The Main Event is Our Future

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DSC_8233.jpg by bobosh_t is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

With the daily dose of atrocities, it’s hard to get beyond us versus them.   “My people are not like that.”   Get rid of the bad guys and everything will be just fine.  Except that it’s not so easy.

It’s a lot easier to produce factions than policies, and this is a moment that cries out for serious answers.  We’re so numbed by roadblock issues—inequality, declining opportunity, rise of authoritarianism, unstoppable climate change—that we get depressed about the future too.  But the issues are there to be solved.

This isn’t an appeal to bipartisanship, because there is no reason to think that’s the point.  The crisis is not of compromise but of ideas.  So instead this is an appeal to resist chest-beating and work on the issues.  The problems will still be there, impeachment or no impeachment.

If we want to fight climate change, we should stop talking about morality and come up with specific plans.  That’s not trivial, and bad plans can make matters worse—certainly in missed opportunity.  Green New Deal isn’t a plan yet, and spending money on that scale means we better be clear enough about what we’re doing to avoid corruption even among the good guys.   Similarly if we want to improve education we need a plan with funding and a way to get more people involved.   Fundamental problems such as inequality or lack of opportunity are even harder—we need both individual prosperity and national growth.  Detail matters.  The country needs specific proposals and a serious dialog to move forward.  In this Elizabeth Warren’s many proposals are important whether you agree with her answers or not—they are specific enough so that we can start having confidence that this is a job we can get done.

One thing that is certainly true is that we can’t continue denying reality or the interconnectedness of the world we live in.

Any new President will have plenty to fix in sheer damage control.  The country has been weakened in many ways.  But we also have to think about this as a new beginning with bright prospects.  (A recent NYTimes piece was good on prospects though rather breezy on answers.)  It is not a given that 19th century level inequality is a fact of life or that we can’t be expected do much of anything for the common good.  Since there’s no shortage of either money or opportunity, what we’re faced with is the difficulty of getting to where we ought to be.

After World War II, the US led the world into becoming a much more equitable and prosperous place.  That challenge is again on the table.

Prosperity in Today’s Economy

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The title of this article sounds rather ordinary, but in fact there’s more to say than you might expect.   There aren’t a lot of new facts here, but we bring together several strands of argument that don’t tend to be followed to conclusion.  It’s useful to think step-by-step about prosperity today and going forward.

  1. Our national standing today is largely determined by technology.

There are many aspects to this.  The most obvious one is the role of high-tech companies in the economy.  The NYTimes had an article a few months ago (on the occasion of Apple’s becoming the first $1 T company) with graphic displays showing the size of Apple (as well as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and many others) in the US economy.  The dominance of high-tech is unmistakable. That’s what supports our standard of living and always has. Railroads, steel, automobiles were all high-tech in their day.  (Note this is not saying that Google or Facebook are angels, it’s our national strength in technology that matters.)

It is only because we are on top of that heap that we have the money that supports the rest of the economy.  That includes much of small business and service industries.  It is from the strength of our competitive economic position that we can pay for the non-competitive industries we choose to support.  The aluminum and steel tariffs are being paid by us from the industries that don’t need them.  To state this somewhat differently—we are not going to build a dominant economy by selling each other stuff anyone can make at artificially high prices.

It’s also worth pointing out, given all the discussions of the military budget, that the technology argument applies in spades for the military.  Building new aircraft carriers is not going to make us safe.  One only has to think, theoretically of course, about the effect of a North Korean virus disabling the military’s command and control.  From the chart below, it is obvious that our level of military spending ought to quash everyone else hands down if money were the only object.  But it’s not doing the job, because that’s not the game anymore.  And it’s not just AI, it’s across the board.

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What all this means is that the people who support our technology position are critical resources who matter to all of us.

This is a lot less elitist than it sounds, because it’s not saying we shouldn’t care about or value everyone else (more on that later).   The point is that we shouldn’t be spending our time worrying about who is or isn’t supplanting whom.  Our success depends on nurturing and exploiting the best and the brightest—at least for these skills—and we had better spend our time trying to find them and encourage them, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  And if foreigners choose to come here and establish successful startup companies—mostly in high tech—we should be happy they do.  It is a major strength of the US economy that people find the US to be the best place to realize their ambitions.  We erode that strength at our peril.

Anger at elite technologists may be natural, but they are the wrong targets.  Their effect on the rest of us is positive.  What we need to avoid is a two-tiered society of haves and have-nots, as we’ll discuss later.

  1. Businesses today are different from the past in important ways.

Since we’ve identified the key role played by the tech sector, it’s worth thinking about what kind of businesses those are.  So let’s take a quick look at Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook.

– A first point to notice is that they are all some form of monopoly.  This is not surprising as they are all (even Amazon and Apple) essentially software companies.  Software businesses invite monopoly, because costs of production are minimal. In such cases, research and development costs become primary, and the company with largest market share can afford to offer products with more features than a smaller competitor can.  As automation continues, particularly with AI, similar arguments will apply to much of the rest of the economy.

