Monday, September 30, 2013

Crackpot realism—German style

According to C. Wright Mills the man who coined the phrase, crackpot realism is term to describe someone who likes to think himself the essence of sober responsibility but who is in fact, hopelessly insane.  The movie Dr. Strangelove was a wonderful depiction of the Cold War crackpot realists who managed to put themselves in charge of the nation's defense machinery but subscribed to a 'reality' that was dangerously apocalyptic.  Such people as Robert McNamara and Curtis LeMay came damn close to blowing up the world during the Cuban Missile Crises of 1962.

Economics has had more than its share of crackpot realists.  These days, the easiest way to spot one is by their crazed insistence that austerity is the most credible way to address the problems caused by an economic depression.  The current German Finance Minister is such a person and in fact, comes from a long line of such people.  The most notorious German austerian was Heinrich Brüning, the academic economist / Chancellor whose mismanagement of the economy from 1930-32 was so terrible it led directly to the rise of Hitler.  Of course, Wolfgang Schäuble's austerian economics is only doing minor damage to the German economy but his crackpot realism has plunged much of the EU into the worst depression since the heady days of Brüning himself.

Unlike Brüning, Schäuble is not an academic economist.  So he picks and chooses from a wide array of austerian "intellectuals" available to re-enforce his biases.  It is quite telling in my mind that one of those he chose is the notorious Harvard guy Kenneth Rogoff whose "important" book Growth in a Time of Debt was exposed this spring for its sloppy research, deliberate falsifications, and comical Excel spreadsheet errors.  That was April.  It's now September and yet one of the most important politicians in Europe seems either to have not gotten the memo on Rogoff or he doesn't care because in his mind, outright academic fraud doesn't discredit the great concept of austerity in the time of crises.

One other thing.  Schäuble's crackpot realism is VERY likely doing major long-term damage to the German economy.  Austerian economics has transferred many of Europe's crippling financial obligations to the German taxpayers.  When those bills come due, it is likely that Schäuble will be remembered as fondly as old Heinrich Brüning.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The IPCC climate report is out

One of the charming characteristics of the scientifically-trained mind is that folks with one tend to believe that if they just refine their evidence, eventually everyone will buy into to their way of thinking.  And for wide swaths of the real economy, this actually happens—precision in thought and action is always a good thing and those who get really good at it are usually rewarded with followers and loyal customers.  This precision comes from continual refinement and weighing new evidence.

And so we see more and more studies confirming what has been known for well over a century—carbon in the air traps more energy from the sun.  The problem is that with so many studies reaffirming the obvious, some folks start to think that they should start predicting outcomes.  This is MANY orders of magnitude more difficult and has led to a bunch of studies that have made some wrong predictions.  So instead of piling up evidence that adding carbon to the atmosphere increases the energy in the atmosphere, we have studies that are just wrong enough to call the whole study of climate change into question.

In the case of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publication, we have a bunch of issues almost guaranteed to make things worse.  In USA, anti-UN sentiment has been around for so long, it seems like a permanent fixture of the landscape.  So this climate report comes crippled by association in the minds of people who should know better.

Then we have the problem that temperatures have not been rising as predicted for almost 15 years.  A surprising number of scientists wanted to just sweep this under the rug.  In fact, there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why there is a temperature plateau.  Mostly it suggests we don't know enough to go off making predictions based on partial knowledge.  For example we are only beginning to understand the role of the oceans as a carbon sink and a thermal buffer.

Anyway, it doesn't matter in the least that there has been a temperature "plateau."  The baleful effects of climate change are already here.  We don't need any more "proof" that climate change is bad, we need good ideas for how we get out of this mess.  And since any meaningful solutions must involve the wholesale substitution for fire—mankind's favorite invention by far—these solutions in the industrial countries that have spent the last 200 years dreaming up more interesting ways and reasons for burning things will be presented with a BIG bill.  So instead of these big scientists proving (again) how bad things already are and will get, maybe some could loan out their talents for explaining what sort of economic thinking will encourage so much necessary spending.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Taibbi on Benmosche, Krugman on class warfare

Every once in a while, someone in the public eye will say something so socially tone-deaf (and usually historically absurd), the the rest of us simply must take notice.  This time, its the CEO of AIG comparing the criticisms of the executive bonuses at bailed-out institutions like his with lynch mobs killing blacks.  This outrage is providing great fodder for those who think someone pulling $15 million out of the economy might be a little more understanding for why the rest of us are not happy to see such clowns grabbing so much loot while the real economy teeters on the brink of real failure—bridges falling into rivers, that sort of thing.  But we must remember a couple of things:

1) Benmosche is not wrong in his comparisons.  That's because deep down inside he knows that if the shoe were on the other foot, HE would be organizing the lynch mob against the banksters.  And while he must certainly know that mass uprisings against the moneychangers are really rare and that even the Russian Revolution did not substantially change the international banking arrangements, it is still possible.  And it is especially possible in the USA with its traditions of demands for driving the moneychangers out of the temple.  The Greenback Party etc. is never quite dead.

2) Benmoshe's statement is not some rare breakdown.  This is very likely the way he thinks and talks all the time.  What's more, this is what his comrades down at his country club are saying as well.  This IS their worldview.  And the contempt they show for the folks who must run the real economy is just breath-taking.  Because they mostly control the hydraulics of monetary flows, they think they run things.  And they do—to the extent that they can do tremendous damage.  But they do NOT create the real economy—hell, they barely acknowledge that it exists.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wind power, the Producers, and fun

Perhaps the biggest flaw in Marxist class analysis is their assumption that rich folks are all alike—mostly bastards, actually. And the biggest advantage of Producer / Predator class analysis is the realization that these are very different people—even when they are very rich and most especially when they are having fun.

