December 29, 2009

2000-2010: The Flat Decade

After the American Century

This time of year one takes stock, and that usually means reconsidering the last 12 months. But as we reach 2010, I think also of the last decade in America.

It was not a good decade. The United States in 2000 was rapidly paying off its national debt. Its economy had created millions of new jobs in the 1990s. Trust in the banking system was high. The nation was basically at peace.

Ten years later none of this is true. It has been a flat decade, with little to show for itself. The national debt is growing rapidly. Almost no new jobs have been created, on aggregate, since 2000. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is now about where it was in 2000, after gyrating uncomfortably up and down, and people rightly are suspicious of bankers. Worse of all, the United States has spent huge amounts of money on dubious wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And hanging over the whole decade like the pall of smoke rising from the fallen World Trade Center is the specter of terrorism.

There are bright spots, the most noteworthy being the election of President Obama. But even that success is tempered by the realization that the Congress lacks a sense of national purpose and has tremendous difficulty rising above the level of petty in-fighting and party squabbles. It compares poorly with the Congress of 1933, when Roosevelt passed a wide range of important legislation. In 2009 a comprehensive health bill has almost been completed, but we await final negotiations between the Senate and the House to find out just how good or bad the final result will be.

2009 was also the year when when attempts to reign in rampant CO2 and global warming went off the rails at the Copenhagen Summit. It was the end of a decade of often mindless growth in the developing world, which seems intent on making every industrial mistake that the West pioneered decades ago: smog, lead poisoning, urban congestion, the "car culture," and, of course, my clever readers can complete this list. Should we really celebrate the fact that China's growth rate was roughly 9% per year during this decade, and that it now buys several million more automobiles than the US every year?

But hope springs eternal, as indeed it must, and here are some wishes for 2010. That the global birth rate falls rapidly toward sustainable replacement of the existing population. That consumers discover contentment with environmentally safe products and high-mileage cars. That voters insist on more and better mass transit. That bankers act more responsibly and stop giving themselves huge and undeserved bonuses. (OK the last one is probably an absurd wish). That the US economy embraces solar and wind energy, even if Congress spinelessly does little to encourage it. That the need for any foreign military in Iraq really does wind down. And that confrontations between Christians and Muslims become less common, as dialogue and mutual respect replace demagoguery and fear.

Human beings could accomplish all of these things, starting in 2010. In theory I could also lose some weight in 2010 but my past history suggests that even this will prove a hard New York's resolution to hang on to. So, modestly, let us hope that we all do a little bettter.

December 23, 2009

Copenhagen's Chinese Christmas Present

After the American Century
Posting 204

As more insider accounts of the Copenhagen Summit come in, the Chinese emerge as the chief villains, a strong word, but not strong enough in this case. A piece in The Guardian reveals how the Chinese sabotaged attempts at a final consensus.

In the future, clearly, one cannot hold talks and hope that all the great powers agree. Giving every important power a veto right or the chance to undermine an agreement is just silly. Instead, the world will have to find another way to work toward relieving global warming. The summit model is not working, and perhaps can never work.

Here are some interlinked suggestions:

1. Create a system that ranks countries into four groups, depending on to what degree they are working toward global warming.

2. Tell consumers worldwide where each nation ranks, so that they can choose intelligently and buy products based on how much a nation is in compliance with UN goals. Under such a system, China would get a D rating, of course, and the US would perhaps as well. I would hope that consumers would be more willing to buy from nations that are trying to solve the problem of global warming rather from those that are making matters worse.

3. Allow companies to be rated as well, so that an environmentally responsible company can get a higher ranking than the nation where they are located.

4. Cities of more than 300,000 people would also be able to apply for and achieve ratings, so that if Seattle or Munich or Oslo or Rio wanted to they could achieve a rating higher than that within their home nation.

5. Give aid for conversion to clean energy technologies only to those Third World Nations where the military budget is less than 2% of GNP. It is absurd to pour money into a nation that is investing in arms and airplanes rather than solar panels, wind mills, and the like. Many poor nations are not focusing their own resources on the problem, and if this is the case, why should anyone else?

