk for a while because the farmers sprayed milk with some high-pressure hoses.

All this points to a global problem.  The prices for grains go up because of climate change.  The prices for milk products don't have room to rise because incomes in most markets are falling for most people.  So folks like dairy farmers get caught in the middle.  They have fixed operating expenses.  I cannot imagine very many of them are covering their costs these days.

Drought and the Mississippi

The absolute worst thing that could happen after last summer's drought was an extra-dry fall.  Much of the corn and beans that were planted contained many "drought-resistant" varieties that were designed to suck out the last molecule of water from the soils in an attempt save themselves.  And while these characteristics probably saved something like 1/4 of the crop, it left the ground bone dry by harvest.  To show how dry, I got a pretty good picture of the amount of dust just one combine stirred up last fall.  It is dry!  This is Minnesota—it doesn't get this dry.

A nice wet fall would have recharged the soil.  But as can be seen from the story below—that did not happen anywhere throughout the Mississippi / Missouri River Basin.  And it's not like we don't ordinarily get rain in the fall—in 2010 we actually had fall flooding.  (LOVE those weather extremes, huh?)  Of course, this extra-dry fall means we have a head start on next summer's potential drought.

Whether or not suspending barge traffic will have much effect on the real economy is actually a very interesting question.  Even though shipping by river is extremely energy efficient and therefore very cheap for shipping bulk goods, barge traffic on the Mississippi is down dramatically over the last 30 years for a wide assortment of reasons.  Here in Minnesota, the long trip to New Orleans, plus the damage to Louisiana terminal facilities from Katrina, plus the delays caused by the rebuilding of the Panama Canal, plus a dramatic shift in grain markets to Asia means that much of the grain that used to barge down the Mississippi now gets hauled to the Pacific northwest docks by train.  In any case, barge traffic stops when Lake Pepin freezes over so we don't count on this form of transportation in the winter anyway.

But whether the problem is dry soils or low river flows shutting down barge traffic, this continuing drought in the middle of North America has serious implications for the global food supply.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Doha—what to expect

So long as criminals run the global financial system, it is impossible for anything meaningful to come from the Doha climate talks.  People who cannot afford to do anything rarely get anything accomplished and now the thieves have run off with all the money.  Of course, there is something very sad about people who think that a large meeting room full of harried bureaucrats arguing the minutia of the trillions of fires set every day by the earth's 7+ billion inhabitants can lead to any meaningful progress anyway.  But remove any authority to actually make large-scale changes and the resources to make those changes happen and the recipe for getting nothing done is baked into the event.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Toward a Political Economy of Oligarchy

From his lifetime study of the pamphlets, speeches, sermons, and newspaper commentaries that fueled the American Revolution, one of the conclusions Bernard Bailyn (the Harvard historian who was twice awarded a Pulitzer Prize, including for The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution)  reached was that “To the colonists the most important of these publicists and intellectual middlemen were those spokesmen for extreme libertarianism, John Trenchard (1662-1723) and Thomas Gordon (d. 1750).” According to Bailyn, in the colonies, the entire corpus of their work were
republished entire or in part again and again, ‘quoted in every colonial newspaper from Boston to Savannah,’ and referred to repeatedly in the pamphlet literature, the writings of Trenchard and Gordon ranked with the treatises of Locke as the most authoritative statement of nature of political liberty and above Locke as an exposition of the social sources of the threats it faced.
I emphasize the last part of that quote, because I have been trying to revive the original founding era idea that the rich are as much a danger to the survival of a republic as is a standing army. This is especially important now, as it we need desperately to repair the ideological foundations for taxing the rich as a means of redressing the great economic imbalances the they have created with their near monopoly on political power. In the Founding era of the United States, the Founders had developed a "political economy of aristocracy, as Professor James L. Huston explains in "The American Revolutionaries, the Political Economy of Aristocracy, and the American Concept of the Distribution of Wealth, 1765-19000" (The American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 4 (Oct., 1993), pp. 1079-1105):
The revolutionaries’ concern over the distribution of wealth was prompted by a tenet in the broad and vague political philosophy of republicanism. In contrast to nations in which monarchs and aristocrats dominate the state, republics embodied the ideal of equality among citizens in political affairs, the equality taking the form of citizen participation in the election of officials who formulated the laws. Drawing largely on the work of seventeenth-century republican theorist James Harrington, Americans believed that if property were concentrated in the hands of a few in a republic, those few would use their wealth to control other citizens, seize political power, and warp the republic into an oligarchy. Thus to avoid descent into despotism or oligarchy, republics had to possess an equitable distribution of wealth....
The answer to how the social system of aristocracy generated wealth inequality was easily found. American political leaders applied the labor theory of property or value; an unjust distribution resulted when a few were able to transfer the fruits of other persons’ labor to themselves. Aristocrats (non-workers and therefore non-producers) stole the fruits of labor from the masses of toilers (laborers and therefore producers). Aristocrats effected the transference by political means. It was control of politics that enabled aristocrats to steal the fruits of labor, to enrich themselves and pauperize the multitudes. By the time of the writing of the Constitution, literate Americans had clearly voiced the idea that a misdistribution of wealth was almost entirely a political act.
So it is more than merely interesting, especially given our times of financial and economic crises, that Gordon’s and Trenchard’s Cato’s Letters, were “a searing indictment of eighteenth-century English politics and society written in response to the South Sea Bubble crisis…”  In other words,, one of the most important works of English political theory that inspired the American Revolution, was written in response to the world's largest financial fraud and crisis up to that time.

