Tuesday, December 15, 2009

You really think population growth is a bigger problem than global warming?

Overpopulation may indeed become a problem, but in terms of global warming, "overpopulated" nations are not the ones responsible for most pollution and environmental degradation, it's industrialized nations who get the credit for that -- poor nations just can't afford to pollute the way rich Americans can (or even poor Americans, and other industrialized nations besides the U.S. pollute a good bit, too, compared to truly developing nations).

Thomas Malthus got the population thing wrong a long time ago: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Malthus

It's Good For You -- Incidental Reasons to Support Global Warming Mitigation

I think there are a few points worth amplifying:

1) There is no doubt in the minds of any reputable climate scientist that CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat, and that methane traps about 20 times as much heat as CO2, and other pollutants trap heat up to 1000 times as effectively as CO2. There is doubt about how much the global average temperature will change, and how fast. But those disagreements are insignificant. Most, if not all, reputable climate scientists agree that the planet will warm significantly as an effect of pollutants released by humans.(http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090119210532.htm)

2) Based on historical records (ice sheet core samples, etc.) climate change can occur very suddenly -- too suddenly for humans and other species to adapt. Many estimates are that 50% of species could be extinct by the next century. It's happened before: "in the Earth's history several mass extinctions of 50–90% of species have accompanied global temperature changes of ≈5°C." (http://www.pnas.org/content/103/39/14288.full) Do you really want to stand by and watch as half the planet's plants and animals disappear forever? (Probably to be replaced by new ones...in a few tens of millions of years.)

3) The pollutants that cause climate change are toxic and expensive in many other ways: CO2 makes oceans more acidic, which leads to large-scale die-offs of coral reefs and other organisms; burning coal releases arsenic, mercury, selenium, radioactive isotopes, and a raft of other toxins into the air (http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/coalvswind/c02c.html), and ash piles leach them into groundwater and soil(http://www.earthjustice.org/news/press/007/coal-ash-pollution-contaminates-groundwater-increases-cancer-risks.html). Mining coal destroys vast landscapes and releases the same toxins into groundwater(http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080326201751.htm). Mining uranium for nuclear power destroys landscapes and poisons groundwater, too(http://www.environmentcolorado.org/news-releases/colorado-forest-project/colorado-forest-project--news/senate-passes-bill-to-protect-land-and-water-from-uranium-pollution); and nuclear reactors leave behind difficult and costly to manage toxic waste, waste that is a huge security risk. Oil and gas exploration and drilling destroy landscapes and groundwater, too, and drilling releases methane into the atmosphere, a heat-trapping gas 21 times more severe than CO2.(http://blog.cleanenergy.org/2009/12/10/false-solution-offshore-oil-drilling/) The cost for cleaning up all this pollution and treating the illnesses caused by it are paid by citizens, not the corporations who profit. And we are still left with diminished and declining ecosystems after energy companies move on.

besides, there are lots of cheaper, cleaner, sustainable ways to get energy: http://www.rmi.org/rmi/pid257
read more: http://cyclopsvuethinks.blogspot.com/search/label/Energy

Monday, December 14, 2009

Copenhagen: Comments on NY Times

Here's some comments I left on the NY Times Climate Change Conversations page:

People in the U.S. or other industrialized countries who oppose action to mitigate global warming because it will cost them jobs or money are either dupes or shills for big coal, big oil, or big nukes, and the glad-handing-get-rich-quick-at-the-expense-of-working-people wing of the Republican party, or their European counterparts (yes, there are some). These folks have been had; they've been done to; they've been led down the garden path, and they don't know it. Yet.

The rest of us do know that if we act now we will create good, long-term jobs to replace those lost in industries that are dying anyway, and spend little -- less than 50 cents a day for most Americans (or much less, less than zero, if we're smart). And, we'll prevent billions of tons of unnecessary, toxic pollution from contaminating our land and oceans, killing our children, and decimating multitudes of species. For no good reason. We have cheaper methods now of providing electricity, heating and cooling, and transportation that pollute far less, and leave behind no toxic legacy to our descendants. That's right, CHEAPER; with more, better paid, secure jobs. And cheaper from a national security perspective: no nuclear waste to proliferate, no energy rich dictators to deal with. We just need the courage to get out in front, get educated, and tell the blowhards who say it can't be done to buzz off. Let's, for once, do what's good for working people, the environment and the economy at large, instead of buying into a bunch of phony negativism from corporate profiteers who are interested in nothing but concentrating wealth in their own pockets.

The Rocky Mountain Institute has an extensive, and reputable library of documents to prove we can do this, and save money in the process: http://www.rmi.org/rmi/pid257

and more here: http://cyclopsvuethinks.blogspot.com/search/label/Energy

and the NY Times has an outstanding timeline here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/12/07/science/20091207_CLIMATE_TIMELINE.html
Cheers Copenhagen!

Friday, December 4, 2009

An Elegant Refutation of Global Warming Deniers

You might give this a read if you have doubts about global warming...it won't convince you, but it might make you feel silly for a bit: "Johann Hari: How I wish that the global warming deniers were right / Are you prepared to take a 50-50 gamble on the habitability of the planet?"

On second thought, don't even bother. Ignorance is bliss: better to be blissed out as you "go gentle into that good night".

Senator Byrd Opposes Mountaintop Removal

Senator Byrd of West Virginia, a long time supporter of the coal industry, released a statement on December 3 opposing mountaintop removal strip mining for coal.

The statement appears in the Appalachian Voices Front Porch Blog.

My comment on that statement is:

I truly admire and respect Senator Byrd. I've always been awed by his foreign policy speeches.

But he's mistaken about one thing. He states:
"Let’s speak a little more truth here. No deliberate effort to do away with the coal industry could ever succeed in Washington because there is no available alternative energy supply that could immediately supplant the use of coal for base load power generation in America. That is a stubborn fact that vexes some in the environmental community, but it is reality."

We really could provide base load power without coal or nuclear using existing, least cost technology.

Here's a short bit from my blog that makes this point: http://cyclopsvuethinks.blogspot.com/2009/02/renewables-intermittency-reliability.html

And here's a whole list of articles from a reputable source, the Rocky Mountain Institute, that make the case for efficiency savings and distributed power (instead of large central plants): http://www.rmi.org/rmi/pid257

The technology exists now, and is cost-effectively implemented in this and other countries. We just need to learn about it and get to work.

Still, I'm encouraged by Senator Byrd's statement.

We need to stop propagating misinformation in the energy debate.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Even To the WTO, Free Trade Is A Tough Sell

An article in the WSJ, "Blame Goes Global at WTO
Officials at Trade Talks Say Fears of Lost Jobs and Political Fallout Block Progress
," by JOHN W. MILLER, DECEMBER 3, 2009, describes foot dragging on free trade at the current WTO meeting in Geneva.
In all countries, "people are afraid" of another trade deal, says U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. "Trade has provided a way for people to have fresh produce, cheap T-shirts, available electronics, but the pain of trade is very real."

Benefits of free trade in the U.S.?

Low inflation? (Inflation can be controlled without running a huge trade deficit.) Cheap consumer goods? (And dubious quality; and diminished consumer income and job security) Fewer wars? (Not much evidence of that.)

I'd really like to see a convincing defense of free trade as it relates to the U.S. economy. Not just the same old hollow tropes trotted out about an evolving, white-collar-trending economy; and economic leveling that might happen one day, but a real defense based on current evidence of prosperity gained (by everyone, not the rich alone).

I doubt it exists. But economists everywhere seem to have a personal stake in the empty notion of wide-open free trade with no shared standards for worker safety, wages, health care, pensions, or environmental protection.

Until somebody comes up with a convincing argument for selling out our industrial base (and engineering know-how, and labor rights), let's go back to mercantilism. At least the benefits, along with the faults, are clear. (And please, don't bring up speculative assertions centered on Smoot-Halley -- they don't hold up to scrutiny.)

