The Crisis of our State of the Union

Trump’s State of the Union deserves a full response.

It was bad enough to sit through the deceptions and lies in the description of the national economy—where very small actual gains (smallest annual reduction in unemployment in any three-year period since the 2008 crash; worst real wage growth at low unemployment in at least 40 years) were bought at enormously high cost (1.4T tax cut that went directly to Wall Street through artificial earnings and stock buybacks; nothing for infrastructure, education, opioid epidemic, etc.).

unemployment_and_wages

However, all of that is just the beginning.  Many commentators have made that point (although many talking-head economists have done the country a disservice by exaggerating the benefits and ignoring the costs).

The real issue is that you would never guess that we live in crucial times for this country and the world.  You might expect that now I’m going to talk about climate change.   But even that is only a piece of it.  Only in the “I don’t have to care” world of today’s Republican Party is the State of the Union grounds for applause.

We are presiding over the demise of America’s promise in irresponsibility, incompetence, and simple vanity.  Let’s go down a list.

  1. Climate change

On climate change there can be no question of the urgency and magnitude of the challenge.  Science has given us a carbon budget we have to meet. The administration denies all of it and works systematically to undermine world progress.  As we’ve noted before, if we act today we have the elements of victory—but we also have ample evidence it’s a near thing.

Inaction on this subject is a grave risk to ourselves, our children, and the rest of humanity.

  1. World economic order

The elephant hiding in plain sight is the growth of the Chinese economy.  We are in the process of being supplanted as the world’s largest economy, and the room for growth there is enormous—China is already our equal by some measures, but their per-capita income still ranks only as 108th!  The world is preparing a new international order, and we’re in danger of missing the boat.

We have a chance to define notions of trade that open markets everywhere and embrace standards for wages and working conditions, environmental concerns (including climate change), and human rights.  In some sense this is a necessary complement to what’s needed for climate change.  However we are losing leverage for that enterprise every day.

We’ve taken the position (without exaggeration) that God has chosen us to rule, so we should abolish all international norms that might constrain our behavior.  With the growth of China that’s a losing game.  Even today we were unable to dictate to China in our trade war, and it’s China—not us—that’s the biggest foreign market for European cars.  We’re not going to be calling the shots forever, and without rules it’s their game.  In this Trump is not defending the US interest against the Chinese, he’s defending his personal dictatorial power against the interest of the country.  We have a very limited window to take back the promise.

  1. Technology

There will always be changes in technology, but the pace of change has reached the point where we have to keep up or lose.  This affects all aspects of our success as a country:  our national income, the jobs of our workers, the strength of our military.

Instead of recognizing that reality we’ve got our head in the sand.  Some examples:

– We’ve done everything possible to discredit scientists and science generally for climate change and environment protection.

– We’ve disbanded scientific advisory councils in government.

– We’ve had multiple State of the Union addresses where the only mention of education was vocational.

– We’ve killed net neutrality, thereby sacrificing new enterprises to the interests of the phone companies.

– On 5G and AI the government has come late to the party, without real plans.  For 5G in particular we’re actually asking our allies just to wait until we’ve figured out some alternative to Huawei.  This is worse than a failure of planning—5G applications are what’s most important, and waiting is punting that stage of technology back to the Chinese.

– More generally there’s simply no understanding of the importance of government in funding exploratory research—for technologies before the stage where private companies can run with them.  The tax cuts included a targeted punishment for major research universities.

– Finally the current rampant xenophobia flies in the face of the past and current contributions of foreigners to our technological strength.  We must continue to be the destination of choice for entrepreneurs looking to realize their visions.

We are simply ignoring the technological challenges and what has made us successful.  God only helps those who help themselves.

  1. Nuclear proliferation

This may seem a more limited issue, but that’s only because it hasn’t hit yet.  There are still only a limited number of players, largely under control.  But we’re doing everything possible to change that.

We’ve not only presented the world with the contrast in our treatments of North Korea and Iran, we’ve argued specifically for nations to do what it takes for their own defense.  We’ve eschewed the sort of international cooperation necessary to prevent new entrants.  And we’ve given Saudi Arabia nuclear material and technology without asking any questions at all.

The only reason we were less worried about this in the past was that world leaders had all recognized the nature of the threat.   We’re no longer keeping our eyes on the ball.  Nuclear technology gets ever easier.  As more entrants join the nuclear club, it gets harder to control their behavior and prevent the further sale of nuclear technology to third-parties of whatever ilk.  The North Koreans have done it before.

The clock is ticking.