Managing monopolies is a serious issue:

Monopolies squelch competition.   It is imperative for our success that established companies can’t limit the innovative power of new entrants.  That has been our historical advantage over foreign competitors and is a major factor in any discussion of how we deal with the rise of China.  This is not just a problem with Google, etc.  The demise of Net Neutrality is a classic case of giving in to established players, in this case the major telecom carriers.

Monopolies take more than their share of our money.  Monopoly power limits price sensitivity. Since the determining feature of competition is more often uniqueness more than price point, products are priced at what the market will bear—as with the iPhone or patented drugs.   Furthermore, through manipulation of assets including intellectual property, hi-tech monopolies have been tough to tax.   Apple’s success in this is legendary.   Their windfall from the recent corporate tax cuts is something to behold (and unnecessary as a spur to investment).  It is imperative we learn how to tax monopoly-level profits.

– Next, personal success in these companies requires a high-level of technical competence.   Amazon is obviously a case in point, with two completely different populations:  the mass of box fillers versus the corporate staff.  Note that technical competence is not just a matter for developers, but is also required for the many people in management, support, administration, and even sales.  As just noted, as automation proceeds, this trend will extend well outside of high-tech.

This represents the threat of a two-tiered society, as discussed earlier.  As a country this implies at the very least a basic responsibility for broad-based solid education and a livable minimum wage.

It should be emphasized that strengthening of education is required for both national success and personal prosperity.   Regardless of what advantages we have for staying on top of the heap, we cannot succeed if we don’t have the people to do it.

– Third, all of these business are intrinsically international.  With the growth of the world economy (and China in particular) economies of scale are such that we have to think in global terms.

– Finally our fourth and last comment for this section is about a different trend not limited to high-tech—the institutionalized irresponsibility of business.  It has become gospel that businesses have responsibility only to their investors, and all other considerations are more or less theft.  Businesses used to care about retirement, healthcare, training, even local charity.  But current reality is that if someone is going to care about those things, it’s out of the question for it to be them.

In addition, because of the sheer size of the country, the US more than anywhere else has to deal with the phenomenon of towns or regions where the economic base can just disappear. Company town are the obvious example. In an age of accelerating technology change, we can’t stop such things from happening.   And we can’t expect rescue to happen by all by itself.

However we emphasize this isn’t just about charity.  In the current state of affairs, the private sector is not be doing what’s necessary even to provide the environment for its own success.

That leads to the next topic—what do we need for national success?

  1. Our infrastructure problems mean more than we thought.

Infrastructure has to be thought of as whatever is necessary for national success and personal welfare.  I.e. much more than roads and bridges.  The educational system fits in this category as it is required for both personal and national success.  Declining upward mobility and the student loan crisis are two indications that there is a lot that needs to be done.

Support for theoretical research is in the same category.  It is precursor work for new technologies before they are ready for business. A point worth stressing it that it is not only the research itself that is important—research work assures that there will be a population ready to exploit new opportunities as they arise.

Continuing on, we list a few more significant infrastructure projects needing immediate attention.

– The American Society of Civil Engineers keeps a web site with a break down of national infrastructure requirements.  We currently rate a D+.

– To that we add the urgent needs of combatting climate change, which will be considerable, regardless of how the final plans work out.

– Healthcare is currently in flux with ACA under attack and nothing to replace it.

– Finally we have the general specter of a two-tiered society, with all the misery and threat of conflict that represents.  That too needs to be dealt with as a national problem, and there’s no one in this picture other than government to do it.

Government’s role in this picture is three-tiered:

i. Government needs to make sure everyone has the education and access to the opportunities to succeed.

ii. Government needs to support what is necessary for national infrastructure, much of which will not happen spontaneously in the private sector.

iii. Government needs to supply a last-line safety net for those who fall through the cracks.

This is a non-trivial task, and we emphasize that the biggest part of it is not charity.   We have a current mismatch between a dearth of good jobs and a growing backlog of infrastructure needs of all kinds.

From the point of view here our much-discussed infrastructure needs—back to the roads and bridges—have to be viewed as bellwethers.  The fact that we can’t deal even with roads and bridges means that we have a fundamental problem funding the common good, and we have to take that head on.

  1. There is a mismatch between the needs of our country and the forces that currently control it.

The governing ideology of this country is simple to summarize:  let the private sector do it and get out of the way.  All government regulation is bad, and taxes are just a brake on the private sector’s ability to make everything great.

The chief beneficiaries of this policy are the ultra-rich funders of the Republican Party, although the problem of money in politics (especially after Citizens United) transcends parties. In this enterprise Trump is largely a front man for the real forces running things.

