Thursday, November 29, 2018

Developing Nations Are Stepping Up Into Global Clean Energy Leadership

The importance of "sunk costs" looms larger by the day. Turns out it is really, REALLY hard to replace old technology with new. And it only makes sense even IF the only consideration is how much money has been invested over the years in the electrical grid, filling stations, etc—things that by rights should be rotting in technology graveyards by now. Of course, it isn't just the interests of pension and hedge funds at stake here—there is also matters of pride in technology, etc. We have successfully made the transition from one technology to another: tubes to transistors, film to digital photography, fax to email attachments, etc. but nothing on this scale.

So now we see that the people with the least infrastructure to displace happen to live in areas with the most sunlight. So it is really no surprise that the least developed countries in the world are embracing solar power with the most enthusiasm. It is the cheapest energy solution by far.

World faces 'impossible' task at post-Paris climate talks

Now comes the fun part. As the evidence for climate change continues to pile up, some of the more enlightened among us are beginning to wonder, "Just how big is the problem? And how much will this really cost to fix?" Of course, these are exactly the questions that should have been asked in 1988 when James Hanson provided us with his rocket science version of how bad it already was. Too bad the evidence had to be overwhelming to get to where we should have been in 1988.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Week-end Wrap - November 24, 2018

Week-end Wrap - November 24, 2018
by Tony Wikrent
Economics Action Group, North Carolina Democratic Party Progressive Caucus

NASA Seismic Probe Insight to Land on Mars
[Machine Design 11-20-18]
After a six-month space flight, Insight is poised to land on Mars for a two-year mission exploring the planet’s geology.
NASA is providing live coverage of the landing, scheduled for Monday. November 26, at about 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.  Scores of viewing events and parties are planning to take advantage of the live feed.
Major viewing events at museums include "Countdown to InSight" at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia; a "NASA Mars Insight Landing Livestream" at The Museum of Flight in Seattle ; a 6-hour pop-up Landing Event at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago; an "InSight Lands on Mars" simulation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York; and many more.
In North Carolina, there are two events:

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W Jones St, Raleigh, NC 27601
November 26, 2018 
2:00 PM - 3:30 PM Local Time

Robeson Planetarium
210 E. 2nd St.
Lumberton, NC 28358
November 26, 2018
6:00 PM - 8:00 PM Local Time

A Grave Climate Warning, Buried on Black Friday
Robinson Meyer, November 23, 2018 [The Atlantic, via Naked Capitalism 11-24-18]
In a massive new report, federal scientists contradict President Trump and assert that climate change is an intensifying danger to the United States. Too bad it came out on a holiday.

Oh those Vikings

One sparkling August morning in 1970, I awoke in the small town of Roskilde Denmark. I was hitchhiking to Copenhagen but had been warned that the youth hostels were full so I stopped short. So that morning I knew I was 30 km from downtown Copenhagen and absolutely nothing else about Denmark. By the end of the day I had become a serious fan of things Viking because of a 1962 find of five ships of various sizes in the mud near the main harbor. The good people of Roskilde had built a museum in 1969 to house these finds that from the looks of things, has grown in size and sophistication since then.

I have a sister who has compiled a thorough genealogy of our family. All eight of my great-grandparents came from the Viking "belt" that extends from Denmark in the south to Uppsala / Birka in the north. Because of geography, the explorations / raids / settlements of the Danes and Norwegians went west. These are the best known Vikings because of their importance to British history—William the Conqueror was a Norman (northman / Norwegian), after all. The Swedish Vikings went east and influenced the history of Russia and the Ukraine. Between a great-grandfather from Bergen Norway and two great-grandparents from Gotland, I have the range of Viking roots well covered.

In 1970, I knew none of this. In fact, the universe of Viking historians was pretty damn tiny. As my interest in the subject grew, I discovered I had latched onto a very obscure topic. For example: I found my way into a relationship with a woman who was half Norwegian. Since I was still a redhead, tall, and pretty good with a hammer, I thought that as a romantic gesture I would make her a Mjolnir (Thor's hammer) as a piece of costume jewelry / good luck charm. I made it of wood and leather and it turned out quite nice. It might have worked as romantic gift except that 1) She had never heard of Mjolnir. 2) She had never heard of the Viking pantheon of gods. 3) She had no idea what this gesture was supposed to mean. This was 1994. Amazingly, pop culture has caught up with my obscure hobby. I was watching an episode of Jeopardy not long ago (a guilty pleasure indeed) when they had a category on Viking mythology—all three contestants could have gotten them all right.