New Nukes Do Nothing To Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change

Here's a note that I sent, via the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), to my Senators today:
Nuclear power is not a least-cost, or least-delay, source of energy. For every dollar spent on nuclear energy, we lose $10 worth of energy gained from much cheaper efficiency, or up to $2 gained from rapidly deployed clean, safe renewable sources (E05-15_MightyMice.pdf [page 5]).
And, we loose precious time -- no nuclear plant, if construction started today, would have any meaningful impact on mitigating the climate crisis we face. Nukes are too slow to build to do any good. So, be reasonable. Rule out nukes now, before we waste precious money and time.

Why not make informed, rational decisions on this issue?

read more:
Rocky Mountain Institute Library
my blog -- energy

I hope they read it. I hope anyone reads it. Have a look at the Rocky Mountain Institute link above.

And then visit NIRS, and send a letter of your own.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Brought to you by Massey Energy...

What a waste that someone like Mr. Micklem, who has devoted his life to advancing our knowledge of the verdant natural world humanity inherited, has to risk ending his life combating ignorance of that world, and ambivalence toward it, and reckless destruction of it.

Ignorance, ambivalence, and destruction that are actively encouraged by corporate and government leaders who know better. And it happens for no other reasons but fear and greed.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

As Miami Slips Under the Waves...

Sometimes, when people deny the effects of climate change, it reminds me of the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" who, as his limbs are lopped off by King Arthur, says, "Just a scratch," "Just a flesh wound" ...

How bad does it have to get before some people will accept the evidence that we're in a little trouble here?

Catastrophic global warming wouldn't be that hard to prevent (or at this point, mitigate), either: Energy

(I was prompted to make this comparison on the Huffington Post when some doubters of climate change posted skeptical comments: "Hundreds Of Icebergs Breaking Off Of Antarctica, Headed For New Zealand.")

I just read another comment that reminded me of this, a concise little evaluation of the risk of doing nothing to combat global warming:

Monday, November 23, 2009

Really Bad Ideas for Saving the Planet

Blue Marble from Apollo 17 (Image courtesy NASA Johnson Space Center)

Arun Gupta, at The Indypendent (which seems very eager for life support donations at the moment), in his article, "Hacking the Planet," rounds up the most widely circulated ideas for "geoengineering" our way out of greenhouse gas induced climate change. Of course, all of these solutions would be unmitigated disasters (see article), but they will get traction because they avoid upsetting the corporate-energy balance of power, and the concepts are easy to relate (if you leave out the ugly, complicating details).

If you want real, simple, least-cost solutions, read some stuff from the Rocky Mountain Institute's library, such as: "Four Nuclear Myths: A Commentary on Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline and on Similar Writings"

RMI's credentials are unimpeachable, and they actually use evidence-based science, complete with footnoted references, to arrive at their conclusions. Very refreshing. Especially, after hearing the blather that issues from the halls of Congress, Fox News, and the Heritage Foundation. (You don't get links to those places, you know where to find that noise if you must.)

The point is, we could prevent (have prevented? past-tense now required?) catastrophic global warming, without detrimentally changing our industrialized life styles (do you care where the electricity comes from if it's cheaper, and the lights stay on?), but we need to take the advice of disinterested parties who offer real solutions derived from proven technology, and ignore big energy industry representatives and snake-oil traders. The best solutions are simple, elegant, cheap, proven, and already profitably used elsewhere. So what's the problem? Maybe it's just too easy, and we're just too cynical. Fatally cynical.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Stop Shooting My Wolves on My Land

UPDATE -- 04.11.2011:
From the National Resource Defense Council:
...the last-minute budget deal agreed to by Congressional leaders on Friday night (04.08.2011) will strip endangered species protection from gray wolves across most of the Northern Rockies, leaving them at the mercy of states that plan to kill hundreds of them.

This stealth attack on wolves -- which circumvents the will of the courts and good science -- was inserted by Representative Mike Simpson (R, ID) and Senator Jon Tester (D, MT). It was approved by the leadership of both the House and the Senate, and it was okayed by the White House.

It is a shameful day for this nation when both parties unite behind the slaughter of an endangered species -- without public hearing or debate.

And there is another victim here as well: the Endangered Species Act.

Congress has never before removed an animal from the endangered species list. By replacing scientific judgment with political calculation, the House and Senate have struck at the very heart of wildlife protection in America.

We have to make sure that the political door is not thrown open to new attacks on other imperiled species.

Send a message to your Senators and Representative right now, expressing your outrage at this attack on wolves and telling them to keep their hands off the Endangered Species Act.
Original post:
At the behest of the National Resource Defense Council, I fired off the following:
I urge you to restore the wolf's protection under the Endangered Species Act and submit your plan to rigorous scientific review. Trading these native inhabitants for sheep and cattle grazing on public land is despicable. Preserve your integrity, preserve my integrity. Call off the guns and develop a sound wolf recovery plan that ensures a healthy future for this essential member of the western ecosystem.


You should write a note, too. Protect our wildlife, and our landscape.
Find your representatives: Congress.org

Monday, November 9, 2009

A shout into the void...

Stop killing our damn mountains!(an image shamelessly borrowed from: Rob Perks)

And blasting continues un-abated on Coal River Mountain. Where's the outrage? Where's the rancor? If nasty Massey Energy were dredging beach sand in the Hamptons, you can be sure the protest would be audible on the national media circuit from day one until the bitter end. And in the Hamptons parallel universe beach sand strip mine, the bitter end would would mean Massey slinking home with its tail between its legs. Why is that? Do landscapes count more when rich people use them for a playground? In our land of justice and equality, is that really it?

Let's go, folks. Save those gorgeous, pristine, ancestral hardwood forests and the hardworking people who's families have called those mountains home for centuries. Make a call, send an e-mail. Make noise!

visit: ilovemountains.org or Coal River Mountain Watch

Health Care Reform -- A Letter to the Editor

If past American presidents had a vantage point from which they could watch the events of last Saturday, November 7, the House passage of the Health Care Bill, H.R. 3200, several would have breathed a sigh of relief:

Teddy Roosevelt, in 1912, made health care one of the planks of his campaign. It stated, "We pledge ourselves to work unceasingly in State and Nation for ... the protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use." (www.politifact.com)

Franklin Roosevelt, after passing the Social Security Act in 1935, believed that health care should be provided for Americans as well. In 1938, an advisory board appointed by him issued a report revealingly entitled, "The Need For a National Health Program." (www.ssa.gov)

On November 19, 1945, only 7 months into his presidency, Harry S. Truman sent a Presidential message to the United States Congress proposing a new national health care program. In his message, Truman argued that the federal government should play a role in health care, and stated, "The health of American children, like their education, should be recognized as a definite public responsibility." (www.trumanlibrary.org)

John F. Kennedy endorsed Medicare in 1960, and argued in favor of universal health care modeled on existing policy in Europe. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HI2iV6kbWBs)

Lyndon Johnson, in 1965, got done Medicare for the elderly, and Medicaid for the impoverished. I wonder what choice words he would have for today's debate? (Ronald Reagan, by the way, in 1961, was a spokesman for a campaign by the American Medical Association to block the passage of Medicare. Now, Republicans and Conservatives heartily endorse this vast government run behemoth called Medicare, and claim to defend it against cuts proposed by merciless Democrats. [http://pastinprint.com]) (http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu)

Richard Nixon called for comprehensive health care reform in 1974: "Now it is time that we move forward again in still another critical area: health care. Without adequate health care, no one can make full use of his or her talents and opportunities. ... I proposed a major health insurance program to the Congress, seeking to guarantee adequate financing of health care on a nationwide basis." (http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org)

These presidents, and other less partisan advocates have insisted for decades that the United States will see its prosperity bolstered by universal health care. We are a step closer today. Thank your representatives who have the courage to support health care reform, and remind those who don't that they should. We need this. Now. It'll save money today, and grow our anemic economy tomorrow. Get with it America!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Why Bankers Love Bonuses

I'll poach one more story from the DailyKos, which gives an outstanding historical perspective on the current financial predicament of the United States and Europe. It neatly clarifies the migration of funds out of the industrial base and into the coffers of financial firms over the last thirty or forty years, and the inciting de-regulation initiatives by vested politicians.

