Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Climate of the Possible

President Obama dedicated his Saturday address to making the case for the power plant regulations he will formally unveil on Monday.  He did so primarily on the basis of their health benefit, while countering arguments that these efforts will ruin the economy.   "That's what they always say," he pointed out, in past debates over health and environmental regulations that did not ruin the economy but fostered innovation that led to new businesses and jobs.  But he also framed these regulations in relation to the climate crisis, which he pointed out is now part of our present. Looking to the future he said, "As President and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that's beyond fixing."

In covering this address, TPM noted that while the new regulations that won't really become effective for years are a compromise with political realities, given current laws it's at the limit of his presidential powers. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Oncoming Storm?

What's been anticipated for years, rumored to be coming soon for weeks is now in the first phase of realization. The Guardian is one of several news outlets to report:

"President Barack Obama will unveil a plan on Monday that will cut carbon pollution from power plants and promote cap-and-trade, undertaking the most significant action on climate change in American history.

The proposed regulations Obama will launch at the White House on Monday could cut carbon pollution by as much as 25% from about 1,600 power plants in operation today, according to those claiming familiarity with the plan. Power plants are the country's single biggest source of carbon pollution – responsible for up to 40% of the country's emissions."

No source is given but a conference call with White House advisor John Podesta is mentioned later in the story.  The New York Times has a similar story.

The howls of opposition are already beginning, and will be both loud and legalistic.  The regulatory action in particular is going to hit a number of factions right in the gut of their dogma.

But the politics are unlikely to be one-sided.  There are indications here and there that even in the upcoming 2014 elections, at least some Democrats are going on the offense on this issue.

And there's also evidence that Republican deniers (which means almost every Republican running for anything) are on the defensive.  This story reproduces an uncomfortable Q and A with Florida Governor Rick Scott, illustrating the bind that particularly governors and other state and local officials are in.  As noted here, effects of the climate crisis are already been felt in Florida, notably in flooding that is reaching into middle class Miami Beach homes.  Scott is trying hard to show that he's responding to such effects, while denying that he has any idea of the causes.  It doesn't sound credible.  It sounds really bad.

There's all kinds of potential here.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dogma Versus the Future

It's become the holy word of Republican orthodoxy, as well as a well-worn mantra of the business class: government doesn't innovate, create jobs or do anything well except spend the money they steal from citizens through taxes.  The way to promote innovation and economic growth is shrink the government, cut taxes on businesses and rich people, then sit back and watch the economy take off.

Despite certain cautionary tales like the Great Depression, this has become a dogma, even though some thinking Republicans recognize it lacks so much nuance as to be self-destructive.  Still it remains the only theology the short shelf of Republican factions can all embrace, and still hope to draw in non-believers.

That it's not true is more than a minor inconvenience.  It's a prescription for failure, and specifically for American failure in the near future.  That's one major conclusion of a couple of new books that Jeffrey Madrick reviews in the April 24 New York Review of Books.

These books in different ways affirm that major innovations--including  recent ones in the tech sector that the Enteprenerurial Liberation Front likes to cite, such as the iphone--were made possible by government funded research.

The two books are The Entrepreneurial State by economist Mariana Mazzucato and Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy by William H. Janeway.  Reviewer Madrick quotes:

"For example, she [Mazzucato] shows in detail that, while Steve Jobs brilliantly imagined and designed attractive new commercial products, almost all the scientific research on which the iPod, iPhone, and iPad were based was done by government-backed scientists and engineers in Europe and America. The touch-screen technology, specifically, now so common to Apple products, was based on research done at government-funded labs in Europe and the US in the 1960s and 1970s.

Further: Two researchers cited by Mazzucato found that in 2006, the last year sampled, only twenty-seven of the hundred top inventions annually listed by R&D Magazine in the 2000s were created by a single firm as opposed to government alone or a collaboration with government-funded entities."

Much was made in the 2012 election campaign of the bankruptcy of the solar energy company Solyndra, which received $500 million in government loans.  Apart from the fact that most of the investment money came from private hedge funds, there's this: "But including Solyndra, only roughly 2 percent of the projects partly financed by the federal government have gone bankrupt."