In The Machiavellian Moment,: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: 1975, reprinted 2003), (See also my Machiavelli and the survival of republics) J.G.A. Pocock observes that Cato’s Letters and The Independent Whig (a weekly periodical founded in 1720 by Trenchard and Gordon), “formed some of the most widely distributed political reading of the contemporary American colonists. Cato was mainly bent on diagnosing and proposing to remedy the state of national corruption revealed by the failure of the South Sea Company…”  (p 468) Further, Pocock writes, “It was neither accidental nor surprising that an old adversary of the standing army should find himself denouncing a gigantic job of the “monied interest” since the two were taken to be at bottom one and the same phenomena."

Back in December 2008, I wrote Need to be ruthless and punitive toward Wall Street. But, I'm not one of President Obama's advisers, and what we got instead was the President praising  JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein as "savvy businessmen."

Obama's acceptance of these vicious financial predators as acceptable models of business acumen underscores the urgent need to revive the Revolutionary republican (with small "r") understanding of the political economy of oligarchy, and how the rich destroy a republic from within.

But we need to update and strengthen that understanding to fit our own times, by bringing together the idea of economic rent, with modern scientific understanding of our natural environment, and the limitations and constraints that environment imposes on economic activity. It is in any individual's self-interest to preserve that in which they are most invested; but the rich pose a particular danger because their self-interest often leads them to attempt to protect and preserve entire modes of economic activity that society needs to move past in order to avoid colliding with the limitations of natural resources inherent in any specific mode of technology. No more clear example can be imagined that the Koch family interest pouring hundreds of millions and billions of dollars into conservative think tanks and political lobbies that not only deny global climate change, but also actively oppose the development of clean energy technologies. But a more instructive example may be the Walton family interests, which seek to avoid the development of public understanding of how the Wal-Mart business model shifts much of its employment costs onto the government - a modern twist on the methods by which the wealthy "pauperize the multitudes" identified in the Founders' political economy of aristocracy.

The first line of defense of today's rich oligarchs is the conservative movement, which refuses to recognize the moral turpitude of the economic practices of speculation, rent-seeking, and usury. Just how dangerous the conservative movement is can be judged by the recent candidacy - for the higesth office in the republic - of Mitt Romney, a "private equity" scoundrel who conservatives rallied around and defended as a "job creator." It is in this light that I offer you the following quote, from the first few pages of Cato's letters; or, Essays on liberty, highlighting the fury of Trenchard and Gordon at the monied interests of their time. How much of it is polemical hyperbole is for you to judge, but as Chris Hedges has repeatedly noted, it used to be that financial speculators actually were hung. Remember, as noted at the beginning, Trenchard and Gordon were writing in reaction to the financial and economic crises caused by the South Sea Bubble.  
…. Nations should be quick in their Resentments, and severe in their Judgments. As never Nation was more abused than ours has been of late by the dirty Race of Money Changers; so never Nation could, with a better Grace, with more Justice, or greater Security, take its full Vengeance, than ours can upon its detested Foes. Sometimes the Greatness and Popularity of the Offenders make strict Justice unadviseable, because unsafe; but here it is not so; you may, at present, load every Gallows in England with Directors and Stock Jobbers, without the Assistance of a Sheriff's Guard, or so much as a Sigh from an Old Woman, though accustomed perhaps to shed Tears at the untimely Demise of a common Felon or Murderer. A thousand Stock Jobbers, well trussed up, beside the diverting Sight, would be a cheap Sacrifice to the Manes of Trade; it would be one certain Expedient to soften the Rage of the People; and to convince them, that the future Direction of their Wealth and Estates shall be put into the Hands of those who, will as effectually study to promote the General Benefit and Publick Good, as others have, lately, most infamously sacrificed Both to their own private Advantage. Something is certainly due to both the former. The Resurrection of Honesty and Industry, can never be hoped for, while this Sort of Vermin is suffered to crawl about, tainting our Air, and putting every thing out of Course, subsisting by Lies, and practising vile Tricks, low in their Nature, and mischievous in their Consequences.