Anyway, here 'tis if you're so inclined toward feasting on anti-free market elucidation:

Goldman Sachs Vice-Chair: Tolerate the Inequality

Wind Energy Economics...

the value of wind
                   by Jerome a Paris
If you wonder at all about the economics of wind turbine electricity generation (and renewables in general) vs. coal, gas, nuclear (old school) electricity generation, you'd do yourself (and those who have to listen to you rant) a service by reading the above linked article in the Daily Kos by Jerome a Paris (Jerome Guillet's nom de guerre). His credentials are good (he works in finance), and his arguments are concise and well-supported by evidence. Read it. You'll rejoice at the author's clarity and balance.

Massey Coal is blowing Coal River Mountain away...

...for a few bucks and a pile of rotten coal (more info?).These are excerpts from a letter I sent to the EPA, which I modeled after a Rainforest Action Network letter:

Put a stop to mountaintop removal coal mining on Coal River Mountain in West Virginia, which is the area's last mountain untouched by mountaintop removal. The blasting not only threatens communities in the vicinity, it will also destroy the potential for a wind project that had rallied local residents as a prime opportunity to create permanent jobs, strengthen the local economy and provide renewable energy to the region.

Coal River Mountain has enough wind potential to accommodate a 328-megawatt wind farm. Show Appalachia you care. Press for, approve and encourage the windfarm.

Worse, the blasting is near the Brushy Fork slurry impoundment, which holds 8.2 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry. Should the blasting cause the impoundment to fail, nearby residents would have just minutes to evacuate before they were overtaken by a 50-foot wall of coal slurry that could cost more than 1,000 lives.

Blasting near this unlined impoundment increases the risk of failure, and we know it. If the impoundment fails, we are all complicit in the destruction to Brushy Fork and its ground water. Let's act. Now.

Visit the Rainforest Action Network, and take action to preserve beautiful, verdant Appalachia. Now!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Go, Senator Hollings -- End Free Trade

My comments on a post by Senator Fritz Hollings on the Huffington Post: "Perfect Desertion"
Good stuff, Senator Hollings.

I'll put in my two cents, and reiterate some of your previous arguments:

Free trade is bad policy unless the foreign businesses we trade with adhere to exactly the same labor and environmental rules (and incur the same costs) as businesses in the U.S.

Wages may be lower elsewhere, but when they are, it is also generally true that workers have little or no collective bargaining rights, few or no worker safety rules, little or no worker compensation for on the job injuries, and little or no health care. Low wage countries also often ignore the environmental impact of unsound manufacturing processes, rendering air and drinking water toxic. All this eventually leads to civil unrest and global environmental impact. Both of which cost everyone when supply chains are disrupted, and landscapes and species are destroyed.

A VAT is preferable to corporate taxes, as you point out in earlier posts, since most corporations only pay about 3% corporate income tax on profit -- not the mandated 27% -- because they hire lawyers and accountants to move profits offshore. So, lawyers and accountants benefit instead of U.S. citizens who subsidize the corporations with infrastructure and defense investments (not to mention property tax rebates, and other incentives, paid for relocation). Plus, any economist will point out that corporate income tax is passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. With a VAT, at least, taxes paid by consumers go into public coffers instead of personal incomes for accountants, lawyers, and executives (27% levied minus 3% actually paid = 24% retained by corporate entities).

Further, a VAT benefits the national economy by discouraging consumption (tax on final sale -- regressive, but remember, corporate taxes are passed through -- equally regressive), while encouraging production (no taxes on manufacturing supply chain costs, just "value added" -- corporate profits). This, in turn, reduces prices to the consumer (demand is down), and encourages exports (price is down because domestic demand is down). Plus, most nations refund all or some VAT taxes paid by manufacturers when a product is exported (China, Europe, etc.), which further encourages exportation rather than leveraged (credit card debt) consumption at home. Finally, to alleviate regressive impact, we need not charge VAT on necessities like food, utilities, and medical care.

I hope all that reads true. I'm sure many will take issue, but I think the arguments against free trade and for a VAT are indisputable. Someone just needs to sell 'em. Go, Senator! (visit former Senator Hollings' web site: www.citizensforacompetitiveamerica.com.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Support S.1733...

A letter to my Senators:
The Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S.1733) is a nice start. It's a bonus that it preserves the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse
gas emissions

Still, it just won't be enough, and the repercussions of not doing enough are myriad: stagnating economy with few green jobs, crippling effects of global warming (desertification, water shortages, crop failures, crushing coastal storms and floods, mass extinctions, etc.), and further diminished national prestige.

The U.S.A. is a bull-headed laggard on global warming. Let's not be.
Please persuade Senators Kerry and Boxer to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas pollution (40% below 1990 levels!) so that the United States will contribute its share to reducing global atmospheric CO2 below 350 parts per million.

You know what to do. Now lets find the courage of our convictions and take this country to a prosperous, proud future.


Friday, September 11, 2009

King Koal Feels the Pinch...a little

Good news...
(quoted from ilovemountains.org)
Today, September 11th, 2009, the EPA announced recommendations on 79 mountaintop removal valley fill permits that have been under review.

The EPA recommended that none of these permits be passed through for approval as they are written. The decision is not final, but is part of a coordination procedure outlined between the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior. To understand the timeline and next steps, read our Background Info.

...and, a stunning, but depressing video from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which features local perspectives on the destruction caused by mountain top removal. Watch it:

Mountaintop Removal Slideshow from Kentuckians For The Commonwealth on Vimeo.

now, contact your congressional representative and urge them to support/co-sponsor:
  • Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 1310) in the House
  • Appalachia Restoration Act (S. 696) in the Senate

See which politicians line up for coal money at:
Follow the Coal Money
You can find your representatives' contact info here:
Contact Your Representative

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mountaintop removal continues...

So it ends.

The tree sitters, Nick Stocks and Laura Steepleton, (with Climate Ground Zero) at Pettry Bottom, West Virginia were chased away by mine security staff who saw fit to torment the protesters with lights, noise, and finally buzzing chainsaws. So the tree sitters descended. But not before six days passed and the two protesters delivered a little more attention to the plight of these verdant hills and hardwood forests which the Massey Mining Corp. is destroying for a few bucks profit. And don't think that Massey employs loads of local residents in their calamitous endeavor. They don't. In fact, with groundwater cleanups, road construction, etc. it would be cheaper for the states where mountaintop removal is conducted to pay the miners to stay home. But that's not where the real money is. The real money goes into executive's pockets. And then around election time, a bit of those ill-gotten gains are used to buy the compliance and silence of key politicians.

Meanwhile, local residents get screwed: their groundwater is poisoned, their air is fouled with dust, the silence is punctuated with earthshaking dynamite blasts, their villages and homes are threatened by rickety sludge impoundments, and their long cherished hunting, fishing, berry & mushroom picking, and hiking grounds are lost forever. Instead of rippling hills and valleys with sun-dappled glades and sparkling streams, they are left with flat, gray, infertile plains of wasteland. And so are the rest of us. Forever.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Mountaintop Removal, To Our Shame, Continues

Right now, there are two people, Nick Stocks and Laura Steepleton, from climategroundzero.net sitting on postage stamp platforms in two different trees. They've been up there for days and they've got buckets for privies to prove it. Sun, fog, rain, wind -- they've stayed because they're disgusted with the inertia of a political system that allows the travesty of mountaintop removal to continue. Coal companies will destroy gorgeous Appalachia -- hard-working Appalachia -- for no good reason whatsoever. That is, they'll destroy it for money. And they'll do it surrounded by the people who's lives they've ruined, who've gotten very little of that money at all. Surely not enough to send out a fleet of lawyers and lobbyists to stop the destruction of their ancestral lands.