6. Give annual awards to successful projects (actually completed, not just proposals) that both improve the quality of life and reduce global warming. Make the awards as glamorous as the Nobel Prizes or the Academy Awards. Governments whose nations are in the A category would also be put in the limelight at these events and part of the ceremony would be to welcome any new members of the "A" club and to congratulate those who had moved up a category. Nations in the D category would not be allowed to have an official speaker or presenter at the awards, but they would be welcome to attend.

7. Instead of the trading system that most nations now have or want, where all free trade is considered to be a good thing, no matter what is traded, nations would be encouraged to revise their import taxes or other tax codes to favor products whose production and use had the least environmental impact. This sort of taxation would recognize that it costs more to manufacture in an environmentally responsible way. I do not suggest that the taxes be punitive, but rather that they be a restructuring of current VAT, and that they be applied to c. 100 goods that are particularly important in this area, notably automobiles, air conditioners, stoves, televisions, and so forth.

As these proposals suggest, we can no longer wait around for the nations of this earth to become unanimous. China blocked the deal this time, but it could be someone else the next time. Instead, turn loose the power of consumers and introduce something that the Chinese can understand: SHAME. They may think they have emerged as a great power, but the Chinese have lost face. Their government has not behaved in an honorable way.

December 20, 2009

Fiasco in Copenhagen: The Winners and the Losers

After the American Century Posting 203

The Climate Summit has been an enormous disappointment to just about everyone I know. But such failures are not merely misunderstandings. Some people want them to happen, because it was to their advantage that no meaningful agreement be reached.

Who benefits when there are no real controls on carbon emissions? Nations that produce oil, gas, and coal. This turns out to be Russia Venezuela, Nigeria, and of course the Middle Eastern oil states. Norway gets high marks for taking a stand for CO2 controls, but then, the Norwegians are a moral and democratic people who produce 99% of their electricity from hydro. One can certainly not say all three things about any of the other oil producing states.

Other beneficiaries are all those who doubt the reality of global warming, notably a large contingent of the Republican Party. Sarah Palin is presumably also delighted. But has Palin asked herself why she is siding with the Chinese government on this issue?

China surely regards itself as a winner at this summit. It refused to budge at all on what it sees as its right to increase CO2 emissions by at least 40%. It is investing in solar power and windmills, and building lots of atomic plants, but being efficient is not yet on its agenda. China also got to throw its weight around and show it could not be forced to do anything it did not want to do, such as allowing inspectors in to see just exactly how much CO2 it is producing. (I wonder if before long we will have some sort of remote sensing devices that might remove this particular objection.)

The opposition to the current Danish government also is a potential winner in this fiasco, as the Danish Prime Minister earned low marks for his behavior. With the two political blocs in a virtual dead heat, this magnificent display of diplomatic ineptitude might tip the balance. One can only hope.

Curiously, I think President Obama emerged as a bit of a winner too, in the sense that for the first time he brought the US into an active discussion of global warning and looked for ways to create a compromise. He was hampered, however, by the scientific stupidly of the Republican Party, which seems genuinely challenged by such things as the theory of evolution, physics, modern biological research, and of course global warming itself. But then, these are the sort of people who, in the State legislature of Indiana, passed a law saying that Pi should not be 3.1417. That clearly is a silly number, and so they decreed that Pi should instead be 3.2. Indiana's pilots and civil engineers did not take note, fortunately. Fools with that sort of self assurance are a genuine menace.

Strange bedfellows are these "winners": Danish socialists, Middle Eastern dictators, Hugo Chavez, the American Republican Party, the Russian oil interests, the Nigerians, the Chinese oligarchy. A wonderful bunch, really. Perhaps they should hold their own summit and see if they have other shared interests. I would love to see Sarah Palin "paling around" with the Russians.

As for the losers, that would be everyone else, particularly low lying nations, most of Africa, the Arctic regions. Quite possibly nations will disappear beneath the waves and millions of people might die because of this failed summit. But no one will be called to account.

So let us blame 2009, a rotten year for many people, and hope that 2010 will be a year that does not benefit anyone who "won" in Copenhagen.