I just spent a couple of hours watching the 19th and final race of the 34th America's Cup on my computer. As an example of an expensive Producer Class sport, it would be exceedingly difficult to top sailboat racing. And this one was ridiculously expensive with educated estimates putting the cost to enter a boat in the neighborhood of $100 million.

What made this year's America's Cup so expensive were the new boats called AC72s.  Not only were they catamarans, they were made of carbon fiber, the mainsail had been replaced by an articulated wing 13 stories tall, and they had L-shaped daggerboards that lifted them out of the water at speed.  Making all this work was an incredible task for the designers, hydrodynamicists, navel architects, and the folks who fabricated all the specialized parts.  And once these amazingly complex boats were built, the crews had to figure out how to actually sail them.  These boats are VERY fast and unforgiving.

Needless to say, the learning curve was damn near vertical in the beginning.  There were breakdowns and accidents.  An Oracle Team USA boat capsized on a training run and was dragged by the tides upside down through the Golden Gate out into the Pacific.  They didn't actually lose the boat but there was enough damage that it required four months of repairs.  Team Sweden had an Olympic medalist crew member named "Bart" Simpson go overboard in an accident and even though there were rescue crews on the scene within seconds, he still died.

In the preliminary rounds, team New Zealand pretty easily disposed of teams from Sweden and Italy.  Helmsman Dean Barker and his crew were astonishing smooth, coordinated, and graceful.  By the time they came up against the team from USA, they were a well-oiled unit and would run up the score to 8-1 (first team to 9 wins) and were leading by a wide margin in a supposedly ninth victory when the race was called off due to insufficient wind.  They would not win another race.

In the early going, Team New Zealand was just crushing Team USA on the upwind leg.  Part of this was the Kiwis were just smoother on their tacks.  Tacking a catamaran is extremely difficult anyway, but the AC72s are so light, they have almost no momentum to get them through that moment when the wind comes right over the bow.  Any tiny mistake on a tack and the boat can come dead in the water (or very close.)

But after suffering their near-death-down-8-1 experience, Team USA started to go faster upwind.  Part of this was improved crew performance—these are world-class sailors who were not about to go screwing up forever.  But mostly, the boat got faster.  No one knows why because the folks who did the improving aren't talking (yet).  But this is typical of Producer Class sports—the difference between winning and losing is usually the result of efforts by folks we never see on TV.  Nerds with serious computer skills and advanced degrees in subjects like fluid dynamics.  Once the USA boat was faster, winning eight straight races was mostly a matter of not screwing up.  Interestingly, Team New Zealand got faster upwind in their desperate attempt to win the ninth race but they didn't improve as much or as quickly as Team USA.  Their seamanship was still stunning but they were losing the battle of the nerds who tweaked the boats between races.

It is probably fitting that a Producer Class sporting event was won by a Producer Class billionaire.  Larry Ellison's enterprise (Oracle) lives and dies by its nerds.  Ellison himself is a classic nerd.  And the nerds just won him the Americas Cup.  Here Ellison is interviewed by Charlie Rose.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Class still matters

While money is important—especially when the Wal-Mart heirs have more of it that the poorer half of the USA population—I am still convinced after all these years that the biggest class differences are between Veblen's Leisure Classes and Industrial Classes (or as like to explain it—between the Producers and Predators).  This has been true for a very long time—the difference between a Viking raider and his boatbuilder is enormous but no larger than the priests of Christianity and the guys who built stone cathedrals with ceilings over 100' (30 meters) above the floor.

Because Producers learn from their mistakes, they improve their output by orders of magnitude over time.  The Viking longboats and cathedrals were phenomenal achievements but they are charmingly primitive alongside an integrated circuit or flat-screen TV—not to mention a modern automobile that combines all these technologies.  Not surprisingly, the gap in consciousness between Producers and Predators has also grown over time since the Leisure Classes are quite content to retain their time-honored strategies of force and fraud.  And why should they change—no matter how sophisticated the Producers become, they can always have their work stolen by the lovely class of people who invented slavery and compound interest.

What is interesting these days is that the BIG problems like climate change or the end of the age of petroleum can only be solved by Producers.  The very survival of the human race is dependent on the Predators stopping their destructive behavior and getting on with the business of funding the Producers.  Of course, this has happened before in history—the clergy at Chartres spent over a century essentially raising funds for their cathedral builders while I would guess that more than one Viking chieftain went broke buying boats.

IF, and this is a huge if, the Leisure Classes do want to stay ahead of the increasingly angry mobs, they must go back to their semi-useful function of fund-raisers.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Is offshore wind finally coming to USA?

Wind turbines are relatively common here in the midwest.  I can quite easily walk to a 1.62 megawatt Vestas owned by one of the local colleges.  I happen to like watching these giants turning gracefully in the wind and wonder just what anyone could find objectionable about them.  They are so quiet you must actually stand very near one to even hear it and my neighborhood cats are FAR more hazardous to birds than these slow-turning wind machines could ever be.

Of course, the real problem with wind turbines here in the midwest is that all the really good wind sites are a long way from the nation's major population centers. North Dakota has hundreds of prime wind locations but that state has just over 600,000 inhabitants and is over 1000 miles from anywhere most of its power could be consumed.

