Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It’s Sad to Watch an Elephant Die

It fills me with a tinge of sadness, seeing the Republican Party as it tries to spin the defection of Arlen Specter. It’s like watching an elephant die— literally. It was exactly six years ago this week that I, too, made an abrupt switch and turned my back on the Republican Party and conservatism because it no longer made any sense to me. Last night as I watched The News Hour on PBS, everything about that decision came flooding back to me.

Reporting from St. Louis, PBS anchor, Gwen Ifill, was interviewing local citizens in the nation’s heartland to get their thoughts on Obama’s first 100 days in office. Not surprisingly, the liberal slant of PBS had generated a rather rosy picture, and so to offer some balance, she interviewed an unabashed young supporter of George W. Bush. He said, “I don’t trust the government to solve the nation’s problems. The government should just get out of the way and let the American people do what they do best. I trust the American people.” He actually sounded like Ronald Reagan. If his words are taken at face value, the stupidity of what he said is simply unbearable. Bernie Madoff is an American person. Trustworthy? Not on your life. And all those CEO tycoons of Citigroup and AIG— along with the other American people on Wall Street who devised subprime loans and credit default swaps— presumably these are the American people we should trust to solve our economic problems. There are more than 13 million American people currently unemployed and looking desperately for a job. I wonder if they would like for the government to just get out of the way and let them pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I doubt it.

It all comes down to this— conservatism today is nothing more than a systematized nostalgia for the 1980s of Ronald Reagan. Back then, conservatism worked. We had a clear enemy, The Soviet Union, so Reagan could denounce big government and get away with it because he could create millions of jobs by pouring billions of dollars into the military budget for defense projects. News flash to Reagan conservatives— the government and the military are the same thing.

In Reagan’s 1980s, America still had the world’s largest manufacturing base for durable goods. Not so anymore. In the 1980s, Islamic fundamentalism and global warming and the outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries— all these problems were off the radar screen. The 401K was only invented in 1982, so almost all American jobs offered the potential for a retirement income as a fringe benefit. As a result, only a comparatively few people were heavily invested in the stock market, and for the most part these were wealthy people who actually knew what they were doing when it came to finance. And as for China— the word that best described China in the 1980s was “quaint.”

This is the world that modern conservatives want to recreate. I, too, yearn for those days, and if the world could go back to the way it was then, I would be a conservative Republican in a heartbeat. But things change, and the days of Reagan are as gone as Hugh Hefner’s virginity. Modern conservatism is best defined by its champions. There are the raving egomaniacs like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who are easily dismissed, but there are also reasoned, brilliant men like George Will and David Brooks. I personally admire George Will and David Brooks, but with all due respect to these men, I personally believe that conservatism today is mostly for the weak minded and the overly nostalgic. It’s sad to watch an elephant die.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Our Paradox

There’s a curious paradox in the way that Americans view the deployment of authority by the United States Government, and I believe that this is behind many of our current problems. On the one hand, we enthusiastically give our military a 90% approval rating for invading another sovereign country, but when the EPA is given the authority to reduce carbon emissions it sends a chill up the collective spines of American citizens. We watch the FBI and the CIA and the NSA expand their surveillance into our own private lives, and we respond to this with the indifferent lethargy of a lazy redbone hound dog on a hot summer’s day, but when it’s suggested that government regulators be given increased authority to snoop on the affairs of private business, we are incensed at the intrusion. We accept the notion of uniformed policemen protecting us from street criminals, but we reject the notion of tight financial and environmental regulation to protect us from corporate criminals. The bottom line is this— we instinctively trust private business and we distrust the government. We should trust both, or neither.

My personal belief is that we were subjected to half a century of a world-wide anti-Communist hysteria in which Capitalism, along with democracy, was seen as our protection and our salvation. Communism went away, but our love affair with free market Capitalism continued, and when ethics and integrity eroded in our culture, the stage was set for an invasion. The invasion, in this case, was not from foreign armies or foreign interests or foreign ideologies. The invasion was from home-grown fellow citizens who put the short term, immediate accumulation of personal wealth above everything else. President Obama has said this very thing in his speeches, but in slightly different words. I think that the President’s words don’t go far enough, however. In a larger sense, we are all to blame for our own downfall. We cheered Ronald Reagan for his philosophy of government deregulation, and at least a third of us still think that he had the right idea. We elected Republican presidents to continue this policy for 20 of the last 30 years. And now, with the country in an actual depression (although we don’t call it by that name), we still don’t get the picture. We are at the mercy of an enemy of our own making— a network of business giants who are too big to find enough food to feed themselves and who are reduced to stealing food from our very own dinner plates.

