Archive for October, 2008

Coffee Shop Wisdom

Friday, October 31st, 2008

Pontification CentralI have coffee most mornings at the local Starbucks.

What the folks that I sit with have in common, mostly, is motorcycles.   But there’s a lot of political discussion goes on as well.

Most of these guys are a good deal more conservative than I am (I’m a liberal, if you didn’t know).   Many of them are, in fact, distressed that Obama is about to assume the presidency of the U.S.

Sometimes, our conversations can get pretty heavy and heated.  But, for the most part, people are respectful and receptive of each other’s points of view.   The operative principle seems to be, “If you give me a good listen, then I’ll listen to your lame theory too.

One of the things I most like about such free-ranging discussions is that they can often cut to the heart of the matter rather than getting deeply tangled up in peripheral intellectual issues.

For instance, the other day, I got a long E-mail from a fellow who was attempting to dissect what had happened with the current economic melt-down and the banks and who fault it was.   It went on at great length but then there was one sentence that cut through all the rest like a laser and, for me, it was the only thing of real value in the entire analysis.   He said, But ultimately, the villain is whoever was responsible for regulating the industry.”

We got to this point over coffee today.   We’re not brain surgeons and rocket scientists.  We’re a nurseryman, a retired executive, an electric meter man, a real estate agent, a policeman and who ever else happens to drift by and decides to sit in.

The fear was expressed that with an Obama administration, we’d soon find ourselves with too much regulation and control in our lives.

On the other hand, I pointed out, it was the lack of regulation that been growing since the Reagan / Thatcher years that finally got us into this mess we’re in now where greed ran away with common sense (and our money).

One of my conservative friends replied, “Yes, but as soon as you have regulation, it begins to grow likes weeds and soon everything is overrun and stifled.

I agreed – that did always seem to happen.  But, the problem, thus far in history has been, that when it comes to regulation, we’ve always been in feast or famine mode;  Either far too little or far too much.  “How about some moderation?“, I suggested.

We know that wealth, new products, creativity and innovation spring from the promise of making profits.   This is what drives corporations, businesses and all forms of private enterprise.   It is, indeed, the goose that lays the Golden Eggs – so it is not in our best interest to regulate it into submission and tax it to death.

But, it does need some level of regulation.   Without regulation, the urge to seek profit will eventually always run us into difficulties just like it is now.   The trick is to apply just the minimum of regulation to prevent businesses from taking actions that are not in the long-term public good.  But, beyond that, stay the hell out of their way.   “Yes, for example, we need wood products“, I said, “but woods products from renewable resources is one thing – cutting down our last forests is quite another.“  Without regulation, the profit seekers cannot make these discriminations.Lack of regulation

A look around the table showed that this seemed like a reasonable idea.   “If it could be done.“, one said, “If you could keep those that like to add ‘just one more rule or regulationat bay and if you could work out how to deflect every large multinational corporation who would love to ‘fiddle’ the rules and infiltrate the process for their own advantage.   Because the truth would be that even if you could get such a thing setup and running well, over time there would be endless forces around that would try to subvert it to their own aims; be they power or profit.

The conversation turned then to what Obama might do once he’s in office.  Even the most conservative of my coffee buddies now basically concedes that, with out some major October Surprise, Obama’s going to be our next president.Oh Yeah, Right!

Someone said, “He’ll have a lot of power if the House and Senate also return Democratic majorities.”   Someone else said, “No, he won’t.   There are a lot of constraints on a president’s power that even the president himself doesn’t learn about until he gets into office and all the ‘secretsare revealed to him and he finds out how things really work inside.

This led to discussions of ‘Shadow Governments‘ and J. Edgar Hoover‘s vast powers over four or five presidencies and to why the Kennedys were assassinated.  They were, perhaps, assassinated because they were too independent, had too much money and had snagged the highest offices in the land without being beholden to the real powers behind the throne in this country?   The Kennedys had tried to do an end-around on the real power brokers and were shown the door to eternity for their efforts.

The conversation continued to wander.  It was suggested that both candidates are saying they will work to “Rebuild America“.

I scoffed.   “It’s too late.   Someone (with regulation) should have protected our manufacturing base and our hi-tech industries from the multinational corporations and the Globalization folks a long time ago.   They’ve already had their way with us.   In the search for bigger profits, they’ve shipped our manufacturing and hi-tech jobs overseas.   All of that was good for them and their shareholders and a lot of folks in the orient have also gotten wealthier as our American wealth has gushed over to them – but it hasn’t left us better off as a nation, an economy or as a people.