  1. National ideals

It’s shocking how shallow the support for democracy has turned out to be.  In Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” many people had to die for the dictators to take over.  The reality was much easier.

Democracy is not a luxury.  It is key to what made this country what it is.  We were never perfect, but we were much more a country “of the people, by the people, for the people” than had ever existed before.

We’re losing all of that right down the line:

– We’ve reversed our progress in expanding suffrage, and are now looking for reasons to block people from voting.  The Citizens United ruling put rich people and corporations in control of elections.  Deliberate voter suppression by state governments is stated Republican policy.

– Support for public education is declining, and funding is still below 2008 levels.

– Upward mobility is now below that of most other developed countries.

– The religious right is in charge of what happens to women’s bodies.

– We’ve lost the social cohesion needed for big national efforts.  The President no longer even pretends to represent the nation—he’s a warlord who delivers spoils for his supporters.

There are plenty of historical examples of how hard it is to reclaim democracy once it’s gone.  If we’re going to have the strength of a country by and for the people, things had better change fast.

 

We live in a crucial time.  On one hand we could even see massive destruction of humanity; on the other we could see an unprecedented level of international cooperation as a precursor to a very prosperous and peaceful world.

One thing we can’t do is ignore the reality of our time.  We can’t afford the “I don’t have to care” puffery of this criminally fictitious State of the Union.

What Matters for Climate Change

Last year this blog had an overview of the major factors involved in fighting climate change.  Most of that is still current, but it has also become clear that there is a lot of confusion—even in the climate movement—about consequences.  So this piece is not about the basics; it’s about the reality of what it takes to combat climate change.

To start with, Here is a list (off the top of my head) of widely-believed nonsense.  There is probably something to annoy everyone.  You can see if I’ve made a case for it by the end.

– Conservation is a primary issue

– It’s important to get solar cells on rooftops everywhere

– Recycling is important

– Local initiatives are important

– State initiatives are important

– The main game is getting our house in order

– We don’t need to do anything, since technologists will solve it by themselves

– We’re ready for electric cars to take over the transportation sector

– Current solar and wind are ready to take over everything

– Winning is simple, we just have to stop the oil companies and start deploying the good stuff.

– For climate change employment, we need local communities to decide what they really need

– The private sector is doing it all by itself

– Carbon pricing is optional

– Carbon pricing is all it takes

– We need to get a better deal than the Paris Agreement

– We’re in control of our own destiny

– We all need to change our lifestyles

– Fighting climate change will tank the economy

– Economic dislocation means taking care of miners

– Since poor people get hurt worse, climate action is a matter of charity—for social justice

– Same thing for racial justice

– Same thing for regional justice

– Internationally, this is a matter of everyone taking care of their own

– With China and India, the important thing is to stand tough to get what we want

– We have to insist that any new technology developed here gets manufactured here

 

Let’s start this off with item #1—conservation.  From within the US it’s easy to believe the fight against climate change is all about conservation.  After all, we’re up against a hard limit on tolerable levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so we’ve just got to cut down on burning in all ways.  And we’ve got to learn to behave differently in the future.

However that logic breaks down quickly.  What about all the people in China and India?  Our conservation is a blip compared with them, but we share the same atmosphere.  Do they just have to get used to the idea that cars and air conditioning aren’t for them?  They should accept permanent sacrifice for the good of mankind?  Even in the US, no amount of conservation will move people to electric cars or eliminate the CO2 production from heavy industry.

So even for the near-term we have to recognize that the fight against climate change is not primarily about conservation but about alternative energy sources.  Worldwide, we need to evolve energy sources, so that there will be enough to take care of people everywhere.  As noted in the prior piece, there is in fact no reason to fear we will ultimately lack for power.  This isn’t about learning to live with energy scarcity—it’s about creating a future for all people, all countries, and all life styles.

For that reason we need to focus on the transition to alternative sources of power.  There are two quite different types of problems to be solved:

– Generating and distributing power

The first thing to recognize is that (despite some obfuscation from the oil companies) the future is electric.  That’s the common currency for the energy to be used everywhere, in factories, in homes, in cars.  It’s what all the renewables produce today, and what will be produced by all future candidate technologies.  Electricity is easily transmitted over long distances, and can be stored for later use (although there is much still to be done for high-volume, in-network storage).

So this work includes the electrical network, the sources of energy, and the means to store it.  Since everything will move to the electrical grid, its capacity will need to grow significantly and fast.  This is a huge project, but this is ultimately just a matter of national will.  That makes it the easier part.