For these people, with fortunes going back even into the nineteenth century, it’s natural to regard the country as a money-machine.  Taxes, regulations, and government services—except for the military—are deductions off the bottom line.

The problem with that view, even for them, is that it is the wrong model for the world we just described.  That set of policies would make sense in an extractive economy, where all that is necessary for success is a cadre of imported experts to arrange for pumping oil with purchased technology.  In that case you don’t need much from the national population in order to collect the proceeds.

That’s not our situation.  As described, we live in a technology-dominated world where the population must earn our national success.  For that world we’re currently going in the wrong direction.  Devaluing education, denying climate change, cutting research, encouraging xenophobia will get to us sooner than we’d like to think.  China is a formidable challenger.

However, it not so hard to be optimistic if we can just be serious about what needs to be done.  We have all the tools for success:  the money, the work to be done, even the means to avoid a two-tiered society.

The story is not complicated.  If we can return to exploiting our strengths, then we should be able to remain in the technological forefront for our chosen areas of focus.   If we can control the monopolies, then the associated margins in an expanding world economy should yield money enough (if we can collect it) to produce a workable society for everyone ready to participate.

There is certainly no shortage of work in the infrastructure area, and it needs all kinds of people.  In this respect the Green New Deal may be too glib in pinning everything on climate change, but their basic idea is correct.   If we play our cards right, the high technology future will provide the funds to support the infrastructure for its own success and for the prosperity of the nation.

We should not underestimate the job.  Careful and transparent planning is critical—defining exactly what needs to be done to support both the economy and the population.  And then determining how that work can be best supplied.

It should be emphasized is that we’re NOT talking about socializing away the free market economy.  If there’s one bad misconception that needs to be hammered down everywhere, it’s the idea that the private sector is magic for all problems.  We’ve just gone down a long list of things it’s not going to do.

Even Adam Smith was clear about this from the beginning.  The private sector is a participant in the public economy, but that economy will deliver the benefits of a free market only if #1 government keeps the private sector from corrupting the markets (e.g with monopolies and bribes) and #2 government provides the resources (e.g. education and other infrastructure) necessary for success.  That’s the definition of our job.

This will necessarily require a renewed focus on government and public service.  It’s interesting that a couple of recent mainstream books (Volker, Lewis) have recognized public service as an important issue.  In that respect “Green New Deal” isn’t a bad term:  we need to be as serious as Roosevelt’s brain trust in planning for the next stage for our country’s future.

This is a battle both old and new.   In Smith’s words, “The interest of [businessmen] is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public …The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention.”  Wealth of Nations is only achieved when government does its job.

For Climate It’s Not GND versus CCL

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There has been an alarming trend recently for the two most prominent Congressional climate initiatives to be presented as opponents.  It’s hard to tell if the organizations themselves think that, but it had better not start.   This is destructive nonsense, as the initiatives are complementary and the last thing we need is an intramural fight.

On one side there is the Green New Deal, which has been remarkably successful at rallying the Democratic Party around climate change as a primary issue.  GND tries to be comprehensive enough to be THE Democratic climate initiative.   They have also bundled a number of other key targets (e.g. full employment) into their program to make it clear that fighting climate change is a good deal for everyone.

On the other side is Citizen’s Climate Lobby, which presents itself as bipartisan and is focused specifically on what they call Carbon Fee and Dividend—a carefully constructed non-regressive version of a carbon tax.

These organizations need each other.   Green New Deal has thus far been ambivalent about a carbon tax, but the fact is that without one we are providing a massive subsidy to the fossil fuel industry.   Even a low-ball estimate of the true cost of the carbon dioxide spewed into the US atmosphere comes in at around $1T per year.  One way or another we can’t keep doing that; it’s a huge distortion of the economy toward business as usual.  CCL has done about as good a job as anyone in concept, rollout planning, and minimizing of side effects. (The opposite of the budget shenanigans that produced the Yellow Vests in France.)

On the other hand CCL is just not comprehensive.   A carbon tax will work better in some sectors than others, and there is no question that government will need to manage the whole process:  monitoring progress, making sure it works for everyone, introducing other incentives where needed, and spending money where the private sector is not going to get the job done.   A few obvious examples are preparation of the electrical grid, research spending, and looking after the international aspects of the problem.

As we’ve noted here before, no one has yet produced a real national plan for addressing climate change on some kind of schedule.  We need that level of comprehensiveness and specificity, and cooperation here would be a good first step.

The Epiphany of the Right

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It’s often difficult to understand the logic behind the right’s continued embrace of Trump’s lies and corruption.  In thinking about it, it seems that there is something even more fundamental than identity behind it.  You might call it the epiphany of the right.

