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Archive for January, 2009

There is little doubt that the Earth’s temperature has increased about 3/4 of a degree in the past 100 years. A number of scientists attribute this, at least partially, to the increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.  Former Vice President Al Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize for drawing worldwide attention to the issue.  It’s interesting that it was the Peace Prize that was awarded for this work and not the prize for physics.  Of course Gore is a politician and not a physicist. I have to surmise that the effect is not of much interest to physicists, or that they consider it to be self-evident and not a discovery after all, or maybe they just don’t think it’s too important. I have to wonder why we don’t have today’s winners of the Nobel Prize in physics stepping up and warning us of the dire consequences of global warming that Gore spoke of in his film, An Inconvenient Truth.  Maybe today’s Nobel Laureates in physics just aren’t as outspoken as the physicists of the old days, like Einstein and Feynman.  Or, could it be they are just not as concerned about global warming as Al Gore?  It just seems strange that a politician, and not a scientist, would be the one to inform the world about this.

The most important greenhouse gas is water vapor. Man has no effect on this – it just happens naturally and accounts for up to 70% of the greenhouse gas effect. The principal greenhouse gas that Al Gore is worried about is carbon dioxide.  One important thing to know about CO2 is that it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere forever.  In fact, it tends to combine with water vapor and return to the earth as rain – acid rain. Remember that?  It used to be a big issue about thirty years ago, but you don’t hear much about it anymore.  Anyway, atmospheric CO2 tends to be completely washed out of the air within about ten years after it goes into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.  The problem that Al is alluding to is that we keep replacing the washed out CO2 with new CO2 and so we tend to have a continuously elevated amount of CO2 gas always in the air. The other greenhouse gases, like methane and nitrous oxide are not as important.

Here’s a question: if CO2 is such a leading factor in global warming, and it comes from burning fossil fuel, then isn’t the heat we get directly from burning all that fossil fuel also a cause of global warming – maybe even a much larger cause? Think about internal combustion engines.  The typical automobile engine loses about 80% of its energy as heat.  Where does that heat go? Into the atmosphere. How about all the fuel we burn to heat our houses?  Where does all that energy eventually wind up? In the environment. So, I have to wonder: what percentage of global warming is caused by greenhouse gas and what percentage is caused by – man made heat?  If we created more efficient engines and better insulated houses wouldn’t that help to reduce global warming?

OK, so what about green technology – like electric cars? That’ll help right? No more burning gasoline! True. But where do we get the electricity from? Well, in the U.S. it’s mostly from burning coal.  We’ll need to burn a lot more coal to supply the electricity for all those electric cars. I wonder if coal burns as cleanly as gasoline? Hmmm…somehow I don’t think so.  How about electric trains?  Same thing.  We need to get off coal.  OK, how about windmills? This is just a guess, but I don’t believe there is enough wind energy available in the U.S. to supply all of our electricity needs if we just get off fossil fuels completely and go all electric.  And besides, don’t forget that windmills are only about 40% efficient in generating electricity – the rest of the wind energy is converted into heat – which goes into the atmosphere.

In the end I have to agree that global warming is happening. I have to agree that we need to be concerned and that we ought to find a way to mitigate the problem. What concerns me is that we only hear the voices of politicians and oilmen, like T. Boone Pickens, who tell us they have the answers for alternative energies.  Why are the voices of the physicists so muted?  Surely the scientific community must have a genuine Nobel Prize winning physicist who could step up and tell us the facts before we head down this path to some sort of “green” technology that may not solve any problem at all.  It’s time the politicians and the businessmen took a seat.

Let’s hear from the men and women of science before we chase a green mirage.

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As Barack Obama’s plan to save the U.S. economy takes shape economists and politicans have begun offering their opinions about its potential effectiveness.  Many economists, like Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman have said that the plan is not grand enough to be effective.  There are also some Republican Hooverites who feel it goes too far.  His plan seems to have two basic components for creating jobs: rebuilding roads and bridges, and creating an alternative energy source.  He also plans to inject a financial stimulus into the economy by reducing income tax withholding.  At first glance the rebuilding roads and bridges concept sounds good. These are mostly construction jobs and they would hopefully provide employment for many people who lost their construction jobs when the housing market imploded.

The alternative energy idea is a good one too because it potentially frees us from the blackmail of the Arab oil producing states and it helps staunch the outflow of U.S. dollars to foreign countries.  It remains to be seen how many jobs this will create in the short term.  It’s hard to believe this would create millions of new jobs.  I would guess that these jobs would be mostly high tech engineering jobs – at least until someone actually figures out a cost effective alternative to oil.  It’s not a JFK space-program-to-the-moon sort of vision – but its OK.  However, I wonder if  just “OK” is good enough.