And the coal they get from 500,000 acres of flattened, poisoned hills and valleys; 2,000 miles of ruined streams? It provides 7% of the nation's electricity. You could cut your consumption 7% overnight: turn off a few unnecessary lights, or shut off the TV when you're not in the room, or unplug a few vampire power packs sticking out of the wall (or plug them in to a power strip with an old-fashioned on/off switch).

Here's a damn good explication of the facts from a fine writer who lives in Kentucky, Silas House: Devastating View from the Mountaintop Read it, then go here to tell your elected representatives to get off their asses and do something. Now.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

United States Domestic Manufacturing vs. Free Trade

Domestic Manufacturing vs. Free Trade
This post is prompted by comments posted here and here, so if you haven't read those, two references might elude you: "Darwinian Capitalism" and "obsession with manufacturing." Not to worry, you'll get the point.

I have never witnessed “Darwinian Capitalism,” nor has anyone else that I’m aware of, so I can’t comment on it. What I can comment on is the variant I live under, and the variants that I witness, directly or indirectly, around the world. All of these flavors of capitalism are manipulated to the advantage of the most powerful participants -- the capitalized (those who derive incomes from investments), as opposed to wage earners. Such manipulation takes the form of favorably lax regulation and regressive income taxes, and these tend to stratify society by concentrating wealth at the top. Rather than thinking about “safety nets” for the poor, we should think about “restraining nets” for the rich to minimize the corrupting influence of wealth.

One way to do this is through progressive taxation, which provides government with the resources to monitor (regulate) the creation of wealth, compensate (educate) victims of exploitation, and clean up the environmental disasters visited on us all by the heedless behavior of amoral business ventures. Another way to minimize the corrupting influence of wealth on an industrialized economy is through trade unions. Through collective bargaining, trade unions counter the leverage exerted by management and give wage earners some of the same insurance against boom/bust cycles that the capitalized enjoy, i.e. a cushion of resources: unemployment and health insurance for workers, investments for the capitalized.

As far as an “obsession with manufacturing,” I can’t comment on the views of others, but for myself, manufacturing is not an obsession. In fact, I’m not that fond of the idea of a “consumerist” society inundated by cheap, throwaway crap. But manufacturing is a means to an end: survival. So are agriculture and hunting-gathering. None of which, by the way, are mutually exclusive, so I don’t really see them as a linear, evolutionary progression with one replacing the other as some describe it. We still have plenty of agriculture, though now on a much larger, unsustainable scale. And we still have hunter-gatherers. OK, hunter-gatherers are fewer in number, but they exist, even in industrialized countries -- witness various forms of squatting, trash sorting, and scrap metal recycling.

And as a means to an end slightly more desirable than mere survival -- broad prosperity -- manufacturing has done reasonably well, provided we have strong trade unions, muscular regulation, protective tariffs, and progressive taxation. When those constraints on capitalism are in place, our society has flourished, and by flourished I mean nearly everyone benefited, not just a miniscule subsection at the pinnacle of the food chain. Think of the constraints as a sturdy fuselage to hang the wings of capitalism on. Without one, the other is useless. (Except to wing builders who profit from the mess created by flimsy aircraft falling out of the sky.)

In a balanced economy, with some hunter-gatherers, some agriculture, some manufacturing, some service and finance every reasonably industrious member could find a niche. Sure, productivity and efficiency gains fostered by improved technology would eliminate some jobs in every sector, but improved technology would create new jobs in other sectors, notably manufacturing. Technology continuously obsoletes one manufactured device in favor of another, whether it’s a consumer toy like a DVD player, or a machine used in a plant that manufactures DVD players. Thus, manufacturing plants are continuously re-tooling to manufacture the latest product at the least cost (provided there is fair competition to insure the necessity of such investment).

Since the 1970’s the middle class and poor have been the victim of diminished domestic manufacturing and exports replaced by foreign manufacturing and imports. Since the 1980’s, most of the new wealth in the U.S. has been generated in the finance sector, where salaries are disproportionately -- insanely -- high at the top, and poverty-line low at the bottom (and not that numerous, and not unionized). This does not represent a natural economic evolution of society. It is a trend induced by an affluent minority who depend on investments for their income.

Since this affluent minority traditionally invested in American manufacturing, and with tariffs on foreign imports low, and with manufacturing capacity restored in post WWII Japan (followed by Hong Kong, S. Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and finally China), investors pressured management to increase short-term profits. The best way -- the only way -- to yield these short term profits was to eliminate expensive, well-paid, unionized, pensioned, health-insured, worker-safety protected, environmentally responsible jobs in favor of cheap, underpaid, non-unionized, un-pensioned, un-health-insured, workers with unsafe jobs in environmentally catastrophic overseas plants. That is, a return to the conditions that existed in the United States and Europe at the turn of the 19th century before trade unions and environmentalists fought long hard battles to improve our lot. How come off shoring didn’t happen sooner? Because, throughout the industrial revolution, up until about WWI, the U.S. maintained tariffs that protected U.S. manufacturers against a flood of overseas products. Then we had WWI, followed by the Great Depression, followed by WWII, all of which discourage imports, and, or decimated manufacturing capacity everywhere but in the United States. So, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that imports began to nibble away at our manufacturing primacy.

So, yes, as a whole, the United States has grown wealthier as manufacturing declined, but that wealth is now nearly as concentrated at the top as it was before the industrial revolution -- the middle-class is dying on the vine. So we have cheaper consumer products, but steadily flat or declining middle-class incomes and standards of living, and more two-income households that barely survive.

And, we’ve sold off our creative prowess. Sure, we still have the movie industry. We can export a few movies. And sure, we still have Boeing (barely); and Caterpillar (barely); and a bunch of pharmaceuticals and banks and niche manufacturers. But those are a drop in the bucket compared to all the stuff we need to survive -- manufactured stuff. Stuff manufactured overseas. Hence, our huge and economically menacing trade deficit. On the “free trade” governed world market, we buy tons of stuff, but we don’t sell much. So, it’s not so much free trade that we participate in, it’s free shopping. And if you keep shopping without any income, you’re gonna go broke -- which we are.

Imagine now, instead, that we manufacture our own shoes and shirts and dresses; and electronic components and cell phones, and TV’s and cars (preferably trains and buses); and electricity generator components; and cables and wires to connect all this high-tech stuff; and... you get the idea -- we manufacture stuff here, our income stays here. And we continue to invest in broad prosperity -- elevating the middle class, and poor. And we preserve our intellectual capacity to design the manufacturing plants and products of the future. Skills that now, to our collective shame, we are allowing to atrophy (skills, such as machine tooling, I assure you, most bankers can not even conceive of).

And yes, if we manufacture stuff here, and pay people reasonable wages, and insure them against old age and health catastrophe, and protect our shared environment, we will pay more for stuff. But, we will have a constant supply of well-paid jobs for everyone, not just essayists with PhD’s who promote free trade, and creative financiers who sell hedge funds to insulate the wealthy against tanking domestic markets. Besides, if free-trade worked as advertised, that stuff we buy overseas should cost a lot more soon enough as foreign manufacturers...wait for it... pay people reasonable wages, and insure them against old age and health catastrophe, and protect our shared environment... or will they? Not likely, considering the state of governance in most of the countries we buy from. Anyway, it hasn’t happened in the thirty years since off shoring got so popular.

Make whatever predictions you want about the rosy future under free trade, but we do not yet have the much touted and oft-promised highly educated workforce of the future. We have a partially highly educated workforce, a partially moderately educated workforce, and a partially not that well educated workforce. A large fraction of those folks will always be content to clock-in at an assembly line, and bang out their eight-hour day in return for a reasonable living standard and reasonable protections against bankruptcy induced by the vagaries of human health. What’s wrong with that? Every immigrant wave that came here and built this country started there? Why pull the rug out now, when all we get in return is a really rich upper crust with big houses for the rest of us to admire from outside the gates?

My preceding free trade post is here: Free Traders: Friends or Foes?