This already existed in rather pure form with the Tea Party.  Tea Party participants had the enthusiasm of true believers, and they were pretty clear about their new beliefs.  When interviewers asked people on Medicare and Social Security why they were ready to deny government benefits to everyone else, the answers came down to a simple idea: “I don’t have to care!”.  In Strangers in their own Land, the author asked a Tea Party defender of personal responsibility how a poor child in a drastically underfunded school system was supposed to succeed, and she got the same response. “I don’t have to care”.

That “I don’t have to care” has become the epiphany of the right.  It’s the all-purpose answer.   It not only absolves the believer of moral responsibility, it gets you off the hook for anything you’d rather not think about—say climate change or the actual operation of world economy.  All that nagging about equality, facts, or expertise is optional!

It’s the perfect elixir for the Trump world.  Responsibilities or standards of behavior are gone.  You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.  Whatever you don’t like can be dealt with by any means, however brutal.  Democracy is just something else to nag about.

As with one’s personal life, this kind of behavior feels liberating and great until it isn’t.  Reality wins in the end.  But until then—there’s nothing anyone else can tell you!  I don’t have to care.

Questions for Democrats

consumption-by-source-and-sectorI’m concerned about what seems to be a kind of giddiness in the Democratic Party.  Winning control of the house was a major accomplishment, and there does seem to be a shift in national attitudes toward the liberal agenda.  But I’m worried that the feeling that everything is now possible is getting ahead of what it will take to make it so.

I’ll start with Green New Deal and Medicare For All.  In both cases there’s a lot that’s good.  We’ve succeeded in focusing attention on key problem areas that urgently need to be addressed.  But in both cases there is so much room for interpretation that it’s hard to see what will come out.  And I don’t understand what the decision process is going to be.

Climate change and healthcare are both highly technical issues.  We’ve talked here before about what it will take to put together a true national plan to address climate change.  (The chart at the start has to be addressed point-by-point.)  The current GND bill doesn’t claim to do anything like that and adds a number of other issues into the mix.  Part of that is good—for the first time we’ve succeeded in presenting action on climate change as a step forward for everyone, not as distasteful but necessary medicine.   At the same time, though, we now have a number of competing objectives for whatever will come out as plan.

However attractive those objectives may be, there is a lot more in GND than anyone will deliver.  Fighting climate change will create many jobs, but will not—by itself—solve unemployment.  If we start fighting about whose jobs get created, climate will suffer.  It’s okay that part of the planning process is political, but that can’t be the main thing.  Roosevelt had a brain trust of people driving the original New Deal.   We need something like that here, and we also need a broad-based process for contributions to the plan.  It’s not enough to let the Presidential candidates or other players chime in with soundbites.  This is a real test for our ability to govern.

Healthcare makes me nervous for similar reasons.   Medicare for All sounds very specific, but one hopes it’s not.   A literal Medical for All solution would not be a simple change and would force a premature answer to a problem that deserves careful study.   Virtually every developed country other than us has implemented some form of universal healthcare, and there is quite a lot of variety in the solutions.   We have every opportunity to make a careful and successful choice for both the overall plan and the sequence of steps to get there.

I don’t see enough of that happening.  Thus far there seems to be more concern about how to relate to Medicare than about how other countries have achieved universal coverage.  Positions of Presidential candidates seem like shots in the dark.  We should be careful to avoid making the transition harder than it has to be, we should avoid fighting battles we don’t have to, and we should certainly make sure to keep the ACA surtax!

A third and final topic is international affairs.   What’s worrisome about that one is that there is no way of avoiding competing objectives.   One of the biggest mistakes of the current administration is its zero-sum approach to the rest of the world.   We’re trying to “win” international affairs by making sure everyone else loses.  Such belligerence may sound great—defending America—but it’s a wrong model.  The world has learned the hard way that economic nationalism is self-defeating.   We need rules of engagement so that nations can participate in building shared prosperity.  The world has a real chance to succeed at that, but it’s not a given.

In particular it’s not easy for us and not easy now.  The drastic changes in the world economy are calling out for nationalism and trade wars.   “The worst thing about globalization is everything that can be blamed on it.”  Better trade rules will help some of it, as will a better safety net.  But the problems won’t go away.  Not only are we going to have to say no to tariffs (still popular despite a cost of $900,000 a job), but we may also have to spend serious money outside the US to help poorer countries fight climate change.  The only way forward is to recognize how interconnected we all are.  That applies to Trump’s Devil’s bargain with dictators too.

Both the country and the world need us to get this right.

 

 

Climate Change is Not Complicated

The reason for this note is that discussions of climate change have splintered into so many directions that the subject appears more daunting than it ought to be.  Neither the current status nor the path to success is actually hard to see.

  1. Current status

– Evidence for climate change is clear and unambiguous.

The increase in global temperature levels goes back decades, as shown in the following chart (Temperature Anomaly just means the temperature increase over 19th century levels).