Off the east coast, there are many prime wind locations.  The Atlantic is quite shallow for miles offshore due to the continental shelf.  Best of all, nearly 1/3 of the nation's population lives within 100 miles of the coast.  By any reasonable measurement, the east coast of USA should be carpeted with wind farms.  In fact, the first turbine came online just this year and its only a 20-kilowatt toy.  But Dave Levitan writing in the Guardian thinks this situation is about to change.  We will see.  It takes time for power companies to develop a wind turbine culture and the east coast utilities are not known for their innovation nor their maintenance culture—two things utterly essential to keep those silent giants turning and harvesting energy from the atmosphere.

Monday, September 23, 2013

On the German elections

Because of Germany's leadership role in green technologies, her politics take on an outsized importance for the rest of us—even when they are boring and stupid like this last election.  This morning, the elections look pretty one-sided.  Angela Merkel won an historic third term and her party was by far the biggest vote-getter.  She basically ran on the platform of "We're doing better than anyone else."  It was smug self-satisfaction at its smarmiest.

Of course, she has a point, although I am of the belief that German success comes from her still well-organized Producer Classes and most certainly NOT from the third-rate wannabe banksters in Frankfurt.  She didn't have to defend her neoliberal policies because her main rivals were complicit in them.

But now Ms. Merkel faces an enormous problem—she must form a government and her former partner, the resolutely neoliberal Free Democrats, did so miserably that they will not even be represented in parliament this time around.  The CDU formed a coalition with the Social Democrats between 2005 and 2009 but that almost destroyed the SPD.  Their diehards are a whole lot less likely to roll over and play dead this time—although like the USA Democrats, they have roll over and play dead down to an art form.  The Left Party is in no mood to play around with the CDU because for many Germans, ideology still matters.

That leaves the Greens.  As the bill for German leadership in green matters comes due, the Green Party is losing its appeal to the poorer members of society.  That leaves the party in the hands of the well-off which makes them a perfect match for the CDU.  The problem is, most Green Party members ARE Green party members because they detest the CDU.  Suddenly Ms. Merkel's big night doesn't look so big.

From a green perspective, the CDU has been pretty good.  But loading up the German economy with the costs of saving the Euro has understandably made less resources available for everything else.  MOST of the green pullback in Germany these days is driven by economics.  This means that it doesn't make a whole lot of difference how rational her environmental proclamations and legislation might be, if the lords of finance say you cannot afford something, the money will not be spent.  CDU environmental policies have been pretty enlightened but at its core, the CDU only embraces environmental enlightenment because it wins votes.  It embraces neoliberalism because it BELIEVES!

Below is Spiegel's version of the election.  Try to ignore the relentless neoliberalism—its coloration must be quite normal in the big German press.  Of course, normalizing a crackpot theory like neoliberalism pretty much explains Merkel's big night AND why she might have some difficulty forming a government.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ellen Brown on monetary matters

There are two absolutes when discussing the state of the banksters and finance. 1) The world needs $Trillions to build a sustainable infrastructure. 2) The current bunch of sociopathic charlatans who pull the main economic levers of the global economy these days are utterly incapable of funding such a project.

Ellen Brown is a unique commentator on economics because she not only covers the Predators and their vile banking practices, she campaigns relentlessly for the only possible workable alternative—democratically-controlled public banking.

While it is true that such public banking has been tried in one form or another since before the USA became a nation, this time it is a matter of life and death for the planet.  We are talking about a need for a $100 trillion Industrial-Environmental development bank here.  Obviously, this would be, by far, the largest public bank in history.  Good thing the vast majority of public banking attempts have been successful.

Both of my grandfathers were involved in political movements that had public banking as a primary goal, but even they would have never dreamt of anything so massive.  Of course, Brown is not talking about anything on this scale either.  I can see why—she probably would feel wildly successful if she got a handful of states to copy North Dakota's bank.

So good luck to Ms. Brown.  Good thing she is more informed and relevant than anyone who has ever worked for the IMF.

Friday, September 20, 2013

We have the skills needed. But what future are we building with them?

The largest ever oil and gas tension-leg platform (TLP) yet developed for the Gulf of Mexico was moved to sea from the Kiewit Offshore Services shipyard in Ingleside, TX, this past week. Named Olympus, the 406 foot tall TLP is owned by Royal Dutch Shell, and weighs 120,000s ton, more than an aircraft carrier, or the largest cruise ships.

It's too easy to think of the oil and gas industry as a malevolent monolith directed by mindless greed. The slick PR propaganda Shell is distributing about the massive Olympus TLP is therefore useful for a number of reasons. It puts a human face on the people involved -- some very highly skilled people, with an immense wealth of technical skills, and great pride in what they can build and accomplish with those skills (the instinct of workmanship). It helps to convey the enormous technological and technical complexity of modern economic activity (which should help anyone with two brain cells to rub together realize how stupendously stupid the utopian idea of post-industrialism is). 

And it should help us understand how immensely difficult it is going to be, as Jon Larson so often writes, to "put the fires out" and move the world to the next stage of industrial development, which is sustainable, clean -- and every bit as big and complex as the massive oil and gas platform in the video below.

But here are the main points I want to make. First, just imagine if the enormous amount of highly skilled talent and pride that was invested in creating and placing this oil and gas platform had been directed instead into building  solar power arrays, and 400-foot tall wind turbines, and wave and tide power systems, and massive urban rail transit systems, and cross-continent high speed rail, and doubling and tripling the energy efficiency of every physical structure in entire cities and towns. These are all huge industrial projects, and we need to build them, quickly - over the next ten to twenty years - on a scale far, far, far bigger than Royal Dutch Shell's 120,000 ton Olympus TLP. We need to build these on a scale that, when you stop and think about, makes the industrial mobilization for World War 2, or the Apollo program to put a man on the moon, look something like organizing a birthday party for one or two dozen kids. Unemployment, and underemployment will be a dim memory studied by historical economists once we get serious about building the new economy required to replace the economy based on TLPs and the oil and gas they pump out of the earth.