December 17, 2009

Copenhagen Climate Crunch and Danish Democratic Style

After the American Century posting #202

It appears that the Danish attempt to formulate a text for the Climate Conference has been rejected. What is going on?

If you have been trying to follow the Copenhagen Climate talks, the proceedings may seem puzzling. Literally for days the delegates waited for a text to discuss. It was being prepared by the Danish hosts, they were told. Yet, in fact, the delegates had themselves prepared documents for discussion, which the Danish leaders wanted to ignore. Stalemate. Inaction. Secret discussions behind closed doors. Frustration among the delegates, who felt that the Danish leadership was ignoring them, with feelings running especially high among the African and Third World nations.

Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the Danes do not understoand or practice democracy in the same way as most other countries. In the Anglo-Saxon world and its former colonies, for example, the person who chairs a meeting should attempt to remain neutral, give all parties an equal chance to speak, and attempt to steer the meeting toward a vote, where there will be winners and losers, but where there will also be a majority decision.

In contrast, Danish leaders who chair a meeting attempt to impose their will on the group, even if it appears to be an open discussion. They want to steer the meeting not merely toward a vote but to a consensus where the outcome of the vote is obvious to all before it is taken. For those steeped in the English or American parliamentary traditions, or something like them, the Danish way of chairing a meeting seems undemocratic, secretive, irritating, high-handed, and counter-productive. To put this another way, most meetings in the Anglo-Saxon world abide by Roberts Rules of Order. Danish meetings, in my 25 years of experience, absolutely do not abide by any such rules.

In the Danish Parliament (Folketing) the coalition in power seeks to impose its decisions on the nation, often with surprisingly little public discussion. The real discussion goes on in private, in party caucuses and in coalition partner meetings. All members of a party are expected to vote the same way. When they emerge from behind their closed doors, they have all their votes lined up and they proceed to ram through the desired law with what I call "symbolic discussion." The result is already known beforehand.

I am not a delegate at the world climate talks, but from the outside it certainly looks as though the Danish leadership, steeped in its own ways of doing business, is trying to make the rest of the world play by Danish rules. And the rest of the world is not buying it. China in particular made it clear they were not going to dance to a Danish imposed tune.

To put this another way, the Danish leadership arrogated to itself too many roles. It wanted to be the host, the chair of the meeting, and also the chief negotiator. They wanted to wear too many hats, and acted according to a democratic model that others are not accustomed to. One could see this last night. The Danish Prime Minister had invited hundreds of wold leaders to a gala evening, to see the Royal Ballet and take some expensive refreshments. But the Prime Minister could not play his role there as host, because he was at the conference all evening, in his roles as chair and negotiator.

The talks are now in their final two days. One hopes that the very real Danish talent for finding compromises (albeit usually behind closed doors) saves the summit meeting from failure. If China and the United States are willing to act together (a very big If), then a historic compromise may emerge. But one thing seems certain. The Danes cannot expect to impose their text on the rest of the world.

Will we get a binding agreement? Will its standards be at least as high as those agreed upon in Kyoto? In other words, will it really make a difference in slowing down global warming? At this moment, it is hard to tell.

One thing we do know for certain: these world leaders came separately in their private jets.

December 14, 2009

University IT: Technological Catch 22

After the American Century Posting #201

Once I was in a supermarket checkout line when a particular jar of jam just would not scan and its code was unrecognizable when the clerk put the numbers in by hand. Result? He refused to sell me the jam. He could not sell something that did not exist in the system. The jam was right there, and we all know roughly what such things cost. But I could not buy it, or rather, he could not sell it. These (il)logical impasses have a name: Catch-22, from the novel of the same name. Following the rules, you end up paralyzed, unable to change the situation.

Something similar has happened today, as a result of my university's decision to upgrade (well, change) the email system. The result is that I will no longer be able to get emails at home, unless (and here's the catch) I upgrade my home computer to MS Office 2008+. This will cost me money and time.

Ideally my employer should reimburse such an expense. However, the Danish government has passed a new tax law, to whit: anyone who gets a portable computer, new software or email support from an employer must pay $600 in tax, every year. Besides, even if the law suddenly were overturned, my employer has no money for such things. Indeed, it has never even provided me with a flat screen much less an entirely new computer in the office! My screen was one of the first televisions, and was left behind by retreating Germans after World War II.