I continued on the attack, “Everyone is worried that Obama is going to ‘distribute the wealth‘.   Get a grip folks – it’s already been distributed and it wasn’t by the socialistic programs of the Democrats.  It was distributed by Globalization and multinationals drinking from the rivers of money flowing from the U.S. to the new hi-tech centers in India and the new manufacturing plants in China.  The very rivers they helped setup for their own profits.   So, when folks talk, on either side, about rebuilding America, just what do they imagine they will rebuild it from?   Out manufacturing’s gone overseas, our hi-tech has gone overseas.   We’re just a cardboard store-front nation kiting checks that we call our National Debt and drowning here in cheap Wal-Mart plastic goods from China and hoping that they won’t send us any food with melamine in it.

Well, comes the rejoinder, “It’ll only be worse under an Obama administration.   They’ll tax whatever incomes we still have and give it to the poor folks who didn’t have enough grit to get off their asses and go to work.  I still say there will be too much regulation under Obama.   I drove my Suburban in for Coffee today – too much rain for the motorcycle.  Soon I won’t be able to drive it without the police will stop me and say I’m illegal because I don’t have six people in it and I’m wasting precious gasoline.

It was time to go to work, so we all got up to go off to our various destinations agreeing that it is all a major mess and that the politicians on all sides are lying about themselves and each other and they they aren’t going to be able to do even a tenth of all the stuff they are claiming they can do to fix it all.

And that’s today’s report from Starbucks – where the coffee is NOT Fair Trade Coffee – but, we won’t go there, eh?

Liberal Politics – A New Breakthrough!

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

Washington, DC – Congress is considering sweeping legislation that will provide new benefits for many Americans. The Americans With No Abilities Act (AWNAA) is being hailed as a major legislative goal by advocates of the millions of Americans who lack any real skills or ambition.

‘Roughly 50 percent of Americans do not possess the competence and drive necessary to carve out a meaningful role for themselves in society,’ said California Senator Barbara Boxer. ‘We can no longer stand by and allow People of Inability to be ridiculed and passed over. With this legislation, employers will no longer be able to grant special favors to a small group of workers, simply because they have some idea of what they are doing.’

In a Capitol Hill press conference, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pointed to the success of the U.S. Postal Service, which has a long-standing policy of providing opportunity without regard to performance. Approximately 74 percent of postal employees lack any job skills, making this agency the single largest U.S. employer of Persons of Inability.

Private-sector industries with good records of non-discrimination against the Inept include retail sales (72%), the airline industry (68%), and home improvement ‘warehouse’ stores (65%). At the state government level, the Department of Motor Vehicles also has an excellent record of hiring Persons of Inability (63%).

Under the Americans With No Abilities Act, more than 25 million ‘middle man’ positions will be created, with important-sounding titles but little real responsibility, thus providing an illusory sense of purpose and performance.

Mandatory non-performance-based raises and promotions will be given so as to guarantee upward mobility for even the most unremarkable employees. The legislation provides substantial tax breaks to corporations that promote a significant number of Persons of Inability into middle-management positions, and gives a tax credit to small and medium-sized businesses that agree to hire one clueless worker for every two talented hires.

Finally, the AWNAA contains tough new measures to make it more difficult to discriminate against the Non-abled, banning, for example, discriminatory interview questions such as, ‘Do you have any skills or experience that relate to this job?’

‘As a Non-abled person, I can’t be expected to keep up with people who have something going for them,’ said Mary Lou Gertz, who lost her position as a lug-nut twister at the GM plant in Flint, Michigan, due to her inability to remember rightey tightey, lefty loosey. ‘This new law should be real good for people like me,’ Gertz added.

With the passage of this bill, Gertz and millions of other untalented citizens will finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Said Senator Dick Durban (D-IL): ‘As a Senator with no abilities, I believe the same privileges that elected officials enjoy ought to be extended to every American with no abilities. It is our duty as lawmakers to provide each and every American citizen, regardless of his or her adequacy, with some sort of space to take up in this great nation and a good salary for doing so.’

What Now?

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

– James Kunstler is one of my favorite commentators.  He cuts right to the bone.  Here’s his latest:

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It’s fascinating to read the commentators in mainstream journals like The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal all strenuously pretending that “the worst is over” (maybe… we hope… fingers crossed… hail Mary full of grace… et cetera). The cluelessness would be funny if it didn’t involve a world-changing catastrophe. All nations that have reached the fork-and-spoon level of civilization are now engineering a vast network of cyber-cables that lead directly from their central bank computers to the Death Star that is hovering above world financial affairs like a giant cosmic vacuum cleaner, sucking up dollars, euros, zlotys, forints, krona, what-have-you. As fast as the keystrokes create currency-pixels, the little electron-denominated units of exchange are sucked out of the terrestrial economies into the black hole of money death. That’s what the $700-billion bail-out (excuse me, “rescue plan”) and all its associated ventures are about.