On this point, the inadequacy of our public discourse would be comic, were it not paralyzing us by foreclosing entire menus of policy options. On the left, the increasing numbers are allowing themselves to be seduced by Marxist and socialist critiques, willfully ignoring the surfeit of failure of those schools of political economy. Even the best, most progressive economists, such as Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, or Joseph Stiglitz, are simply not thinking in large enough terms to be truly useful. Look at the myriad postmortems of the financial collapse this past week, the fifth anniversary of the implosion of Lehman Brothers. Did Obama save us from a Second Great Depression or not? Was the $750 billion stimulus program enough, or not enough? (Or, as the hopelessly misguided wrong-wingers choose to believe, too much?) In point of fact,the International Energy Agency estimates a serious effort to combat global climate change will cost $45 trillion. And that is to meet a goal of only a 50 percent cut in emissions!  

Second, what do we have to do, politically, to shift all that wonderful talent, skill, and knowledge, from building oil and gas platforms, to building wind turbines and high speed rail systems and so on? We need a complete and ruthless rejection of the economic neo-liberalism that has dominated the world the past half century. We need to annihilate the political and financial power of Wall Street, the Chicago futures markets, and the City of London, and begin to bend the creation and allocation of money and credit to the general welfare instead of private gain. We need to terminate with extreme prejudice the idea that unfettered freedom to pursue private gain leads, through the magic of the market, to the best allocation of a society's resources. We need to revive the idea of the general welfare, and the understanding that the means we humans have developed to democratically control and direct economic forces is the social institution of government. The idea that any act of government is dangerous collectivism or statism must be unsparingly mocked and ridiculed, as Hunter did so well a few days ago on DailyKos. We must promote a widespread understanding that modern conservative and libertarian economic thinking (what professional economists unfortunately and confusingly call neo-liberalism) boils down to a rejection of the principles and tenets on which the American republic was founded.

Because the basic problem we have right now is that our society's mechanism for controlling economic forces has been corrupted and short-circuited by people who simply are unable to see beyond their own immediate economic interests, but who have much, much more financial resources than the mass of ordinary citizens This is not a new problem, nor was it unforeseen at the time the United States was created. Not widely known today -- because it is not part of general civics education -- is that, besides a standing army, the rich were understood to be the greatest threat to a republic.

In The Federalist No. 10, Madison argues that economic inequality will arise because of "different and unequal faculties of acquiring property", but the price of preventing economic inequality  -- ending liberty -- is too high. Madison’s discussion here implies a crucial point that most people, including scholars, pass over. Madison is not arguing that economic inequality is desirable or even acceptable. Rather, he is arguing that it is inevitable, and, moreover, economic inequality is so dangerous and so pernicious, that the entire framework of government is being erected with an eye toward checking and corralling its political effects.  Just look at the first words of the last sentence from this passage:
So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.
The rich, in our time, have formed and funded a vast complex of institutions and think tanks that effectively undermine Madison's idea by promoting economic neo-liberalsm and conservative / libertarian nostrums -- the idea that the more "freedom" given to "capitalists," the greater freedom and prosperity society will enjoy. But our rich today are not capitalists, they are rentiers, and speculators, and usurers. The United States is becoming less capital intense. It is becoming, in other words, less capitalistic. Almost all the positive growth in capital expenditures is accounted for by one, huge industry - oil and gas. I.e., Olympus TLPs. All other manufacturing industries except primary metals, chemicals, and food and beverage products show negative rates of capital investment. From a UBS investment report earlier this year:

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So, in case you missed Madison's point: "The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation." We have entities today like the American Legislative Exchange Council which are waging open war on federal and state programs and policies which promote clean energy technologies. By a proper understanding of the Constitution, the efforts of the Koch family, ALEC, and similar organizations are, if not treasonous, at the very least, seditious. We need to generate, allocate, and distribute something on the order of $100 trillion in credit and financing to build the new, sustainable economy we need over the next ten to twenty years - in addition to and while maintaining present levels of financing of day-to-day economic activity. Yet the screech monkeys on the conservative side assert we're already spending too much?!?!  Given the proper understanding of the technological and environmental crises confronting us, promoting the general welfare absolutely requires we find the means to spend that kind of money.

But try to explain that to the 1,400 welders, and pipe fitters, and machinists, and engineers, and supervisors, who proudly built Shell's Olympus TLP. They are not evil people; they do not have malevolent intentions; they do not consciously -- or even sub-consciously -- desire to bestow their children with a planet irreversibly damaged by climate change and wracked by wars over supplies of oil, gas, water, uncontaminated arable land, and God knows what else. These are people who a willing to work hard, to do a good job, to provide a dignified life for themselves and their families -- and do all that within the confines of the system of political economy in which they find themselves, without much questioning the underlying philosophy and intent of that system, or its major beliefs in shaping the system of laws, regulations, and market relationships that comprise our economy. It's a good bet that no more than a handful of them have ever read Madison, or this blog.

But it's also a good bet that if it became generally understood that what the Koch family, and ALEC, and the Roberts Supreme Court, and the whole panoply of institutions and people who "manufacture consent" were doing, was destroying the republic from within -- not necessarily through intent, but just gross stupidity, ignorance, and mental laxity -- these welders, and pipe fitters, and machinists, and engineers, and supervisors would be willing to take up arms in defense of their country.

As Klauswitz so famously and shrewdly observed, war is the continuation of politics by other means. One could hope that the Kochs and ALEC and so on would stop and think about that, and perhaps be moved to cease and desist. But it is only a hope. And likely to remain only a hope.