We need an SEC and an EPA and an FDA and an FAA, and at least half a dozen other agencies, all with the funding and the power of the Pentagon, to protect us from the real enemy that threatens our nation, because it’s not going to be the Muslims or the foreign terrorists that make America go down the tube. There’s actually a functioning model in the world that shows how well tight government regulation can work. The model is Singapore. We would do well to look more closely at that model.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What the Future Holds for Bolivia

Like a lot of Americans, I mostly knew Bolivia (in a vague way) as the place where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid finally met their fate, so when I saw some recent photographs from Bolivia, I was shocked at how familiar the scenery looked to me. I was looking at scenes from the giant salt flats that cover thousands of square miles down in that South American country, and it looked exactly like Bonneville, Utah, and since I race on the Bonneville Salt Flats every August, I know the scenery quite well. The thing about salt flats is that they all look the same.

They’re not all the same. The Bolivian salt flats, known as Salar De Uyuni, are hundreds of times bigger than those on the Utah-Nevada border, and there’s another monumental difference— the Uyuni salt flats contain more than 75% of all the lithium on the planet. For those Americans who don’t read a lot about electric battery technology, lithium is the element that allows modern batteries to store electricity at much higher levels than is possible with any other composition. Since the next generation of cars will run on lithium batteries rather than gasoline, and since Bolivia has most of the earth’s lithium, we can look for Bolivia to become the new Saudi Arabia of this century.

The leaders of the Bolivian government, well aware of the precious resource that their nation now holds, have looked at the historical record of undeveloped countries who had something which was desperately wanted by richer and more powerful nations, and they don’t like what they see. For that reason, the government of Bolivia has decided that they will not export the raw material for lithium batteries. Absolutely none, and not under any circumstances. If the world wants lithium batteries in the abundant quantities required by future electric cars, then the richer nations will be forced to build the battery factories in Bolivia, and build the lithium batteries with Bolivian workers. Only then will the finished batteries be exported.

For those readers of this blog who are young enough to see this play out, watch for a showdown. Bolivia was powerful enough to kill the Yankees, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but don’t look for that victory to be repeated. If America can go to war over oil, it can go to war over lithium.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Seduced By "Energy Girl"

I call her “Energy Girl.” We’ve all come to know her through her television commercials on behalf of the oil and gas industry. She first appears to us at some distance from the camera, dressed always in a black pants suit, and then she begins to walk toward us with her long slender legs and black high heel shoes partially hidden by the cuff of her black trousers, gliding in long elegant effortless strides, talking to us all the while in a reassuring voice about the abundance of energy in our own back yard. “Right here in North America, we have enough energy to power 50 million cars and 100 million homes for the next 80 years.” By the time she finishes this message, she’s close to the camera, and with her shoulder length blond hair and blue eyes she looks remarkably like the actress, Laura Linney. Energy Girl exudes reassuring innocence and integrity. Surely she wouldn’t lie to us. Would she?

There’s a problem. That North American energy is abundant, but lethal. Energy Girl is telling us a half truth. In Western Canada, on the border between Alberta and British Columbia, there is probably as much oil as in the Saudi Arabian peninsula. But whereas the Arabian oil is in subterranean pools of highly pure sweet crude, the Canadian oil is bound to rock and sand in something called the tar sands. To free the oil, the rock and sand is strip mined and then blasted with high pressure steam. It takes 200 gallons of pure water (steam) to make one gallon of oil. Amazingly, although pure water is the most precious commodity on earth, the supply of water isn’t any problem. Abundant glaciers cover British Columbian mountains at that high latitude, and the population of Canadians in that part of their country is quite sparse. One can debate about the morality of using the world’s most precious resource to extract oil, but in Canada there is plenty to go around. The problem is not with supply, but with disposal. For each gallon of oil, 200 gallons of contaminated water is created. What once was the liquid of life has become the liquid of death, for the water left over from the oil extraction process is some of the most toxic fluid on earth. British Petroleum (the company who first hired Energy Girl) initially started disposing of the contaminated water by storing it in a lake behind a thirty foot high earthen dam. Over the years, the dam has grown to 300 feet in height, and it is now the largest earthen dam on the planet. The huge and growing lake of lethal black water behind the dam is easily visible from space, and the nearby strip mine is even larger. Ducks that land on the lake die within a minute.

Energy Girl has seduced us into thinking we have a viable alternative to foreign oil. Speaking for myself, I say give me the old fashioned oil, and let the Muslims keep the profit. There are worse things in the world than rich Arabs.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Secret Is Out. CO2 Levels Were Even Higher In The Past.