– Adapting applications to use it

For that you need to work through the major sectors of energy usage.  Here is the chart for the United States.

consumption-by-source-and-sector

This is a larger and more complex undertaking, requiring careful planning for each sector.  Carbon pricing is one of the few actions that can be done across the board.   As we noted previously, assuming the atmosphere is free amounts to an annual subsidy of $1 T to the US fossil fuel industry.  Even low-level initial pricing (as with CCL) sends a message for corporate planning.  However, it is naïve to believe that carbon pricing will just take care of all sectors in time to avert disaster.  Note also, for priorities, that the residential and commercial sector is the smallest by far.

We also have to think about this problem not just for the US but for the rest of the world as well.  The US Energy Information Agency has released a document that helps in thinking about that task.  (A short summary of conclusions is available here.)  It has projections of energy use throughout the world going out to 2050.  With that it includes variants of the US energy use chart (just given) for other countries.  A significant fact is that many developing countries have a proportionally much larger industrial segment than we do, as high as 70%.

The report shows some influence of climate concerns, particularly in the US and China, but overall it describes the dimensions of a disaster.  The following chart taken from the report shows a continuing growth of CO2 emissions for the entire period.   While the report itself doesn’t explicitly call out the bottom line, the numbers from the report imply that the world will hit a point of no return already by 2035—with a CO2 concentration of 482 ppm and a temperature rise of 1.6 degrees C.

eia1

In the EIA scenarios, the world does a pretty good job of migrating electric grids to renewables (or to some extent gas)—but a terrible job of moving applications to electricity.  In developed countries this translates to business as usual, but in the developing world it’s much worse.  India, for example, is seen as growing exponentially with much of the increase powered by coal.  This isn’t just a question of forcing them to meet our standards.  Heavy industry is a particular problem everywhere.

So the application area is a big job with many industry-specific issues.  The world desperately needs focused research efforts with results that can be applied large-scale worldwide.  This can’t be a matter of everyone guarding discoveries for national advantage.  Cooperative international arrangements will be key to meaningful progress.

 

Even at this high level there are a number of conclusions to be drawn:

– There is no do-nothing alternative.

Technology will deliver a viable future, but we’ll have to work to get there.  There’s no silver bullet that makes it all go away.

– Technology development is important and has to be figured into any planning, but technology concerns are not the barrier to success.

It is perfectly possible to put together a plan to get the US where it needs to be by 2030.  That’s not saying all technology problems have been solved (after all electric cars are still much too expensive), but we can see a path to success.  We shouldn’t trivialize the effort and sophistication required, but based on where we are, and given financing, it appears that the technical side can get done.  The next point is less clear.

– Changes are huge and have to be dealt-with politically.

This isn’t just a matter of coal-miners losing their jobs.  Electric cars alone will have pervasive consequences.  We have to understand that worries about change are rational, so an important part of domestic climate policy has to be an assurance everyone will be made whole.  Otherwise we will continue to face the push back seen most recently in the Australian election.

In the US there is every reason for the less advantaged to distrust the political powers that be.  In the developing world it’s even worse—you’re talking about giving up on the benefits of development for some unknown duration.  The situation is necessarily difficult.   It’s only going to work if wealthy people and wealthy countries realize it’s in their own interest to come up with the goods.  No one will escape the consequences otherwise.

– The international side is unavoidable.

There is only one atmosphere.   Every country in the world has to cooperate, or we all lose.  When the US opts out, everyone loses faith in the future—as was evident in the recent Madrid meeting.  We have to restore international unity in order to make progress.  And that will only come when every country sees a just role for itself individually.  As for the terms of the Paris Agreement—it is only a first step and actually better for rich countries than will ultimately be workable.

We cannot go into this with the attitude that the objective is to come out a winner at the expense of everyone else.  If everyone doesn’t win, we all lose.

– This is not a matter for incrementalism.

We’re not going to get there with well-meaning people insulating their houses or businesses putting solar cells on the roof.

It’s worth putting some numbers on this.  With current technology, the power output of a solar cell is 20 watts per square foot.  From that you can calculate how many solar cells would be needed to meet current US electrical demand.  The answer is about 2500 square miles, assuming they’re all in brilliantly-lit, weather-free Arizona.  (And there are serious problems in managing that too.)  All of it gets an order of magnitude worse if we decide to go piecemeal in random, less promising locations–and that’s just for today’s electrical grid, not where we have to get to.

That’s not to say that Arizona is necessarily the solution.  The point is that there has to be a rational national policy that will actually get the job done.