The tax reduction stimulus thing sounds unexciting.  It’s just a few bucks here, a few bucks there.  Personally, I would rather receive a $10,000 debit card in the mail that expires in three months and can only be used to buy stuff, i.e. it can’t be used in ATM machines to get cash because people would just do that and then bank the cash. If we all received these $10,000 debit cards I can guarantee you it would be like a lightning bolt jolt to the economy. Don’t get your hopes up though – it’s not going to happen.

Here’s something no one is talking about: the danger that outsourcing will severely erode the impact of Obama’s plan.  First, let’s look at the road construction idea.  Giving jobs to American construction workers is a great idea – it goes directly to a group of people who have already been severely affected by the economic downturn. However, it is no secret that a lot of the construction workers who built America’s houses during the Great Bubble were immigrants – and not all of them were legal. If we don’t find a way to ensure that these new jobs go only to U.S. citizens then all we will have done is outsource the work to foreigners – and the money they receive will migrate from the U.S.  to their families back home – wherever that may be.  That won’t help the U.S. economy so much.

How about the high tech jobs?  Outsourcing will be a problem there too. Today the Irish government announced that Dell Computer Company (a U.S. company big on outsourcing)  is eliminating 1900 jobs in Limerick, Ireland and outsourcing these, already outsourced, jobs to Poland because the Poles will work for less than the Irish who work for less than the Americans.  We shouldn’t think for a heartbeat that America’s high tech companies will hesitate to outsource any of Barack’s energy related research jobs to any of a couple of dozen countries with highly educated workforces who work for less money that Americans. These highly capable countries include not only Ireland, but also Singapore, India, China, Malaysia, Korea, and on, and on.  Unless Obama does something to ensure that these jobs can only go to U.S. citizens who actually physically reside in the United States then the U.S. economic rescue plan will simply become an Economic Rescue Plan for the Entire World – and we can’t rescue the world all by ourselves.

Outsourcing of jobs is one of the underlying causes that led to the housing bubble.  That grand Ponzi scheme became just about the only way a lot of Americans could make a lot of money because too many good jobs had already been outsourced. Our economy is sort of like a big bucket that can hold a lot of water; however, when outsourcing is allowed it is like punching holes in the bucket – all the water (i.e. money) flows out. So, if Obama’s plan is to simply put more water in our economic bucket, but he doesn’t plan to take strong action to patch the holes, well, all that money (your tax dollars to be exact) will just flow away to foreign countries.  And make no mistake, our U.S. companies have no sense of patriotism when it comes to making money – they have already shown they will cut your economic throat and send your job overseas without blinking an eye.  It’s all about money with these businesses – it’s not personal. This is a lesson the Irish are now learning as they face an economic crisis at least as bad as ours, and it’s one the Poles will undoubtedly learn in a few years when Dell outsources their jobs to Rwanda and Zimbabwe.

So, my question to Barack is this: does your plan include seriously plugging the outsourcing holes in our bucket or not?  Because if it doesn’t then why don’t we just save ourselves a whole lot of heartache and tax dollars and forget about it?   You can’t fill an economic bucket that leaks like a sieve.

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Pretty much all of the civilized countries of the world have some sort of national health care program. The major exception is the United States. Other than those older people who qualify for Medicare, everyone else is pretty much on their own to find their own solution to health care.  It seems that, for the most part, the people who are opposed to national health care are Republicans.   These people generally like the idea of either private health insurance, or if they are very wealthy, they just insure themselves – which is probably the most cost effective way to go if you can afford the risk.  After all, the insurance companies play that game all the time, and they do pretty well.  Just take a look in almost any major city and you’ll see that many of the largest buildings and skyscrapers are owned either by banks or insurance companies. There is a lot of money to be made in interest and in insurance.

So, for the Republicans, it is pretty much a money issue, although they claim (like John McCain) that America’s private health care system is the best in the world.  The problem is that while the Mayo Clinic and a couple of other hospitals might be competitors for the title of best in the world, the average U.S. hospital is not a contender.  According to the last ranking of the world’s health care systems by the World Health Organization, the U.S. ranks number 37 in the world in health care, just below Costa Rica and just above Slovenia. France is number 1, in case you are interested.  This is why you occasionally hear of some rich, Arab sheik going to the Mayo Clinic for a rare operation, but you never hear of a rich sheik going to St Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City for a rare operation, do you?  You also never hear about all the rich sheiks who go to France or England or Norway for their operations either, do you? The problem for ordinary Americans is that 99% of the American people don’t use the Mayo Clinic, they have to use their local health care providers and these are only slightly better than those in Slovenia, acording to the WHO.