These are my people. I have lived in Scandinavia on two occasions. No one I know acts remotely like a Viking raider. So the question that has fascinated me for the last 48 years has been—how did the Vikings become Scandinavians? My Lutheran preacher father claimed that because the Viking Age mostly ended with the coming of Christianity to the north, this was the defining event. I always had a lot of problems with that explanation because goodness knows, there have been plenty of bloodthirsty Christians in history.

My pet explanation is those Viking boats. No longships, no Viking Age. These were amazing craft. Able to travel long distances over open and often stormy oceans at high speed, shallow enough to navigate narrow rivers, and light enough to be hauled over portages. At the height of the Viking Age, their influence stretched from North America to Constantinople because of those boats. The folks who went out in raiding parties could be violent thugs—the folks who built the boats had to be highly skilled, in love with precision, and supported by other skilled trades like steel making. It requires a sophisticated society to float a navy that can conduct overseas raids. The peaceable producing classes had to stay home and build boats. The young bucks went a-Viking—mostly to get a grubstake so they could buy a boat. None other than Thorstein Veblen thought Viking raiders were mostly young men out having fun with dad's boat.

A recent find in Ribe Denmark gives new evidence for what simply had to be true—that Viking settlements had to be communities of skilled people. Those boats did not emerge from thin air. A boat demands a boatbuilder. Anyone who has ever built or maintained a boat will emphatically explain just how difficult this is to do.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Catching up to Producer Class innovation

The only truly successful "revolutions" in human history have been brought to us by the Producer Classes. Think about it. A Leisure Class occupation like politics hasn't progressed much, if at all, for hundreds of years. George W. Bush was most certainly not an improvement over Abraham Lincoln even though both were Republican Presidents. In that same time, the Producing Classes completely changed transportation, communications, chemistry, manufacturing expertise, metallurgy, etc!

So when I insist that climate change is a Producer Class problem that can only be solved with Producer Class solutions, I am not wrong. The so-called climate activists didn't change anything when they marched or chained themselves to the White House fence. It's the guys who were beavering away at making solar cells affordable who have changed everything. And like the good Producers of the past, they have discovered they still have to drag the mindless idiots of politics and finance into accepting their new and improved tools. Somewhere the ghosts of the Non-Partisan League are smiling knowingly.

And while insisting that they are only asking for "market" solutions, today's renewable energy revolutionaries might do well to look at what those North Dakota farmers were demanding in 1916. They could demand a great deal more. After all, they hold the only answers for the very survival of human civilization.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Week-end Wrap - November 17, 2018

Week-end Wrap - November 17, 2018
by Tony Wikrent
Economics Action Group, North Carolina Democratic Party Progressive Caucus+

To say that Michael Hudson’s new book And Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure, and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year (ISLET 2018) is profound is an understatement on the order of saying that the Mariana Trench is deep. To grasp his central argument is so alien to our modern way of thinking about civilization and barbarism that Hudson quite matter-of-factly agreed with me that the book is, to the extent that it will be understood, “earth-shattering” in both intent and effect. Over the past three decades, Hudson gleaned (under the auspices of Harvard’s Peabody Museum) and then synthesized the scholarship of American and British and French and German and Soviet assyriologists (spelled with a lower-case a to denote collectively all who study the various civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, which include Sumer, the Akkadian Empire, Ebla, Babylonia, et al., as well as Assyria with a capital A). Hudson demonstrates that we, twenty-first century globalists, have been morally blinded by a dark legacy of some twenty-eight centuries of decontextualized history. This has left us, for all practical purposes, utterly ignorant of the corrective civilizational model that is needed to save ourselves from tottering into bleak neo-feudal barbarism. 
This corrective model actually existed and flourished in the economic functioning of Mesopotamian societies during the third and second millennia B.C. ... It is the necessary and periodic erasure of the debts of small farmers — necessary because such farmers are, in any society in which interest on loans is calculated, inevitably subject to being impoverished, then stripped of their property, and finally reduced to servitude (including the sexual servitude of daughters and wives) by their creditors, creditors. The latter inevitably seek to effect the terminal polarization of society into an oligarchy of predatory creditors cannibalizing a sinking underclass mired in irreversible debt peonage. Hudson writes: “That is what creditors really wanted: Not merely the interest as such, but the collateral — whatever economic assets debtors possessed, from their labor to their property, ending up with their lives” (p. 50). 
And such polarization is, by Hudson’s definition, barbarism. For what is the most basic condition of civilization, Hudson asks, other than societal organization that effects lasting “balance” by keeping “everybody above the break-even level”?
“Mesopotamian societies were not interested in equality,” he told me, “but they were civilized. And they possessed the financial sophistication to understand that, since interest on loans increases exponentially, while economic growth at best follows an S-curve. This means that debtors will, if not protected by a central authority, end up becoming permanent bondservants to their creditors. So Mesopotamian kings regularly rescued debtors who were getting crushed by their debts. They knew that they needed to do this. Again and again, century after century, they proclaimed Clean Slate Amnesties.”
Hudson also writes: “By liberating distressed individuals who had fallen into debt bondage, and returning to cultivators the lands they had forfeited for debt or sold under economic duress, these royal acts maintained a free peasantry willing to fight for its land and work on public building projects and canals…. By clearing away the buildup of personal debts, rulers saved society from the social chaos that would have resulted from personal insolvency, debt bondage, and military defection” (p. 3). 
Marx and Engels never made such an argument (nor did Adam Smith for that matter). Hudson points out that they knew nothing of these ancient Mesopotamian societies. No one did back then. Almost all of the various kinds of assyriologists completed their archaeological excavations and philological analyses during the twentieth century. In other words, this book could not have been written until someone digested the relevant parts of the vast body of this recent scholarship. And this someone is Michael Hudson. 
....For us freedom has been understood to sanction the ability of creditors to demand payment from debtors without restraint or oversight. This is the freedom to cannibalize society. This is the freedom to enslave. This is, in the end, the freedom proclaimed by the Chicago School and the mainstream of American economists. 
....Hudson quotes the classicist Moses Finley to great effect: “…. debt was a deliberate device on the part of the creditor to obtain more dependent labor rather than a device for enrichment through interest.” Likewise he quotes Tim Cornell: “The purpose of the ‘loan,’ which was secured on the person of the debtor, was precisely to create a state of bondage”(p. 52)
The entire review should be read carefully: what Hudson has written utterly annihilates the legitimacy of modern theory and practice of finance, banking, and government. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Technological diffusion