 

Greta Thunberg is right—there is no substitute for major political action.  Anything less is delusion, regardless of who says it.  The 2020 election is the single, deciding climate issue today.

Perhaps we need the right metaphor.  The fight against climate change is a war.  We’re all in it together—losing is losing for everyone.  The countries of the world are allies in the sense that each of them is necessary for success.  National economies will be affected, but through national climate efforts with no shortage of jobs.

Right now we’re like the US in mid 1941.  We can see and understand the enemy, but we’re not convinced we really have to be involved.  That situation only got resolved when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and it was clear there was no other choice.  You can make a case we were lucky that it wasn’t too late.  Without the Nazi’s disdain for “Jewish physics”, they might even have gotten the bomb.

For climate, if we act today we have the elements of victory.   We also have ample evidence it’s a near thing.  A climate Pearl Harbor may well be too late—and beyond anything we want to live to see.

Lessons From the British Election

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“Boris” by Raymond Wang is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

There is no way to avoid talking about the horrors of the British election.  With the confirmation of Brexit and the triumph of Boris Johnson, we have all stood witness to the disgraceful demise of a nation now left only with dreams of past glory.

For us though the important question is about what it means for our own election.  On that point the discussion has been generally limited to one question:  Does it say we should worry about the Democrats going too far to the left?  That one is hard to decide, since Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn was so unpopular for his own sake. 

However, that being said, there is still much to discuss.   We propose three points:

  1. Catastrophes not only can happen, but will happen if we don’t watch out for them.

The Democratic debates thus far have played out largely as conflict between the center and left wings of the party.  That means essentially all of it has been fought in the never-never land of post-Trump.  That’s not the same as working on viable strategies to win.

This will be a very tough election, fighting the Fox News, the Electoral College, incredible amounts of Republican money, and all the (legal and illegal) powers of incumbency.  Most candidates have done a reasonable job in providing position papers for what they stand for.  They need to tell us how they’re going to win.

  1. We need to recognize that the electorate isn’t convinced of the urgency of change.

In Britain, Corbyn’s big socialist revival was not so much wrong as a non sequitur.  What actually was all this trying to solve?  Why was it an argument for change?  It was ultimately a declaration of irrelevance.

We have a similar problem.  The very first question of the very first debate has never been adequately answered.  Elizabeth Warren was asked (more or less): “Why are you proposing all these changes when—by all polls—the vast majority of Americans think the economy is doing fine?”  That’s a question for all Democrats—what is it that’s so bad that we need change?

Warren’s answer—about radical inequality—was nowhere near strong enough.  It essentially said that all those people who answered the polls were just wrong.  But no one else has done better.  Healthcare was a great issue for the midterms—that’s something broken that we’re going to fix.  But it’s not enough to unseat Trump.  Impeachment doesn’t touch peoples’ lives directly—it’s about an abstraction called democracy.  Even climate change comes across as an abstraction, although it’s part of what’s needed.  Democrats need a short, clear reason why people need to worry that there is something that needs fixing.

That’s a bar to be passed before we can begin to get traction with specific plans for change.  Until then, like it or not, “fundamental structural change” will be a negative.

  1. We have to keep this a referendum on Trump.

Corbyn pretended Brexit wasn’t the main issue and went off with his own program.  The public was unwilling to follow.

Regardless of how broadly we see the issues, this election is about where Trump is taking the country.

We need a well-defined Trump story to challenge Republican claims of a great rebirth of the American economy.  Even on trade they’ll do what worked for George Bush on Iraq—we’ve been through all the pain, don’t miss out on the rewards!

That means we need to show what four more years of Trump will actually mean.  And how to meet the real challenges for our future.  It seems helpful to think in terms of personal and national issues for the voters:

Personal well-being

Healthcare (complete failure of vision)

Decline in good jobs (manufacturing, good jobs in general)

Education (no initiatives, no funding)

Income inequality (all growth for the rich)

Guns (unsafe to be in school!)

Climate change (what world for our children?)

Women’s rights trampled (bodies owned by the government)

Worse life for everyone but the protected few

National well-being

Eroding technology dominance (science marginalized)

New businesses sacrificed to old (Net Neutrality)

Losing out with climate change denial (ceded primary position to China)

Weakness with China and North Korea (situation is worse than ever before)

Nuclear proliferation (a danger in all directions)

Racism and divisiveness undermine our strengths (just what Putin ordered)

Demise of democracy (our major source of prosperity and power)

=>  Welcome to the Chinese century

 

That’s where we’re going.  For our own dreams of past glory.