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Further the relation of temperature and CO2 in the atmosphere is unmistakable and pushing up inexorably with each year’s burned carbon toward the identified 1.5 ºC danger zone:

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Scientists have even demonstrated (using isotopes of carbon) that the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is due to burning of fossil fuels, not some natural process.  Arguments to the contrary have been largely funded by the Koch organization or the oil companies themselves and typically involve doctored data.  Accusations of conspiracy have been debunked, but are still repeated by interested parties.

– Problems are already happening.

There are two kinds of examples.   For temperature alone, as the first chart showed, we’re continuing to set new records for average global temperature.   The effect on sea ice has been dramatic, and farmers are becoming well-aware of changes in growing seasons.

Individual catastrophic events are harder to pin down, just because it’s hard to develop statistics around rare events.  However, scientists have been able to work through the statistics to show the extent to which extraordinary storms, such as hurricane Harvey, were made worse by climate change.

– Role of climate models.

We don’t need climate models to say there is a problem.  We do need climate models to assess specifically what is going to happen.  For example, we can see that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica are melting, but we need to figure out how quickly this can happen and what the effects will be on weather and ocean currents.  Since the earth hasn’t been here before (i.e. rapid C02 increase like this has never happened), we have to try to figure it out.

A particular concern is that climate change feeds on itself to accentuate the effects of CO2.  An example is melting of permafrost in the arctic.  That releases methane, which is also a greenhouse gas and adds to the increase expected with CO2.  Climate models are extremely detailed to deal with such effects.  The modeling work is supported by a global effort to get data on what is happening now.  This is a major effort by many independent researchers worldwide to get the best possible handle on what’s coming.

– It’s going to get a lot worse unless we start acting now.

An important fact to be emphasized is that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere just adds up.  So even if we stabilize global production of carbon dioxide, things will just get worse as we add to the total.  For a few years 2014-2016 it looked like CO2 production was stabilizing, but then the trend turned worse, and last year accelerated it.  Here is the current chart.

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As we just noted, even a stable value of CO2 emission means things are getting worse, because it is the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that drives temperature change.  The stable value was attractive, because it seemed to indicate that CO2 had finally peaked and might start to decline.  And the decline might mean the total CO2 could be bounded.  We’re now back to worrying about the peak, with no idea how bad things will get.

Scientists have given us a so-called carbon budget—the maximum amount of CO2 we can add to the atmosphere and still escape dangerous, irreversible changes.  Every bit we add counts against the budget.  We have to find a way to get carbon dioxide production down toward zero, and things will continue getting worse until that happens.  According to the last international climate study, CO2 production needs to drop 45%  by 2030 and reach 0 by 2050 if we want to keep the temperature increase under 1.5 ºC.

– Can’t we just pull the carbon dioxide back out later?

There is currently a lot of work in progress on how to capture and store carbon dioxide.  For now, capturing carbon dioxide even in exhaust flues is expensive—it can double the cost of electricity from a coal power plant.  Pulling it out of the air is substantially harder.  Further some effects, like movement of glaciers, are hard to stop even if we pull out the carbon dioxide later.

Earliest use of this kind of technology would be for flue-based solutions in particular industries.  That’s getting cheaper, but it’s no miracle solution.  Large-scale pulling carbon out of the air is not yet available, and the cheapest estimates for a worldwide solution would cost on the order of 10 trillion dollars annually.  Nonetheless, current climate models assume that some use of this technology (expensive or not) will be needed if we are to keep the temperature increase under 1.5 ºC.

– What about geoengineering?

This approach, which gets sporadic publicity, involves adding chemicals to the atmosphere to block the sun—cutting temperature by putting the whole world in the shade.  A number of different substances have been investigated to do this, and any of them would need to be constantly injected into the atmosphere under supervision by some international body.

As an approach this is much cheaper than carbon capture, but it is regarded as a dangerous last resort even by the people who do the research.  All photosynthesis worldwide would be affected. The closest natural phenomenon, the Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption in 1991, resulted in a worldwide drought.  It does not address acidification of the oceans, which would continue to disrupt life in the seas.  Further it is a time bomb, as carbon dioxide concentrations would continue to build up, so that the shading and its effects would have to keep increasing, and any interruption would be catastrophic.

 

The bottom line is that there is no silver bullet here; we have to get off burning carbon.   However it’s worth pointing out that this is NOT a death sentence (as we’ll see) and it is also NOT committing us all to a grim world of scarcity.  Even today people buy Teslas because they like them—among other things they’re performance cars—not as sacrifices for the good of mankind.  That’s the right way think about the whole transition.

 

  1. What to do about it

To understand what we need to do about climate change, we first have to think about the kind of world we would be going toward.

A point worth emphasizing is that the future is electric.  If we’re getting off fossil fuels, we’re not going to have people burning stuff all over the place.  So we will be generating power by suitable technology (more on that in a minute), and electricity is the means of storing and distributing that energy.  All renewable sources today generate electricity as the common currency of power.