Still, the media loudspeaker made Solyndra a brand name, while nobody much has heard of First Solar--a solar energy company that is both a success and would not exist without government funding.

Mazzucato moves on to show in detail how the technologies for those visionary tech products the Ipad and Iphone "were almost completely dependent on government-sponsored research." One of the crucial ingredients in almost all new tech devices was the government created Global Positioning Satellites, or GPS.  Earlier it was the government-formed and supported research partnership of semiconductor firms (Sematec) that both insured US supremacy in microprocessors when Japan threatened to take over, and continued to innovate to make them smaller and better, making all mobile devices possible.

And of course even earlier, it was government research that created the Internet, and (beginning in the 1940s) to computers.  "Federal funding accounted for more than 50 percent of all US R&D from the early 1950s through 1978"--which includes the last decades when big corporations like Bell, GE, Dupont and Alcoa were spending a lot on research.  They haven't done so since.

But even though President Obama talks about supporting research, Republicans often vote against it.  Meanwhile, the review notes, China is investing heavily, with the threat of dominating future innovations.

It's true that a lot of funding for tech innovation came from or through Defense.  Not so much however in health.  Though the ELF makes Big Pharma into the innovative heroes, sources quoted in these books show that government research was responsible for 75% of the "major original breakthroughs known as new molecular entities between 1993 and 2004" and that of seven high priority drugs created in 2002, only three were from Big Pharma, four from government labs--and arguably they were the more significant.

The review also cites some interesting history, some economics concerning investment in innovation and some ideas on how to better finance innovation through public and private means.  But politically the nub of it all is this:“Many of the problems being faced today by the Obama administration,” she writes, “are due to the fact that US taxpayers…do not realize that corporations are making money from innovation that has been supported by their taxes.” That they are not aware of the benefits to competition seems to be a triumph of free-market ideology over good sense. How many Americans are aware that Google’s basic algorithm was developed with a National Science Foundation grant?"

The review concludes:

"But Mazzucato’s criticism of US innovation strategies goes deeper than the lack of adequate funding. She makes one of the most convincing cases I have seen for the value and competence of government itself, and for its ability to do what the private sector simply cannot. It is not only, as economists argue, a matter of reducing the risk of research and innovation for private enterprise. She argues that government efforts are the source of new technological visions for the future, and—very persuasively—she cites the innovations of the past sixty years to make her case."

Stirring the Potpourri

A couple of ongoing stories not all that prominent in the news media... Starting with the NBA Sterling/Silver affair, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stepped up his criticism of the racism enshrined in the name of Washington DC's National Football League team, calling on NFL Commissioner Goddell to have it changed.  Then he organized 49 Dem Senators to petition the club's owner Daniel Snyder to change it himself.  Snyder refused and went on the offensive against Reid, fomenting a Twitter war against him.  So far it is backfiring, as Washington club fans are taking to Twitter to demand the Washington Racists change their name.

European elections last week showed surprising gains for far right parties in France, the UK, Denmark and Austria, widely interpreted as resurgent nationalism and rebukes to the European Union.  I don't know enough about European politics and economics unfortunately but Matt Yglesias has a persuasive critique and I note that in his interview a few weeks ago in the New York Review of Books, George Soros predicted that there would be political upheaval coming as a result of recent EU policies.  Yglesias notes the austerity and widespread unemployment that may be fueling restive anger.  EU policymakers need to take heed.

 The European Union is a developing historic dream and bumps in such an ongoing project are to be expected.  But the timing is worrisome, not only for the world economy, but for the prospects of action on the climate crisis in the upcoming cycle.  

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

R.I.P Maya Angelou

In presenting Maya Angelou with the Medal of Freedom in 2010, President Obama said: "By holding on even amid cruelty and loss, and then expanding to a sense of compassion, an ability to love – by holding on to her humanity, she has inspired countless others who have known injustice and misfortune in their own lives."

Today, on the occasion of her death at age 86, he said: "Today Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time--a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman. Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things--an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director,composer, singer and dancer. But above all, she was a storyteller--and her greatest stories were true. A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking--but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbows amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves. In fact, she inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya."