American Fascism in the World

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“President Trump, MAGA rally, Wilkes-Barre, Penn – 1” by The Epoch Times is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As a country we normally don’t care much about foreign affairs.  We’ve had five Democratic debates with almost no questions about it.  International issues always come out low on the lists of what people care about.

However, the time has come to care.  It’s nothing new to identify the rise of fascism in this country as a problem.  But for some of the worst consequences you need to look outside the borders.

Fascism is many things but it is above all a world view.  The mother country is God-certified superior, under assault, and fully-equipped to teach everyone else a lesson.  That feels great; life is good when you’re on top of the world, and you don’t have to care.  But it is by definition blinding in its assessment of reality.

Our current foreign policy is predicated on the idea that we’re running things and can dictate to the rest of the world.   We don’t need allies or international institutions, because we can simply tell everyone else what to do.  Allies are people you shake down because they need you, and adversaries are just waiting to get defeated by irresistible national power.

That world view might have had some reality at the end of World War II (when we were sensible enough not to pursue it), but it has little to do with reality today.  The longer we resist reality, the worse for us.

First of all our military power is strictly bounded.  Nuclear weapons are such that for now no major power can be defeated.  We can’t even do anything about North Korea.  So we shouldn’t believe that counting bombs says anything meaningful.

Our economic power is also limited.  Our declared economic war on China has thus far been anything but “easy”.  There is no sign that China is ready to capitulate, and their resulting push for national self-sufficiency has many negatives for us—in particular reduced access to the markets we think we’re opening.  That’s in addition to an overall slow-down of international growth and much of the recent intellectual property theft.  The blindness of the belief in our power is such that we systematically ignore consequences.  It is truly dangerous to believe—as a principle—that we don’t have to care.

Why do we have allies?  If you believe what’s coming out of Washington, the answer is that we have allies because, out of the goodness of our hearts, we choose to defend our friends.  Since this is pure beneficence, they had better pay up and to hell with them if they don’t.

In fact (of course) we have allies to increase our strength.  NATO came into existence, so that a next world war with Russia would be fought in Europe and not here. That role may have diminished, but it’s not gone, and Europe allies are also assets in dealing with middle-eastern terrorism and with the economic strength of China.  South Korea and Japan are similarly counterweights to the rising power of China.   Again, they are the ones on the front lines.  Shaking them down increases China’s dominance in the East.

Why do we have international institutions?  Those were created by the US as a means of increasing stability (to the benefit of our economy) and of exercising power.  The UN is imperfect institution, but its role as an international forum is essential.  The WTO is the best means that exists to push for labor and environmental standards in international trade.  Make no mistake that world trade has been good for the US economy.  If it hasn’t done as much for the population as a whole, that’s because—as in many other areas—rich donors have controlled our own objectives.  That’s our problem to fix.  International institutions are the way we, together with our allies, can exert decisive power without conflict.

Fascism is a major impediment to the exercise of US power.  Relations with China are a case in point.   Nothing says this is easy, but we certainly should be playing with a full deck.  As it is, we’ve already strengthened the hands of hard-liners, and it will be work to walk that back.  That’s still worth the effort, because conflict is a good option only in fascist fantasy.  A defined “victory” is highly unlikely, and at the very least we’re talking about:  a new cold war, lower economic growth, no access to the Chinese market, an uncontrolled and expensive arms race, no leverage on Chinese behavior, a real chance of war.  Rational national interest says forget the fascist dreams, strengthen our hand, and work on a real future.

There are other aspects to this as well.  Fascism has many other destructive tendencies, we’re promoting them worldwide, and they come back to bite us.  Racial intolerance is built-in to the world view.  We’re excusing it domestically and normalizing it elsewhere.  Modi’s anti-Muslim policies would probably have happened anyway, but our influence has damped down international outrage.  Similarly we may decry China’s treatment of Uighurs, but the impact of our outrage is weakened by our own actions.

Even more important, our fascist disdain for international cooperation has seriously hobbled the worldwide effort to combat climate change.  The US-led unanimity of the Paris Agreement was the basis for the world to make progress.  Once we broke that and encouraged others to follow, it has been more than difficult to assemble the global good-will necessary to make progress.

After World War II it was easy to believe fascism was something special with roots in German or Italian culture.  We now know better.  It is a tendency than needs to be fought everywhere.  It is a mindset that takes over from rationality and hurts most severely those who fall prey to the disease.