Here's a bracing rundown of NAFTA's caustic effects from Robert E. Scott at the Economic Policy Institute (www.epi.org): The high price of ‘free’ trade

Former Senator Fritz Hollings seems to concur:
We Are in Real Trouble
Politics Like Cancer

Here's a nice roundup of NY Times articles on NAFTA: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/n/north_american_free_trade_agreement/index.html

And here's a nice little Wiki history of tariffs in the United States: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tariff_in_American_history

Friday, June 12, 2009

Mountaintop Removal: Tell Congress to End It

Mountaintop removal coal mining is a callous attack on our common heritage that will be mourned and condemned by future generations.

Do you want to responsible for that? I don't.

Join Ashley Judd and the Sierra Club in their battle to preserve the mountain vistas and verdant hollows of the Appalachians at: http://action.sierraclub.org/site/PageServer?pagename=Coal_Mining_Tracker&autologin=true

This attack on our land provides us only 5% of the coal we burn, but poisons downstream residents and drives them from their homes, schools and workplaces. It wipes out animal populations for miles around where residents hunted and fished for generations. Once brilliant, rushing streams now ooze dark and toxic.

Let's put a stop to this profitable but mean-spirited insult to our heritage and progeny. It benefits no one but stockholders.

Contact your representatives, tell them to support The Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 1310) and The Appalachian Restoration Act (S. 696). Tell them to end this, now.

Here's news on the latest EPA action: Obama Mountaintop Coal Mining Plan Disappoints Appalachian Advocates

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Enough carbon-free power for 25 million homes?

Geothermal offers enormous potential, especially for baseload generation, with minimal downside. We already have 3000 megawatts of geothermal capacity, and we could have 30,000 megawatts (enough for the aforementioned 25 million homes). What's stopping us? Bad public energy policy, especially lots of indirect subsidies for coal and nuclear that renewable sources never seem to get (due to an underfunded lobby), plus the fact that utility profits are tied to the volume of electricity sold, which only encourages the construction of more coal plants (the cheapest source of electricity as long coal mines and power plants can pollute for free), and discourages efficiency improvements.

Here's an enlightening report on the state of geothermal electricity production:

Geothermal, the 'undervalued' resource, sees surging interest

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What if the "The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009" isn't enacted?

Your electric bill (and the price of everything else that requires electricity to manufacture) will still go up. Probably more than if it does pass.

Why? Because instead of investing in efficiency -- which could create lots of jobs for wage-earners -- investment will be in new capacity: coal and nuclear power plants and grid expansion. New capacity from big, central plants costs more than efficiency improvements or distributed renewable sources so your bill will go up. In fact, electricity gained by through efficiency improvements cost around $0.04 a KW/hr, as opposed to at least $0.18 for nukes (not including security or waste disposal) and around $0.10 for coal.

If we care about global warming and foolishly choose nukes over renewables, we will also discover that we can't build nukes fast enough to mitigate global warming -- they're just too complicated. And if we build nukes, it will be with taxpayer dollars to guarantee construction loans for projects notorious for cost overruns and delays. Otherwise banks won’t finance them.

Renewables, on the other hand, can be constructed faster and cheaper, and with far less resistance from neighbors (no one wants a nuke in their backyard).

Also, building coal and nuke plants won’t create as many jobs, nor will they last as long. Big coal and nuke plants are capital intensive -- they require fewer, but much more expensive components than distributed, renewable power sources or efficiency improvements like better appliances, construction materials, manufactured homes, etc. which can be produced by American workers for years.

On the other hand, we can make efficiency improvements and build wind, photovoltaic, biogas, geothermal and micropower (cogeneration) sources fast enough (using American products and labor if we’re smart). And, remember: distributed power sources for efficient loads are cheaper and more reliable than big nukes and coal -- not even taking into account the waste disposal and security costs for nuclear, or the environmental cleanup and health costs associated with all that mercury, radioactive isotopes, and particulates rained down by coal plants.

You want some dollar numbers?

Here's some from this blog: "Cap & Trade: Doing Well While Doing Good"

Here are some from the Union of Concerned Scientists, "Clean Energy, Green Jobs (2009)"
Read the following from an unimpeachable source, the Rocky Mountain Institute:

Does a Big Economy Need Big Power Plants? A Guest Post

Mighty Mice (funny title, concise, enlightening information)

The Nuclear Illusion (longish, but convincing)

Rocky Mountain Institute: Top Federal Energy Policy Goals
(what we would do if we were really smart...includes some job creation numbers)

And, here's a good explanation of how Carbon Cap & Trade will work (from Greenwire):
Carbon allowances -- the glue in House energy package

Friday, May 15, 2009

Renewable Electricity Standard (RES)(S.433 & H.R.890):
A Modest Proposal
To Join The Rest of the Planet In The 21st Century

The members of Congress who found the courage to introduce landmark energy bills such as The Renewable Electricity Standard (RES)(S.433 in the Senate and H.R.890 in the House) should be cheered. These are honorable initiatives to move this country into the realm of 21st century electricity generation technology, and away from toxic coal, of which we burn about 2.85 million short tons per day. (If you don't think that's a lot, watch the Frontline program "Heat.")

This bill would bring U.S. electricity generation from renewable sources (primarily wind and biomass gas) up to 25% of consumption by 2025. Given the state of technology, and plentiful wind resources, this isn't much of challenge. And it will only reduce coal consumption by 8 to 11 percent (depending on whether or not states get various exemptions). Further, additional costs to power plant operators imposed by this bill are minimized when combined with the effects of greenhouse gas cap & trade provisions of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454) and a proposed energy efficiency resource standard.

What this bill will do is reduce growth of coal consumption, and the toxic side effects of it: mercury and radioactive isotopes in the air, leaching fly ash on the ground, and decapitated mountains in our verdant Appalachians. It will create solid, unionized manufacturing, installation and maintenance jobs that can't be outsourced. And, it will slow global warming -- not enough -- but it's a start.

And, it won't cost ratepayers much: somewhere between 2.7 and 2.9 percent tacked on to their monthly bills. (Yes, it's true, new power lines may need to be constructed from windy places to the consumers, but new coal plants, and the added power line capacity that goes with them will cost money, too. So, upgrading the grid is not an excuse for not doing this.)

Tell your representatives to support this bill (along with the American Clean Energy and Security Act), and tell your neighbors it's a good thing that won't cost 'em a bundle.

I got my numbers from the Energy Information Administration, in the Executive Summary of the report: Impacts of a 25-Percent Renewable Electricity Standard as Proposed in the American Clean Energy and Security Act Discussion Draft

Incidentally, you can search for any Congressional bill at the Thomas Library of Congress

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cap & Trade: Doing Well While Doing Good

Cap & Trade is good for the U.S. economy, good for U.S. wage earners, and good for the planet.

Phasing out dirty, expensive, energy sources will cost some people money in the short term, but the costs to consumers can be mitigated through efficiency improvements (which are part of "The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009") and rebates to low-income households.

The EPA estimates the following
"Average Household Energy Expenditures
(excluding gasoline)":

2015: $1,950
2020: $2,020
2030: $2,200
2040: $2,200
2050: $2,150


"Change in Average Household Energy Expenditures
(excluding gasoline)":

2020: 6.0%
2030: 8.5%
2040: 11.5%
2050: 15.0%

• In 2030 electricity prices increase by 22% in “scenario 2 – WM-Draft” and natural gas prices increase by 17%. In “scenario 3 – WM-Draft Energy Efficiency” electricity prices increase by 20% and natural gas prices (including allowance costs) increase by 13%.
• Actual household energy expenditures increase by a lesser amount due to reduced demand for energy. In 2030 the average household’s energy expenditures (excluding motor gasoline) increase by 9% in scenario 2 – WM-Draft” and by 8% in “scenario 3 – WM-Draft Energy Efficiency.”
• In ADAGE, energy expenditures represent approximately 2% of total consumption in 2020 falling to 1% by 2050 in all scenarios.
• The energy expenditures presented here do not include any potential increase in capital or maintenance cost associated with more energy efficient technologies.