So, should I bite the bullet and pay for a home upgrade? Not so fast. If I do that, then my antiquarian office machine will be running 2004 software and my home machine will be five years ahead of it. In my experience, constantly shifting between two systems causes corrupted files, loss of data, and occasional freeze-ups. Besides, that 2008 MS-system for Mac has lousy reviews.

Nevertheless, to minimize problems, should I upgrade both home and office machines, at my own expense? That is actually not allowed. The university may not have any money, but it reserves the right to control what software gets into the campus system. In short, even if I wanted to spend lots of my own money, there apparently is no solution.

So, my emails are paralyzed, never to arrive in my home in-basket, a bit like that jar of jam, which remains forever in the supermarket checkout. I must give up the delights of reading emails from students and administrators in the evenings and weekends, just like I gave up that jam.

I suppose that giving it up helped me to lose just a tiny bit of weight. Come to think of it, getting no campus emails may slim down my working hours. And when I am at conferences and on research trips, no need to look at the frantic last minute requests from anyone on campus, because I just won't be hearing from them. They will be stuck in check-out.

But as for you, loyal friends and readers, I can always be reached at my non-campus email address. And that, actually, is the solution. Forget IT on campus, get yourself a free account with Google or HotMail or Yahoo or wherever. That was also the only solution in Catch-22, Joseph Heller's novel. Get out of the clutches of the system. Make your own jam.

December 13, 2009

Military Spending and Global Warming

After the American Century Posting # 200

The climate conference has now reached the crucial stage, where money must be pledged by the rich nations to help the poorer nations develop without excessive CO2 emissions. The EU has put $10.6 billion on the table, offering it over a three year period. They have made the most generous pledge so far, which amounts to $3.53 billion per year. The amount needed is far greater and a subject of discussion.

To put these figures into perspective, consider what the world is spending on armaments: $1.4 trillion every year. Without even doing the math in detail, you can see that the nations of this world are spending more than 100 times as much on weapons as they are willing to spend on global warming. Time to get the priorities right.

The two biggest CO2 polluters, the United States and China, also have the world's two largest military budgets. The US is by far the largest, at $602 billion, while China "only" spends $84.9 billion.

Some of the "poor" nations who want to be paid for curbing their CO2 growth are also spending large sums on arms. The United States spends about 4% of its gross national product on its Defense Department, far too much in my view, but a smaller percentage than some others. Angola uses 5.7%, Armenia 6.5%, Macedonia 6%. Saudi Arabia uses 10% of its budget for the military, which is about $38 billion.

In the next week, when the discussion of global warming focuses largely on money, keep these figures in mind. I suggest that no "poor" nation that spends more than 2% of its GNP on the military should be given any funds to help with global warming. And I suggest that no nation spending more than 3% of its GNP on the military should be taken seriously when it says it cannot afford to pay more to solve this problem.

This posting is #200 on After the American Century

December 11, 2009

Obama's Nobel Prize Address: The Just War & The Four Freedoms

After the American Century Posting # 199

President Obama has given a major speech on the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize. He began by admitting quite frankly that he was at the beginning of his international labor and rather a surprise winner of the prize. He then confronted what many see as a contradiction: that he is currently the commander in chief of the American armed forces which are engaged in two wars.

To his credit, he did not mention George Bush. It would have been fair enough to blame him for the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, at the least. Rather, Obama made the case for just war, when diplomacy fails, and provided a summary of his foreign policy, linking it to Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. In doing so, he specifically rejected the "realist" approach to foreign policy, which tends to be embraced by Republicans more than Democrats.

One aspect of this speech will be striking to most Europeans. Obama spoke several times of evil, a word that one might more expect to hear from George Bush. In Oslo, Obama declared: "Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. " and later said: "We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us." This is not far from the language of the Lord's Prayer. Such language is not unusual from an American politician. But "evil" is seldom heard in mainstream European politics, which are far less religious in tone.