‘The United States Has Essentially a One-Party System’

Sunday, October 26th, 2008


The linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky has long been a critic of American consumerism and imperialism. SPIEGEL spoke to him about the current crisis of capitalism, Barack Obama’s rhetoric and the compliance of the intellectual class.

SPIEGEL:Professor Chomsky, cathedrals of capitalism have collapsed, the conservative government is spending its final weeks in office with nationalization plans. How does that make you feel?

Chomsky:The times are too difficult and the crisis too severe to indulge in schadenfreude. Looking at it in perspective, the fact that there would be a financial crisis was perfectly predictable, its general nature, if not its magnitude. Markets are always inefficient.

SPIEGEL:What exactly did you anticipate?

Chomsky:In the financial industry, as in other industries, there are risks that are left out of the calculation. If you sell me a car, we have perhaps made a good bargain for ourselves. But there are effects of this transaction on others, which we do not take into account. There is more pollution, the price of gas goes up, there is more congestion. Those are the external costs of our transaction. In the case of financial institutions, they are huge.

SPIEGEL:But isn’t it the task of a bank to take risks?

Chomsky:Yes, but if it is well managed, like Goldman Sachs, it will cover its own risks and absorb its own losses. But no financial institution can manage systemic risks. Risk is therefore underpriced, and there will be more risk taken than would be prudent for the economy. With government deregulation and the triumph of financial liberalization, the dangers of systemic risks, the possibility of a financial tsunami, sharply increased.

SPIEGEL:But is it correct to only put the blame on Wall Street? Doesn’t Main Street, the American middle class, also live on borrowed money which may or may not be paid back?

Chomsky:The debt burden of private households is enormous. But I would not hold the individual responsible. This consumerism is based on the fact that we are a society dominated by business interests. There is massive propaganda for everyone to consume. Consumption is good for profits and consumption is good for the political establishment.


Greenland ice loss soars: Bad for you, great for bottled water biz

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

A new study in Geophysical Research Letters (subs. req’d) led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory finds:

… the ice sheet was losing 110 ± 70 Gt/yr [billion tons/year] in the 1960s, 30 ± 50 Gt/yr or near balance in the 1970s–1980s, and 97 ± 47 Gt/yr in 1996 increasing rapidly to 267 ± 38 Gt/yr in 2007.

How much is 267 billion metric tons of water? It’s enough to supply the city of Los Angeles with fresh water for more than 50 years. Hmm. That gives me — or at least the Greenland Home Rule government — an idea.

Yes, why should all that water only go to submerging the great coastal cities of the world when (a tiny fraction of) it could go to slaking the thirst of all the people who live in the great cities of the world that don’t get submerged.


Big Coal Campaigning to Keep Its Industry on Candidates’ Minds

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

– What no one seems to talk about much as they all extol the virtues of ‘clean coal’ is that there is not one functional full scale clean coal facility on the planet.  See:  

– It’s all small ‘proof-of-concept’ studies.   And, every time  a clean coal facility was going to be built, thus far, the plans have been scrapped at the 11th hours because of costs.  

– And yet, and yet, the discussion of its virtues goes on and on about how it is going to be a major piece as we plan the future.  What dreams and bullshit we are being fed.

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Big Coal is paying close attention to what the presidential candidates are saying about keeping coal part of the U.S. energy mix.

Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, unlike President George W. Bush, support setting economy-wide caps on industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. That is a potential problem for the nation’s coal-fired power plants, which produce half the U.S. electricity supply — but also are the country’s leading source in recent years of emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, according to a report last month by the Government Accountability Office.

But as Election Day nears, both candidates are competing over who will do more to support clean-coal initiatives. For that, some credit belongs to Stephen Miller.

Mr. Miller, 55 years old, is president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a Virginia group funded by the country’s major coal-burning utilities, coal producers and railroads that haul coal. Over the past year, his organization has spent nearly $40 million on television and radio spots and other outreach efforts to bolster public support for coal, and to reinforce fears that limits on its use will raise living costs.

Mr. Miller’s group has been a fixture at presidential campaign events. At the Democratic and Republican conventions, the coalition spent a total of $1.7 million on advertising and street teams of workers who handed out water bottles, hats and literature about coal’s importance to the U.S. economy.


