Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Paul Craig Roberts on neoliberalism

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

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Putin at the UN

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

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

Monday, September 28, 2015

Killing investment in oil and gas projects

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

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

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Greider on the "populism" of Sanders and Trump

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Climate refugees

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Volkswagen busted for emissions cheating

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 21, 2015

Bringing a clock to school

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Harvard, training ground for nation-builders?

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Violence of Neoliberalism and the State of the American Left

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Age of Finance Capital

Regular readers understand that I resolutely believe that the biggest economic story of the last half century was the shift from industrial to finance capitalism.  This shift was ideological, practical, institutional, academic, and every other possible way imaginable.  People we thought were completely nuts when I was learning economics in the early 1970s were winning the Riksbank (Nobel) economic prizes by the 1980s.  The conversion was so complete, the industrial middle of USA looks like it lost a major war.

I have been writing about the eclipse of industrial capitalism since the 1980s. I believe my most succinct effort to cover this subject came in early 2007.  I called it, Economics: A Matter of Life or Death.  So it is with mixed emotions that I saw the following on The Age of Finance Capital.  In some ways, I feel that by now, I should at least rate a footnote when someone writes on this subject.  On the other, I am delighted when someone figures out this economic progression using different methods than mine.  It's always a good test when similar conclusions are reached through different paths.  Since there is so much evidence for the thesis that capitalism went through a major mutation in the 1970s and 80s, there must be hundreds of versions of the tale.  So congrats to Hossein-Zadeh.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Weapons-grade ignorance

One of Thorstein Veblen's greatest insights (IMHO) is the concept of "trained incapacity."  This was his explanation for how otherwise intelligent people with expensive educations could be crazy-ignorant.  Think Ben Carson, the brain surgeon running for the Republican nomination for president whose many manifestations of advanced ignorance include his profession that he doesn't believe in evolution.  Or try Thomas Friedman who regularly gets almost everything wrong at his perch at the New York Times.  My favorite example comes from a book he entitled The Lexus and the Olive Tree.  The Japanese auto industry is still one of the most protected on earth and perhaps the most successful example of their government central planning (MITI).  The Lexus is arguably the finest specimen of that process and yet Friedman builds a book around Lexus as a textbook example of "free trade."  It is damn difficult to be more wrong than that!

Folks like these are a walking / breathing embarrassment to the very concept of consciousness and human awareness.  And yet some sport very impressive resumes (CVs).  So the question becomes, "How do gifted students who attend prestigious schools get so many things so very wrong so often?"  Veblen's basic argument is that these expensive schools like Yale (where he got his Ph.D.) exist to inculcate the values of the Leisure Classes.  If facts contradict those values, then the facts be damned.  Carson belongs to one of those Jesus-wants-you-to-be-an-idiot religious groups that hasn't come to grips with evolution so in spite of the fact that modern medicine pretty much depends on learning the rules of evolution, he goes with his religion.  In the case of Friedman, "free trade" is the state religion of the NYT so when he decided to write about a success story, he chose Lexus because lots of rich people drive them and Consumers Reports regularly ranks it as the best-built line of cars on earth, and so it MUST be an example of the bestest economic idea evah, even though it clearly is not.

Actually, I have NO idea if Thomas Friedman knows better.  Maybe he does wake up in the middle of the night worrying that some day the mob will come after him for his lifetime of pushing utter bullshit.  But mostly I take the man at his word—he really is as pig-ignorant as his writings prove on a regular basis and that further, he is not the least bit embarrassed to be known as an utter buffoon.

The latest example of aggressive ignorance is the coverage of the events in Ukraine / Russia.  The official story about USSR / Russia has been this absurd fairy-tale since as long as I can remember.  One of the effects of these blatant lies and rank-ignorance is that about 90% of the USA population believes that Vladimir Putin is the new Hitler and a menace to the rest of the world.  And they believe this in spite of the fact that Putin is easily the most popular democratically-elected politician on earth with splendid relations with over 60% of the earth's population.  It take a LOT of training to be that incapacitated.  I have read dozens of history books about Russia over the years in order to get a reasonable understanding of how Russia came to be the way she is, so I have an idea of the effort necessary to escape the official BS when it is piled that deeply.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

MMT—Bonds vs currency

Around here, we pretty much subscribe to the idea that any government that can issue a bond could just as easily just go ahead and create the currency instead.  In both cases, the money spent on infrastructure improvements (for example) does the same job of stimulating employment and the general economy.  The big difference is that when the project is done, there is no need to pay off a group of money-changers whose contribution to the original project was minimal at best.  Thomas Edison explained this theory in a 1921 NYT article.

Now that the creditor classes are doing such a good job of shutting down large swaths of the real economy, theories like Edison's are beginning to become popular again.  Here we see William Mitchell take on the idea that the only way for government to finance internal improvements is to issue debt.

We can only hope this kind of argument gains traction because the massive upgrades that humanity must build to counter the effects of climate change cannot be financed with debt instruments in a world already way over it head in debt.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

AZ's electric utilities' unrelenting war on solar

Perhaps the greatest impediments to a conversion to solar power will come from the folks who have the current systems on their books as investments.  It only makes sense.  The people who have invested in the power infrastructure did so expecting reliable and generous returns.  The fact that those investments are helping to destroy the biosphere is beyond rational debate.  It's just that those invested in electrical stocks want the problem to be solved at someone else's expense.