Part of the explanation for this difference is structural. In Denmark, the Queen always ends her yearly speech on New Year's eve with the same words: "God protect Denmark." This is the ordinary language of a European monarch, but it is less common for the European politicians to ask for the Lord's protection. The American president, however, must play both roles.

However, Obama does not merely mention "evil" in passing, in a formulaic way. The core of his argument that war is necessary and unavoidable is rooted in the belief that some men are beyond the reach of reason or diplomacy. While he referred to Ghandi and King and clearly admires their idealism, ultimately Obama presented himself as hard-headed idealist. He is closing down the prisons at Guantanamo Bay. He promises to ophold the Geneve Conventions and to the honor Human Rights. But he also sees a world where wars and conflicts remain unavoidable.

He does not see the same world as George W. Bush, however. Obama sees the greatest hope for peace in international cooperation, in standing together against regimes that oppress their own people, that seek to acquire nuclear weapons, or that threaten other states. His foreign policy is one of enlightened self-interest that echoed President Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. In his speech, Obama argued that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want when achieved in any nation ultimately enhance the security of its neighbors and by extension the rest of humanity. He may not have mentioned Roosevelt by name, but by employing his language, Obama aligned himself with core values that guided American foreign policy before the Cold War, and made them appear equally useful today.

December 06, 2009

Global Warming NOT the Only Problem with Fossil Fuels

After the American Century

During the next three weeks we will hear a great deal about the problem of global warming. I do believe that global warming is taking place, that the actions of human beings contribute to it, and that it lies within our power to do somethning about it. But put aside that entire discussion for a moment, and consider what other reasons there might be to cut back on burning fossil fuels.

Not all countries produce oil, coal, and/or natural gas. Advanced industrial nations that lack supplies are not coincidentally in the forefront of finding alternatives. Germany has virtually no oil or natural gas, and its more accessible coal has already been mined. Therefore Germany finds it highly interesting to develop wind turbines and solar power, and indeed has been one of the leading countries in both sectors for years. France, in much the same energy situation, has more nuclear power than any other nation. More than 80% of its electricity comes from nuclear plants. Sweden has no oil, and it relies on nuclear power and hydroelectric dams.

In contrast, countries like the United States and Britain which have oil fields and coal mines have been far slower to develop alternative energies. One can take this argument further, and say that within the US, places without fossil fuels like New England, New York, Oregon, and Washington are far more supportive of wind and solar energy than are states with coal fields. Montana, Illinois, Wyoming, and West Virginia together supply 55% of US coal production, and they are not supporting the shift to alternatives. One finds the same resistence to change in the biggest oil producting states, Texas, Alaska, and Lousiana.

Without going into arguments about global warming, it seems obvious that the current energy regime favors fossil fuel exporting regions and in effect imposes a tax on those who import oil, gas, and coal. Half a century ago the cost of these energy sources was so low as to be almost a negligable part of the total cost of production. This is no longer so. Fuel prices, over the long term, have risen and can only continue to rise as demand increases. Already in Russia, more than 20% of the gross national product (GNP), comes from oil and gas exports; in Nigeria 35%; in Venezuela 27%; and so on for all the major oil producers.

It is always a good idea to "follow the money." Most of the world's powerful economies - the US, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan, Australia, China, and India - are all net importers of oil and gas. The United States imports almost 12 million barrels of oil every day. Japan imports a bit less than half that. China imports "only" 2.9 million barrels a day, but this figure is rocketing higher, as its citizens now buy more cars every month than consumers in the US. The major industrial nations need alternatives, and in the next two decades they will probably develop them.

There is one other argument in favor of a shift to alternative energies. Quite simply, the world's reserves of oil, coal, and gas are not infinite. Why keep paying a premium to use someone else's well, when it is drying up?

December 05, 2009


After the American Century

Imagine you are in Obama's inner circle. You have inherited Bush's foreign policy, including the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do you do? Pulling out immediately would invite the Taliban and Al Qaeda back into the country, and it would also expose the new president to fierce criticism from the Republicans. No president wants to lose a war in the first year of his administation, and no American politician can survive very long if he seems be doing favors for Osama Bin Ladin. But if the Americans are going to continue to lead an army in Afghanistan, what are the realistic possibilities for success? This was such a difficult issue that the Administration took a year to decide.