We’ve had more than enough of it already.  For our own sake we’d better learn to fight back.

On Climate—We Have to Beat Trump or Nothing Else Matters

Our piece on Inslee’s climate proposals included a video clip from MIT professor Henry Jacoby on the international side of climate change.  That clip deserves more than a passing reference, because its implications go far.  In its own way this is truth-telling for a story that has been largely ignored

 

Just to repeat the obvious, there is only one atmosphere.  All the carbon dioxide from everyone gets mixed up.  Since we represent about 15% of the world CO2 production, we only control 15% of what happens to us.  We can feel good or bad about how well we’re doing with our 15%, but the other 85% comes from everyone else.

For that other 85% it should be emphasized that there is no world government to deal with it.  The only way to make progress is for all of the world’s nations to unite on a process that makes sense, on a national basis, for each country involved.  That was the achievement of the Paris Agreement—there is no other mechanism for going forward.  (We’ve talked elsewhere about justice and economic impact.)  US withdrawal means we will be stuck with consequences of that other 85%, regardless of what we as individuals or cities or states can do.  Let’s see what that means.

US involvement created the Paris Agreement after decades of international squabbling.  Obama’s active intervention also raised Chinese consciousness to stop their rapid increase in CO2 production—as seen in the following chart:

s11_2018_Projections

The Paris Agreement is not a single step, but a process.  The path to success involves regular revisions of national targets according to a succession of 5-yearly updates.  The next such update is in 2020.

Progress won’t happen by itself.  It only works if everyone keeps on-track—and US withdrawal undermines it all.   Now that we’re out, the Germans and the Japanese are replacing nuclear plants with coal, and the Chinese (while retreating from fossil fuels in their own country) are pushing coal and oil elsewhere with their Belt and Road initiative.  With the US committed to (and encouraging) cheating, the 2020 updates are in jeopardy, and there is a real question if the poor countries of the world will be in any position to deal with the 75% of CO2 emissions reductions that Professor Jacoby notes must come from the developing world.  Rich countries like us are only going escape the consequences of climate change if they can get back in the game to make progress with poorer ones.

As long as Trump is the US President, we are giving up on what happens with most of the sources of the CO2 in our atmosphere.  That means, regardless of what we do for ourselves, we are committed to a national disaster.

So it’s important to keep things in perspective.  It’s good for the US to commit the effort necessary to meet our climate objectives.   But we should not delude ourselves about what controls our destiny.  The highest priority for climate action is to defeat Trump.  Between now and the election there is no other climate priority that comes close.

Warren’s Medical Plan Competes with Climate Action

Nursing Stock Images NIH

“Patient Talking With Doctor” by NIHClinicalCenter is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There is nothing complicated about this conclusion, but we ought to be clear about it.

Warren got herself boxed-in on medical care.  She repeatedly said she wouldn’t raise medical “costs” for the middle class, but other candidates and the press accused her of using “costs” as a smokescreen to hide taxes.  That forced her hand—to defend herself she had to make medical care free, a position quite different from where she started.  The middle class would pay neither premiums nor taxes.

That meant coming up with an awful lot of money.  The Warren proposal is a highly optimistic exercise in finding taxes and cost-savings to make it fly.  As opposed to all the other proposals—which involve some form of participant contribution—this one takes all the participant payments from general tax funds.  And it needs so much money you have to say that the well is now largely dry.

That has consequences for everything else.  For climate this is particularly sensitive, because there is every reason to believe that current cost estimates are decidedly on the low side.  What’s more, the costs included in the Inslee climate plan (which Warren now supports in principle) come to $9T over ten years, whereas the taxes from Warren’s own climate plan only cover $3T.   The rest is yet to be done.

Healthcare is too expensive to expect it just to fit it in.  It’s fantasy to believe it doesn’t matter.

 

Inslee’s Plan in the Green New Deal

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Inslee’s 200-page climate plan is the most detailed document any candidate has put together to address climate change.  Elizabeth Warren has said she will adopt it as is.  Many people would like to view it as a first fleshing out of the Green New Deal.

As such, it is important to recognize what the Inslee document does and doesn’t do.  Here are a few points.  (For context, this note builds upon our other recent points on climate change.)

  1. Inslee’s document is very good at documenting areas of government action necessary to address climate change.

– Undoing Trump’s many areas of damage within the executive—environmental planning and regulations of all kinds

– Reestablishing links to international organizations—the Paris Agreement and many others

– Identifying topics to be included in a plan—electric grid, carbon pricing, protecting affected workers

  1. However that is different from a plan of action.  Two issues:

– There isn’t yet a concrete plan for the core electric grid and power sources

This is completely controllable and in the critical path for everything else.