The following is from Dailykos and is written by someone who would like to make his rooftop part of the solution to CO2 atmospheric buildup.  I have absolutely no idea how accurate all his comments are concerning the local utility's opposition to distributed solar generation, but they sound about right.  What is worse, the problems he describes sound like they could easily be replicated wherever someone has invested in the current ways of doing things.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

MMT explained

As someone who has been following monetary policy for over 50 years, I like to think that I have a pretty good handle on the subject.  It is an utterly fascinating subject—especially now that money has achieved that status of pure information.  Yes, there people who imagine that money must be something that can be (or ought to be) exchanged for something tangible like gold.  But even such preservers of archaic traits will admit that a credit card with a big balance is much more valuable than a sack of gold coins that can be spent almost nowhere.

The tiny percentage of people who benefit from the resulting confusion of course have no reason to clear things up.  And so we have an almost incredible situation where electronic money is treated almost the same way it would be if the gold standard still existed—complete with the regular economic depressions that were common to the age of gold.

The intellectual monetary heirs of Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Peter Cooper (etc.) are still trying to explain why fiat currencies are so naturally superior, only this time around, they have taken to calling their ideas Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).  This incarnation even confuses me.  I have been called a MMT enthusiast without knowing exactly what that means—or whether this is even a compliment.  My problem is that I want to attach the ideas of MMT to something I already know—which is mostly rooted in the agrarian reaction to the return of the gold standard in 1873.

Thanks to the folks over at the heteconomist blog, I have now found a pretty clear explanation for what MMT really means.  It turns out it is close enough to the monetary theories I was taught so I can say with some assurance that I will not be insulted if someone suggest I am an MMT enthusiast.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Corn wars update

A couple of Saturdays ago, I created a post named Corn wars about the very important business of plant genetics and how there was research station down the road from where I live.  I even went so far as to go out and take some photos.  Surprisingly, this post went straight to the top of the most popular list.

In what is probably a coincidence, today's Minneapolis Tribune had an article on our little research station.  I have been driving past this installation since I was in high school in the 1960s and have never before seen anything written about it in the mainstream press.  Now it is possible I have been looking in the wrong places but since I have been curious about what actually goes on there for decades, I doubt it was my oversight.  So, I guess it IS possible someone at Syngenta saw my post containing the info that they were about to merge with Monsanto and decided to get ahead of the curve and portray themselves as the good guys.

What they are doing is coating seeds with fungicides and insecticides so they are protected in the early stages of growth.  The normal procedure has been to apply those chemicals to the land itself and unfortunately, almost all those chemicals are wasted as they wash off into the water supply.  So in theory, at least, coated seeds offer a huge environmental improvement.  Whether or not this makes Syngenta one of the good guys is still a good question.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Thomas Edison on solar power

In case anyone thinks that it has only been recently that folks understood the economic futility of powering societies with fuels, Thom Hartman reminds us that Edison saw these matters pretty clearly himself in 1931.

Note that Edison, whose power plants were stationary, was writing to Ford and Firestone, people who were busy making mobile power plants (cars).  Ford stayed with liquid fuels because they are so handy in the transportation business.  Institutional analysis says that given these facts, a project to turn electricity into high-energy liquid fuels should be given highest priority.  Of course, such a project would only make sense when solar power became cheap, and that happened only a few years ago.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Expectations for Paris 2015 / COP21

Unless methods are found to fund massive infrastructure improvements it really doesn't much matter what they agree to in Paris, atmospheric CO2 will continue to increase.  And how do we know that?  Because the first 20 such gatherings achieved no decreases whatsoever.  Good intentions make people feel good but without new hardware, intentions alone are pretty damn meaningless.

In spite of the routine futility of climate conferences, the evidence of change is now so scary that one of these days, there might actually be something effective accomplished—if only by accident.  Hunziker below lists just some of the arguments that will likely emerge at the Paris gathering.  Unfortunately, the argument that will probably come up is that so far, the scientific emergency is still not acute enough to throw neoliberalism into the trash heap of human history.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Forging ahead

Spent some time with Tony over the weekend.  He's still fighting the good fight spreading Enlightenment virtue.  Best line from the weekend, "Before the Enlightenment, people mostly believed that if God had meant for folks to fly, He would have given them wings.  With the Enlightenment, the proper restatement of this sentiment was—if God had meant for folks to fly, he would have given them the ability to understand aerodynamics (the ability to extract aluminum from bauxite, the ability to design lightweight heat engines, etc.)

This might be the best unofficial mission statement of this blog.

We discussed a bunch of issues concerning the direction we should take with the accumulated knowledge we have gained through years of writing on topics like climate change and the economic understanding necessary to address such mega-problems.  Right now, my "what can we really do to make a difference on climate change?" videos are the subject of concentration.  The news is good.  The direction, tone, and format of these videos have been distilled into a working outline / script.  There is still a bunch of work to do but this is a major milestone.  Might have taken longer than planned but then, this is a big subject.

Of course, rare gatherings lead to some rare celebrations.  The plan last night was to invite some friends to watch The Big Lebowski and mix up some White Russians.  The problem is that I very rarely drink and Tony made them in water glasses.  And then we watched The Wolf of Wall Street instead.  Today, I feel a little like I have been run over by a truck.  But I will survive and I have some new energy to finish a big project.

Thanks for the visit Tony.