Thorstein Veblen probably never used the term "technological diffusion" but he accurately portrays an early manifestation when he recounted how Germany raced past England in industrial expertise and power in the decades leading up to WW I. In his towering use of Institutional Analysis in Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (1914), Veblen describes the many advantages of being second (or third, etc.)

What Veblen was describing is the industrial learning curve. The path from an idea to a "finished" product, to something people want to buy is long and treacherous. Of course, the more complex it is and the more ideas must be combined into the final product, the longer and more expensive the learning curve turns out to be. It can be argued that it required at least 80 years before cars really became reliable and comfortable. The road to the $.75 per watt solar panels took minimum of 70. These things are HARD to do. Because the learning curve is a fact of life, I have become fascinated by how it plays out.

When asked about solar, I have long advised to wait until panels could bought at a Home Depot / IKEA store. These people just want to sell goods—they don't need hassles from irate customers who want their money back because the product somehow failed. (If you are a serious DIYer, and trouble-shooting incomplete technology is one of the joys of your life, jump in with both feet. After all, early adopters are important too. If you are one of those people, you really don't need my advice.)

Another sign of technological sophistication and maturity is the adoption of new parts into old settings—in this case, Tesla (and other) parts into a 1949 Mercury. This is hot rodding 101. In this example, they made it look box stock to an untrained eye while grafting some serious EV parts underneath. When the hot rod crowd goes looking for your parts, this is a very clear sign that the EV revolution has matured.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Sunk costs

In 1972, I talked my dad into buying a Saab 99. Saab was mainly an aircraft company financed by the Wallenberg Bank in the late 1930s to build fighters for the defense of Swedish neutrality. After the War, they decided to take their skills into automobile manufacture. They hired the rising star of Swedish industrial design, Sixten Sason, who would go on to design the Hasselblad camera that NASA sent to the moon on Apollo 11. So a company full of aircraft expertise built a car they believed would be better with a little airplane built in. The 99 was brimming with innovation. For example:
  1. The structural integrity of the passenger compartment was superb. Monocoque, stressed-skin design combined light weight with a crazy-strong roof. Saab's early promotion included winter rallying. Their driver rolled his car so often while continuing the race he got the nickname Carlsson på taket (Carlsson on the roof).
  2. The cockpit was the first real manifestation of sound ergonomics. The seating and driving position was excellent. The instruments were clear and easy to understand.
  3. Four-wheel disc brakes had multiple backup systems.
  4. It was versatile with a fold-down rear seat.
  5. And it was the only sorted-out front-wheel drive car sold in USA. (In snowy Minnesota, that was a big deal.)
Saab is no more. by 1990, every car-maker on earth had a version of the Saab 99. Some, like the Toyota Camry, had taken all those good ideas and refined them significantly. Cheaper and more reliable is a winning combination.

Right now, Tesla is at least as far out in front of the EV pack as was the Saab 99. Below is an excellent description of the institutional problems facing the established car companies. They have BIG bucks invested in a way of producing a product that is rendered obsolete by fun, comfortable, exciting, electric cars. Yes, they are dragging their feet. But giving what they face, you would too.