Since the electric grid is the core for what we need to do about energy, we have two primary tasks:  strengthening the electric grid and getting all users of energy on that grid.  Each needs to be discussed separately.

– Strengthening the electric grid

This is about generating and distributing power.   We of course need a grid that is reliable and safe, but for climate change we’ll need more.  There will have to be considerable growth in electrical power generation (since we’re taking on new roles), and we will want to optimize opportunities for renewables even in the near-term.

At present there are ongoing activities to strengthen our current patched-together national electric infrastructure, but these are long-term projects and not primarily driven by climate change.  Power generation is largely a per-state matter and is quite literally all over the map.  For climate change we have benefited from the near-term improvement of substituting natural gas for coal, but there are still many coal plants and nothing says we have optimized opportunities for renewables.  Ideally we should have a nation-wide plan for growth and modernization that would allow renewable power to be generated where appropriate and used wherever needed.

It’s also worth saying something about the longer-term picture.  Ultimately this is not a story about scarcity and conservation; it’s about alternative power.  Renewables will improve, and there will be other significant new sources of power.  Fusion power in particular has been slow to develop, but should be taken seriously.  It has had a recent impetus with higher-temperature superconductors (for the magnets that contain the fusion reaction), and current international projects target 2033 for a demo system and 2050 for commercial system deployment.  Initial systems will be heat-based, like conventional power plants, but later generation systems may generate electricity directly —a mind-boggling concept.  We have a near-term job to do in saving the planet, but there’s no reason to fear we will ultimately lack for power.

– Making electricity the universal power source

The point of departure here is the following chart showing energy use by sector and energy source.  Our task is a prioritized migration to renewably-generated electricity in all sectors, with the maximum possible bang for the near-term buck.  In this transportation is an obvious target. It is a large consumer of energy (28% of US energy usage) with negligible current penetration of renewables.  Electric cars can be a big win.

consumption-by-source-and-sector

Given the complexity of energy usage overall, the single most important step to encourage migration is to stop pretending that carbon dioxide production is free, i.e. to stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry.

We can be pretty specific about what CO2 costs us.  We are rapidly reaching the point where each new ton of CO2 in the atomosphere is a ton that will have to be removed.  The cheapest estimates of what it takes to remove CO2 from the air (average of upper and lower bound estimates) is $163 per ton.  Multiply that by the US annual production of CO2 = 5.4 B tons, and the silent subsidy to the fossil fuel people falls out as $880 B annually.  That’s no small distortion of our economy.  Essentially a trillion dollars a year.

The usual approach to this subject goes by the name of a carbon tax, but that’s actually a misnomer.  A tax is money collected to fund some government activity, and that’s not the point here.   We’re stopping a government-funded subsidy of products that produce CO2, and any money raised should be used to mitigate the effect of fuel price increases on the population.

Because raising fossil fuel prices is regressive, balancing costs and benefits is tricky and has led to voter rejection (spurred by massive Koch campaign spending) of several carbon tax proposals.  (The yellow-vest protest in France was from something worse, a budget-balancing regressive tax masquerading as a climate measure.)  The magnitude of the silent subsidy is such that it is necessary to get this right.

One example proposal worth discussing is the Carbon Fee and Dividend from the Citizens Climate Lobby.  They start with a low fee of $15 per ton of generated CO2 at fuel production or port of entry, but raise the value $10 per year afterwards.  That money gets returned per adult with an added allowance for children.  The gradual increase is in part a low entry but it also allows for increasing maturity of competing technologies.

That proposal is now a bill in Congress, and there was a recent endorsement by a number of economists and other public figures.  It may or may not become part of the Green New Deal from the Congressional Democrats.  One way or another carbon pricing is so fundamental it just has to be fixed.

 

  1. Outline of a plan

The energy use chart from the last section says a lot about how this has to work.  Going down the chart, we can say the following:

– Transportation

Thus far this sector has had virtually no penetration of renewable energy sources, so its importance cannot be overestimated.   The only alternative is electric power, so we need incentives to finally get a non-trivial market share.  Carbon pricing will help, but we may need more. We’ve had incentives in the past to help electric car makers get into business.   Now the issue is the continuing cost of carbon.

– Industrial

The ongoing migration to natural gas shows the price sensitivity of this sector.  That trend toward gas should continue, and we need to start more movement onto the electric grid.  Carbon pricing should help here too, and there should be active discussion with industry to determine what form it should take.  Flue-based CO2 capture may also be appropriate in some cases.

– Electric power

We already noted the major contribution from this sector in the conversion from coal to natural gas.  That should continue with the non-trivial number of remaining coal plants, but we still have to get to renewables.   Everything that happens in this sector should flow out of a national plan for evolution of the power grid, as discussed before.  Some coal plants or even gas-powered plants may be supplanted by renewables elsewhere.