It is a strategic necessity—our generation’s interstate highway system.

It has to be planned nationally, with roles determined for renewable sources.

It will push the envelope on technology.  The Chinese are already deploying the highest capacity links ever.  Management and control software may be our strength.

– Inslee covers many topics, but doesn’t systematically prioritize sectors or work.  The following chart is key:

consumption-by-source-and-sector

                Where is lowest-hanging fruit both initially and as we go?

               What are technological and other barriers to success?

               What sequences of steps will be necessary?

               How does carbon pricing fit in?  What do we do about carbon capture?

  1. Transition costs are greatly underestimated.

– Inslee talks about protecting unionized coal and oil workers from loss of income.

– Far more affected people will be outside that core:  automobile mechanics, manufacturing value chains, service stations, etc.

– Most American car manufacturers risk being left behind—today’s cheap electric cars use South Korean technology.

– We will also—for the same reasons—need to protect workers losing jobs from other technology changes, such as AI.

  1. International aid requirements are also greatly underestimated.  This chart shows the problem:

s11_2018_Projections

– Many “All others” countries will be unable to do it alone—we will have to contribute.  That’s not just for them; it’s our atmosphere too!

– Inslee focuses on investment, but we will also need to provide financial aid and active assistance.

– MIT Professor Henry Jacoby gives a broader summary of this little-discussed truth:

 

 

  1. Inslee doesn’t cover everything in the Green New Deal.

– No claim to provide jobs for everyone (mostly high-skill jobs)

– Many claims but little detail about aid to “front-line communities”

– Minimizes management challenges of a huge undertaking—e.g. preventing corruption

  1. The technology picture is fanciful.

– We do need to develop new technologies or be left behind

– We’re not going to be world-dominant in everything—we’re not the only ones trying.

– We’re also not going to bring back the good old days of manufacturing—not any more than we did with iPhones.   Most climate jobs will be in deploying technology.

– Market opportunities are enormous, and we can expect success in our areas of strength.   But employment and equality of opportunity are part of a bigger story.  Fighting climate change by itself won’t bring nirvana.

  1. Inslee’s tariff and sector protection story is exactly what we’re forbidding the Chinese to do.

– When we need worldwide cooperation, the last things we need are trade wars and tariffs!

– Rules for fair trade have got to worked out in the WTO as part of the Paris Agreement process

– We have to accept the reality of fair competition—whether we’ve paid for the research or not.  That’s a necessity for climate and ultimately beneficial economically.

  1. Inslee’s document—like Green New Deal itself—declares an unnecessary culture war.

– We’re deploying new energy sources to replace fossil fuels.

– For the most part, we’re changing how things work, not what they do.

– The transition will involve everyone, but it’s not a culture or lifestyle question.  People will continue to drive (electric) Chevy Suburbans.

  1. We still need a program of initial major steps.  This should include items such as:

– Blue ribbon team on electric grid and power sources with dated deliverables

– Specifics on carbon pricing (why not just take CCL?—it’s progressive)

– Commit to supporting all people hurt by technology transition (& try to scope it)

– Spend real money on test systems to productize carbon capture

– Get serious about what will be needed (by year) to completely change transportation.

– Business roundtable to address application needs

– Back to a leadership role in moving forward on Paris Agreement commitments.

– Fix WTO rules to be consistent with Paris objectives.

– Better understand what will be needed from us (and others) for third-world countries do their part.

– Organize to make the most of climate jobs for the whole population.

Reasons For Pragmatism

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“COD Volunteers Give Back to the Community During COD Cares: Roll Up Your Sleeves Service Day 103” by COD Newsroom is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ideology can be inspiring, but it’s never the same as a plan to get a job done.  For now it’s getting in the way on many issues.  Here are a few examples:

  • Healthcare

ACA is an imperfect compromise with known issues—in part because it was a non-final version enacted in the wake of Scott Brown’s Koch-funded victory for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.  All attempts since then to improve ACA have been blocked by anti-healthcare Republicans.

That being said ACA has enabled tens of millions of people to be covered for the first time, and it is supported by a non-regressive tax—the ACA surcharge.  It also attempts to get around some of the worst problems private insurance by covering pre-existing conditions and regulating how much of premiums must be paid out in benefits.  In fact insurance profit margins in healthcare are well-below margins in every other insurance category.

