Wednesday, May 30, 2012

German solar power

As I've mentioned before, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has a very good and free science magazine. The most recent edition points out that Germany just set a national record by producing 20 gigawatts of electricity via solar (photovoltaic) power: click here to read the article. This is the equivalent production of 20 nuclear power plants working at full capacity, and represents, for a weekday, about 1/3 of the country's needs; on weekends, with businesses closed, the fraction would be about 1/2. Germany also has other renewable sources of power such as windmills. After the Japanese nuclear disaster, the Germans decided to abandon atomic power plants and try to convert to solar and other renewables; the country also generates power from fossil fuels, but hopes, eventually, to phase these out along with nuclear plants.

We could do the same in the U.S.: we have a lot of land for solar and wind power and more natural resources in general. What we don't have is the will and the independence from large corporate interests. While Germany pays some of the highest rates for its power -- especially renewable power -- one can't argue that its economy is doing any worse than ours -- far from it. Like other European countries it has invested heavily in rail transit and in green technology. While they are burdened with a conservative government at the moment, their conservatives are not beholden to lunatics like many of our crazy TeaScreamers and birthers -- and they actually believe in science. They also have actual opposition parties: real socialists, for example (horrors!), who have actually governed with very positive results.

There are many things one might not like about European countries -- Germany in particular -- but they have shown that economic progress can be made in an ecologically sound way. Most of them have far more equitable distribution of wealth than we have, and all of them have better education, stronger social safety nets, and more upward mobility  -- a condition we like to call "The American Dream" -- than we do. We can do at least as well as they have in those areas where they excel provided we have the humility and desire to do so.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A matter of character

The Times and now the Globe recently ran obits for Wesley Brown who just died at age 85. Mr. Brown was the first black man to graduate from the U. S. Naval Academy (1949). While there, as you can imagine, he was not treated well by many of his officers and classmates. However, a fellow member of the cross-country track team "would stop by to talk to him and encouraged him to 'hang in there'." In a later letter, this unusually supportive man wrote: "I ran with you (you were better)." The letter, signed "Jimmy Carter," was one of Mr. Brown's prized possessions.

Brown noted that prejudices against Blacks, Jews, Catholics -- even Irish -- were all around him. It was a rare person, like Jimmy Carter, who had the courage and sensitivity to support Brown.

Less than a generation later, the future presidential candidate Mitt Romney demonstrated his character by feloniously assaulting a fellow prep-school student whose long hair Romney didn't like. Unlike all other participants and onlookers to the assault who could be contacted, Mitt won't admit to any memory of an attack that, had it not happened within an exclusive rich-man's school, would have provoked criminal charges.

Romney grew up to be a vulture-capitalist, heading a firm specializing in financial bullying. No surprise there. Jimmy Carter had a modest presidency, but later grew up to be one of the greatest ex-presidents in our history -- a role-model for unselfish public service.

(Thanks to Mike E for first calling my attention to the Times obit.)

Friday, May 25, 2012

My favorite Doonesbury strip

This is an old one, featuring Elvis in the first two frames (found to be still alive), joined by George Bush in the third frame, and finally, commentary by Uncle Duke (based on Hunter Thompson) to (a young) Donald Trump. (Click on strip to see enlargement.)

This strip is as relevant today as it was a generation ago. "What part of beneath contempt don't we understand?" is the correlative of "See, this is why I got off drugs. Who can tell the difference anymore?"

Saturday, May 12, 2012

They never learn

Today's NY Times editorial points out why we have to strengthen Dodd-Frank, not weaken or repeal it as the Republicans (and some Democrats) argue. Read it here.

How many times does the same disastrous policy have to blow up in the faces of the banks (and our faces) before we learn the lesson? Wasn't the 2008 crisis enough? Apparently the revisionists on the right say there's nothing to worry about, as if it never happened, or banks had nothing to to with it.

And, Wall Street owns a lot of politicians.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Scott Brown and J.P. Morgan -- Chase

J. P. Morgan Chase just announced that its trading desk had lost at least $2 billion in market speculation; the SEC has opened an investigation of this debacle (see background article here). As the old-time senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois used to say (in another context): "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money".
This kind of risk-taking is one of the main reasons for the fiscal disaster and bailout of 2008, and might well have been prevented had the language of the Dodd-Frank bill contained the strong form of the so-called Volcker rule, which forbids banks from trading with their own assets. (Or, even better, had Republicans and Bill Clinton not trashed the Glass-Steagull Act in the 90s.) One of reasons that the Volcker rule was watered down in Dodd-Frank is that Senator Scott Brown (R. Mass.) made its removal part of the deal for his vote in favor of Dodd-Frank. 
For more details on Scott Brown's work on behalf of Wall Street and against the full Volcker rule, click here and here.

It isn't that being in the pocket of Wall Street is unique to Republicans -- many Democrats are unduly swayed by Wall Street campaign contributions and propaganda. For example, probably a majority of Senators and Representative believe the myth that the government is inefficient while entities in "the private sector" -- especially large ones -- are in trim, lean-and-mean fighting (and job-creating) shape due to the forces of competition. This has been proved false time and time again. For example, the Boston Globe has been running an illuminating series by reporter Brian McGrory on the excessive compensation of Liberty Mutual executives (click here for links to stories in the series). A good friend of mine used to be a V.P. at CitiBank and told me similar outrageous stories about waste at that bank (e.g. flying execs to Thailand for a "conference" that could have been held at a local hotel). Or, read some (better: all) of Michael Lewis's The Big Short about the behavior of investment banks before and during the economic crises of 2008.  
On the other hand, Medicare, while subject to some fraud and overpayment, is a far more efficient distributor of healthcare than any private company in the U.S.: Medicare expenses for the same outcomes are lower, and patient/government dollars buy more care through Medicare with less overhead than do dollars paid through private, for-profit plans.

