July 05, 2018

America the Restless

It’s the Fourth of July as I write this. I’m proud to be an American. I’m apprehensive but hopeful for my country.

We’re prosperous: more jobs than people willing and/or qualified to take them. That’s a high-class problem to have. This is a wonderful time to tackle the problem of multi-generational joblessness and poverty. Shame on us if we don’t.

Almost none of our armed men and women are in combat although many are still in harm’s way. With energy independence clearly in reach, we can be especially judicious in avoiding quagmires – at least in the Middle East. We can use our own vast energy supplies to help our friends (Europe) escape dependence on energy from our adversaries (Russia and Iran, for example).

Yet we are anything but complacent, which is a good thing IMO. “The establishment” is being thrown out of office worldwide, sometimes by the left, sometimes by the right, and even sometimes by a left-right coalition (Italy). Power has, as power will, become too concentrated. The new leaders are certainly not always better people than the old leaders; some are worse. Revolutions lead more often to chaos and then tyranny than to a democratic utopia, as Niall Ferguson brilliantly explains in The Square and the Tower; nevertheless entrenched power eventually sucks the wealth and hope from a society as it grows stronger and stronger.

The deplorable bank bailout in the great recession was a clear example that both traditional American political parties had become welded to wealth and committed to the protection of the wealthy even when they (the wealthy) have gambled and failed. Ruthless globalization (of which I was a proponent) disproportionately benefited the already successful. Employers always favor massive immigration to keep wages down; labor wants immigration restricted to keep wages high. Industrialized countries have generally struck a balance in which a lack of workers doesn’t stifle growth and a flood of immigrants doesn’t crush wages.  That balance was lost when “the center” in Europe especially and the US to a lesser extent allowed a flood of illegal immigrants. The center (aka establishment) has now seen the backlash; it isn’t pretty.

I’m uncomfortable writing the last few sentences; I’m a descendant of fairly recent immigrants (Jews) who weren’t very popular when they arrived but were allowed to stay and eventually prosper. The America I’m proud of was built mostly by immigrants. We can’t shut the door behind ourselves.  We also can’t be hypocrites who limit immigration by law but then criticize the enforcement of the law.

But I’m hopeful. We the people are at least facing the questions the establishment would just as soon have had left to them. We are questioning ourselves. We may force Congress to act rather than let policy be set by presidents and courts. While the President often tweets vitriol and falsehoods and certainly hasn’t drained the swamp (I’m making no excuse for him), he also breaks the stultifying bonds of political correctness and points out (rudely) that some emperors have no clothes. He speaks to those left behind by the elites (as does Bernie Sanders); he may even listen to them. “The resistance” mobilizes marches and conducts registration drives; that’s good, not bad. Democracy flourishes on dissent and debate. The last thing we need are safe zones where uncomfortable issues can’t be raised (that’s a hallmark of tyranny).

We are America the restless. Our success is certainly not guaranteed. But complacency would guarantee failure and prosperity gives us room to try and try again.

Happy Independence Day.

June 11, 2018

The Hillary Clinton Administration

After I outed myself as a Trump voter (which does not mean a Trump supporter right or wrong), friends and others less friendly have asked whether I now think that vote was a mistake. Fair question. There are certainly mornings when Trump’s first tweet gives me voter’s remorse. I can only answer the question by postulating what the country would look like 500 or so days into Hillary Clinton’s first term and comparing that to where we are.

I was surprised to see I listed so many things that would NOT have changed regardless of which one of them was elected. Obviously some of the things I listed as Trump or Clinton positives you may consider as negative and so switch them to the other list.

Things that would be same (although different in the details)

James Comey would be fired, would have written a book, and would be on a book tour.

There would be a special prosecutor investigating whether the Clinton campaign pressured the DNC to illegally discriminate against the Sanders campaign, whether there was illegal surveillance of the Trump campaign by the Obama White House, and whether firing James Comey was obstruction of justice. The FBI Inspector General would still be on the verge of releasing a damning report.

The President would say the special prosecutor is conducting a witch hunt and would claim executive privilege for White House communications leading up to Comey’s firing.

There would be a health care funding crisis. ObamaCare as passed wasn’t economically sustainable. Clinton would have had to deal with that and the inability of Congress to pass meaningful reform.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would each be preparing to run for President in 2020 with a platform far to the left of the President.

The school shootings would have happened and Congress would not have made any meaningful changes to federal gun law.

There would be no immigration reform.

The trend for increasing prosecution of leakers, which began in the Obama Administration, including the subpoenaing of reporters’ records would have continued in the Clinton Administration as it has under Trump.

The carried interest deduction for hedge fund managers would not have been repealed.

Banks would have relief from Dodd-Franks.

Ethanol would still be mandated and subsidized.

ISIS would be on the run.

The Supreme Court would have made the same decision in the wedding cake case.

There would still be an opioid crisis no one knows how to deal with.

There would be speculation about the whereabouts of the first spouse.

The swamp would still be the swamp.

Things that would have been better under Clinton IMO

Discussion between and about international leaders would still be civil.

Appointees would not be trash-talking world leaders.

There would not be an undertone of racism in the President’s remarks.

Clinton would be more suspicious of Putin than Trump appears to be (very important to me).

Clinton would not be supporting abstinence-only sex education as a substitute for contraceptives and information about their use.

Presidential appointees would have been better vetted and not had to be shuttled out of the door almost as fast as they came in.

The country would be on the verge of a Republican mid-term landslide given that Clinton is not as popular in her party as Trump is in his, the location of Senate races favors Republicans, and midterms traditionally go to the party which is not in the oval office. (I’m not sure this would really be a good thing: Republican performance in Congress doesn’t deserve a big reward.)

Things that are better under Trump IMO

The economy couldn’t be stronger in terms of employment and (finally) increasing wages. There’s a combination of reasons for this but Trump gets some credit.

The readjustment of corporate tax happened and is resulting in the repatriation of money and jobs. Major other tax reforms didn’t happen and probably wouldn’t have happened under President Clinton either.

Our energy production is being allowed to grow although there is a danger that under-regulation will replace over-regulation.

We are out of the feckless Iran deal.

We are not acknowledging North Korea as a long-term nuclear power as Clinton supporters like Susan Rice have urged. Too soon, of course, to chalk up an accomplishment for Trump, though.

We are using our buying power to pressure China on both unfair trade practices and support for North Korea.

Our support for Israel as the only democracy in its neighborhood has been strengthened and we’ve helped create an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and the many Arab countries.  Facing the reality of Palestinian corruption and misrule may lead towards peace; but that’s probably wishful thinking in the Middle East.

The FCC has reversed itself on so-called “Net Neutrality”, which I think was a dangerous grant of power to Google, Facebook, and Amazon who don’t need any help as well as an opening for government censorship.

Gorsuch (rather than Elizabeth Warren?) is on the Supreme Court. In a time when imperial Presidency is an increasing danger, I feel safest with a strict constructionist on the bench.

The Supreme Court will probably rule that compulsory agency payments by government employees to unions are unconstitutional. This will weaken the ability of teacher’s unions locally and nationally to thwart educational reform.

Charter schools have a fighting chance.

Things I think could be better

(the list is too long for this blog)

See I Voted for Donald Trump

June 07, 2018

An Antifragile Energy Supply

How do we make sure that all Americans have a secure source of energy in the future? The question is important even if the Trump Administration answer that we ought to be mandating the use of coal and nuclear plants has more to do with politics than energy.

Where’s the problem?