At the Conference on World Affairs we were treated to a two hour lecture from Jim Hansen of NASA, considered by many to be the world’s leading expert on climate change. For those unfamiliar with his status in the intellectual community, Hansen is the guy who went to the New York Times four years ago and blew the whistle on a twenty-something political flunky with no college education who had been installed by the Bush administration in NASA to censor press releases and silence any reference to global warming. The terms “icon” and “hero” applied to Jim Hansen are insufficient descriptions of his status in the scientific community.

The good news for Rush Limbaugh and the conservative Evangelical Christians is that they are correct with their claim that CO2 levels fluctuate over time, and that the CO2 levels have been even higher in the past. They’re right (no pun intended). Hansen’s research shows that 10 million years ago, the CO2 level was 450 ppm (parts per million) because the subcontinent of India was starting to plow into Asia and push up the Himalayan mountain chain. This, in turn, unleashed intense volcanic activity around the Pacific rim, and volcanoes are a main source of CO2 emissions. Limbaugh and the Evangelical Christians are right about that, too.

Here’s the bad news. 10 million years ago, that 450 ppm CO2 level made the earth totally free of ice, and sea level was 350 feet higher than it is now. Currently, our atmosphere contains 385 ppm of CO2, and it has climbed from 325 ppm in the last century. Based on that rate of CO2 level climb, in another hundred years the earth can, once again, be ice free and sea level can be 350 feet higher. Of the earth’s 6.5 billion people, 4 billion of them live within a zone lower than 350 feet above current sea level.

Jim Hansen wants us to go down to a level of CO2 somewhere between 325 ppm and 350 ppm. The alternative is unthinkable. Of course, by the time the unthinkable happens, Rush Limbaugh will be dead, and the Evangelical Christians will be looking at the end times which they actually want.

Monday, April 13, 2009

And God Said, “Go Forth and Multiply.”

Some amazing research results were presented at the Conference on World Affairs by Dr. Sanjoy Mahajan of MIT, an internationally known expert on the mechanisms that allow humans to do mathematics. His work has shown that some people who suffer a loss of speech due to brain injury also lose their ability to do simple multiplication. They can still do addition and subtraction with ease. Only multiplication skill seems to be effected. Moreover, this loss is seen mostly in older people who have been educated in the American school system.

The reason for this is astounding. Our American public school system arose during the 1840s and 1850s as a response to the coming industrial revolution. Children growing up on rural farms needed to be trained to adapt to the requirements of factory jobs— jobs which were regimented under authoritarian supervision. The schools of the time also reflected that same regimentation, and one of the ways this manifested itself was in the memorization of multiplication tables. For the last 150 years, students have memorized that 6 times 3 is 18, and this knowledge seems to be stored in the brain as a verbal statement rather than a mathematical concept. When speaking ability is lost, memories of verbal statements are lost too, and simple multiplication skill goes away. In other cultures where multiplication skill is taught as a mathematical concept, brain injury has no effect on this skill.

To demonstrate how “multiplication by memory” shortchanges American students, a large group of high school graduates was tested (all of whom were proficient in reciting their multiplication tables) and they were asked to multiply 3.147 by 5.0842. They had to do it quickly in their head, without paper and pencil, and they answered by selecting one of four multiple choice responses— A-1, B-16, C-160, or D-1600. Only 18% of them answered correctly, B-16. Statistical random selection would have predicted that 25% would have chosen correctly if they had simply guessed at the answer, but such was not the case. Ignoring the decimal points, most of them thought they were multiplying very large numbers, and the most common response was the most absurd choice, D-1600.

For Dr. Mahajan, work like this helps him explain why Americans are so poor at numerical estimation and conceptualization. If a disease effects 3% of the population, and a certain health-adverse behavior is said to increase the risk of that disease by 30%, then the overall chance of getting the disease is still less than 4%, even for those who indulge in the bad behavior. Less than 10% of the adult American public can understand this concept, and there are hundreds of similar examples to show that we just don’t, “get it,” when it comes to even the most basic arithmetic.

America has eliminated almost all of its factories. Maybe it’s time to change our factory schools.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Economics 101 in Singapore

An idea was put forth this week at the Conference on World Affairs which, if implemented, could potentially prevent any future melt downs on Wall Street due to malfeasance and incompetence. The simple idea is this: pay the Federal regulators as much in salary as the Wall Street bankers pay themselves.