Also, Social Security is the best large-scale social program that any country has ever instituted. Not only that, but both of these federal programs, Medicare and S.S.,  treat the people they serve knowledgeably and respectfully (I am one of them, and so is my mother whose account I manage). Could you say that about your bank or insurance company ... or dishwasher manufacturer?

One other thing about Scott Brown: Although he is not one of the total crazies, he is still a Republican. His presence in the Senate helps his party threaten filibusters, and he can dilute important regulatory legislation as he did with Dodd-Frank. Even though majority supposedly rules, the Republicans (and the Democrats in the past) have used the filibuster rule to ensure that many important pieces of legislation never come to a vote -- which in many cases they would win -- unless they command a 60% majority. This requirement not to be found in any part of our constitution. This lack of procedural democracy is further compounded by the fact that the votes in the Senate do not even come close to representing the population of this country. After all, in the Senate, Wyoming has as many votes as California or New York.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Romney the cut-up

Just read this (Yahoo News):

Mitt Romney has apologized for incidents described in a Washington Post story about his prep school years in Michigan. Some of the events include forcibly cutting a boy's bleached-blond hair and hassling a closeted gay student in English class.

"Back in high school, I did some dumb things," Romney said in an interview on the "Kilmeade and Friends" talk show on Fox News radio Thursday. "And if anybody was hurt by that or offended by that, I apologize." He added: "There is no question I became a very different person since then."

Romney emphasized that he had no idea [!] the boy was gay. "I certainly don't believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual," said Romney in the radio interview. "That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s."  

So the Mittster "became a very different person since then." Yeah: Like Bain capital wasn't a corporate bully, raiding weakened companies and milking them of their cash and laying off their employees. And he's become very sensitive, like on immigration policy and strapping dogs to car roofs.

Oh, and speaking of obviously phony statements: "That [being homosexual] was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s." Yeah, like folks -- especially Mormons -- were really cool with gays in the 60s. Even Romney's high school  buddies recall him taunting schoolmates for appearing gay -- calling them girls.

Not everyone acted this way, even in the benighted "60s": None of my friends (who are mostly somewhat older than Mitt) taunted kids for being "effeminate", and none of my friends would even think of throwing another kid to the ground and forcibly cutting off his offending long hair. This was a Mitt character flaw, not one general to the times.

He's not just an Etch-a-Sketch: Mitt was and is a bully and a bull sh*t artist as well.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Wall Street money

Unlike many Americans, Wall Street always votes its self-interest -- and donates to it as well. In 2008, when the Republicans were dead in the water because of George Bush's policies, the financial interests backed Obama and the Democrats. The Dems can't be bought quite as easily as the PTR but they were the only game in town at that point. Wall Street did get several of its own into important positions of power: Larry Summers and Tim Geitner come to mind. They also got continuation of Bush's bailout under the cover of a Democratic administration. And, what they didn't get, which made them warm and fuzzy, was not a single prosecution for financial malfeasance.

But that was then, this is now. By approximately an 8-to-1 margin individuals in the financial community favored Republican PACs or the Romney campaign over Democratic PACs and the Obama campaign. One doesn't know for sure how corporations contributed since PACs don't have to report that, but I think it is safe to say that their proportions would be, if anything, even more tilted toward the PTR. No surprise here since the financial industry is very anxious to suppress Dodd-Frank which, though relatively week, is a major deterrent to its quest to return to pre-Great-Recession days of totally inadequate oversight.

Wall Street is also in love with its captive party, the TeaScreamers. While many people, including the TeaScreamers themselves, believe that the Tea Party is fighting the elite and the wealthy and their bailed out banks, the Wall Street money knows better. Here is some documentation of the many contributions they have made to the Screamers; in particular, the reactionary Koch brothers are big supporters.

Here in Massachusetts, Republican Senator Scott Brown is in a close re-election campaign with Elizabeth Warren. Brown is a canny politician who anticipated Warren's challenge by actually voting for Dodd-Frank after working very hard to water it down as much as possible -- for example, by removing a big chunk of the so-called "Volcker Rule" that would have limited big banks' ability to invest government-backed funds in speculative ventures (e.g. hedge funds): a sort of weakened Glass-Steagull Act. Wall Street understands this, and is supporting Brown in a lop-sided way over Warren.

BTW: This is another example of why one shouldn't vote for Republicans, even "moderate" ones. While Brown voted for (a weakened) Dodd-Frank, he is part of the Republican caucus which threatens nearly everything they don't propose with a fillibuster. This threat is the reason why Warren could not chair the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, authorized by Dodd-Frank and essentially created by her. Brown is an on-again-off-again  advocate of the middle-class, who knows the reality of Massachusetts politics; Warren is the real thing.,

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A thousand pages!

This is a letter I sent to the NY Times some time ago -- they chose not to publish it.

 Let us stop dignifying foolishness. Here's a metaphor.
The Democrats present a plan for building a large airliner. It contains detailed specifications for the engines and fuel system, for seating, landing gear and cockpit. It spells out carefully safety systems and emergency procedures. Printed, it occupies several thousand pages, bound into a large tome.
At a hearing, the Republicans display this volume with contempt and contrast it with their own plan: a modest single page in which they specify that (1) The plane will carry lots of people, (2) It won't cost much to make, and (3) Its performance will be determined by the market place rather than Big Government safety regulations and other interference.