So, how did we get this way? Why don’t we have a better health care system? It’s because our health care system is not a system at all – it is a free for all, for-profit business where health care is provided where it can generate the most profit.  Where there is little money to be made there is little health care available.  Imagine if all of our schools were private. Where would they be? They would be in all the rich towns and cities, and in those towns and cities they would be in the rich neighborhoods.

However, for some reason, the U.S. has always felt that the government should provide education (but not health care) for its citizens and the result is we have a vast system of public schools throughout the country.  Where there are more people there are more schools – there is not a strong correlation between the number of public schools in an area and the amount of per capita income. However, it is true that wealthy towns do have more money to spend on their local schools and so there are differences in the quality of schools across the country. This is not something to be proud of, nor should we believe that this is in any way beneficial to the country as a whole. It is simply a defect in our system.

Nevertheless, the defect in our health care system is far more grievous.  The majority of Americans pay for medical insurance through their employer-based plans.  A national, government operated health insurance plan would work equally well; however, it would undoubtedly be opposed by the for-profit health insurance companies.  Remember, these are “for-profit” and they make big profits. Why would they ever want to give that up?  These companies and their paid lobbyists will always strongly oppose a national health insurance plan. They don’t care that Costa Rica has better health care than we do.  They care only about their profits.  The statistics don’t lie, the U.S. health care system is one of the worst in the civilized world – not the best as John McCain always claimed during his campaign.  If you have never seen Michael Moore’s movie “Sicko”, go and rent the DVD.  You’ll see what I mean.

The difference between health systems like Canada’s or Norway’s or France’s and ours is that ours is an uncontrolled, unplanned, haphazard conglomeration of medical capabilities that are distributed according to wherever the greatest profit can be made. The civilized countries of the world plan their health care.  The government makes sure hospitals are built where they are needed and that the same standard of health care is provided everywhere.  In the civilized world health care is a right that all citizens enjoy – just like education.  In the civilized world private health insurance companies are not necessary and health care therefore costs less – the profit making middlemen are eliminated.

The real choice we face is this: should we actually plan and create a health care system that provides high quality care for all citizens or should we continue in our false belief  that the marketplace is like a giant computer that always provides the optimal answer? We have already seen how the uncontrolled marketplace can cause a worldwide financial catastrophe.  Why do some of us, mostly Republicans, still cling to the false belief that chaotic, uncontrolled systems work better than carefully planned systems?  I suppose it’s because they have found ways to personally profit from such chaotic systems, but such systems don’t benefit the economy of a country, they don’t benefit the education systems of a country, and they don’t benefit the health-care of a country.

Barack Obama has promised to change our health-care system. The change we need is intelligent change – planned change – controlled change.  We need to study the best health-care systems in the civilized world and emulate their strategies for success. It’s not rocket science – remember, even Costa Rica does better than our chaotic system.  We just need to get past the self-serving Republicans in Congress, like John McCain, who don’t care a lot about the average American or his health, because you can be very sure the first thing they will cry out is, “Oh, in these harsh economic times, we can’t afford a national health care program”.

The truth is the American people can’t afford the chaotic, for-profit, third-world type of health care system we have now.

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I admit it: I am an idealist.  So is Barack Obama. Which is why I was eager to write to Barack when I was invited to send in my ideas on virtually any topic under the sun.  This was during the campaign.  I don’t know if everyone in the country received those invites, but it was almost automatic if you ever ventured to his campaign website and filled out the forms.  Soon my email inbox was regularly receiving requests from Barack for my ideas. They usually went something like this:

We would like to hear your ideas on how to solve America’s energy problems. By working together we can turn the corner on our dependence on foreign oil and find a bright new future for generations to come. Please write your ideas in the box below and send them in to us. –  There would then be a small text box where you could type in your ideas. Below that there would be a little red button you could click, with the word:

DONATE

So, I made my donation (hey, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket) and wrote up my ideas.  I sent in my ideas on all sorts of topics from energy to defense to the economy.  I even sent in my ideas on why I should get a free ticket to the inauguration.  However, so far I haven’t gotten any response other than computer generated messages saying something like, “Thank you for sending in your idea. It is because of Americans like you that we can move ahead with our vision for a new nation of truth, equality, and justice”.