These increased energy costs are not nothing, but they're not wildly unreasonable considering historical fuel price trends.(see: Household Energy Expenditures (pg. 31) section of the EPA's "EPA Preliminary Analysis of the Waxman-Markey Discussion Draft")

Delusional, socialist, redistribution of wealth? No, not really. We'll just be asking polluters to pay for the right to pollute. Something we've been asking other polluters to do for a long time, but usually after the fact through fines, which cost everyone a lot more when you factor in legal fees and reclamation costs, which also don't help consumers or create jobs. And remember, coal (and coal is primarily what we're talking about) dumps a lot more than C02 into the atmosphere -- there's mercury and radioactive isotopes, too. Not to mention all those heaps of fly ash leaching heavy metals into our groundwater, and mountaintop-removal wiping out vast tracts of cherished Appalachian hill country and the wildlife and people that live there.

Incidentally, we've been through this sort of thing before: pack mules gave way to the Erie Canal and riverboats, the Erie Canal gave way to railroads, clipper ships gave way to steamships, coal locomotives gave way to diesel, the horse and buggy gave way to the automobile and the train, the telegraph (and shouting) gave way to the telephone. All of these transitions hurt someone. And cap & trade will hurt someone, too. But there is a big upside with the potential for good union-protected manufacturing jobs -- the kind of jobs that created the middle class after the last depression.

Other countries recognize this, and they are profiting from being getting in early. They will be technology development and export leaders. These leaders include China, as well as the EU. Currently, the U.S. is lagging, even though we were the first to develop and adopt many "green" technologies on a small scale. We just haven't kept up with the investment, and that's sad because since the start of the industrial revolution, we have been technological leaders in energy distribution, manufacturing, transportation and health care.

Now we are slipping behind in all these categories. Something our grandparents, who worked and fought so hard for middle-class prosperity, would be dismayed by. Getting on board with this next industrial revolution will be a great opportunity for this country to restore itself to world-class status not only in technological terms, but in terms of new employment opportunities -- many of which can't be outsourced and don't require a college degree, which I think at least a few among us would be grateful for.

May 22, 2009:
The House Energy and Commerce Committe passed the The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, by a vote of 33 to 25. Well, the Dems gave away 85% of the emissions allowances, and that's a lot revenue squandered, but the bill still puts a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, strongly encourages the implementation of renewable energy sources, and will increase the energy efficiency of commercial and residential structures, and that's good. All these things will lead to new, well-paid (unionized, I hope) jobs manufacturing, installing and maintaining the components of a new economic sector of our economy.

A Washington Post article mentions the following:
The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the overall impact would be too small to significantly dampen economic growth. But the conservative Heritage Foundation has said it might cost a family $4,300 per year in a few decades.

"The actual paperwork isn't done at the retail level," said David Kreutzer, a climate policy specialist at the Heritage Foundation. "But it's going to jack the cost up, and they will have to pass the costs on to consumers."

Mr. Kreutzer appears to be backing down from that wildly inflated $4,300/year assertion. Probably because it was based on an inflated estimate of costs for future emission allowances -- inflated by a factor of about ten.

Here's a good explanation of how Carbon Cap & Trade will work:
Carbon allowances -- the glue in House energy package

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Freedom's Just Another Word For: Car-Free
I must be nuts, but I think car-free living is a great idea. I'm tired of maintaining, feeding, and insuring my beast of burden so I can hop in and race off to sit in the fetid, poisonous atmosphere of a traffic jam.

I remember living in a city where transportation was a shared endeavor: I just walked down the block, waited a few minutes, and climbed on a bus or subway. On board, I could open a book, daydream, chat with strangers (not so often, but occasionally), and presto, I would arrive at my destination un-stressed and with my wallet not much lighter than when I started. And the collective energy on the bus or train always jazzed me up to get done whatever I needed to do.

Well, "car-free" is catching on. Here's a story from the venerable NY Times about a couple of towns in Germany that are going for it: "In German Suburb, Life Goes On Without Cars"

If you think this sounds good, ignore the haters that cry that public transport impedes their freedom. Baloney! Public transport expands your freedom -- those narrow-minders have obviously never tried it. No traffic worries (for trains and busses with dedicated lanes at least), no parking worries, no breakdown worries, and best of all: no DWI worries. Ignore the haters and tell your congressional representatives to replace highway funding (currently 80%) with more funding for public transportation (currently 20%) in the 2009 Transportation Reauthorization Bill. This bill is reauthorized every six years, and this is the year, so as they say on TV: Act now!

You can find your representatives here: congress.org

And here's a website devoted to car-free living: CarFree City USA

Friday, May 8, 2009

Free Traders: Friends or Foes?

I'm astonished that otherwise reputable economists continue to promote free trade dogma.

Free-trader enthusiasts consistently decry the horrors of tariffs, yet throughout U.S. industrialization (early 1800's to WWII), in fact, until Ronald Reagan's administration in 1980, we had broad protective tariffs on manufactured products as high as 48% and frequently averaging in the 30% range. And during this stretch of 150 years or so we saw consistent, profitable expansion of U.S. manufacturing, despite depressions, recessions, and a civil war intermittently impeding growth.

Since Reagan's income tax and tariff cuts, we've liquidated our industrial base for quick profits, dismantled the middle class and the unions that fostered it, eroded wages for wage-earners, and cemented in place an uber-wealthy, capitalized oligarchy. Our post-manufacturing banker class continues to sell out un-capitalized, wage-earners for a quick buck importing cheap junk from overseas and outsourcing design, manufacturing and service jobs. (John Jacob Astor would have been proud.) What's left? Retail, tourism (hawking Chinese t-shirts, hotel hospitality, rental desk clerks, etc.), health care, food service, and...wait for it...landscaping and gardening at the expansive homes of affluent bankers.

If free trade were such a godsend, would we not be seeing some real benefits, aside from cheap imported junk and profitable job outsourcing, by now? Benefits such as sustained and broad prosperity? Appealing employment opportunities? Health care for everyone? Education for everyone? Something besides cheap junk and a proliferation of rich bankers propped up by tax dollars?

Here's a revealing and contradictory take on free trade:
Thom Hartmann's review of Ha-Joon Chang's 'Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism'

Here's a Senator from South Carolina who recognizes the flaws in free trade: The Failures of Free Trade

The sooner wage-earning Americans wise up to the baloney we're being fed by our caviar-nipping, banking brethren, the better.

Here's a bit longer thing I wrote in response to comments on this and another post: Domestic Manufacturing vs. Free Trade

Here's a bracing rundown of NAFTA's caustic effects from Robert E. Scott at the Economic Policy Institute (www.epi.org): The high price of ‘free’ trade

Former Senator Fritz Hollings seems to concur:
We Are in Real Trouble
Politics Like Cancer

Here's a nice roundup of NY Times articles on NAFTA: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/n/north_american_free_trade_agreement/index.html

If you don't read all of the above, read this at least:
Free Trade Accord at Age 10: The Growing Pains Are Clear

And here's a nice little Wiki history of tariffs in the United States: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tariff_in_American_history

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Progressives & Conservatives

Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence"
It seems that most who call themselves conservatives these days have been co-opted by rich, white men in search of pliable dupes to do their bidding. Conservatives at their best are cautious, resourceful, freedom loving and fiscally responsible -- and honest. But the current breed of conservative politicians and talk-radio ideologues appeal to the basest, most simplistic, atavistic instincts of voters and listeners too uncertain in their knowledge, or too lazy, to pursue a thorough understanding of issues that imperil them. These co-opted citizens rally behind cowardly, self-serving demagogues who devolve every debate into a personal "us vs. them" dichotomy; demagogues who show no shame using half-truths and outright lies to demonize those who threaten their privileged status quo; demagogues whose mesmerized followers seem to crave the tribal oneness that witch hunts provide.

Progressives, at their best, recognize that "us vs. them" is not productive; that some of "us" are bad, and some of "them" are good; that most of society's problems are complex, and that to solve them society must take risks and accept failure as part of the problem solving process. The ultimate durability of society rests in the hands of the majority, and if that majority is well informed and gainfully employed, everyone benefits. The problem with this enlightened, nuanced view is that it offers no simplistic, emotionally satisfying solutions. For a constituency craving fast food meat and potatoes, slow-cooked bouillabaisse is a turn off.