And so the challenge before us is clear and unambiguous. Restore an understanding of the political economy of a democratic representative republic, and of how the self-interest of the rich and powerful always, always, destroys a republic from within.

So we can get on with the job of building a wonderful, new future for which our children and children's children will thank us, not curse us.

Is Larry Summers finally toast?

So the "career" of another high IQ example of Harvard trained incapacity may have mercifully ended in official Washington.  The amount of pure evil perpetrated by Larry Summers on his fellow citizens (and the rest of the world) is so vast, he has entered the realm of Robert Strange McNamara—another Harvard-trained crackpot who thought his great intellectual "gifts" gave him the right to destroy the lives of millions.

I would be thrilled that Summers discovered that he was not going to be the next Fed Chairmen except for two major considrations: 1) Summers will probably not really leave the national stage and will likely become a frequent nag on the Sunday morning news shows, etc.; and 2) While Summers is perhaps the best known of the neoliberal cranks, there are a thousand more just like him ready to spread their official gospel of stupid.

Even so, there are progressives who seem to think that Summers' withdrawal from Fed consideration is a sign that support for the neoliberal Washington consensus is beginning to wane.  Lord knows I hope they are right because it is hard to imagine any body of political thought that has left so many victims in its wake.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The categorical imperative

Now THIS is a story to love.  Apparently two young men waiting in line to buy beer got into a shoving match that eventually disintegrated into freaking gunfire.  Fortunately, the gun was equipped to fire rubber bullets so the victim is going to survive. Now young men getting into fights is hardly novel—especially if there is alcohol nearby. But this argument was over the philosophy of Kant.

Obviously, this did not happen in USA.  I am 64 and have never been in a room where there were two people who even had an opinion on Kant—much less an opinion worth debating.  And gunfire?

I came to Kant rather late in life—mostly because I found subjects like aerodynamics more interesting than philosophy when I was young.  My Lutheran preacher father had clearly slept through his Kant class in seminary and I assume he had one because Kant and Kierkegaard lead the official list of approved Lutheran philosophers.  If you asked my dad about Kant, he would get the look of the guy who sat in the back of the classroom hoping he was never called on.  Of course, my mother who had far less formal education probably never heard of him.

Even so, my parents had a damn fine grip on the main maxims of the categorical imperative.  I must have heard my mother ask a couple thousand times, "And what would it be like if everyone misbehaved as you just did?"  (Maxim one-universality.)  There was the constant emphasis on leading a truthful life (Maxim two—one must never lie because people should never be treated as a means to an end.)  Then there was the constant reminders that you were always responsible for your own actions (Maxim three—everyone is his own moral agent.)

There are two possibly good explanations for why my parents could have lived the maxims of Kant's categorical imperative without ever studying his philosophy.  1) Kant was merely codifying the ideas he absorbed from his childhood surroundings which were pietist / Lutheran / artisan; or 2) Kant's teachings were so influential that by the time my parents came along, these ideas were considered unremarkable—something just everyone agreed on.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bake-sale environmentalism

I got sent this link the other day.  A friend thought I might be interested because it contained news from one of my childhood homes, Red Wing Minnesota.  It seems as if some "go-getter" has managed to convince the city fathers that spending money for a few solar panels might be a good idea.  The size of his projects is listed as 217 kilowatts.  To put this into perspective, my brother's net-zero home has just over 10 kilowatts of PV cells so we are talking about the equivalent of 22 homes in a town of just over 16,000 people.  In other words, this is a symbolic gesture at best.

Red Wing's carbon footprint is not going to be reduced much by such symbolic gestures.  And if this were 1974, this might be considered a good start.  But in 2013, this is downright pathetic.  Now given the financial problems of most small towns in USA, this might be understandable.  But Red Wing is different.  Because she agreed to play host to a nuclear power plant in the early 1970s, (Prairie Island) Red Wing has an almost lavish tax base and has been able to fund dozens of expensive civic projects over the years.  And because the utility that owns Prairie Island has committed itself to also producing power from renewables, one could easily imagine Red Wing as one of Minnesota's first solar-powered, net-carbon-zero towns.  But apparently, they don't make small-town go-getters like they used to (sigh.)

It is sad that even a town that could obviously afford to make a serious commitment to a new solar-powered future is still taking baby steps.  Not long before he died a few years ago, I was talking to one of the city fathers from back when I was still in high school.  With an intense look he said, "Climate change is such a threat to our very existence that it should rate 72-point headlines above the fold in every newspaper in the country—every day." It's probably a good thing he died before he saw his town celebrated for installing 217 kilowatts of PV cells.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The high costs of "American exceptionalism"

If I have a lifelong pet peeve, it concerns the belief held by the VAST majority of USA's citizens that "We're #1 (in anything remotely important and so long as no one else cheats) and the rest of the world is just trying to copy our greatness."

At first, I harbored an active dislike for the "We're #1" crowd—mostly because it was based upon such lovely facts as "we have more nukes than you and can turn your shitty little country into a cinder at the push of a button."  But over time, my disgust has morphed into a sort of pity as in "do you folks have any idea what you're missing when blinded by the "We're #1" belief?"  I could bore you with about 50 pages of the sort of disadvantages one is burdened with when assuming we are the best all the time, but they tend to fall into three main categories:

1) If we refuse to learn from others, we waste a LOT of time re-inventing the wheel.  Just because someone else solves problems differently from us does not mean they are wrong, stupid, or ineffective.  This penalty is especially noticeable when addressing problems like energy consumption.