… A free People are kept so by no other Means than an equal Distribution of Property; every Man who has a Share of Property having a proportionable Share of Power; and the first Seeds of Anarchy, which for the most part ends in Tyranny, are produced from hence, that some are ungovernably rich, and many more are miserably poor; that is some are Masters of all Means of Oppression, and others want all the Means of Self-defence.

…. they are manifest Enemies to God and Man, no Man can call them his Neighbours: They are Rogues of Prey, they are Stock Jobbers, they are a Conspiracy of Stock Jobbers! A Name which carries along with it such a detestable and deadly Image, that it exceeds all human Invention to aggravate it; nor can Nature, with all her Variety and Stores, furnish out any Thing to illustrate its Deformities; nay, it gains visible Advantage by the worst comparisons that you can make. Your Terror lessens when you liken them to Crocodiles and Canibals who feed for Hunger on human Bodies.

….These Monsters therefore stand single in the Creation: They are Stock Jobbers; they have served a whole People as Satan served Job, and so far the Devil is injured, by any Analogy that you can make between him and them.

Well; but Monsters as they are, what would you do with them? The Answer is short and at hand, Hang them; for, whatever they deserve, I would have no new Tortures invented, nor any new Death devised. In this, I think I shew Moderation; let them only be hanged, but hanged speedily. As to their Wealth, as it is the manifest Plunder of the People, let it be restored to the People and let the Publick be their Heirs: the only Method by which the Publick is ever like to get Millions by them, or indeed any Thing.

But, say some, when did you ever See Rogues Covered with Wealth, brought to the Axe or the Gallows? I own that the Example is rare, more is the Shame of this Nation, which has had such rich Temptations, and such frequent Opportunities; we have had publiek Guilt in abundance, God knows often protected by Party, and often by Money. Faction on one Side, and Riches on the other, have, as it were made a Lane for the Great Criminals to escape...
What delicious historical irony that the financial vehicles created to rescue Wall Streeter from the crisis they created, was named for the alley behind Wall Street, Maiden Lane.

Doha conference on climate change starts Monday

So Obama is going to send his minions Doha to do what?  Who knows?  According to this article, the main expectation is that he must recommit USA to a 2°C target.  Why this matters is left unasked but we can guess the answer is, "Not much."  And why is that?  Because Obama comes from a political world where everything is negotiable, and climate change is NOT one of those negotiable subjects.

Doing Obama's heavy thinking on climate change is a guy named Todd Stern who is the State Department's climate envoy.  Recently, he said in a speech:
"[2C] makes perfect sense on paper. The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible.  If countries are told that, in order to reach a global goal, they must accept targets their leadership sees as contrary to their core interest in growth and development those countries are likely to say no."

And to think we actually pay money for such "expert" advice.  Todd Stern is one of those guys who is just smart enough to be dangerous.  He thinks climate warming targets are negotiable.  Of course, they are not—if 3C makes the planet uninhabitable, it matters not one whit whether our climate expert thinks some sort of economic growth targets are more important.  The ONLY possible reason he thinks like this is he obviously believes he lives in the world where scientific laws can be appealed.  If the guy fell off a cliff, he would spend his last moments wondering if he couldn't reopen the laws of gravity.

Surrounded by such reality deniers, probably in depth, I think it will be almost certain that Obama will show up as the skunk at the Doha garden party.  It will be a surprise if he makes a big public stand supporting 2C.  Of course it matters not at all if he DOES support 2C because no one he seems to listen to has any idea how USA would meet those targets anyway.  So he could support 2C knowing that when nothing gets done, he'll just have to say "Ooops" (while the earth cooks.)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Not moving on climate change

It turns out that the new emphasis on climate change over at the World Bank has an institutional explanation.  Their new president, Jim Yong Kim, has actual scientific training.  Apparently, this helps when it comes to deciding on what is important.  Because if you are a typical banker or politician, climate change is just another issue clamoring for your attention.  And for most pols, the loudest noises are being made by the banksters who are shouting about the needs of the credit markets.  And so austerity becomes a favored strategy over the quite necessary spending needed on industrial redesign.

One other note, I am in fervent agreement with Hans Joachim Schellnhuber below who claims we need nothing less than a "new industrial revolution" to cope with climate change.  The idea that conversion to a sustainable society is a project just as large as the original industrial revolution pretty much describes the second half of Elegant Technology and most especially Chapter Ten.  I notice he expresses frustration ("We've stressed time and again...but many politicians haven't listened.") that such a powerful statement fails to wake up the pols.  Well Hans, while your situation in Germany may be better than here in USA, I have discovered that such statements describe nothing for most people because in order for such a warning to have any meaning, the listener must have a fairly comprehensive understanding of technology and the history of industrialization.  Such people are exceedingly rare—I have only met a handful of them in my life.  Tony's one—which is reason #1 I asked him to write for this blog.