For years, the best and the brightest of the grads coming out of the Ivy League schools have gravitated— not to careers in government or science or teaching— but to finance. The reason is simply that they wanted to make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time. The fact that they destroyed our economy doesn’t negate their claim to being the best and the brightest. Their goal wasn’t to preserve the economy, but to get rich in personal wealth, and they accomplished this beyond anything achieved by any group of people in the history of the world. Meanwhile, those people toiling within the bowels of the SEC and other Federal agencies— people who might have prevented the tragic mess— these people behaved with the detached lethargic incompetence that you often see in minimum wage workers who could care less about losing their job. The crooks were motivated and the police were not.

The idea about motivating government regulators with vast sums of money is not a new or novel idea. It actually works. We know this because it has worked in Singapore for more than thirty years. Like so many other things in that nation-state, it’s a radical notion that has proven highly effective but would probably be impossible in our democracy. But since Singapore doesn’t have the limitations of democracy, it has chosen to pay the public sector people salaries equivalent to the salaries in the private sector. The result is that the regulators actually want to keep their jobs, so they’re willing to do their jobs well. The crooks and the police are equally motivated, and as a consequence, some of the best and the brightest line up on the side of the good guys.

America isn’t Singapore, however, and so this economic disaster won’t be the last.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Conference on World Affairs

This year’s international Conference on World Affairs was, by far, the best in the last decade, perhaps because so little time needed to be devoted to Bush and Cheney. Subjects covered ran the gamut— global warming, Charles Darwin, black holes in space, Islamophobia, economic meltdown, the demise of newspapers, Rush Limbaugh, dark energy discoveries in the universe, breast cancer, American education, terrorism, international traffic in sex slavery, Mexican drug wars, and the political danger of misunderestimating the Republicans. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be summarizing many of the best ideas that I picked up from this amazing annual gathering of intellectuals.

One of the highlights was a lecture by Bill Reinert, national head of advanced technology for Toyota. His subject, of course, was the auto industry, and his talk can be summarized in three numbers— 17 million, 14 million, and 8.5 million. Last year the global auto industry produced 17 million cars. After the latest round of cutbacks, the global auto industry now has the capacity to produce 14 million cars per year. This year, the global auto industry is on track to sell 8.5 million cars. Do the math. More than any other single element, it’s overcapacity which most frightens auto industry leaders. There are currently 16 auto companies building cars around the world, and Bill Reinert’s educated prediction was that, when the economic crisis has passed, there will be 6 auto conglomerates left to supply the car industry. Don’t look for GM and Chrysler to be among them.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Iowa Sets an Example for Other States

I fell in love with Iowa 35 years ago when I married a girl from that state. When the Iowa caucus came along to take its place as a keystone in the American political process, the idea made perfect sense to me. Iowa has conservatives, but they’re not like the red meat conservatives that tune in on Rush Limbaugh via radio stations down in Dixie. Iowa has its share of liberals, too, but they’re different from the liberals in Northern California and Boulder, Colorado. And the Christians in Iowa— and there are plenty of them—are nothing like the rabid fundamentalists who attend the mega churches in Texas and Colorado Springs. The thing about the people in Iowa is that they have a real authenticity about them. They seem to avoid becoming caricatures, and most of them will go to any lengths to avoid slipping into extravagance and excess. They’re the real deal.

That’s why it seemed so significant to me this week when gay marriage was legalized in the state of Iowa. This place, which is so typical of something we imagine to be “mainstream” America, has proclaimed to the world that anti-gay bias is the last great bigotry which needs to be erased from our culture.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why All the Fuss About Same-Sex Marriage?

Rock and roll music, horseless carriages (early automobiles), Communism, cable television, and racially integrated public schools— what do these things have in common? At one time or another during the 20th Century, each of these cultural and technological elements was predicted to cause the demise of the traditional American family by corrupting the children. That puts them in the same category with same-sex marriage today. Here’s the thing about American-family-demise predictors (usually religious fundamentalists) — they never get tired of having their predictions turn out to be wrong.

Today, 40% of all American babies are born out of wedlock. In the black community, 70% are born out of wedlock. I don’t know what family demise looks like in America, but these statistics seem to me to fit that definition. Here’s my message to the born-again, religious fundamentalist evangelicals (I hope I’ve got the politically-correct label for these wingnuts) — there is only one cause for the demise of the traditional American family, and that is parenting which is selfish, irresponsible, and clueless. Since same-sex parents are currently almost negligible in number, I’m talking about mostly heterosexual parents, and many of these are fine upstanding Christians. Rock and roll was not the problem, and neither was Communism or cable television or racial integration in the schools. Same-sex marriage presents only one threat to the traditional American family. Maybe gays will prove themselves to be better parents than heterosexuals. In modern America, It wouldn’t take much for that to happen.