2) When we refuse to take others seriously, we massively degrade our ability to understand the wider world.  Hard to have a complex and nuanced worldview if you consider other cultures not worth knowing (because they are inferior, after all.)

3) It is a very short trip from telling people they are inferior to our own unique greatness to thinking they are subhuman and it is our duty to commit atrocities against them.  Whether atomic bombs against the Japanese, to napalm in Vietnam, to white phosphorus and depleted uranium in Iraq, "We're #1" has some nasty, NASTY outcomes.

Anyway, President Putin of Russia set off a massive shitstorm the other day when he suggested that maybe we should back off a little on our beliefs that we are exceptional people.  (I have boldfaced the "offending" paragraph below.)  I could have warned Mr. Putin that it doesn't matter a lot how diplomatic one tries to be, when you question the "We're #1" belief, you are calling into question the only statement many, MANY people believe to be true.  For them, it is the only belief they need because if you believe we are the best and everyone else is just trying to catch up, why know anything about the world's peoples because they are merely an under-developed us.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The other shoe drops

I once had an Energy and Public Policy professor who would say, "Remember, air pollution is just water pollution about to happen."  His topic was acid rain which was a big subject in the early 1970s.  Sulphur oxides went up the stacks when high-sulphur coal was burned by electrical utilities.  And by the time these oxides rained out of the atmosphere, they had usually turned into some sort of acid—hence the term, acid rain.

Much of the carbon dioxide we are spewing into the atmosphere is certain to become part of the oceans through some of the same mechanisms.  The only question was, When will we see the effects?  It is, after all, something of a feat to change the chemistry of something so large as the Pacific Ocean.  We are talking about a seriously large body of water here.

On September 11, the Seattle Times published a multimedia masterpiece called Sea Change: The Pacific's Perilous Turn.  Apparently, we have managed to pump enough carbon into the atmosphere to change the chemistry of the Pacific.

Saturday toons 14 SEP 13

Friday, September 13, 2013

Dealing in doubt

Debating is often a useful way to arrive at something very close to the truth.  In many things such as politics, aesthetics, and theology, it is almost the only way to arrive at some sort of consensus.  And with some subjects like aesthetics, the debate is often left at the stage of "there's no accounting for taste."

Fine! I understand this.  What I do NOT understand is why folks stay in this sort of debate mode when the subject is math or science.  I mean, you CAN debate whether or not 2+2=4, I suppose, but anyone who actually does is usually looked at with contempt.  Why debate subjects that are so clearly beyond any reasonable debate?

Which brings up the climate change "debate."  Actually, it isn't a debate at all.  The evidence is so completely overwhelming and all one must do to confirm the science is look out the window.  And it's not especially complicated science.  The fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that CO2 is produced every time we burn carbon is something we should be able to explain to any reasonably sentient 12-year-old.  And yet, there is a whole little business of discrediting something as obvious as climate change.

Why would anyone want to discredit something so obvious?  There is a large body of evidence that seems to indicate it's the producers of carbon-based fuels who don't want to change their business models who are funding the denialism.  If you believe that you are in the oil business and not the energy business, this actually makes some little sense for it postpones the day of reckoning.  But what is really interesting are the methods used to sow doubt.

In politics or religion, a common debate tactic is to try to discredit the other side.  If you can show the leaders of another sect or party are prone to pedophilia, for example, you can pretty much discredit their claims to moral or social leadership.  It doesn't really matter if the other side is championing new methods of combating substance abuse, if you can prove they are a bunch of goat-fuckers, you can pretty much destroy their influence.  But science and math are not suppose to work that way—it should be possible to convince even the goat-fuckers that 2+2=4 or that if they step off a cliff, they will go straight down.

The fact that non-scientific debating tactics can be used to muddy scientific arguments is proof that there are a LOT of folks who never learned the basic rules of scientific thought.  They live in a world where they believe everyone is entitled to their opinion—no matter how well-informed.  And when the subject is something like, Does football or country music suck? everyone's opinion is more or less as valid as another's.  But when the question is, Does 2+2=4? or Will increasing CO2 levels trap more energy in the atmosphere? all opinions are NOT equal.

As a practical matter, it doesn't matter one little bit whether anyone believes climate change is real.  It is happening and will continue to happen no matter how the question polls.  But also as a practical matter, if the doubt-spreaders can convince the politicians, who live and die by polling, that climate science is just another social question to be decided by polling, they can prevent them from funding the technologies that could make a meaningful dent in the problems caused by rising atmospheric energy.  This outcome is possible because politicians rarely understand the difference between political and scientific truth—they seem as a group to have slept through 7th-grade science class.  This is a serious matter because the catastrophe of climate change is so clearly a scientific problem.  Sometimes our very existence is threatened because our political abilities do not match our ability to effect scientific and technological change.  This is clearly one of those times.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Technological leapfrog

Inexpensive PV cells just change everything.  When they were still expensive back in the misty past (like five years ago) those places on the globe with the most sun were often seriously disadvantaged when it came to energy supplies.  Of course, such places could always import oil or coal but how ever would they pay for it.  The process of going from not much energy infrastructure straight to solar may soon prove to be an enormous economic competitive advantage.  It will be a little like those Eastern European countries that went from almost no phone systems to cell phones in one leap back in the early 1990s. It is a huge advantage when the new technology does not have to displace anything (much).

Malta seems poised to find out whether their abundant sun is about to become a whole lot more than a tourist attraction.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

It's harder than it looks

The main reason I choose to write about the real economy is that I believe the transition from burning the earth's carbon capital to power our societies to running those societies on the income from the sun will be the greatest feat humans will have ever pulled off in their history—if we pull it off.  This will make everything from going to the moon to building the pyramids COMBINED look like child's play.