DONATE

So, I’m wondering.  I’m wondering if Barack has really read my ideas.  The more I think about it the more I have come to believe that a lot of people have been sending in their ideas and maybe Barack doesn’t have time to read them all, so he probably has a staff of people who read them and cull out the ideas that don’t make sense and then pass on the good ideas further up the chain. That’s OK, but the thing is this: I wonder who it is that is culling out my ideas?  I mean, maybe it’s some college freshman English major volunteer who is evaluating my ideas on energy – that’s probably the problem.  Even so, I kind of wish I would receive a personal reply from a real person.  Even something like this:

Dear Rich,

Thank you for sending in your idea for building a Unipolar Cosmotron that you believe could generate enough energy for all the U.S. needs for an entire year.  I have carefully considered your proposal and while I think it does have merit, I am concerned about the part where you say the prime source of energy for the Cosmotron is from fermented South American frogs eggs.  It is my understanding that most South American frogs are found in the Amazon region and thus it occurs to me that the natives who live there might depend upon them as a food source.  It’s certainly a complex problem and I thank you for sending in your idea. Please send us some more!

Sincerely,

Fred Johnson, Class of 2011, University of Evergreen

DONATE

Sadly, I haven’t actually heard from Fred, or anyone else that I can certify to be a living, breathing person.  I sometimes have these scary thoughts that my ideas are actually being automatically diverted to a sort of computerized Black Hole, from which nothing can escape, except for a brief burst of energy that is emitted from my words before they are turned into cosmic dust and then washed down the cosmic drain of the computer universe.  I do have some evidence of this flash of energy.  Whenever I send in an idea I always get a brief burst of energy that comes right back to my computer.  It always comes reconstructed  as an elongated, red, button-looking thing that has white letters emblazoned on it. And the white letters always say the same thing:

DONATE

I’m just wondering, has anyone else had this experience, or could this be a truly unexplainable cosmic singularity?

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In 1783, as the American Revolutionary War came to an end and four years before work began on drafting the U.S. Constitution, two brothers, George and William Penrose started a crystal making company in Ireland.  They called it Waterford Crystal, named after the Irish town in which they lived.  A little more than 200 years later, in 1986, Waterford Crystal acquired Wedgwood, an English company famous for its china.  Yesterday, after almost 250 years of combined operations, it was announced that Waterford Wedgwood is being placed in receivership, i.e. they are bankrupt. A month ago the company was in talks with an American consortium that planned to move Waterford’s operations to Indonesia, where labor costs are cheaper.  It is said that Waterford management opposed moving Irish jobs to Indonesia though, and the talks fell through.

If you drive across America’s southland, states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, you can’t help but notice the gigantic, new, gleaming bright, automobile manufacturing plants. They all build cars for foreign automobile companies like Toyota and BMW.  They pay their American workers much less than the U.S. automobile manufacturers in the northern cities like Detroit and Grand Rapids.  Last month, General Motors, the recipient of a huge government bailout, announced that they are opening a new manufacturing plant in China where they will begin mass production of the Chevrolet Cruze.

It’s all part of a process outlined in Tom Friedman’s bestseller, The World is Flat.  Except, the world isn’t really flat – well, not yet anyway. There are still mountains and valleys and quiet corners of the world where excellence still prevails, even though it costs more. Waterford, Ireland is one of those places.  The question is: can Waterford prevail as the flood waters of globalization sweep over it, or is globalization an unstoppable economic tsunami flattening everything in its path until all the earth’s mountains are leveled and the valleys are filled everywhere with the same monochromatic sand and beach-washed debris?

Remember Pan American World Airways?  Remember Trans World Airlines?  How about Eastern Airlines, or any of the many other airlines that disappeared after President Reagan deregulated the airline industry?  Remember how the airlines actually served hot meals and your knees didn’t get crushed by the seat-back in front of you?  Remember when you could buy a television with a name like RCA or Zenith and it was actually built in the USA?  These and so many more companies are gone, either sold to foreign companies or simply vanished due to intense price competition from abroad.

The world is getting flatter, and that is good for some people – especially those who live in the economic low-lying areas, like China and Indonesia.  However, for the most part, America has been the economic high ground, and now, slowly but surely, as our businesses embrace globalization, the economic high ground beneath us is eroding.  It is, as John McCain likes to say, the redistribution of wealth – except, of course, he was referring to the redistribution of the rich people’s wealth by taxation and not the redistribution of the  wealth of the middle and poorer classes by the globalization of the rich people’s businesses.