The cautionary tale of Saab is a reasonable outcome for Tesla. Yes, its competition will lag. The Germans, Americans, and Japanese may well be hindered by the Institutional inertia. But that leaves the Koreans and the Chinese. Either one has the potential to swamp Tesla.

The Germans have the largest amount of Institutional inertia. But this may be changing. According to DW, they are finally realizing that the future of transport will be electric and are beginning to make serious investments in batteries, etc.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Week-end Wrap - November 10, 2018

Week-end Wrap - November 10, 2018
by Tony Wikrent
Economics Action Group, North Carolina Democratic Party Progressive Caucus

2018 Election Night Live Blog/Open Thread
Lambert Strether, November 6, 2018 [Naked Capitalism]
Now, we might ask ourselves what we’re going to get out of all this, should the Democrats win the House (or even the House and the Senate). This question interests me far more than the horserace, and I believe that I’ve shown the answer: “Not much.” This is true for at least two reasons: First, as I have shown, 2018’s left hasn’t got enough institutional power to force the Democrat Party to change direction; indeed, all signs point to a reactionary liberal Democrat desiire for restoration of the November 7, 2016 status quo ante ancien regime(perhaps with an admixture of new faces, as aspirational identity politicians assume new positions). This is clearly true if you make #MedicareForAll your litmus test on policy. Second, as I have shown, the composition of Democrat candidates in key districts is heavily weighted (25%) toward MILOs (Military, Intelligence, Law Enforcement, Other). Further militarizing the Democrat Party says nothing good about policy, domestic or foreign. Now, as usual given the choices on offer, gridlock is our friend, so there’s nothing wrong with Democrats controlling the House; but as far as using or even reconceptualizing government to convey universal concrete material benefits, especially to the working class…. Well, we won’t be seeing anything like that, thank you very much. Which is unfortunate, because if you wanted to arrest the country’s decades-long rightward slide, that would be the way to do it. See under Roosevelt, Franklin Delano.
The Resistance Is Not a Call for Restoration
Robert L. Borosage, November 5, 2018 [The Nation, via Naked Capitalism 11-7-18]
After the midterms, Democrats must embrace the insurgencies that have reenergized the people and the party....

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Sustainable developments from Dubai, Australia, and Estonia

I have recently shifted my living arrangements. I now live in a very small Minnesota town that borders on the Mississippi. There is not of energy left at 69 and the move used up what I have. I am regaining my footing but these things take time.

I have also decided that I want to take this blog in a slightly new direction. My core beliefs have not changed but I want to attempt to be more uplifting. Goodness knows, the problems are scary enough without retelling the horrors. But as I sincerely believe that only the Producers have ANY chance whatsoever of providing a path out of the catastrophe that is climate change, I intend to focus on what they can accomplish and how they will do it. I also intend to rely more heavily on video production. One side effect of my move is that I now have a fiber optic connection to the internet so video does not mean crazy-long waits any longer.

To demonstrate where I am going, I have included three examples of Producer Class, well-executed sustainable development. The first is from Dubai where a small city has incorporated a veritable wish list of green technologies to make living possible in a climate where 40°C (104°F) is routine in summer months.

Week-end Wrap - November 3, 2018

Week-end Wrap - November 3, 2018
by Tony Wikrent
Economics Action Group, North Carolina Democratic Party Progressive Caucus

Mike Norman

Seven Rules for Running a Real Left-Wing Government
Ian Welsh [ 10-31-18] 
These are the fundamentals of effective progressive governance. Judge for yourself how far the Democratic Party is from these fundamentals.

Humanity has wiped out 60% of animals since 1970, major report finds
[Guardian, via Naked Capitalism 10-30-18]

Record Low Water Levels Are Causing Chaos in Germany
[, via Naked Capitalism 10-29-18]

The great Himalayan thaw
[Nepali Times, via Naked Capitalism 10-29-18]

Changing climate forces desperate Guatemalans to migrate 
[National Geographic, via Naked Capitalism 10-29-18]

[Guardian, via Naked Capitalism 11-1-18]

How anti-clean energy campaigns create a mirage of public support 
[Grist, via Naked Capitalism 11-2-18]
[Vox, via Naked Capitalism 11-2-18] 
“[M]ost of those [rosy] scenarios rely heavily on “negative emissions” — ways of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere…. The primary instrument of negative emissions is expected to be BECCS: bioenergy (burning plants to generate electricity) with carbon capture and sequestration. The idea is that plants absorb carbon as they grow; when we burn them, we can capture and bury that carbon. The result is electricity generated as carbon is removed from the cycle — net-negative carbon electricity. One small complication in all this: There is currently no commercial BECCS industry….. Plenty of people reasonably conclude that’s a bad idea, but alternatives have been difficult to come by.”