Our electrical grid is ancient in design and implementation. It is vulnerable to both physical and cyber attacks. The grid was located to deliver power from coal and nuclear plants which are aging out of service. It was designed to take advantage of the predicable baseload power such plants generated. The grid wasn’t designed for either the intermittency or locations of current wind and solar power sources. The failure of the obsolete and poorly maintained grid in Puerto Rico is extreme but should be a wakeup call.

Even though the electrical grid is increasingly insufficient for modern reality, we are increasing our dependence on it. More and more cars (still a very small number in absolute terms) are electrically powered. Currently we use the fossil fuel in our cars to take us away from areas where electricity has failed and even to power our cellphones during a blackout. We’re not ready for a time when an electrical failure also implies a transportation failure. Think how much worse the crisis in Puerto Rico would be if ambulances, trucks, and cars couldn’t move.

For good environmental and economic reasons, the use of electric heat pumps rather than oil or gas burning furnaces is being promoted (I have two). Again, though, we are increasing our reliance on an electrical grid which is not sufficient for its current tasks. The power fails (perhaps because of a long cloudy windless spell) and people are without heat, light, and transportation to get them out of Dodge. They can’t call for help and help can’t get to them. Not a pretty picture but not far-fetched either.

“Antifragility” is a concept developed by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile. Wikipedia defines antifragility as “a property of systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.” Our energy distribution system in fragile by any definition; it should be antifragile. The Internet, as an example, is antifragile as a communication network because of its lack of a central point of failure, the diversity of resources which make it up and, most important, dynamic routing.

How do we make our energy distribution system antifragile?

  1. Allow the electrical grid to evolve. Our ludicrous permitting process makes it nearly impossible regulatorily and prohibitively expensive to build a new power line. We have electricity shortages in New England but can’t find a way to bring abundant, cheap, clean Canadian hydropower south without going through somebody’s backyard or constructing a transmission tower where someone might see it.
  2. Allow gas pipeline infrastructure to grow. We are retiring our nuclear plants in New England; we need more baseline electric power generating capacity. We don’t want to burn coal and, in the winter, natural gas generating plants run out of fuel. There is a surplus of natural gas in the Marcellus just to our west. It can’t get to New England because there isn’t enough pipeline between here and there and capacity expansions have been blocked politically. The gas distribution network is also a useful alternative to complete dependence on the electrical grid as a way to bring power to homes, factories, and vehicles.
  3. Allow distributed generation and energy storage to grow. Both renewable and non-renewable local energy projects are priced and delayed out of reach by the combined lobbying power of those who don’t want nearby development and those who’d prefer no economic growth.
  4. Don’t mandate one energy source over the other. Such mandates, as we’ve see now with the proposed coal and nuclear mandates and the ethanol mandate, are usually political inspired. They induce fragility by constraining choice. Obviously, environmental constraints on emissions and wastes are appropriate, however; so long as they’re not written for the explicit purpose of favoring a popular energy source (see Renewables Are a Means, Not an End ).
  5. Stop “incenting” electric cars. Electricity is not an energy source. Every watt that a Tesla runs on has to be generated. Nationwide, that means that Teslas are coal-powered a third of the time and fossil-fuel-powered most of the time. It is more energy efficient to burn natural gas directly in a car than to burn it in a power plant, run the electricity over lossy lines, charge a battery, and then use the electricity to turn the wheels. Less CO2 emissions as well. People may prefer electric cars and should be able to buy them; but distorting the economics with subsidies makes our entire energy infrastructure more fragile.
  6. Repeal the Jones Act, which prohibits carrying goods between US ports in foreign vessels. This winter LNG was shipped from Siberia to Massachusetts at the same time as LNG was being exported from Louisiana to Asia because there are no American LNG tankers, which would have been allowed to go directly between the two states.
  7. Do build a new electrical backbone which is distributed, cyber-attack resistant, and which can carry power with little loss from any region of the country to any other as supply and demand vary. All electricity sources become more economically viable with a more capable grid. Because of our huge size, the wind is usually blowing somewhere and the sun shining somewhere (during the day). The fact that the US started as a huge free trade zone (even when it was small) and that we now stretch from sea to shining makes us antifragile so long as we have the transmission and transportation networks to conquer distance.

See also Bailout Coal and Nuclear Plants?

June 04, 2018

Bailout Coal and Nuclear Plants?

Civil war in the swamp

The US Energy Department is following orders from President Trump to find a way to keep economically failing coal and nuclear generating plants alive and on the grid.  Trump made a campaign promise to save coal jobs and received both votes and campaign contributions from those who benefit from coal. If the Energy Department finds a court-proof way to mandate that electric utilities buy over-priced power from these sources, Trump will be violating another campaign promise; he will be rehydrating instead of draining the swamp. Nevertheless, both the self-serving hypocrisy of the opponents of the proposed bailout and the very real issue of energy security (see An Antifragile Energy Supply) deserve attention.

Coal-fired and nuclear power plants have become uneconomical to operate largely because of competition from low-priced natural gas but also because of competition from wind and solar power. The draft Energy Department proposal is opposed by both the oil and gas industry and the renewable power industry.

Amy Farrell, vice president of the American Wind Energy Association , is quoted in the New York Times: "Orderly power plant retirements do not constitute an emergency for our electric grid… There's certainly no credible justification to force American taxpayers to bailout uneconomic power plants."

That statement, with which I agree, is not credible coming from an industry which would not exist in the US were it not for both government subsidies and mandates, like those Vermont has enacted, which force utilities to buy uneconomic wind and solar power and pass the cost on to ratepayers.

The rationale for mandates to support “renewables” is to avert a looming environmental catastrophe, which may occur if we continue to burn fossil fuels that add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.  Coal plants are a significant source of greenhouse gas so it is at least consistent to say their use should NOT be mandated. But nuclear plants don’t produce greenhouse gasses. If the amount of greenhouse gas emitted during the next decade is critical to maintain life as we know it, shouldn’t we want the nukes to keep operating?

This is not an academic question. Germany decided to shut down its nuclear plants after Fukushima. Even though Germany has invested heavily in renewable power and has some of the highest electric rates in the developed world, German emission of greenhouse gasses is going up! Coal-fired plants replaced the nukes.

Wind and solar are not sources of baseline power; coal and nuclear are. If coal plants are shutting down, we need the nukes more. Here’s what Climatologist Jim Hansen, one of the scientists most alarmed by climate change, says:

“To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice. The climate system cares about greenhouse gas emissions – not about whether energy comes from renewable power or abundant nuclear power. Some have argued that it is feasible to meet all of our energy needs with renewables. The 100% renewable scenarios downplay or ignore the intermittency issue by making unrealistic technical assumptions, and can contain high levels of biomass and hydroelectric power at the expense of true sustainability….

“… a build rate of 61 new reactors per year could entirely replace current fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. Accounting for increased global electricity demand driven by population growth and development in poorer countries, which would add another 54 reactors per year, this makes a total requirement of 115 reactors per year to 2050 to entirely decarbonise the global electricity system in this illustrative scenario. We know that this is technically achievable because France and Sweden were able to ramp up nuclear power to high levels in just 15-20 years.”

The same logic that says we ought to subsidize and mandate renewables says that we ought to subsidize nuclear power. But somehow that doesn’t seem like a good idea to either Big Wind or Big Oil. All of a sudden they don’t want the government interfering in the marketplace.