May she rest in peace.  Her work and her example live on.

If A Tree Burns in the Forest...

So you may have heard about the tornado in North Dakota, maybe even the huge mudslide in Colorado or the wildfires in Arizona.  But how about the wildfire in...Alaska?  Yes--hot, dry Alaska.

Couldn't be much, though, if there's no news.  Here's most of the brief Reuter's report Tuesday:

The Funny River wildfire was burning on about 250 square miles (650 square km) of forest, most of it inside the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in southern Alaska, said Willie Begay, the spokesman.

The week-old fire has expanded from about 172 square miles (446 square km) on Sunday, when it was one-fifth contained. 

Almost 600 firefighters are battling the blaze among rolling hills mostly covered with black spruce, Begay said. The area has been without rain for more than a month, and steady winds from the southwest are fueling the flames.

So why isn't it big on the news?  Because it's in a wildlife refuge where there are only animals and trees.  Because few houses--let alone expensive houses-- have been threatened (though this story notes that over 1000 buildings have been evacuated.)

Like trees don't count.  In quantity however, in a heavily forested region, those are carbon breathers we're counting on to slow down global heating.  So not only is this bad news for what it indicates about the extent of climate crisis now (this is wildfire in Alaska), it's bad news for global heating in the near future.

Another thing you probably haven't heard about (unless you live there) is the persistent flooding in southeastern Florida, in Miami, being caused by sea level rise right now. But there it is flooding homes, and so local government and local politicians are paying attention, as this Bloomberg piece notes.

So the climate on the climate crisis may be changing in Florida, but as the climate changes in Alaska, not so much.  Because when a tree burns in the forest and there is no distraught homeowner to photograph for the front page or Youtube, it doesn't make a sound.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

So Now It's Okay to Like the Bee Gees?

Barry Gibbs, the last living Bee Gee, is playing to large crowds in a solo U.S. tour.  He started in the huge Boston Garden, which is where I once saw the Rolling Stones.  It's very big.

Rolling Stone (the magazine) celebrates this with a collection of YouTube versions of "13 Essential Barry Gibb Tracks," most of them from the Bee Gees, beginning in the late 60s.  The accompanying paragraphs are laudatory.  They suggest that David Bowie essentially copied the Bee Gees in his early albums.

So it's okay to like the Bee Gees now?  Finally?  When they started, the reigning tastemakers at Rolling Stone considered them Beatles Lite.  Their middle period albums were ignored, their hits ridiculed.  And that's before they rode the Disco wave with their songs in Saturday Night Fever, which was of course beneath contempt.

Contempt was the attitude we faced when we included their first albums in our 1967-68 continuous play mix back in the Galesburg House for the Bewildered (169 W. First Street, now a national historical monument.  Wait--update: they tore it down) where the tunes of that fantastic year were our senior year soundtrack at Knox College.  Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Creem, Doors, Buffalo Springfield, even Vanilla Fudge, but...the Bee Gees?

I purchased and listened to every Bee Gees album in the early and mid 70s.  Idea played at Iowa,  Mr. Natural in PA. My allegiance while I was writing about rock at the Boston Phoenix was considered a puzzling eccentricity. Rolling Stone and other rock imperial powers notwithstanding.  I do remember reading one writer somewhere (it may have even been on an album cover) brave enough to write a positive essay, though a lot of it was about how quixotic he was considered, how defensive he sometimes had to be.

Now Bruce Springsteen is doing a Bee Gees song--and one from the disco era--and Gibb is doing a Springsteen (neither of them terribly good at it.)  But that's less of a departure than Rolling Stone's--musicians by and large did not buy into the snobbery.  Many recorded Bee Gees songs and copied their riffs.  Musicians are like that.

So I welcome the conventional wisdom to what I already knew: the Bee Gees were unique, unquestionably strange, but frequently haunting and oddly joyful.  Welcome to the fan club.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote

   Flowers for remembrance, sunshine on the ferns for the unofficial start of summer. BK photo. Click to see it all.

“Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations.”
Albert Einstein