F.B.I. Struggles to Handle Financial Fraud Cases

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation is struggling to find enough agents and resources to investigate criminal wrongdoing tied to the country’s economic crisis, according to current and former bureau officials.

The bureau slashed its criminal investigative work force to expand its national security role after the Sept. 11 attacks, shifting more than 1,800 agents, or nearly one-third of all agents in criminal programs, to terrorism and intelligence duties. Current and former officials say the cutbacks have left the bureau seriously exposed in investigating areas like white-collar crime, which has taken on urgent importance in recent weeks because of the nation’s economic woes.

The pressure on the F.B.I. has recently increased with the disclosure of criminal investigations into some of the largest players in the financial collapse, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The F.B.I. is planning to double the number of agents working financial crimes by reassigning several hundred agents amid a mood of national alarm. But some people inside and out of the Justice Department wonder where the agents will come from and whether they will be enough.

So depleted are the ranks of the F.B.I.’s white-collar investigators that executives in the private sector say they have had difficulty attracting the bureau’s attention in cases involving possible frauds of millions of dollars.


– This article is from the NY Times and they insist that folks have an ID and a PW in order to read their stuff. You can get these for free just by signing up. However, a friend of mine suggests the website :arrow: as an alternative to having to do these annoying sign ups. Check it out. Thx Bruce S. for the tip.

Quote of the day

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

By Boris Johnson, mayor of London:

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

“The legacy of George Bush may take years, if not decades, to determine.

But at present he seems to have pulled off an astonishing double whammy.

However well-intentioned it was, the catastrophic and unpopular intervention in Iraq has served in some parts of the world to discredit the very idea of western democracy.

The recent collapse of the banking system, and the humiliating resort to semi-socialist solutions, has done a great deal to discredit – in some people’s eyes – the idea of free-market capitalism.

Democracy and capitalism are the two great pillars of the American idea.

To have rocked one of those pillars may be regarded as a misfortune.

To have damaged the reputation of both, at home and abroad, is a pretty stunning achievement for an American president.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

To the original:

– research thanks to PHK


Sunday, October 19th, 2008

When it comes to trying to resolve vital water-management issues in Central Asia, regional leaders seem to be stuck in mud.

Yet another gathering to discuss water-issues — a meeting of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, held in Dushanbe on October 9 — ended in futility. The meeting had hoped to lay the groundwork for a regional water doctrine to govern the long-term use of Central Asian resources, but the failure of Uzbek officials to show up, along with ongoing disagreements, caused the assembly to end without finding a general consensus. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Experts had hoped to have the regional water doctrine finalized for approval in 2009.

The water management issue constitutes a major source of tension in Central Asia. Most water originates in the eastern mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Downstream neighbors Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan rely on the water for extensive irrigation. Upstream countries want to build more hydropower dams to harvest the energy potential of the major river systems, blocking water the downstream countries would like allocated for irrigation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Discord is costing the Central Asian states a fortune, some experts say. Dyushen Mamatkanov, director of the Kyrgyz National Water and Hydropower Institute, told participants that every year the region squanders $2 billion due to poor water management. Highlighting that waste, each country builds its own electricity transmission lines, rather than share them, leading to extra expenditures and the inefficient transmission of power.


Indonesia Moves to Certify All Wood as Sustainably Derived?

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

– Am I cynical about announcements like these?   You bet.   We see them over and over again.   And then, a year or so later, the other shoe drops and we find that nothings been done and the situation is worse than before.   Indonesia, Brazil, Africa – same story again and again.

– I’m tired of all the stories that folks are going to ‘do something’.   Let’s get to the part where something’s actually being done.

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Interesting developments in Indonesia on the deforestation front!  An editorial in the Jakarta Post discusses a recent announcement from the Indonesian Forestry Ministry to require forest certification.  As the editorial outlines this:

bold move to require forestry companies to have their wood stocks audited throughout the supply chain to ensure the wood is derived from sustainably managed forests could go a long way in reducing illegal logging in the country.

Addressing illegal logging must be one of the central elements in the efforts to address global warming pollution from deforestation.  And, consumer demand is definitely a factor that needs to be a part of the solution on illegal logging (as I discussed in Illegal (B)Logging).  As the editorial highlights:

It is international market forces (consumers and traders) united into a global green consumer campaign that have forced wood-based companies to have their wood certified as green by independent certifying companies.

There are various “tools” under discussion to address illegal logging and its related exports.  Certification systems as announced by the Indonesian government are one such solution to illegal logging and provide consumers in the importing countries with the information to only buy sustainably sourced wood.  This new Indonesian program will reportedly be third-party certified, which will add more credibility to the system which has had poor past performance in addressing illegal logging.