Before we leap into one more subsidy, however, what if we try some swamp-draining? Let’s get rid of some subsidies and mandates instead. We can start with corny ethanol, which, by law, must be blended into our gasoline supply because of Iowa’s first-in-the nation presidential primary. Then we can remove the subsidies for wind and solar; surely they’ve been jump-started by now. The tax code is full of “incentives” for oil and gas producers; now that fracking has made US oil and gas production competitive with the sands of Saudi Arabia, we could repeal these subsidies. Todd Snitchler of the American Petroleum Institute, the top lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, calls the draft proposal to mandate coal and nuclear "unprecedented government intervention in the energy markets to support high-cost generation [which] will hurt customers by taking more money out of their pockets rather than letting people keep more of what they earn.” He should agree that other taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize oil and gas production. Any bets?

If we stop subsidizing competitors of nuclear energy and if we finally open Yucca Mountain so nuclear waste can be stored safely and economically, we may be able to have the environmental advantages of nuclear power without yet one more swampy subsidy or mandate.

See also:

Combating Climate Change - The Nuclear Option

Don’t let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

An Antifragile Energy Supply

May 31, 2018

I Voted for Donald Trump

Didn’t want it to be that way. During the primary season Mary and I and some friends wrote and paid to run full page antiTrump local ads on the day of his campaign stop in Vermont. We criticized his protectionism, misogyny, apparent racism, praise for Putin, and his practice of leaving investors and suppliers clutching the empty cloak of bankruptcy while he slipped profitably off into the night.

We were astonished as it became apparent that he really could and then did win the primary. We were equally surprised at Bernie’s strength in the other primary. Like many members of the establishment, we underestimated and under-respected the rage of people who are suffering from miserable schools, stimulus programs aimed at saving bankers, and – from their point of view – diminishing opportunity.

But he did win his primary and Hillary won hers. Now what to do? At first I thought I’d vote for Hillary; I would’ve voted for her over Obama if I’d voted in a Democratic primary; I’m not constrained by party loyalty. I admire assertive people including women. But Bernie sucked her further and further to the left on one issue after another. She radiated insincerity. The day I decided I couldn’t vote for her was the day a reporter asked if she’d wiped her email server. “You mean with a dishrag?” she smirked. The intentionally ditsy reply was an insult to women. The smirk was more than I could stomach. It seemed to cover everything from Whitewater to the Clinton Foundation to the fortunes Bill Clinton got for speaking in Russia while the sale of American uranium assets to Russia was in the hands of Hillary’s State Department. Throw in Benghazi, too.

I looked at the platform of the Libertarians. Too naively pacificist for a dangerous world.

I thought about not voting for President. Mary convinced me that was a copout, not that my vote in Vermont was going to make a difference. I filed an absentee ballot, hesitated but voted for Trump, and headed to Houston on business. Didn’t think he had a chance. The rest, of course, is history.

Why am I writing this now? Because a very intelligent and principled friend said “no use arguing with Trump voters; they’ll never change their minds about their man.” That made me realize that many intelligent and principled people are making the intellectual and political mistake of assuming that the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump are a mindless monolith. Certainly some supported Trump from the beginning. Some are racists and white supremacists.  Others were Sanders supporters appalled at the treatment their candidate got from the Democratic establishment or just angry at the establishment in general. Most Republicans had originally supported some other candidate in the primaries until Trump wore them all out. I think many people were like me; they chose what they perceived to be the lesser of two evils. Except for Trump, Clinton had the highest negatives of any major party presidential candidate in modern polling history. Trump wouldn’t like this theory, but I’m not sure he could’ve beat anybody (well, almost anybody) else.

That brings us to the next election. Suppose you want Trump outta there. I agree – and I promise you many Trump voters agree – we should do better than a petulant bully with a twitter addiction. But, if you want Trump out, just attacking him won’t do it. Didn’t work for me or others. There needs to be a credible alternative. The ballot is set up to vote FOR somebody. Whom do you think should be the candidate? Whom are you working for? What are you doing to assure that the many legitimate grievances that became Sanders and Trump votes get the attention they deserve? How are you helping the establishment reform and regain the credibility it has squandered?

In today’s New York Times Thomas Friedman sounds a code red urging all and sundry to vote for any Democrat they can find to check Trump in Congress. That may happen; Obama had a disastrous midterm but still go reelected two years later.  Voting by party label is hardly a good idea in any circumstance.

But far down in the article Friedman makes much more sense:

“… Democrats can’t count on winning by just showing up. They still have to connect with some centrist and conservative voters — and that means understanding that some things are true even if Trump believes them: We do have a trade issue with China that needs addressing; we cannot accept every immigrant, because so many people today want to escape the world of disorder into our world of order; people want a president who is going to grow the pie, not just redivide it; political correctness on some college campuses is out of control; people want to be comfortable expressing patriotism and love of country in an age where globalization can wash out those identities.”

I’d add to the list that the Iran agreement was bad for America and that China needed to be threatened with the trade weapon to get it to pressure North Korea.

I’m not sorry The Donald is president instead of Hillary; I would like to see us do better. I’ll change my vote once I have an alternative.

May 25, 2018

An Old Dog, Scratch, and Python

As a programmer I’m a very old dog – been doing it since 1962. Lately I had to learn some new tricks: Scratch for my grandkids and Python to manipulate some astrophysical data with my son. These days communities grow up around computer languages. When you have a question, you Google it and usually find answers and examples galore. Since both Scratch and Python are popular, there is a great deal of help available for both of them and much contributed code to copy and build on.

This is what Scratch looks like:


You drag the little puzzle pieces around to construct a program. It is particularly good for graphic programs: this one controls a robot in a maze. Grandchildren from 7 up were able to use it quickly. Two out of three had already been exposed to Scratch in public schools. Two of these three budding programmers are girls. You can watch the robot here.

And this is some Python:


Looks much more like what I’m used to in a programming language and was much easier for me to learn than Scratch. In other computer languages this process would have had to loop through the values in the arrays radec and c; Python can process a whole array in a single statement. Very cool if you’re a math nerd. This snippet also shows how you build on other people’s code: numpy is an excellent library of math routines and astropy has special capabilities for astrophysics. They were built by volunteers.

As my graddkids and I create capabilities, we will share them as well. That’s part of the learning. Meanwhile feel free to use our code if you need to control a robot or convert radec coordinates of celestial objects to a cartesian grid.

May 17, 2018

The Farm Bill: Where Wealthfare Meets Welfare

The US Farm Bill is bipartisan swamp cultivation at its worst. Democrats and Republicans come together and eagerly and equally trade their “principles” for election support and campaign contributions. Most of the money in the bill is for food stamps (urban votes) but there is plenty of money, mandates, and market restriction to keep agribusiness lobbyists contributing and congresspeople from rural states happy. There is an opportunity in this year’s bill for a bipartisan compromise which makes small steps in reducing corporate wealthfare and reforming welfare.

Perhaps the most egregious example of wealthfare is the complex of import quotas and price supports which keep US domestic sugar prices 84% higher than the world price; big sugar has it sweet. There is even a provision which instructs the Agriculture Department to buy sugar at an inflated price and then sell it to ethanol producers at a LOWER price – talk about pushing all the campaign contributor buttons. Otherwise free-marketeer Marco Rubio from sugar-producing Florida goes through contortions supporting the sugar subsidies similar to those Bernie Sanders used to go through to support gun rights - until he didn’t have to anymore.

Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina has proposed an amendment which prunes the sugar support by undoing the joint subsidy to the sugar and ethanol industries and repealing anticompetitive ”market allotments”.  This will not pass without support from Democrats; too many Republicans (as well as Democrats) are in sugar’s pocket.  Read on; there’s a possible deal to be made.

Republicans would like to strengthen the work requirement for food stamps in the Farm Bill. Food stamp usage keeps going up despite a booming economy and low unemployment. Food stamps are part of a complex of welfare programs which make it more profitable for some to stay unemployed rather than take low wage jobs. Voluntary unemployment is bad for individuals and families and bad for an economy lacking even unskilled workers.

It’s only possible to strengthen the work requirement when there actually are jobs available. That time is now and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity. This measure can probably pass the House without support from Democrats but is likely to be blocked in the Senate where a supermajority of 60 votes is needed.

So here’s the deal: Republicans give up some of the wealthfare benefits for their sugar daddies; Democrats agree to a sensible strengthening of the existing work requirement. Republicans can point to welfare reform; Dems can boast about cutting corporate wealthfare. The Wall Street Journal puts it well: “Republicans would have more credibility on reforming welfare for people if they did the same for politically powerful agribusiness.”

May 14, 2018

Let the Market for Domestic Workers Raise the Minimum Wage in the USA

Ever since at least the time of Queen Elisabeth the First, workers have objected to open immigration on the rational economic grounds that “foreign” workers drive down wages. Employers, on the other hand, have always been for open immigration for exactly the same reason. Employees want the protection of a high minimum wage; employers object that, if wages are set by government rather than the marketplace, some of them will find themselves with costs which put them out of business and that a government-set high minimum wage will reduce employment.

We can solve part of both problems at once and call the bluff of both worker groups and employers. All we need is a tweak to the rules for H-2A (agricultural) and H-2B (other temporary seasonal) workers. Currently an employer must demonstrate that it can’t hire American workers, usually by running an ad and not getting responses and prove that “Employing a worker on an H-2B (or H-2A) visa will not negatively affect the pay or conditions of US workers”. The second condition is usually met by saying that no Americans take these jobs so their wages can’t be harmed.

The Trump Administration has been reducing the number of such visas available. There are more applications than visas so would-be employers must enter a lottery. Famers say crops will rot in the fields; crab canners say they can’t can crab; resorts say they will be short-handed this summer.

  1. Let’s take the limits off the number of temporary visas PROVIDED THAT such jobs must pay at least 150% of minimum wage and must be advertised to Americans at that rate. If there are still no American applicants, bring in foreigners who are willing to work and pay them at least 150% of minimum wage. This assures that the “need” for visas is not created by offering the job at below-market rates. This forces these jobs, many of which are very hard work, to compete with fast food jobs. May lead to higher wages in many fields but that wage won’t be legislated – it’ll be market driven. We may have to pay more for crab and fresh vegetables; tough, that’s what it costs to get workers to can the crab and pick the veggies.

BTW, increasing the supply of jobs available at more than minimum wage helps make the case for strengthening the requirement that healthy adults must work to receive welfare benefits except in some cases where they are sole caregivers. The fact that it is often unprofitable to swap benefits for a minimum wage job has led to an increase in voluntary unemployment which is unhealthy both for the economy and the non-workers; we can and should increase job availability and decrease benefits for those who choose not to work.

May 08, 2018

Incels: Just Say No

The cult of victimhood has reached its reductio ad absurdum with the grievance of the incels, involuntary celibates in case you’ve missed the news. Last month Alek Minassian drove a rented van onto a sidewalk in Toronto and killed ten people in apparent retribution for women who are too mean to have sex with him. Turns out he’s part of a sex-deprived cult.

The Guardian describes the movement:

“…Basically, incels cannot get laid and they violently loathe anyone who can.

“Some of the fault, in their eyes, is with attractive men [nb. “Chads” in their vernacular] who have sex with too many women – “We need to do something about the polygamy problem,” said the Incelcast, an astonishing three-hour podcast about the Toronto attack – but, of course, the main problem is women themselves, who become foes as people, but also as a political entity. There is a lot of discussion about how best to punish them, with mass rape fantasies and threads on how to follow women without getting arrested, just for the thrill of having them notice you. Feminism is held responsible for a dude who can’t get laid, and birth control is said to have caused “women to date only Chads. It causes all sorts of negative social ramifications”.

Incredibly there’s been serious discussion about whether sex is a “human right” which society must provide for. So far I haven’t seen a recommendation except from incels that women have an obligation to help these guys. But Ross Douthot, writing in The New York Times, starts his article: “One lesson to be drawn from recent Western history might be this: Sometimes the extremists and radicals and weirdos see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane.” Really? The incels see the world clearly? Ross blames the Hugh Hefnerization of our culture for putting the incels in such a pickle.

Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, writes:

“One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met. As with income inequality, most folks concerned about sex inequality might explicitly reject violence as a method, at least for now, and yet still be encouraged privately when the possibility of violence helps move others to support their policies. (Sex could be directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation.)”

The trouble is that one might “plausibly” make this argument if one accepts the premise that everyone is entitled to an equal share of everything. The cult of victimhood, which attributes every unequal outcome to some sort of discrimination and oppression, is based on this premise. By this logic, since I’m Jewish and not an NBA star and since there are very few (if any) Jewish pro basketball players, my lack of an NBA career must be due to some sort of pattern of discrimination and I’m entitled to compensation if not a starting position on the Cavs.  Otherwise I might have to get violent.

We are differently abled by both genes and environment. We have different wishes, different desires, and different vices and weaknesses. Some are lucky and some are not. Outcomes will differ when we want them to and when we don’t want them to. We are entitled to equality before the law (there’s work to be done there); we have “unalienable” rights to life, liberty and the pursuit (emphasis mine) of happiness. A humane society works to provide opportunity for what we used to call betterment and cares for the helpless.

But we don’t have a right to demand that anyone like us or do us any favors, sexual or otherwise. We have a right to whine about our fate, as unattractive as that whining is. We have no right to violence because we think we’re unfairly ignored.

May 03, 2018

A Good Use of One-Time Funds

Vermont Governor Phil Scott has proposed using one-time funds from various sources to fill a $58 million gap in the state education budget. Normally using one-time funds to paper over a problem in a spending program which has grown beyond affordability is a bad idea. However, Scott’s proposal is to trade the one-time money infusion for changes which will not only make such bailouts unnecessary in the future but will also both improve the quality of education and reduce its cost. Sound too good to be true? The devil’s in the details and the details depend on the legislature as well as the governor. This effort could easily fail but that’s no reason not to try.

The elephant on the school bus is too many schools for too few students. There has been a severe decline in the number of school age children in the state; but the number of schools, especially elementary schools, has stayed the same. Because education has gotten more complex and because schools are required to deal with more and more social issues, the minimum staff required in even the smallest school has gone up. Put these two trends together and it is no surprise that Vermont has the highest staff to student ratio in the country (4.25 to 1) and the third highest spending per pupil.

If we had the best schools in the country, that might be an acceptable cost. But we don’t. It is impossible for very small schools to provide the type of education which is needed today. A small school can’t have enough teachers to provide excellent education in the basics which all children need let alone a broad curriculum beyond the basics. A small school can’t have different tracks in different disciplines so that students can progress as fast as they’re capable of progressing while getting the help they need in subjects which are tough for them. A small school can’t have diversity.