– Residential and Commercial

We should recognize that this sector is significantly smaller and with many subsectors to be considered.  The conversion to natural gas is already well-underway and the remaining petroleum sectors (e.g. New England) may not be easy to change.  So we need to map out conversion to electric or possibly even flue-based CO2 capture.   The first step is a more detailed plan.

 

We also need to call out the need to support research, as it is an unavoidable part of the picture.  That applies both for new energy sources and storage, and to the various activities underway to understand climate change and how we will have to adapt.

 

  1. International coordination

Thus far our discussion has focused on the US, but we’re only one piece of the puzzle.  Despite the nationalist rhetoric, there is only one atmosphere for everyone.   Helping other countries helps us, and poorer countries have fewer resources.  The following chart underlines the importance of that effort—the “others” are becoming the biggest piece.

s11_2018_Projections

There are actually two points to be made.   First, the Paris Agreement included an initial arrangement between rich and poorer countries, so that progress could be made.  That codified a fund (trashed by Trump) to help poor countries meet their targets.  However the issue will continue to be contentious, and one way or another we will have to contribute.  The just-completed Polish meeting was able to end without a breakdown on this subject, but it wasn’t easy.

Second, our contribution may turn out to be more than just money.  Other countries will have energy use charts that won’t look anything like the one we’re been considering.  They may need different forms of technology to support different evolution plans.  We should use our resources to see what can be done.

In the past the US recognized a responsibility to lead this process.  In Poland, the process managed to keep going without us, but it was certainly touch and go.

The world needs our contribution to leadership. That means it is doubly important to put our own house in order .  We need to know where we’re going for ourselves, and so that we can help the rest of the world in this effort to preserve our common future.

Don’t Pretend This Election is Normal

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On the economy:  We’ve embarked on an unprecedented binge of deficit-financed stimulus in good times.  In just the past fiscal year the deficit ballooned by an extra $300 B, far more than foreseen.   That’s a great stimulus for the election, but it will be a long, cold winter.

Erratic tariff policy is already causing layoffs and market swings, with the major impact delayed until after the election.  George Bush’s 2002 steel tariffs cost 200,000 jobs;  this time effects will go much wider.  And there is no pot of gold from these trade wars.

Finally we’re setting ourselves up for the very considerable economic consequences of ignoring climate change.

On personal welfare:  Last year’s attack on ACA showed no commitment to do anything serious about healthcare—other than remove the progressive tax that funds it.

The huge business tax cuts have produced no wage increases beyond inflation (and no jump in business investment either).  Further those tax cuts have left no room for education, infrastructure, or social services, leading to recent plans to cut Medicare and Social Security.

Supreme Court justices were chosen to fight unions and satisfy the moral pretensions of the evangelical right.  Roe v Wade is only the beginning.

On freedom: We’ve had ongoing and increasingly brutal attacks on truth and the media.  Trump’s attempts to control the FBI have not succeeded, but by all accounts a win in the mid-terms means replacing Sessions with a more obliging alternative.  We’re reached the stage where we actually have to worry about the Justice Department!

On democracy:  It needs to be emphasized that the Kavanaugh appointment completes Trump’s control of government.  With a committed majority on the Court and capitulation by Republicans in both Houses of Congress, there is effectively no check on what he does.  We haven’t had time yet to understand how bad this is going to be.  Even Constitutional limits only work if the Court will enforce them.  Without a Democratic majority in the House, there is nothing protecting the nation from whatever comes into his head—trade wars, real wars, silencing of opposition, personal vendettas, whatever.

Our founding fathers chose democracy for a good reason.  They knew all about one-man rule.  Democracy is inherently fragile, but that’s what made us what we are.  We need to preserve it.  VOTE.

Never-Never Land

You can’t turn around today without someone talking about how great the economy is.  Low unemployment and low inflation.  What could be better?

In fact you don’t have to look far to know something’s wrong.  For once this is less a matter of lies than of myopia.   We’re living in an artificially-created bubble, and while we don’t know exactly when it will end, this is never-never land.   We’ll go through it step-by-step:

– The bubble

We incurred $985 B of deficit this fiscal year as short-term stimulus to an economy already at full employment.  That’s a monumental $300 B over last year—in good times. As in every other such case, the tax cuts are NOT paying for themselves.  During the year we had a small reduction in unemployment from 4. 1% to 3.7%, but at no faster rate than last year and with no increase in inflation-adjusted wages (one-time bonuses from the tax cuts were negligible in the statistics).  You might ask why we would do such a thing—$1 T is a lot of money—but one thing the deficit certainly delivers is that much more economic activity in an election year.  The same people who starved recovery from the 2008 crisis to help with the 2016 election gave themselves a big boost for this one.