Did Anonymous give USA an honest election?

Living in Minnesota, I tend not to worry about fraudulent vote counting.  We have a system the good government types agree is virtually hackproof.  We fill out a paper ballot that gets scanned by a machine reader.  In theory, the readers could be tampered with, but it would hardly seem worth the effort because the paper ballots still exist in case the election is contested.  Between good-government purists and extensive case law, hand recounts can be extremely thorough.  Although there are some cranks who can still find flaws with this system, Minnesotans trust it to the point where we are comfortable with same-day registration and just rejected a photo ID requirement in the last election.  All of this works extremely well.  Not only is Minnesota at or near the top of voter turnout almost every election, but voting is almost hassle-free.  It only took me about seven minutes this year from sign-in to when a volunteer slapped an "I voted" sticker on my jacket.

Even so, I DO follow the voter chaos in places like Ohio and Florida and am quite contemptuous of folks who cannot organize an honest election.  It's obviously not so hard to do.  So if there are disputed ballots and 8-hour lines to vote, obviously someone is screwing with the process on purpose.

And now we have a tale where a group of hackers claims they thwarted an attempt to flip the results of the Ohio election.  I have NO way of checking out this story but there is one very public piece of evidence that suggests this story might be true—the meltdown of Karl Rove on election night when Fox called Ohio for Obama.  He had the look of a crooked lobbyist who has just discovered the politician he thought he had bought didn't stay bought.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

I come from a long line of folks who believe that gratitude is probably the ultimate sign of civilized person.  In our family, the Thanksgiving feasting didn't begin until everyone around the table had been given a chance to explain what they were truly thankful for.  Since we kids knew this was coming, we had thought about it for several days and usually had some pretty decent answers.

Today, I want to thank the people in my life who love me no matter how wound up I get with my weltschmertz.  Writing about the subjects I do, it would be easy to let the various major catastrophes in this world get me down.  And I will admit, there are times when my life force starts to flicker and sputter under the stress.  But I am reasonably healthy, I live in an area of the world that still produces WAY more food than we can possibly eat, and am warm and dry.  I have this wonderful toy that allows me to connect to like-minded people around the world.  But most of all, I have friends who are happy to see me show up and usually are interested in what I have to say.  What a gift!

So Happy Thanksgiving.  And here's to those hard-working members of the Producing Class who still make sure we have enough to eat.

World Bank on Climate Change

In one more tiny bit of evidence that the debate over climate change may FINALLY be shifting (at least a bit) we see the following evidence that the World Bank (yes!) has a new leader that understands that economic development and the climate catastrophe must be addressed simultaneously.  We Institutionalists who believe that bankers will at the end of the day act like bankers will tend to curb our enthusiasm until we see more than this little window dressing.  But on this day designated for giving thanks, we must celebrate such signs of progress no matter how small.

Now if the World Bank will just stop funding the construction of coal-fired electrical generation.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

WTO renews its evil credentials

Since the crash of 2007-8 introduced crises thinking to the world of finance capitalism, many of us have been tempted to forget about some of the folks that were worthy of large and organized protests not so very long ago.   The most famous in USA were the Seattle protests in 1999 against the WTO (World Trade Organization).  This was one of those few protests that actually worked in the sense that they stopped a meeting called to rubber-stamp a bunch of neoliberal craziness.  The police rioted and lots of hippies got their heads busted, but the WTO was forced to withdraw and wait for another day.  The police have learned their lessons—no one has been able to delay the evil work of the WTO by one minute ever since.

The biggest beef people had with WTO was that it prohibited people from organizing to fight any invasion of outside big money.  They were not allowed to protect their factories, or mines, or their public resources like running water.  The anti-WTO types have a point—many locally owned and organized enterprises vastly outperform outside multinationals because knowing the local environment means something.  Add this to the fact that a local coop (or whatever) retains a much higher percentage of their revenue for the local community than a multinational that must repatriate profits to a faraway locale, and small enterprise has an astonishing track record of engendering prosperity.

But the bad guys are back.  This time, the WTO has jumped their own shark.  This time they have told us we cannot organize community and regional responses to atmospheric carbon overload.  Stupid, pinheaded bureaucrats should not be allowed so much power.  It appears the only qualification needed to work at WTO is a demonstrated fealty to the religious principles of neoliberalism.  In their madness, they are telling us that it isn't even LEGAL to organize to save the freaking planet.