The most critical issues today are to improve coverage, pricing, and the range of offerings for ACA plans.  Some of this is just a matter of rolling back Trump efforts to destroy ACA.  The rest is more complicated, but nonetheless well-studied.  This needs to happen independent of long-term plans.

“Medicare of All” is an ideological choice—to get healthcare away from the insurance companies.  It’s a good slogan but something of a misnomer, because the changes from Medicare are decidedly non-trivial.  The Sanders bill optimistically assumes all private insurance will be gone in four years, but without a real plan to make it happen.  While virtually all developed countries have some form of universal healthcare, the systems are dramatically different from country to country, and many keep some form of private insurance.  Even current Medicare has many roles for private insurance.

Focusing on Medicare for All does nothing for current problems, and puts us in an ideological battle for the future.  As Krugman recently pointed out “Not many people love their insurance companies, but that doesn’t mean that they’re eager to trade the coverage they know for a new system they don’t.”  Additionally—for current Medicare recipients—Medicare for All is easily posed as a threat to Medicare itself.  That worked (using ACA) in the Scott Brown election and could well work again.

The long-term objective is affordable, universal coverage.  And the first steps start now.

  • Climate Change

If anything should ever be non-ideological it’s climate change.  Facts are facts, and the solutions are primarily matters for science and engineering.  The main political issues are how much money to spend and who is going to pay for it.

Both sides, however, have turned this into a culture war.  That the Kochs have dishonestly challenged the basic science is by now almost beside the point.  “Bad science” is just an epithet thrown out in the culture war.

We need to stop the culture war and make sure we take care of the people who will be hurt as the economy goes off fossil fuels.  Green New Deal makes some things better and some things worse.  There’s so much political deal-making thrown into it, that it can’t possibly be viewed as anything other than a left-wing grab bag.  Maybe that helps in defeating Trump—which is of course necessary for any progress—but there are too many distractions from the climate change goal.

We need to make sure that everyone realizes that the new post-climate-change world is a good world for all—even people who want to drive AV’s and Chevy Suburbans.  And we need to commit to protect everyone—coal miners, car mechanics, people hit by carbon pricing—who might otherwise be hurt in the process.  That’s the objective.  We can refuse to play the Koch’s culture war game.

We have to get away from the notion that we need to create a kind of “socialist new man” of conservation.  We’re not repealing the industrial revolution.  We just changing the technological underpinning of how things work.  That’s not to say there aren’t other environmental issues, but they’re not the same.  We shouldn’t expect fixing climate change will put the EPA out of business.

  • Jobs

This whole area is filled with so many wrong and misleading ideologies that we can start with a catalog of wrong ideas.

Manufacturing is the basis of economic strength.

The Chinese have gutted manufacturing in the US.

Balance of payments is a good measure of economic strength.

A strong private sector will provide everything necessary for economic success.

Tariffs protect and strengthen the domestic economy.

Low business tax rates build national competitiveness.

Taxing businesses hurts everyone.

Strong unions and strong anti-trust enforcement will preserve the middle class.

Public sector jobs aren’t real jobs, they just pull money out of the private sector.

In the future there just won’t be jobs for everyone.

From the list it’s clear this isn’t a matter of left versus right (even if you discount the lunatic fringe running things today).  The world is moving into new territory (more and more companies with 0 cost of production, tighter and more automated international links).  So the challenge is to see things as they actually are.

Ideologies can get in the way of understanding.  No candidates seem willing to talk about the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy.  Unions and antitrust enforcement are still good ideas, but they buy less than they used to.   As the last of the points indicates, futurists tend to provide more ideology than reality, so nothing beats experience and pragmatism.

For ourselves we see government challenges as:

Supporting education and research to keep ahead of technology change.

Managing the continuing transition from a manufacturing to a service economy.

Taxing and regulating dynamic international corporations with monopoly power.

Building and maintaining a bigger public sector to provide necessary services the private sector won’t.

Maintaining quality of life for all who live here.

Consciously working at creating and managing the international institutions that make the world work.  We used to recognize this responsibility (and avenue to exercise power), and no one else is stepping into the gap.

Overall we need to recognize the problems we do have—not the ones of the 1930’s—and look what will actually be effective to fix them.

There are many other areas where the same kind of story plays out—where an ideological war masks a more tractable, practical problem.  I’d even put immigration in that category.

It’s hard, given the daily atrocities of the Trump era, to focus on anything less than epic changes.  But if we’re going to put the pieces back together afterwards, it’s pragmatism that will get the job done.