So why do we keep all our small schools? Partly because the VEA (teachers’ union) doesn’t want to lose the jobs that would go away with school consolidation; partly because a local school is more convenient for children and parents than one further away; and partly because of the Vermont tradition of “local control”, which is now a myth as far as education is concerned. Local control is only meaningful when people are voting on whether to spend their own money. Put another way, if you are a property taxpayer in a “rich” town and have a high enough income to be required to pay educational taxes, is it local control when people in another town vote to spend your tax dollars to keep their tiny school open?

What we don’t have is parental control (except in those towns which support school choice through tuitioning). There is no escape from a local public school which is too small to do a good job except moving or private school. What we don’t have is a high-quality education for all Vermonters despite all the money we’re spending.

Even though the cost of education goes up each year while the number of students declines, the needed school consolidation can never happen fast enough to solve the current year’s budget problem. Therefor the hard choices which school consolidation requires get put off each year.

Governor Scott’s proposed uses of one-time funds coupled with a multi-year mandatory increase in the staff to student ratio is a way to use this year’s budget to start a process which can assure both lower cost and better schools. This approach will only work if there are real teeth in the legislation which “solves” this year’s problem with short term funding and solves the problem for future years with rapid school consolidation. Getting such legislation may be impossible but is a worthy – a necessary – goal.  

April 30, 2018

Trump is a Symptom; The “Resistance” Should Act on Causes

David Brooks wrote in The New York Times:

“Over the past year, those of us in the anti-Trump camp have churned out billions of words critiquing the president. The point of this work is to expose the harm President Trump is doing, weaken his support and prevent him from doing worse. And by that standard, the anti-Trump movement is a failure…”

The “resistance” is ignoring the problems in our country, which led so many of us to vote for obnoxious Trump. Many of these are the same problems which led Democrats to vote for socialist Bernie Sanders in the primaries. Eight years earlier many of the same people who voted for Sanders and Trump gave the Democratic nomination and the presidency to the extremely inexperienced Barack Obama because he represented “change”. Twice the country rejected Hillary Clinton (and John McCain and Mitch Romney) because they are all part of the establishment which is the cause of many of our problems.

Personally, I have little to complain about; America has been good to me and good for me. But I’ve come to realize that “the system” is corrupt in a very bipartisan way. The deck is stacked for certain people, so success for others is harder and harder to come by. No wonder people are angry and afraid.


Exhibit Number One: The outrageous bank bailout (TARP) at the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of Obama’s. It was Congress’ last major bipartisan act. In normal times the rich get richer; in recessions and depressions the rich get poorer faster, perhaps because they have more to lose. The economic cycle does a much better job of wealth redistribution than politicians. But not last time: the bankers’ gains, ill-gotten or not, were protected; workers lost. Certain unions like the United Auto Workers  (as much a part of the establishment as CitiBank) got bailed out by the “Stimulus Package”. The rest of the country hasn’t really recovered until now.

Exhibit Number Two: The political clout of the National Education Association (teacher’s union) has enabled it to prioritize job salvation for its members over an effective education system. It’s not wrong for a union to try to protect its members; it’s wrong for politicians to conspire with the union to the massive detriment of education for Americans.

Exhibit Number Three: Pensions. In both the public and private sector, employer executives and union executives have conspired to promise workers retirement benefits which will be impossible to deliver but for which the bill won’t come due until the co-conspirators have gone on to their own golf courses. We will bail out some of the private sector workers; there simply isn’t and won’t be enough money to keep the promises made to public sector workers.

Some smaller examples: The perpetual mandates and subsidies for corny ethanol for the good scientific reason that Iowa has the first primary in the nation. The tax loophole for hedge fund managers that neither Republican nor Democratic administrations can ever get around to closing. Government-by-grant: I get you a grant through legislation or influence and you give me a campaign contribution, often in the opposite order. The Export-Import bank whose purpose is to subsidize a few large corporations like GE and Boeing.

Although neither Trump nor Sanders agree that these are all problems, each of them has targeted more of this list than Hillary Clinton did or does. As long as outrages like these continue and as long as Americans are denied the opportunity for an excellent education, a fair shake at upwards mobility, and protection from corporate and union monopolies, people will be – and should be – angry.

As long as Americans are angry and feeling helpless, they will vote for those who seem to feel their pain and share their disdain for the establishment. Fear is a perfect opening for demagogues of both the left and the right. Choices made by fearful people will lead to an erosion of civil liberties. Neither Trump nor Sanders caused the problems which scare people; both know how to harness resentment; neither hesitates to fan the flames of division in their own interest. But they do hear what their supporters are saying.

Those who focus on blind resistance are missing the point that Trump is a symptom, not a cause. If we want to be effective in preventing the rise of demagogues, we must address the problems which give rise to them.

Brooks concludes:

“The main reason Trump won the presidency is that tens of millions of Americans rightly feel that their local economies are under attack, their communities are dissolving and their religious liberties are under threat. Trump understood the problems of large parts of America better than anyone else. He has been able to strengthen his grip on power over the past year because he has governed as he campaigned.

“Until somebody comes up with a better defense strategy, Trump and Trumpism will dominate. Voters are willing to put up with a lot of nonsense for a president they think is basically on their side.

“Just after the election, Luigi Zingales wrote a Times op-ed on how not to fight Trump, based on the Italian experience fighting Silvio Berlusconi. Don’t focus on personality or the man, Zingales advised. That will just make Trump the people’s hero against the Washington caste. Focus instead on the social problems that gave rise to Trumpism.

“That is the advice we anti-Trumpers still need to learn.”

Anti-Sanders people need to learn the same lesson. Think a socialist president is unthinkable? That’s what we thought about Trump when he announced his candidacy.

See also:

Election Analysis: It Was TARP that Boiled the Tea

Confessions of a Stimulator

April 09, 2018

Don’t Give Up Your Contacts

When you give an app or social network access to your contacts, you are giving it access to your friends. You owe it to your friends to protect their privacy as best you can and hopefully they’ll do the same for you. Yes, there are some apps like email, messaging, and voice or video calling which have a legitimate need for contact information. Most don’t and they shouldn’t have access to it.

Yesterday was an all time personal high for unwarranted attempts to get at my contacts. I not only refused them all, I also returned a ring.com security system to Costco because, as soon as I downloaded the Android app needed to use it, the app refused to finish setup until I gave both it and Google Play Service access to both my microphone (maybe justified) and my contacts (not gonna happen). More below on the particularly dangerous Google Play Service.

Here are the attempts to get access which I remember yesterday:

  1. The Android Amazon Alexa app which wouldn’t even let me see the shopping list I had dictated until I told it who my contacts are so I can use Alexa to call them. I don’t want to use Alexa for calling but there wasn’t even a “later” button. Got around it by quitting the app (also not easy to do) and restarting it.
  2. My Garmin vivoactive HR It wants to tell me about email, texts, and calls when I’m hiking. I told it to concentrate on getting my pulse right.
  3. Facebook on my PC (I don’t allow it on my phone). It told me for the zillionth time that I’d have more friends if I’d just upload my contacts. I’m not about to do that to my friends.
  4. LinkedIn on my PC told me I’d get a fabulous job offer soon if I’d only upload my contacts. No thanks; I’m retired. And I wouldn’t hire anyone who uploaded me to LinkedIn.
  5. And the ring.com app.