Whether you buy Waterford crystal or Wedgwood China or not, whether you care about Irish jobs or not, whether you can remember the glory days of American aviation and manufacturing or not, listen for a brief moment as the Church bells of Waterford toll for their ancient crystal making industry, because they also toll for you.

Slan, Waterford.

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On November 20th of 2008 the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 7552.  Today, the 5th of January 2009 the Dow closed at 8952 – a gain of 1400 points in a little over a month.  Why is this of interest? It’s because while investors have been steadily, more or less, coming back to the stock market many of the world’s leading economists have been offering dire predictions for the economy.  Today, Paul Krugman, a columnist for the New York Times and the recent winner of the Nobel prize in economics, wrote in his column that, “This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.”

Am I missing something here? Here we have Krugman and others saying that, based upon everything they see, we are about to go off a cliff, and people are buying stocks like the economic catastrophe we have been dealing with was just a 2008 sort of thing.  Somebody is clearly really, really wrong here; the question is: who?  Here’s a little bit of data:  “Vehicle sales in the United States tumbled more than 35 percent in December, dragging the Detroit automakers’ full-year totals down to their lowest levels in nearly half a century.” This is from an article in today’s New York Times. Everyone knows that Detroit is staggering, barely hanging on to life, and even with their bailout things look iffy, to say the least. The interesting news in this NYT article is that it isn’t only Detroit that is hurting.  The Japanese and German car manufacturers have been hammered too.

Yet, there has been a steady month of buying activity on Wall Street. Why? Do the investors know something we don’t know? Has the market already hit bottom, priced in all the forseeable bad news, and now, as usual, the market will lead the actual economy? Or is this only a bear market rally – a sucker’s rally? Is the market about to nosedive again? I guess it depends on your point of view, people look at the same set of data and interpret it differently all the time. The thing is this: they can’t both be right.  Someone has it completely wrong.  Somehow, I don’t think it is the world’s leading economists.

Which brings me to Barack Obama.  As Krugman points out in his article, Obama is calling for a massive spending plan to stave off Great Depression II. Meanwhile, Krugman wonders if Obama’s massive spending plan is massive enough. He is also worried about Congressional Republicans who may try to block Obama’s legislation.  The Republican’s could halt the passage of Obama’s rescue plan because the Democrats don’t control enough seats.  One has to wonder: how in good conscience could the Republicans do that?  Don’t they care about this country? Well, yes they do – in a way.  It’s just in a different way from the Democrats. The Party of Herbert Hoover and George Bush doesn’t see things the way the average American does. Which, by the way makes it incredible that a lot of  average Americans actually vote for them – but they do.

It’s not that there is an issue about financial management techniques and what will work and what won’t.  Sure, Krugman points out that there are philosophical differences between economists who follow Friedman and those who believe in Keynes, but in the end that isn’t the issue.  Keynes has already been proven correct in the past and Friedman has been shown to be incorrect – yet Republicans won’t embrace Keynsian economics. Why?

Well, as John McCain might say, it comes down to the “redistribution of wealth”.  Keynes was an advocate of truly massive government spending to create employment for the average person as the best method of getting the economy out of a death spiral like the one we are in now.  Friedman believed that the solution was to simply give lots of money to the banks to increase “liquidity”. This was the plan that Treasury Secretary Paulson pushed through on behalf of his cronies at Goldman Sachs and the other banks.  The problem is that while the banks have been reimbursed for their losses from their foolish investments they don’t want to lend any more money.  Once burned, twice shy, as they say.

We are now at a moment, a defining moment, as Barack Obama might say. We are about to see a proxy struggle in Congress waged between two classes of society: the wealthy versus the average American.  If the wealthy win, i.e. the Republicans, we will get the Herbert Hoover result: a grinding Depression full of misery.  If the average American wins we will get the Franklin Roosevelt result: a slow climb out of economic abyss.  This is our moment America.  This is the moment that will define us and how we live for the next generation or more.  It’s not just a difference of opinion about the best technical method to solve a problem; it is, as John McCain said, class warfare.  Except that this warfare will be waged in Congress camouflaged with lots of speeches and chest thumping and flag waving and appeals to patriotism.  Just remember, it’s really only class warfare.  It’s a struggle to determine whether the wealthy will get to keep their massive fortunes while average Americans starve, or instead will democracy and fairness finally prevail in this country that has suffered so much under the Imperial Presidency of George Bush.

Pull up a chair a couple of weeks from now and watch.  It’ll be great theater, full of wonderful performances, and the  best thing of all is – you’re in the play!

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