What the means is that all the preliminary groundwork, from convincing people this is necessary, to passing enabling legislation, to arranging the finances, is just so much wheel-spinning futility.  Because even when all those steps have been accomplished, you are still at step one of actually accomplishing any reductions in carbon gasses.  During all those preliminary steps, there will be no reduction in the amount of carbon atomized into the atmosphere.  Adding to the these problems is the fact that all this new infrastructure must be built in a world that is still running on the carbon capital AND the fact that this conversion has never been tried before.  So even though USA is still stuck at step one—admitting that climate change is being caused by human activity—I believe we still must address the nuts and bolts of how to actually accomplish this megatask in case we ever get off the dime as a country and start to move forward.  Hence, the themes of this blog.

This is why I believe that climate change is a physics and engineering problem while many of my readers believe it is a political, social, financial, and communication problem.  Of course it all of those things if failure in any of these areas prevents us from reaching square one of a solution.  But if and when we get to square one, it WILL be an engineering problem.

First up, we have a look at how the sudden and massive supply of inexpensive PV cells is threatening the business models of the typical power utility.  They didn't see this coming—even three years ago no one could imagine solar as anything but a tiny niche player.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Stiglitz on the Detroit bankruptcy

People who think of Stiglitz as an economic progressive must remember that he wasn't always that way.  When he won the Riksbank Prize in 2001 (with George Akerlof and Michael Spence), it was for information asymmetry which which is hardly a radical notion when you think about it.  He was Bill Clinton's chairman for the Council of Economic Advisors (1995-97) during a time when Clinton was pushing reactionary free trade ideas such as NAFTA.  He was the chief economist at the World Bank (1997-2000) during some of their most cruel "structural adjustment" days.  And probably most tellingly, he was awarded the John Bates Clark prize given to the most promising young conservative economist in 1979.  Hardly a bomb-thrower.

And yet somewhere along the line, he obviously had his "come to Jesus" moment.  Perhaps it was during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle when as a World Bank economist, he found himself on the wrong side of the barricades.  He must have said something because not long thereafter, the World Bank fired him.  And soon he had become the goto guy for what passes for progressive economics during a VERY reactionary time for the profession.  So whatever suspicions we—who never abandoned our beliefs that progressive economics provided better answers—may have for a former Clark Medal winner, we tend to embrace the guy because quite frankly, he is usually the best we have.  Besides, as anyone who knows the story of the Apostle Paul can attest, converts can play a significant role in the spread of a belief system. (This interview from 2000 indicates pretty conclusively that Stiglitz had indeed changed sides—or evolved, if you please.)

Here we see Stiglitz bemoaning the fate of cities like Detroit whose decline of manufacturing has driven them to financial ruin.  And while his concern is commendable, it's a damn shame he didn't feel the same way when he was defending "free" trade during the Clinton years.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Architecture—a most irresponsible profession

The other day, Tony crafted a post on how the economics "profession" managed to escape the vengeance of an angry world following the catastrophic failure of their crackpot theories called How economists saved their worthless hides.  With billions of profoundly wounded victims, it is pretty easy to argue that economists form the most dangerous and irresponsible profession on earth.  But in my mind, the second most dangerous and irresponsible profession must certainly be architecture.

Think about it for a minute.  Any building, even the most poorly built, will last at least 50 years.  Expensive buildings crafted from premium materials can last well over 500 years with routine care and maintenance.  So if a building is poorly designed, the results will be around to annoy folks for many generations.  Those bad results include high energy consumption, poor indoor air quality that makes occupants sick, and perhaps the worst—buildings designed to be accessed only by cars that are the prime cause of urban sprawl.

Architects are practiced at explaining away their dangerously crazy designs.  The most-used argument is, "but that is what the client wanted."  Of course, this ignores the fact that most clients have very little imagination and so rely on the architect to imagine what they want for them.

The latest example of architecture gone horribly wrong comes from London.  A building under construction with a concave face has managed to concentrate enough solar energy to actually melt parts on a car parked out front.  This is irresponsible design...cubed!  Take a look at this thing!  Here is another box sticking up in the air trying to draw attention to itself by introducing some curves into the shape.  And it has done that.  The building isn't done and already it has a nickname—the "walkie-talkie."  It's not exactly a flattering name but in the world of real estate speculation, this is like manna from heaven.

The problem is that as anyone who has tried it will tell you, building with curves increases the difficulty at least 10-fold—along with the same orders of magnitude for the possibility of making mistakes.  Those curved walls have hundreds of glass panes—all of them slightly different in size.  Sizing and sealing all that glass has probably been a massive headache.  The same goes for the fabrication of all those structural parts.  While none of these operations is beyond the abilities of a good construction company, it is just more costly to make 2000 critical parts just slightly different in size than 2000 parts exactly the same size.  Buildings like this don't come cheap!

So what we have is an architect who has fallen in love with building in curves hooking up with a developer who loves attention.  Looks and a need for attention drove the "design" of this building.  And the problems of this building reflect these hopelessly shallow motives.  And reflect is the right word.  The new concave south facing wall concentrated enough solar radiation to reshape some parts on a fancy Jaguar.

Just imagine designing a building and not considering the various solar angles.  This sort of calculation is built into every architecture illustration program I have seen.  And if you cannot get something so simple right, it is easy to imagine that hard things to design—proper ventilation of essentially sealed spaces, sustainable waste management flows, access to reliable transportation links, etc.—have not been well- thought-out either.  And god forbid that any of the money wasted on curving walls for no good reason should have gone into constructing an energy net-zero building.  How can designing a good building possibly compete with designing an attention—grabber?  (Of course, a healthy, well-functioning, net-zero building would also garner attention but geeze, who thinks like this?  This is real-estate speculation, remember.)