The ring.com app didn’t ask to use my contacts and microphone directly; it just told me that it couldn’t even set itself up unless I gave Google Play Services access to these things. What is Google Play Services? Google Play Services is a good technical idea gone astray (or rogue). It manages downloads from the Google Play Store and updates (fine); Google says “with Google Play Services, you can authenticate Google services, synchronize your contacts, access the latest user privacy settings, and use higher quality location-based services that use less energy.” What they don’t say directly on the download page is that apps like ring.com which use Google Play Services also apparently get access to what Google Play Services has access to. If I had previously allowed Google Play Services to access my contacts, then ring.com could have gotten access without asking me. Not good and not gonna happen

In continuing my search for security cameras, I’ve been sending a question to tech support at the camera company websites asking what permissions their apps require. So far I’ve gotten no answers but it is still the weekend. I’ve also downloaded some apps to see whether they want me to give permissions I don’t want to give. That’s a pain. App stores ought, as a matter of course, to list all the permissions an app will need if you download it. I’d like to see this information on packaging and online descriptions for all products with their own apps. I don’t want a home security system at the expense of my friends’ online security.

I’m not waiting for the government to manage my privacy for me; I’m not at all sure I want that. We can make online privacy better by being informed consumers and – above all – not compromising the security of our friends by broadcasting our contacts.

See CC’ing Will Get Your Friends Speared for how and why to protect your friends when sending email to a list;

Don’t Believe Caller ID for how exposing your contacts can help scammers effectively scam your friends;

Alexa: The End of a Great Relationship and Your Android Phone is Eavesdropping for my growing paranoia about the Internet of listening things.

April 06, 2018

Say No to Government Censorship - Always

Jeff Jarvis' (@jeffjarvis) twitter description reads: "#resist @BuzzMachine blogger and j-school prof; author of Public Parts, What Would Google Do?" He is almost always right on issues to do with journalism. But I'm afraid his antipathy to Donald Trump (to put it it mildly) may be influencing his judgment. We had the following twitter exchange (btw, I consider Jeff a friend and hope he still feels that way about me). The background is that the Sinclair Broadcast Group ran promos taped by the anchors at the many local TV stations they own which, among other things, complained about "the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country" [I've quoted the full text of the promo way below].




At this point NBC anchor Katy Tur joined the tweetstream.


Katy has not answered the questions in my tweet above but is entirely possible she never noticed it.

Below is the KOMO TV version of the script as quoted in the Seattle PI that the Sinclair anchors were "forced" to read in the promos (not in the news itself). I actually don't find it objectionable. There's some puffery but it is a promo. It's certainly true that there is plenty of "fake news", opinion masquerading as news, unchecked "facts" and plenty of sloppy reporting on both the left on the right and even in the middle. But in my PoV, the important point is that it would be terrible, now or in the future, to have the government award licenses based on politics or government opinion of whether a station is practicing true journalism.

"Hi, I'm(A) ____________, and I'm (B) _________________...

(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our Northwest communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that KOMO News produces.

(A) But we're concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.

(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories... stories that just aren't true, without checking facts first.


(A) Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control 'exactly what people think'...This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.

(B) At KOMO it's our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically 'left nor right.' Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.

(A) But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us by going to KOMOnews.com and clicking on CONTENT CONCERNS. We value your comments. We will respond back to you.

(B) We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual... We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day.

(A) Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback"

April 03, 2018

Very Bad Web Page – Kill Your Browser!

If you see the web page below on your computer, do not click anywhere on it! It will also talk to you and say your computer is infected. Do NOT call the 855 number given! Do not believe that it comes from Microsoft! You won’t be able to close the window. It is trying to infect you with a virus.  Immediately use control-alt-delete to bring up Task Manager and kill your browser.


Do the same thing if you see this dialog:


Mary got there by clicking PayPal in a Google search results page in what was apparently a hacked PayPal ad on Google. I tried in both Chrome and Firefox and was also misrouted to this malignant site. However, the same ad still shows up on Google Search and now leads to PayPal as it should.

Hopefully there’ll be some explanation from Google as to how this could happen. However I cannot be sure that this was not a hijack of a DNS server somewhere in the lookup path. I also don’t know that PayPal ads are particularly targeted. It could have been whatever ad Google served first would have misdirected to the evil site. Be careful!

If you are with law enforcement, the web address displayed still responds. That may be a lead.

UPDATE: The malignant page is hosted on Amazon's AWS according to a lookup of its IP address. I've notified the abuse email address at Amazon.

April 02, 2018

What Should Tower Over the Square?

THE SQUARE and the TOWER: Networks and Power, from the FREEMASONS to FACEBOOK by Niall Ferguson brilliantly explodes the myth that if we just had a big and open enough network, the world would be a wonderful place. If you haven’t read the book, you may want to read my post last week about it before reading this post (The Square and the Tower and Cambridge Analytica). The gist is that revolution without subsequent order looks more like what happened in France than what happened in America during the late 18th century. The “square” of the tile is any one of a number of horizontal networks to which we all belong; the “tower” is the hierarchical structure (city, state, corporation) which goiverns the square.

Ferguson believes that internet-enabled disruption is at the tipping point of causing a world catastrophe if someone doesn’t establish control over the huge networks like Facebook and Google.

“…can a networked world have order? As we have seen, some say that it can. In the light of historical experience, I very much doubt it…

“Globalization is in crisis. Populism is on the march. Authoritarian states are ascendant. Technology meanwhile marches inexorably ahead, threatening to render most human beings redundant or immortal or both…

“…technology has enormously empowered networks of all kinds relative to traditional hierarchical power structure…”

Ferguson deliberately uses the word “networks” to mean three things: physical networks over which data flows, social networks, and networked groups like ISIS who have mastered the use of the first two types of networks. Controlling ISIS requires controlling the networks which enable it. Apparently he also believes that control over these networks should and will thwart the rise of populism (Trump and Brexit, for example) and other threats to hierarchical order.

Of course management of these networks actually is hierarchical, as Ferguson points out: “Despite their appearance as great levelers, social networks are … ‘inherently unfair and exclusionary’. He attributes this to “the tendency for well-connected hubs to get even better connected”.

“…there are now two kinds of people in the world: those who own and run the networks, and those who merely use them. The commercial masters of cyberspace may still pay lip service to a flat world of netizens, but in practice companies such as Google are hierarchically organized, even if their ‘org.charts’ are quite different from that of General Motors in Alfred Sloan’s day.”

Are Google and Facebook management the hierarchical structures (towers) which should manage the unruly internet square? Not according to Ferguson:

“One can argue for and against censorship of odious content. One can marvel that companies and government agencies would spend money on online advertising so indiscriminately that their carefully crafted slogans end up on jihadist websites. However, arguing that Google and Facebook should do the censoring is not just an abdication of responsibility; it is evidence of unusual naivety. As if these two companies were not already mighty enough, European politicians apparently want to give them the power to limit their citizens’ free expression.”

I agree with that! So who should be doing the regulation? It’s a critical question if you’ve been convinced by Ferguson as I have that some regulation is necessary. Remember that the networks to be regulated are richer and more powerful than most countries (and better managed). Ferguson says:

“The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the spread of jihadism, criminality and cyber-vandalism, to say nothing of climate change. [nb. The original pentarchy was Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia who more or less kept the peace in Europe for a century before WWI.]  In the wake of the 2017 WannaCry episode, even the Russian government must understand that no state can hope to rule Cyberia for long… Conveniently, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy. Whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the nineteenth century, is the great geopolitical question of our time.”

I think I know the answer to this “great geopolitical question”: NO! The UN is a haplessly corrupt institution; the Security Council a perfect study in dysfunction. Giving the UN the power to limit our citizens’ free expression is an even worse idea than leaving this to Google and Facebook.

