Sunday, April 28, 2019
written 21 April 2019
published 28 April 2019
The redacted Mueller Report was released to the public last week. Details will be coming out for weeks, and reaction may last until the 2020 election. But one thing is already clear: Russia decided Trump was the perfect tool.
Russian wants to destabilize America internally and reduce American global influence. The report documents Russian interference in American elections began in 2014, long before Trump decided to run. Once Trump declared in 2016, "the (Mueller)investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the (Trump)campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."
The report states that, within narrow definitions, there is insufficient evidence that Trump and his campaign colluded in this effort. Given Trump's boorish, petty, narcissistic personality, unhindered by factual reality, coordinated collusion wasn't necessary. But Trump's actions since taking office have furthered Russian goals.
Trump makes false or misleading statements every day. In 2017, the rate was 5.9 per day, increasing in 2018 to 16.5 per day, and hit 22 per day this year. American integrity at home and abroad has been degraded by Trump's lies. His statements have been laughed at in world forums.
Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, partially because Obama negotiated it, but also because he believes man made climate change is a hoax. The rest of the world is at least looking at the issue, and making some effort. Rather than leading on this critical issue, America under Trump is completely obstructionist: not interested in helping save the planet.
Instead, Trump is making America less competitive globally. By kill domestic renewable energy growth and diverting large sums to subside uneconomical power technologies like coal and nuclear, domestic energy prices increase, putting our industry at a disadvantage. Removing regulatory inspections necessary to insure aging nuclear reactor safety risks Fukushima style devastation. Rolling back auto emission standards stalls domestic electric vehicle development, stunting our auto industry as the rest of the world moves away from fossil fuel transportation. In 2018, the scientific community said we have 12 years to cut emission in half if we want a chance for a habitable climate for our grandchildren. Trump is wasting precious time, earning the disgust of the rest of the world.
American standard of living rests on robust trade around the world. Trump's unilateral tariff war with not only China, but also Europe, Canada, and Mexico, has disrupted global trade, raising prices at home, bankrupting businesses and farmers. Our trading partners no longer trust America to honor its agreements.
While American military expenditures make up almost half the global total, we are in alliance with other nations for mutual defense. One of the primary Russian goals is the destruction of NATO. Trump's has repeatedly denigrated that alliance and threatened to pull out, thus weakening it. He has also considered pulling out of an alliance with South Korea, despite American national security advantages. Trump's unilateral security decisions, such as pulling out of Syria and then changing his mind, or reneging on the Iranian nuclear deal, have made our allies very nervous. America under Trump is no longer a trustworthy ally, and can't be counted upon, which benefits Russia.
At home, Trump has nourished discord. He demonizes any press that doesn't flatter him, let alone questions him. White Nationalist terrorism has increased wherever Trump holds rallies, yet he has disbanded the Homeland Security Domestic Terrorism Intelligence unit. He has hollowed out the function of government, leaving senior posts unfilled, making temporary appointments to avoid Senate confirmation, or leaves positions empty to reduce agency effectiveness. His tax cut benefited the very wealthy and increased the national debt, leaving America more vulnerable to foreign investors. His attack on health care hurts millions of working Americans while providing no alternative. Despite intelligence assessments that showed Russia affected the 2016 election, Trump accepted Putin's assurance that Russia was not involved.
Trump's actions have weakened America. He may not be colluding with Russia, but the results are the same. At some point Republican leaders need to decide: will they honor their oath of office and support America, or the corrupt cult of Trump.
Sunday, April 21, 2019
written 14 April 2019
published 21 April 2019
Imagine an organization that freely provides nourishing food to every one of its members, along with water, waste disposal, health care, and high-speed communication. Everyone receives energy supplies and resources for a meaningful job, suited to their talents and skills, including ten times as many foreigners, who provide essential services. No one is valued more highly than another, even if their job is more central to the core of the organization, for the fate of each individual determines the fate of the entire organization.
This might sound like utopian socialist fantasy, but these organizations have existed for 600 million years. You inhabit one right now, a multi-celled organism, the most recent biological expression of the power of cooperation over competition. Life on Earth trends toward increased complexity and scale of cooperative structures. Human society needs to follow a similar trajectory.
From a unity perspective, the root of human dysfunctions is conflict between the illusion of an autonomous individual and the reality that we arise from the same basic source: exclusive competition versus inclusive cooperation. For the last few millennia humans have prioritized competition, distracted by a left-brain bias toward differences. Our economy profits from killing people and the planet, ignoring that life is massively cooperative, even between apparent individuals.