Of course the real problem here is that these monuments to little dicks affect the lives of so many people—and for a very long time.  And where I come from, this is how one is supposed to calculate the severity of a crime—how many people does it affect?  So are architects as irresponsible as economists?  Close call there, folks!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

How economists saved their worthless hides

You gotta love someone who teaches you a new word. So, I am indebted to Philip Mirowski, chairman of economics at Notre Dame, for the word, ‘agnotology’, which Prof. Mirowski defines as "the analysis of the intentional production and promotion of ignorance." As anybody who has read Veblen or Jon Larson knows, "trained incapacity" was a particular sore point for Veblen.

I happened upon Mirowski's definition after being reminded this evening about his most recent book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. Now, this is, I should think, an issue of great importance to anyone who frequents these pages. Poor Jon Larson - I have him completely fooled; he thinks I am smart or something. Actually, I'm a really big idiot. How big? Well, I was so stupid as to think that the events of 2007-2008, generically referred to as "the financial crash," would lead to enough people acquiring an understanding of political economy that the political power of Wall Street would disintegrate, and we could dispose of the post-industrial madness that has wrecked our economy, our lives, and our futures, and we can go about finally building the great and glorious future I thought we were going to have when I was a kid.

What particularly nettles me is that economics, as a profession, has generally not been held to account for its role in creating the conditions that led to the financial crash, not to mention providing the ideological smokescreen for the financial predation underlying deindustrialization. So it was with a special joy that I found on the tubez and read this small excerpt from Mirowski's book, from February 2012, offering four reasons for why economists have been able to avoid responsibility for the pain and misery their professional practice has imposed on billions of their fellow human beings.

The idea that ruined USA industrial muscle

I have been writing since the 1980s that there has been no idea more pernicious than the one the postulates that there is no legitimate criticism of any strategy that results in increased cash flow to the rent-seekers that supposedly "own" the company.  So long as shareholder "value" was maximized, everything—including putting the company out of business—was considered a good idea.  All other claimants to having a stake in such a company—the workers, the suppliers, the local community, etc.—were supposed to stand in line behind folks who had gained control of the the company's financial instruments.  It didn't matter how long they had owned these shares.  It didn't matter how they got their hands on them.  They were supposed to come first in all economic decisions.

The result of such thinking was already obvious by 1982.  The destruction of USA economic muscle was assured every time some clown muttered that something was good for shareholder value.  It was finance capitalism at its most extreme.  It was idiots who couldn't describe how to build a birdhouse being allowed to pull on the operating levers of an industrial economy.  It was vandals destroying things of value beyond their comprehension in their snatch and grab operations.

So now the Washington Post has decided to write about the economic elephant in the room—the de-industrialization of a nation by thieves.  This story was written but a few days ago—way to be on top of something important oh paper of record for the nation's capital.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When climate change becomes a matter of war and peace

William R. Polk, a guy who has been supplying the establishment with what passes for convention wisdom in the Middle East since the Eisenhower Administration, has written his analysis of what is happening in Syria for the The Atlantic's September 2 web post.  It is filled with the sort of lofty imperial assumptions one would expect from the State Department or the Council of Foreign Relations but buried deep in his analysis is a little nugget of historical observations about the effects of climate change on Syrian agriculture and its role in triggering the current civil war.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Labor Day thoughts on an earnest young Producer

As folks can tell, my trip to Wisconsin to see Tony fired me up with some serious feelings of class.  Tony's book customers are damn amazing people.  He was set up at a gathering of folks who restore steam engines and old tractors.  This not an especially expensive hobby, but it requires resources—money, space, and time. It even requires a little courage—we are talking live steam and in some cases, 110-year-old boilers here.  But what makes Tony's customers so interesting is that even guys rich enough to have an old piece of equipment that mostly just makes noise and shakes the ground, they feel they must know their machinery themselves even if for many things, they just "call the guy" who fixes their broken technology.  And because they must care for their monsters, they become quite curious about the state of technology a century ago.  So they buy Tony's books on the history of the building of the steam age and if they find them, old operating and repair manuals.

Video I shot at the show in 2010.

By far my favorite story this year came from a young man (say 31) who bought a book on the John Deere tractors of the early 1960s.  Turns out he owned three—a 1010, a 3010, and a 4010.  And while these tractors are favorites of the restoration crowd, our young man actually farmed with his.  It makes sense—when the 4010 was new in 1960, it was the fanciest tractor you could buy.  I remember farm kids speaking in hushed tones about its ability to pull a 5-bottom plow.  They were ruggedly built and designed to be maintained mostly by the farmer himself.  And because the restorers love them, parts are available.  So because our young man is frugal and mechanically gifted, he is able to run a small dairy with only 20 cows and make it work economically.  He claimed that through Facebook, he was now in communication with a young farmer in Austria that only milked 10 cows.  He had some especially pithy remarks about the insanity of land prices and we shared a giggle about the economics of growing corn on $15,000 / acre land in Iowa.  And one of the keys to making his operation possible was that his tractors were paid off at least 45 years ago.  Guy had so much Producer Class virtue, it made my head swim.

My favorite comment of his came when postulated guys who buy the $half-million equipment were merely showing their preference for "new paint" because in his mind, the fancy new machinery was not all that more capable than his old reliable machines that were at least 20 years old when he was born.  Of course, it is fun to see a 4010 spiffed up to look like it did in showrooms during the Kennedy administration.