If we don’t want to trust the owners of the networks to be the exclusive regulators of themselves; if we don’t think the UN can do the job (hard not to laugh at this suggestion); if we think some regulation is required – from whom should it come? Comments welcome and this will be a subject of a post soon.

March 30, 2018

The Economist Is Right; It Would be a Mistake to Take His Advice

In a New York Times op ed Donald J. Boudreaux, who is is a professor of economics and a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, repeats the economic truisms that free trade is a more than zero sum game (total gains are more than total losses) and that trade wars are less than zero sum game. For good measure he points out that the total number of US jobs is higher than ever and that trade-related job losses are a relatively small part of the churn in the job market, which is also caused by technical innovation and changing tastes.

“Fears of losing jobs to trade are inconsistent with our larger embrace of innovation and competition. More ominously, given that trade-induced job losses are a tiny portion of all job losses, such fears are wildly overblown — so much so that they now have America and the world on the brink of a potentially calamitous trade war.”

His implicit argument is for unilateral economic disarmament; that has been and would be a mistake. It doesn’t take much understanding of game theory to understand why.

Although there is mutual advantage to be gained from free trade between two countries, there is even more advantage to be gained by either country if it cheats. If a country can tap our market at will and we are restricted in what we can sell to them, that country gains an advantage. In the case of China, as an example, our companies can’t tap their local markets without sharing technology. That technology then can end up in the hands of Chinese competitors. That’s cheating.

Question: How do you stop cheating?

Answer: With a credible threat of retaliatory tariffs.

Question: What if they don’t believe you?

Answer: Impose the tariff.

Question: But both sides will be hurt. How does that help?

Answer: May lead to negotiations and back to a fair deal. May discourage future cheating. May not work in this instance.  Alternative is the unacceptable one of allowing the cheating.

This isn’t nearly as scary as the mutually assured destruction that kept (keeps?) the US and Russia from using their nuclear weapons against each other. The principle is the same: your opponent has to believe you’re willing to take a step which harms you as well as the opponent or the opponent will cheat. Renouncing the threat of tariffs (or force) is like putting up a sign saying this house has no burglar alarm and the occupants are unarmed.

The US currently has a huge advantage in trade gamesmanship: we’re the world’s biggest market and we’re self-sufficient in most essentials (rare earths are an important exception). Almost every trading partner would lose more than us from a mutual cutoff of trade. Doesn’t mean we should be a bully. Does mean there’s no sense in being a patsy.

Recent stories are that China has responded to Trump’s tariff saber-rattling by entering negotiations. I hope that’s right and the negotiations succeed. Fair trade is a more than zero sum game. Also hope Trump means what he says – that he’ll accept free trade if it’s fair trade.

 For what should've happened long ago, see Customer Call - A Prehistory.

March 27, 2018

The Square and the Tower and Cambridge Analytica

Niall Ferguson’s book, THE SQUARE and the TOWER: Networks and Power, from the FREEMASONS to FACEBOOK, was published before Facebook’s Cambridge Analytical debacle; but Ferguson clearly predicted the dangers posed by cyber-oligarchies. From the book:

“‘I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,’ said Evan Williams, one of the co-founders of Twitter in May 2017. ‘I was wrong about that.’ The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy…. Some today are tempted to give at least ‘two cheers for anarchism’. Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to re-learn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy.”

Ouch! I thought the same thing as Evan Williams. Mary and I saw how technology aided a revolution against a corrupt regime (The Fax Will Make Them Free). I believed in the Arab Spring before it morphed to the horrors of Syria. I loved Alexa before I became afraid to have her listening to us (Alexa – Cover Your Ears). I lobbied for an internet free of regulation and believed that much more good than harm would come from this open network. I knew old oligarchies would be toppled; I was right about that; but I didn’t understand how quickly new – and dangerous – oligarchies would become dominant.

Ferguson points out that most revolutions turn out badly. The American Revolution is an exception. The French Revolution with its subsequent waves of vicious bloodletting and rotating ideologies with a final transition to tyranny is more the rule. But the American Revolution didn’t topple the local hierarchies and leave the mob in control of the streets; it was a revolution in large part by the local hierarchies against remote authority.

Rapid dissemination of knowledge is no panacea. Ferguson compares the invention of the printing press to the invention of the internet (acknowledging, of course, how much faster internet penetration has been than near-universal literacy was).  the success of Luther’s Reformation’s required faster and freer dissemination of ideas than from pulpit to parishioner; Guttenberg’s invention and plummeting book prices provided that. “While some slaughtered, others studied,” Ferguson writes. The Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were positive consequences although not the intent of the Reformation. Increased religious strife once the church hierarchy lost control had devasting consequences for many. Finally, Ferguson says, civil authorities substituted for the church authority and re-imposed religious uniformity on a nation-by-nation basis. His lesson: you need to have vertical hierarchies even after – or especially after – a revolution topples an old hierarchy.

The title of the book is based on the tension between horizontal networks like the internet or a town square and vertical networks like most companies and governments. In Sienna there is a tower next to the square; Ferguson says the tower is exactly as high as the square is wide to deliberately symbolize a healthy balance between horizontal and vertical authority. Sienna, for a long period, was very well-governed by a term-limited council (vertical) drawn from the dominant mercantile class (an exclusive but horizontal network).

The internet revolution has been successfully disruptive. In theory the internet is horizontal, but it has led to the dominance of a few new vertical hierarchies richer and more powerful than most countries. Will they regulate themselves? If they regulate their content, do they become the most dangerous censors the world has ever known? If they don’t regulate their content, do they become a lawless zone that reaches into every home and business? Who controls how they use what they know about us? That knowledge is what pays for the “free” service they provide us.  Should governments regulate “the internet”? Can they? Do we trust governments or will they make a regulated internet their tool for regulating us? That’s happening now in China according to Ferguson.

The Square and the Tower is a powerful if frightening picture of the dangers and choices we face. I’ll write next about Ferguson’s answers to some of these questions. Unfortunately, I think he does a better job of asking than answering. But we have a better chance of finding answers once the right questions have been asked – and once our illusions about the automatic benefits of horizontal networks are shattered.

March 22, 2018

Oil Prices Are Going Down: The Wickenburg Indicator

Only a fool would predict commodity prices, so I’ll do that. I’ve been to Wickenburg and I know oil prices are headed down

Wickenburg’s in Arizona, a little more than an hour northwest of Phoenix. It’s on the Hassayampa River. Most of the time you can drive on the river bed, but the cottonwood still flourishes on the banks because the river runs under the sand. Wickenburg was a mining town: gold, copper, and a few other metals.

WickenburgRight now Wickenburg is full of horse trailers and the cowboys who own them. These aren’t just any cowboys; they specialize in steer roping. The headers rope the horns and the footers rope the hindfeet. Winners get buckles and saddles. Although there are a few professional ropers in Wickenburg, a large percentage of these “cowboys” actually make their living in the Bakkan oil fields far to the north. They frack; they sell sand for fracking; they sell water for fracking; they produce the oil that’s driving OPEC and Russia crazy and that has helped spur the American economy.

For the last couple of years American abundance drove world oil prices down. The frackers fracked less wells and roped more steers. OPEC and Russia blinked and cut back their own production. The price of oil almost doubled. The horse trailers turned north early this year; the frackers are going home to get back to work. Sorry Putin: you can steal Crimea; you can steal a Russian election; you can hack at America’s politics; but you can’t set the price of oil. That’s done in Wickenburg.