Successive empires, oppression by class, race, religion or gender, and endless wars, including the consumptive war on finite planetary resources, have failed to bring enduring peace and prosperity. Designers know that life has already solved most of the problems that confront humanity, and we can benefit from that wisdom by the practice of biomimicry. A convergence of lethal crises is now demanding we apply biomimicry thinking at the level of global civilization.
Beginning in Europe 500 years ago, capitalist economic theory, based on the fallacy of exclusive gain, has grown to dominate the world, with financial crashes and misery increasing over time. The crash of 1929 was so destructive that socialist, cooperative limits were able to prevail, generating 40 years of relative economic stability, primarily benefiting America. As the world recovered from WWII and corporations grew from national to international, the lure of exclusive gain by a global elite eventually prevailed. The economy was de-regulated, unsustainable debt and income inequity exploded, and economic crashes around the globe became more frequent every decade.
The crash of 2008 almost froze the global banking system, averted only by a massive infusion of public money from the US Federal Reserve. Rather than acknowledging the failure of free market capitalism, the system doubled down, demanding privatization of public systems and ruinous austerity of targeted populations. This fueled Brexit, the rise of extremist movements in Italy, Sweden, France and Germany, and the election of proto-fascists like Trump and others in Hungry, the Philippines, and Brazil. A decade later, the same banking system still runs the show. Wealth inequity and global debt are even larger and more unsustainable, European unity is at risk, and the US, no longer a credible global leader, will not be able to fund another miracle rescue.
While the global economic system staggers toward the cliff, our energy system is running on fumes. Centuries of industrial development now demands a torrent of finite fossil fuel every day, and the sources are beginning to fail. Massive debt investment allows the system to continue working, but we know the economy can seize up without notice.
Include the fact that climate change threatens near term human extinction, and we see that we truly are all in this together, whether we like it or not. If civilization doesn't work to nourish all the parts, including non-human members, everyone stands to lose: no elite exceptions or rich, white man, discounts. The sooner we recognize this, the better.
Everyone is a co-creator in this situation, because the illusion of separation is a mindset residing within each of us. Despite what we were taught, expecting exclusive gain in a unity reality is childish fantasy, potentially lethal, and no longer functional. Humans are too numerous and too powerful for that.
If we expect to survive much longer, we must do better. The good news is that life knows how, and we are still part of life, if we pay attention. Can you imagine?
Sunday, April 14, 2019
written 7 April 2019
published 14 April 2019
The quantity of global capital has grown since the 60's, and deregulation has accelerated its flow around the world with destabilizing results. Unregulated global capital flow is like a loose cannon on the deck of a ship, rolling out of control as the ship moves, creating destruction as it crashes to a halt. Always chasing the greatest return on investment, money can rush into a regional economy, raising prices, displacing local investors, leaving devastation behind when it retreats. Like a flock of pigeons, a simple event can cause economic panic such as in Southeast Asia in the late 90's.
Investing is a confidence game, in both senses of the word: trust and swindle. To evaluate the worth of a project, an investor must trust they are getting good and complete information. The swindle comes if the information is false, incomplete, or if changing conditions are kept hidden. In a dynamic economic environment, if an investor waits too long, the value of their asset may disappear completely. Being one of the first to make an investment move can avoid economic loss when everyone tries to sell into a market with few buyers.
Fossil fuel stocks have appeared to be solid investments for decades, but the world is changing. Coal powered the rise of the British Empire, and still fuels 30% of the planet. But coal is less energy efficient or versatile than other fossil fuels, and has costly air and water pollution problems, so it is economically disadvantaged in the current marketplace, bankrupting investors.
Oil powered the rise of the American Empire, and still fuels 33% of the planet. Increasing demand drove a global search for new oil fields, but discoveries peaked in the 1960's. The Mexican Cantarell field, discovered in 1976, is the last new reserve producing over a million barrels a day. The average age of the 19 largest fields of conventional oil is almost 70 years. Depletion of these fields, with nothing to replace them, has driven production to more expensive unconventional sources: fracking, deep water, and tar sands. The major oil companies have cut back on further exploration as being too expensive, and the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, which was founded on North Sea oil, recently decided to completely divest from any further oil or gas exploration.
Domestic conventional oil production peaked in 1972, however, massive investment in fracking over the last decade made America the world production leader in in 2018. But fracking is a tertiary recovery method, literally scraping the bottom of the barrel. The oil is there, but the extraction costs in energy and money are huge. Profitability is affected by how long any given well produces, and at what rate. Conventional wells can produce for decades, declining a few percent per year, but fracked wells decline as rapidly as 30% to 50% per year. New wells have to be drill every year just to keep up with current production, and the best spots are already developed.