In every society, there are those who seek to exploit economic inequalities to their advantage, and in so doing perpetuate and amplify those inequalities. Economic predators extol the virtues of free markets while enjoying the benefits of market imbalances: oil companies who enjoy cheap oil leases, tax loopholes, and captive customers; media purveyors who enjoy free broadcast spectrum; coal mine operators who enjoy lax environmental protection. Such citizens are not free-market capitalists. They are lazy, morally corrupt, cowardly parasites that we would do well to banish to the backwaters of civilization. Yet, conservative politicians and media demagogues uniformly praise such "rugged individualists" as the most productive members of American society. It is a conceit that serves a singular purpose: mitigating their own fear. Conservatives, at their worst, are motivated by fear, which is why they resent change, gravitate toward exclusive rather than inclusive society (The Klan, John Birch, The Tea Party), and covet firearms and money -- both of which offer them a false sense of security.

Progressives at their best are motivated by hope. They acknowledge their fears, but find the courage to reject them and reach for something better. Progressives recognize that bureaucracy may breed corruption, but can also deliver vital services; that taxes might stifle some investment, but will create broad prosperity by preventing concentration of wealth amongst a fortunate or corrupt few; that unions marginally impede profits, but guarantee safe working conditions and fair wages. Progressives recognize that a productive, vibrant healthy society imposes costs on its members, but that those costs are countered by benefits borne easily by a society where every honest, hard-working member can expect long-term, stable prosperity that will never be obliterated by venal demagogues who profit from illicit trade in fear mongering and pandering. Progressives, at their worst, overreach and over-promise. They underestimate the treasure and time required to overcome obstacles and meet ambitious goals. If unchecked, progressive political parties tend to devolve into a mash of competing goals and reckless grasping at solutions without performing due diligence to vet those solutions.

Conservatives -- at their best -- can play the vital role of skeptic, and check the self-destructive, anarchic impulses of progressives at their worst. But honesty is required on both sides, or the partnership collapses into a standoff fueled by acrimony -- or, outright violence. Sadly, conservative political parties and media outlets have not met their obligation to be honest skeptics these last twenty years, or so. Instead, they have merely been reactionary, putting the brakes on any initiative that challenges the status quo. How bad do things have to get before they recognize the folly in their attempt to alleviate fear with hoards of guns and money?

I vigorously recommend a fine essay, a compilation of bits of Henry David Thoreau's speeches and writing:

It gives progressives and conservatives both a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but it is illustrative of the dichotomy to which I refer above. And it's a damn good read -- go for it!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Power grab...clean power

The U.S. needs passionate, courageous leadership in our pursuit of renewable energy or we'll end up as an also-ran in the race to secure market share in the manufacture of renewable energy generators such as windmills, photovoltaics, turbines for co-generation and geothermal, and components for creation and storage of biomass gases.

If that happens, we'll miss what appears to be our last opportunity to restore a bit of our greed-decimated, off-shored manufacturing base and our last hope for broad economic prosperity, i.e. broad as in not just the rich get richer, but everyone gets a piece of the pie. Remember the post WWII years (or, remember reading about them at least)? Unions grew strong, wages increased all-around, the upper tax bracket was around 90%, and we saw the largest, broadest expansion of wealth in our history. We created the middle-class.

We can do that again if we secure the lead, or at least a major share, of the market for renewable energy products...now (not next month, next quarter, next year...now). Then there's the market for high-efficiency appliances and mass transit that we could dig into as well. Proudly manufactured in the U.S. of A. But, it will take leadership and courage. And, based on historical evidence, Congress can't manage those qualities so well. They need help. Encouragement. Threats (not to vote for 'em, that's all). So contact your Representatives and demand action. Demand they keep renewables in the 2009 budget, and insist that they keep nukes and "clean" (dirty) coal out.

To find contact info for your Congressional Representatives, visit: congress.org

Contact them...now! Let's get 'er done.

Want to read about how China and Europe are all ready eating our lunch? Read: "We Must Seize the Energy Opportunity or Slip Further Behind"

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Modern Democratic Party

The Modern Democratic Party is right, reasonable, and rational...but corrupt and absent the courage of its convictions.

The Modern Republican Party

The Modern Republican Party stands for nothing but self-interest:

-- Keep my income taxes to an absolute minimum, don't mess with my capital gains, and repeal the estate tax while we deny that the middle class withers, the poor drown in debt, our manufacturing engine of prosperity sputters, and wealth concentrates more noxiously at the top than ever before.

-- Insist that everyone who doesn't look and think like me is no patriot while we deny that the country's Anglo Saxon tint will inexorably diminish and leave a pale-skinned but well-heeled minority heir to an embattled and despised oligarchy.

-- The Constitution not withstanding, we will force kids to say prayers in school, put the Ten Commandments in courthouse lobbies and Christmas trees on courthouse lawns while we deny that to impose Christianity on constituents who practice other equally valid faiths, or none at all might be divisive or mean-spirited.

-- Pretend that teenagers who have sex or women who choose abortions are abhorrent and abnormal, while we deny or repress the sexual behavior of our own family members.

-- Insist that it's an indisputable right to own and carry combat weapons while cops and children are gunned down in the street like ducks in a shooting gallery and we deny that unfettered access to weapons might be the problem.

-- Rail against the non-existent leftist bias of the press while we applaud lying, dissembling, libelous talk-show demagogues and plead elitism when these charlatans are mocked, discredited, and dismissed by legitimate journalists who try to earn a living telling the truth.

The Republican Party stands for nothing laudable. It may have once, but no longer. Not efficient, fiscally responsible government; not opportunity and prosperity for wage-earning families; not law and order.

The Republican Party offers no vision of shared future prosperity at all.

The Republican Party is the party of self-interest, and if we continue to put self-interest before national interest, we won’t need to declare allegiance to the Republican or Democratic parties -- we’ll be tormented members of tribes who throw rocks and spears at our abundant and ever-multiplying adversaries.

Want a more authoritative view? Try Paul Krugman, "Tea Parties Forever"

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Congress should support the President's budget...

For the first time that I can remember we have a budget proposal that prioritizes the health and prosperity of the majority of our population. It provides for the basic, long-term necessities of a viable nation instead of catering to the selfish, shortsighted demands of manipulative industry groups.

It emphasizes medical care at a reasonable cost that doesn't hold individuals hostage to jobs or locations they would be better off leaving because they are afflicted with a pre-existing condition, a cause for denial of coverage elsewhere. Nor will the President's budget extort businesses with ever escalating costs. It puts patients ahead of profits and removes the incentives for unnecessary diagnostics and drugs. It will control costs through bargaining leverage over hospitals, diagnostic labs, and pharmaceutical companies; and with the education and preventive care that for-profit private insurers dismiss because while such measures offer long-term return on investment, they cut into short-term profits. And it will cut costs through electronic recordkeeping, something that more cost conscious businesses, like airlines, car-rental agencies, and hotels, did a long time ago, but the medical industry lagged because they seem to prefer the resistance to scrutiny that muddled paper records provide.

It emphasizes energy policy that will foster a burgeoning industry to create clean electricity generating capacity without destroying our remaining pristine landscapes. If we are smart about it, we could put millions of people to work building the machines that will harness abundant solar energy and implementing energy efficiency retrofits to our homes and commercial buildings. Such retrofits will eliminate the shameful and expensive waste that we have tolerated for so long and eliminate the necessity to build coal-fired power plants. Many efficiency estimates indicate we could reduce energy consumption in our homes and commercial buildings by more than 60% at lower cost than building new power plants to meet demand that will otherwise grow. And the budget provides a long overdue cap-and-trade pricing mechanism for costly and destructive greenhouse gas emissions that will impose on energy providers the true cost of their negligence if they decline to invest in clean alternatives.