If you’re not convinced yet, let me tell you about the gold mine guy. We met him on the road and asked directions; he invited us to see his goldmine. Bought it a couple of years ago because oil prices were low and gold prices high. He’s selling it and going back to North Dakota to frack some more. Don’t know if that means gold prices are going up but do know that oil prices are going down.

March 03, 2018

Proposed Alternative Town Meeting Resolution on Climate Change

Thursday I posted my reasons for objecting to the 350VT resolution proposed for Stowe and other town meetings. Far below is my proposed substitute resolution. Immediately below is a summary of the changes I am proposing.

I changed the whereas clauses to make them more science-based.

The call to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure including gas pipelines is removed since substitution of natural gas for coal and oil is the reason why the US is the leader among developing countries in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The biggest change is to urge the state to make GHG reduction the goal for which renewables are just one means rather than making renewables themselves the goal regardless of efficacy or cost. The target date is changed from 2050 to 2030 so we can actually measure what we are doing.

There is a list which I'm sure is not complete of alternatives for reducing GHGs which should be weighed against each other as means to reach the goal of GHG emissions.

Although I largely agree with the strategies recommended to the Town for reducing local GHG emissions, I've added some alternatives 350VT didn't consider.


Advisory Resolution on Climate Change

Whereas atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, have been rising due in a large degree to human activities;

Whereas the earth has been warming for about 20,000 years since the last glacial epoch;

Whereas the combination of these two factors raises the probability of rapid and disruptive climate change worldwide;

Whereas it is prudent to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses in the most cost-effective ways available while realizing that climate will continue to change and mitigation of climate change effects may also be necessary;

And whereas the use of renewables alone for such reduction is neither environmentally nor fiscally responsible;

Now, therefore, let it be resolved;

  1. That the Town urges the State of Vermont to:
    1. Target a specific goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont by 2030 using the most effective means available;
    2. Consider all alternatives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions including but not limited to renewables, conservation, increased access to hydropower, and substitution of natural gas for coal, oil, and propane;
    3. Ensure that the transition to lower emissions of greenhouses gasses considers impact on all residents.
  1. That the town will do its part the goal of lower emissions by committing to efforts such as:
    1. Reducing transportation emissions by enhancing public transportation and bike lanes, increasing opportunities for usage of electric, hybrid, and natural gas vehicles, and providing commuter parking area;
    2. Weatherizing town buildings and schools where applicable;
    3. Identifying sites for both solar photovoltaic and solar hot water panels including town and school building rooftops;
    4. Supporting initiatives for the reduction of personal energy consumption.




March 01, 2018

Renewables Are a Means, Not an End

Especially if the goal is to reduce greenhouse gasses.

An organization called 350VT has caused an advisory item to be placed on the town meeting agenda for my town of Stowe and many other towns around the state whose first plank is to “Halt any new or expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, including but not limited to pipelines”. It also calls on the state to “Firmly commit to at least 90% renewable energy for all people in Vermont.” Interestingly the goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is not mentioned anywhere in the resolution.

 If these resolutions are adopted by towns and if the state government heeds them, the result will be an INCREASE, not a DECREASE in GHG emissions. On environmental grounds, the resolutions should be amended or defeated.

The United States has reduced GHG emissions more than any other developed country largely because it has replaced coal and oil with natural gas in electrical generation and as an industrial boiler fuel. Burning natural gas emits 50% less CO2 than burning coal and 26% less CO2 than burning oil or propane for each BTU or kilowatt-hour produced. We have increased our use of renewables significantly also; when not over-priced, this is a good thing. But the major reduction is because we have cheap natural gas available and we’ve used it.

According to the Federal Energy Information Agency, in 2014 Vermont had the lowest output of CO2 in the country per electrical Megawatt hour (Mwh) generated: 19lbs/Mwh; the national average is 1123lbs/Mwh. However, at that time, 72 per cent of our electricity was generated at a nuclear power plant which has now shut down. 4.4% of our production was from wind and .2% from solar.

Now we generate less than 35% of the 5.5 million Megawatt-hours we use annually. The rest is carbon-free power from Hydro Quebec and “traditional” power from the New England Grid.  As a whole, New England in 2014 emitted 571lbs/Mwh of generation. Net net we are responsible for a lot more CO2 emissions than we were when Vermont Yankee was still producing. Nuclear power is a perfect example of a “non-renewable” highly effective way to reduce GHG emissions. But we won’t be building any new nukes in Vermont soon.

Vermont is reducing its emissions thanks to the Vermont Gas pipeline extension to Middlebury. Almost every new customer of that pipeline is substituting cleaner natural gas for oil or propane. One of the biggest customers of that pipeline is Middlebury College, which likes to boast that it is carbon-neutral. There’s some irony here: 350VT is the Vermont affiliate of 350.org, an organization co-founded by Middlebury professor Bill McKibben. The classrooms Bill teaches in are heated by natural gas from just the kind of pipeline extension 350.org and 350VT are against. Natural gas allowed Middlebury to stop burning very dirty #6 oil and was an essential part of its achieving carbon-neutrality. If pipeline opponents had had their way, Middlebury would still be burning oil. Hmmm.

350VT advocates encouraging electric cars. This is not a bad idea but they are ignoring the inconvenient fact that incremental electricity in New England is produced mainly by burning natural gas, especially with New England nukes shutting down. Although there are huge supplies of inexpensive natural gas just west of us in central Pennsylvania, there is not enough pipeline capacity from there to meet the winter demand by New England electrical generators. This winter old oil and coal plants had to come back online and a tanker full of Siberian liquified natural gas (LNG) discharged in Everett Harbor. Why hasn’t pipeline capacity increased, you ask? Because organization including 350.org have successfully opposed proposed new pipelines even though the price of not having them is more GHG emission (and higher costs for consumers).

Making renewables a goal instead of a means is environmentally irresponsible; it is making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Opponents of natural gas use point out that its main component, methane, is itself a much more potent GHG than CO2. This would be relevant if methane were released instead of burned; it would be relevant if a large amount of methane were released in extraction or transportation; but they aren’t. It would be relevant if atmospheric concentrations of methane were increasing as CO2 concentrations certainly are; however, according to the UN International Panel on Climate Change, the bible of climate change, atmospheric methane is stable to declining despite more drilling than ever and despite a world which consumes more beef than ever (bovine flatulence and manure are major methane sources).

I intend to offer an amendment to the 350VT advisory resolution at Stowe town meeting. It will replace the call for an arbitrary percentage of renewable energy and the ban on “new fossil fuel infrastructure” with a call for the state to:

  1. Target a specific goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont by 2030 using the most effective means available;
  2. Consider all alternatives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions including but not limited to renewables, conservation, increased access to hydropower, and substitution of natural gas for coal, oil, and propane;

We are trying to reduce the probability of rapid human-caused climate change, not create a business case for any particular energy technology. Renewables are one of the means toward that end.

The Stowe version of the 350VT resolution is here; the proposed substitute resolution is here. I’m quite happy to amend it before town meeting in response to comments on this blog or comments on Facebook.

[full disclosure: I am the founder and chairman of NG Advantage, a Vermont company which delivers compressed natural gas (CNG) by truck to large users who don’t have access to a pipeline. Last year our customers reduced CO2 emissions by about 160,000,000 lbs., about the same reduction as can be attributed to all the commercial wind turbines in Vermont. We delivered gas to be used by Middlebury College before the pipeline got down there; but I support the pipeline although it cost us the Middlebury business.]


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