You might also ask how long we can continue doing it, and the following budget chart makes that unmistakably clear:

deficit3a

We’re running up unimaginable deficits in good times, with consequences we’ll talk about in a minute.  And the chart actually understates the situation.  The underlying figures come from a CBO report written in April, when their estimate of the 2018 deficit was $805 B. With a final 2018 deficit of $985 B, the situation now looks considerably worse. The CBO report said that we would reach deficit = $1T by 2020 and then reach the sinister milestone of debt = total GDP by 2028.  With the current deficit, we have reached the $1 T value in 1/3 the time, so that second milestone looms sooner now too.

The stock market is a similar case. The corporate tax cuts went directly to company bottom lines, raising price/earning ratios and stock values. What’s more corporations turned around and used all that money for stock buybacks, increasing demand for stocks and further enhancing stock prices.

None of this is sustainable.

– The deficit

Much discussion of deficits seems theoretical, but the consequences of our current deficits are real.  Republicans are already talking about cuts to Medicare and Social Security as counterpart to last year’s tax cuts.  Just imagine now we’ve reached a downturn in the economy—not even necessarily as bad as 2008.  We’ll have the massive deficit-induced debts shown in the prior chart, and now—on top of that—tax receipts that have just collapsed with the economy.  In that case we’re not talking about changes around the edges of Medicare and Social Security, we’re talking about no money for it and “taking the hard choices we just have to do.”   That means dramatic change in what it means to be living in this country.

Further (as noted in the CBO report) the deficit is a time bomb.  As interest rates rise in good times, the yearly cost of financing the deficit rises accordingly.  We’re already talking about deficit finance costs higher than the defense budget.  And it will just continue up, eating into available money for healthcare, education, opioid crisis even before a downturn.  There are good reasons not to incur deficits in good times!

– Our economy

With all Trump’s talk about the private sector and relief from regulation you might think that the country has been liberated from misguided government meddling with private enterprise.  But you’d be wrong.  The current executive-imposed tariffs and trade wars constitute the most extreme government intervention in the economy within memory.

The steel tariffs hit anyone building anything out of steel—basically forcing export-directed activities off shore.   The new USMCA regulations have already caused layoffs at Ford (and the touted benefits to labor are so far from clear that the unions can only wait and see).  The trade war with China disrupts values chains of any corporations not sufficiently well-connected to get exemptions.  The government is choosing winners and losers in the economy based on impulse (coal and steel sound good) or lobbying (the Apple watch).  And established companies have been winning out over newer, innovative ones (net neutrality) any time the issue comes up.

All of that, together with xenophobia and lack of support for education, augurs poorly for the state of our economy going forward.  And we’re even waging economic war with the largest, most rapidly growing economy in the world—in the name of protectionism!

– Our population

Since the subject is the economy, we’re talking here about the related topics of personal and national economic success.  It is of course a truism that the world economy is changing.  Good jobs, and the jobs that maintain our national standard of living, are changing.  Very many of them require more and different training.  (One list of the top ten growing job categories is given here.)  Economists going back to Adam Smith have recognized the responsibility of government to educate the population.

However with the tax cuts we took a very different tack, essentially trusting private sector prosperity to raise all boats.  There is no evidence that works.  The tax cuts went primarily to stock buybacks (see the mind-boggling level of buybacks below), leaving issues such as education (including the student loans crisis), infrastructure, and healthcare up for grabs.

stock buyback2c

For now, protectionism is the solution to job retraining, consequences of automation are unaddressed, and instead of preparing people for good jobs we’re busy fantasizing about the past.

– Climate Change

Climate change belongs on this list, because inaction will just make the economic effects worse.  Climate change may have morphed into a partisan issue, but nature isn’t fooled.

Consequences will be in many forms—severe weather, changes of temperature and rainfall, sea-level rise.   Turning around today’s carbon-based economies takes time, so if we don’t start acting now, we’re talking many trillions of dollars of expenses for repair and to forestall truly disastrous consequences.  The recent IPCC report found more serious effects than previously recognized by 2040.   As the following chart shows, the US currently generates twice the per-capita CO2 of any other major player, so we have a long way to go.

s12_Top_FF_Emitters_percapita

For now we are doing worse than nothing.  Climate change is an issue where international unity of purpose is extremely important, because cheaters—with cheap coal—can prosper.   We have not only endorsed coal for ourselves but actively encouraged cheating.  Further our departure from the Paris Agreement process—and in particular our disavowal of the whole idea of rich countries helping poorer ones act in our common interest—leads directly to dangers such as Brazil abandoning protection for the Amazon.

Ignoring climate change means more damaging effects of warming, and more drastic (and expensive) action in the end.   Furthermore, as a purely economic issue, by denying the issue we are sidelining our own companies’ participation in this necessary multi-trillion-dollar enterprise.  The day will soon come (we’re now talking just 20 years to get off coal, oil, and gas) when this moves to page 1 of the news, and stays there.

 

Our never-never land economy is good only so long as we keep our eyes closed.  But if we don’t open them soon, we won’t recognize what we’ll find later.