In the last decade, the industry lost over $250 billion, and the oil prices needed for fracking profitability would crash the economy. Investors keep pouring money into the industry, hoping the economics will mature and turn around, but the energy return on energy invested is about 5:1, lower than a firewood economy. Eventually investors will abandon delusional thinking, and the rush to a better return on investment could abruptly bankrupting the industry.
Renewable power generation, currently 2% globally, is expanding more rapidly than any other source. Twice as many Americans work in renewable energy (wind and solar) than coal, oil and natural gas combined. Solar panel prices dropped a factor of 15 in the last decade, and grid scale renewable production, combined with storage, is becoming cost competitive with even gas fired turbines.
Renewables have another advantage: free energy. The hardware investment is a fixed cost, which harvests free existing energy for the life of the equipment. Inflation proof power is something no fossil fuel can deliver. Fossil fuels are doomed by economic fundamentals to fail in the marketplace. If we also consider the economic advantage of having a habitable climate for our grandchildren, renewables are a slam dunk.
Divest now, and avoid the rush.
Sunday, April 7, 2019
written 31 March 2019
published 7 April 2019
Advocates of the "free market" believe that personal selfishness will assure that no "bad" things will happen. This magical thinking ignores the flawed economics of externalized costs. Since money is the only way to keep score in capitalism, avoiding a cost increases my gain. I can reduce costs by throwing my trash into your backyard, forcing you to pay for cleanup. While this is a simple example, the same process takes place on more subtle levels.
For instance, when corn is stored, it attracts rodents, which poop in the corn. It costs money to make corn storage completely rodent proof, reducing profits, even though nobody wants to eat rodent excrement in their cornflakes. Rather than spend the money on rodent control, corporations convince the government to regulate how much poop should be allowed, defining a "safe" level. A board is appointed to set regulations and inspections, assuring no more than the allowed level of feces shows up in our cornflakes. Industry then lobbies to have a say in who gets appointed to the board. This is the essence of "regulatory capture", where industry protects profits by influencing the selection of the regulators and inspectors. As a bonus, since the regulations now define a "safe" level, there is no reason to disclose the fact there is rodent excrement in our food. What we don't know can't hurt corporate profits.
While rodent dung in my breakfast is unpleasant to think about, it probably won't kill me. However, regulatory capture affects more lethal issues, such as chemical contamination of our air, water and soil, or structural design of infrastructure and buildings. History has shown the selfishness fundamental to capitalist theory can lead to critical cost cutting with lethal consequences. We are currently witnessing a new aspect to this problem. In addition to decades of "free market" pressure to eliminate regulations, there has been concerted effort to underfund the agencies tasked with enforcing what regulations remain.
Consider the case of the recent crash of two Boeing 737 Max 8, which killed 346 people. To compete against the new Airbus A320, Boeing decided to upgrade the 737, first introduced in 1967, rather than incurring the time and expense required to design an entirely new plane. However, installing new energy efficient engines required shifting the wings forward, which changed the flight characteristics. Being a modern plane, it is very computer intensive and required extensive software development as well.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is tasked with regulating the aircraft industry to insure aircraft safety. However, repeated Republican Congressional budget cuts to the agency mean there aren't enough inspectors to handle the load. The FAA trusted Boeing to be thorough in their own inspection and "self-regulate". While no Boeing engineer or inspector would want to risk the company by putting out a flawed product, there is an inherent conflict between safety and costs. For instance, the time frame generated by management sales goals is different from the time needed for complete testing. Crash investigation is ongoing, but Boeing has already released a software upgrade, suggesting problems there, and the FCC is re-examining their "self-regulation" policy.
A similar move to allow "self-regulation" in the nuclear power industry is an even bigger threat to society. There are currently 99 reactors operating in the US. Because the US was the first to build nuclear reactors, our fleet is aging. All but five are more than 30 years old, and 49 are more than 40 years old, operating beyond their original design life. Prolonged exposure to extreme radioactivity causes embrittlement, a weakening of materials, requiring more frequent inspections of older reactors to insure safety. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is tasked with regulating nuclear power, but budget cuts have reduced their inspectors as well. Because nuclear power is so expensive, it is no longer competitive in the marketplace and the industry is in economic distress. To save money, the industry is asking that the NRC cut back on the number of formal inspections required, and to trust operators to do their own inspections. Will it take a Fukushima style reactor failure to get NRC attention?
For corporate profits, self-regulation is even better than regulatory capture. What could possibly go wrong?