And it emphasizes education. Without a good, old-fashioned education -- my eighty year old mother can whip me on a geography or grammar quiz any day -- without the ability to perform basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, our population will slip into a dark malaise of incompetence and declining productivity. We will witness a Dark Age in our own time. How about a Renaissance instead? How about an American Age of Enlightenment? It's within our grasp, but not if we don't avidly read history to avoid repeating our mistakes, appreciate the importance of science and admire its practitioners, and find inspiration in the legacy of fine art that our planet's civilizations have sacrificed so much to bequeath us. We don't all need PhD's, but we all can share the power of knowledge and enlightenment if we take the trouble and expense to educate our children and show them the potential that's only a book or two (or Internet click) away.

The President's opposition will tell you that this budget is a tax and spend boondoggle. That it will generate intolerable, crushing debt. But they didn't talk about debt when the prior administration passed Medicare Part D for prescription drugs, a debt inflating welfare program for pharmaceutical companies and boondoggle if ever there was one. And the opposition didn't worry about crushing debt when they inflated the defense budget with useless weapons systems that did nothing to protect our soldiers overseas but made the politicians' campaign contributors very happy. And they didn't tell you when they passed a tax cut that benefited an affluent minority that our national debt would skyrocket to unprecedented levels (along with their campaign coffers and revolving door job offers).

Well, there is a solution for the debt: we ask the affluent to acknowledge the sacrifices of our less prosperous citizens who provided the secure, fertile environment and the generous opportunities from which they have profited almost exclusively for the last twenty-five years. We ask them to give with the same enthusiasm as they take. We ask them to pay more taxes. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. And the times of broadest prosperity in this country have been when our income taxes were highest:

"By 1936 the lowest tax rate had reached 4 percent and the top rate was up to 79 percent. ... Even before the United States entered the Second World War, increasing defense spending and the need for monies to support the opponents of Axis aggression led to the passage in 1940 of two tax laws that increased individual and corporate taxes, which were followed by another tax hike in 1941. By the end of the war the nature of the income tax had been fundamentally altered. Reductions in exemption levels meant that taxpayers with taxable incomes of only $500 faced a bottom tax rate of 23 percent, while taxpayers with incomes over $1 million faced a top rate of 94 percent. ... the maximum tax rate in 1954 remained at 87 percent of taxable income. ... The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which enjoyed strong bi-partisan support in the Congress, represented a fundamental shift in the course of federal income tax policy. Championed in principle for many years by then-Congressman Jack Kemp (R-NY) and then-Senator Bill Roth (R- DE), it featured a 25 percent reduction in individual tax brackets, phased in over 3 years, and indexed for inflation thereafter. This brought the top tax bracket down to 50 percent. ... the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which brought the top statutory tax rate down from 50 percent to 28 percent while the corporate tax rate was reduced from 50 percent to 35 percent." (History of the U.S. Tax System)

So, contrary to what the President's shrill opposition would have you believe, the country can survive higher taxes. And it's notable that following Reagan's tax cuts we slipped into a deep recession which, to cover yawning budget gaps, he and his successor retreated from the "trickle down theory" with tax increases -- back up to around 40%. It's also notable that at about the same time as taxes were cut by Reagan, wealth became increasingly concentrated in the top few percentiles of the population while real wages of the middle class were flat or declining.
President Obama is offering vision and leadership that can and will put us right, but only if we find the faith and the courage to accept the bitter medicine that's required to cure our ills. In the end, the affluent may be humbled a bit, but the vast majority will be proud of what this nation can accomplish if we reject false promises and stand up to empty rhetoric. We (the people) can do this, but we all must speak up. Your congressmen will listen if you tell them in no uncertain terms what you expect. Contact your representative now: Congress.org

Monday, March 30, 2009

Give the Big Three A Break

Give the Big Three A Break

I happen to have the good fortune of being a homeowner in the Detroit suburbs and former employee of an automotive supplier. I quit that job four years ago disgusted by the hyper-conservative (by conservative I mean eager to preserve the status quo, not necessarily politically conservative), hyper-cautious, cowardly decision-making practices that inevitably prevail (I managed a small electronics engineering group). Automakers always want to stick with whatever makes money today, and never want to take a chance on what might be profitable tomorrow. And they are relentlessly (mindlessly?) focused on cutting production costs at the expense of investing in innovation. I had smart, hard-working engineers in my group who were eager to attack tough problems. But they hardly ever got the chance because my bosses just wanted to wring every dollar they could out of the products we already had and offer nothing new even when our customers (Ford, GM, Chrysler, Audi, VW, etc.) specifically asked for it. We perpetually tried to re-sell the customer a product that wasn't up to the customer's demands by repackaging and "repositioning" it -- that is telling the customer the product was something it wasn't. So we spent a lot of time tweaking superficial details instead of getting in front of the real problem that confronted us: an aging product line.

A lot of smart talent was wasted because it was underutilized even when we had the money to act. Now the money is gone, and most of the talent that could leave did. What's left are those that couldn't get out (not necessarily because they're incompetent, though some are, but perhaps their families are settled here and they didn't want to bail on the devil they knew in exchange for one elsewhere they didn't know; or maybe their homes are "underwater" and moving is no longer an option).

I remember visits to the assembly lines where our products were used, and sometimes failed. I would accompany engineers on troubleshooting missions. The people I encountered on the assembly lines worked hard -- physically hard -- often in a noisy, rank environment. Many were older than I, and looked a lot more tired. But they were always eager to help us geek engineers get our product working, even if it meant added work and inconvenience for them. And they didn't do it because someone told them to. They smiled and offered to help, and they offered useful suggestions for how to make the product better and in turn improve the quality of their product. They care about what rolls off the line, I have no doubt about that. They earn their pay, and they earn the profits that pay much larger salaries to others, too. Standing next to a cacophonous testing bay where cars slid every thirty seconds onto rollers and were accelerated to 70 m.p.h., surrounded by eye-watering smoke from burning rubber, I realized pretty soon where the money came from for my cushy salary. The line workers always knew it, yet they never seemed to make that an issue, they just wanted to keep working. (And this wasn't considered a tough place to work, try slamming heavy, unwieldy dashboard assemblies into place all day.)

So, while my group spun its wheels making cosmetic changes on an outdated product, and assembly line workers busted their humps three shifts a day, management followed the quick buck doing the same thing my engineering group did: repackage and reposition. They produced the gas guzzling SUV's that indulgent consumers awash in credit demanded. There never seemed to be a plan for what to do if gas prices suddenly spiked and consumers decided they preferred something less profligate. And we all knew gas prices would spike.

And then gas prices did spike and I thought, "Hallelujah!" Detroit's finally going to start selling their little cars. And there was a brief blast of enthusiasm for them. Until the economic crisis kicked in and sales dropped 30%, 40%, 50% compared to just a year ago (WSJ: Auto Sales).

Well, the assembly line workers didn't induce the economic crisis; neither did the engineers. Sure, the Big Three would have been in trouble if gas prices remained high, but they would have bumbled their way along as they always have. They would have contracted, as they have been for years, but they wouldn't have gone over a cliff. It was not the Big Three that suddenly did themselves in (although executive incompetence was slowly dragging them down) it was a bunch of criminally greedy bankers and securities traders that sent us all over a cliff. But the criminally greedy bankers are not the ones crashing on the rocks. And to add further insult to injury, unions -- the only thing that ever moved working stiff living standards in a positive direction -- are being demonized. In the past, union wages might have gotten out of hand for some workers who could rack up a lot of overtime, but those are exceptions, and management -- hungry for for quick profits -- often made incremental wage concessions to unions while at the same time outsourcing thousands of their jobs (see UAW Timeline). Pensions got out of hand because management and politicians (bankrolled by management) wouldn't support Walter P. Reuther's plan to consolidate and nationalize pensions so younger workers would subsidize older ones. I agree union negotiators sometimes overreached, but it was while they watched executives overreach several orders of magnitude more severely. Still, unions are not, and never were the problem with American industry. It's greedy incompetent, lazy, parasitic executives that sold us out for a quick buck and brought American hope for future prosperity to its knees.