The answer has now been made public, and in essence it is to escalate the war for almost two years and then begin to pull the troops out. This resembles in some respects the "solution" to the Iraq situation, which conceivably still could work. The idea seems to be that a nation torn apart by centuries of religious, ethnic, and tribal differences can and will pull itself together if given a timetable for withdrawel, support in developing new democratic institutions, and the promise of control of its own destiny. But will the Iraqi or the Afghan people will take responsibility for their own fate if they know that soon all the foreign troops will leave? The answer is still unclear in Iraq. On the positive side it was long a secular state (albeit a dictatorship) and the presence of vast oil reserves gives it an economic foundation and a good reason not to let civil war paralyze exports. On the negative side, the Kurds want indepdence, the religious factions tend to kill each other, and Iran is not a model neighbor.

Unhappily, things are less promising in Afghanistan, which is a far less developed country than Iraq. Under the Taliban it had one of the world's most repressive, fundamentalist regimes. And it does not have oil. Rather, the proverbial undiscussed elephant in the room, and a rather sweaty demanding elephant at that, is the drug traffic that has been a central part of the Afghan economy for a long time. Afghanistan produces about 90% of the world's opium. Worse, the size of the poppy crop has been growing not shrinking. (For more about that click here)

This is not a new or casual illegal business, nor one that be eradicated easily. Profits from opium sales are a central source of funds for the Taliban and also for semi-autonomous local leaders. Farmers can make more money growing poppies than anything else, and if they do so they also gain protection from powerful neighbors.

However, the Obama speech about Afghanistan did not discuss this aspect of the problem very much. In one passage declared, "To advance security, opportunity, and justice - not just in Kabul , but from the bottom up in the provinces - we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. That is how we can help the Afghan government serve its people, and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs."

This is surely correct. At least in theory something like a special Peace Corps for Afghanistan ought to have been part of the Afghan strategy from the beginning. George Bush failed at the arts of peace in both Iraq and Afghanistan, however, leaving Obama with two very large problems to solve without much capital to do it after saving a collapsing banking system.

But where are these agricultural specialists and educators and engineers going to come from? How can they work effectively in an environment permeated by the opium trade? Who will protect them day to day? Who is going to pay their salaries and guarantee them medical treatment for the rest of their lives if they are maimed or wounded? Unemployment may be high, but it will be hard to recruit people for such dangerous work. Yet it is essential work. If Afghanistan remains focused on producing opium, it will have a large renegade economy that pays no taxes, works against the state, and funds war lords and insurgents.

November 30, 2009

Iran Dishonors Itself, Again

After the American Century

No other nation has ever sunk so low since the Nobel Peace Prize was first given a century ago. In 2003 the recipient was Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who has championed democracy and freedom of speech. She put the prize itself in a safe deposit box for safekeeping. Now the prize has been taken, not by bank robbers, but by the Iranian government itself. The government has also stopped paying her pension and blocked access to her own bank accounts. Last year it forcibly closed her law offices. The rule of law is not the strong point of this regime.

The world already knew that they lied about their capacity to produce plutonium. The world already knew that its June elections were irregular, to say the least. The world already knew that the Iranian government brutally suppressed the demonstrations against the flawed election. And it already knew that many of these same peaceful demonstrators have now been condemned to death or life imprisonment. And the world also knows that Iran's falsely elected president, whom I refuse to name here, has repeatedly said that the Holocaust never happened, while denouncing Israel's right to exist.

Now the regime in Iran has signaled its contempt for the Nobel Peace Prize, by stealing it from Shirin Ebadi. No government has ever done such a thing. This is not really a government, however, but a fundamentalist dictatorship that will stop at nothing to suppress its people.

This outrage apparently is connected - in the minds of the Iranian regime - with its current defiance of the UN on the production of plutonium. It seems signal that they do not care what anyone else thinks about them, that indeed they are spoiling for a fight and would like to drag the Peace Prize into it. Perhaps they imagine that they have dishonored the Prize. All they have done, again and again, is to dishonor themselves.

It appears that the Iranian regime is trying to provoke someone to take action against them.

My sympathies go out to Shirin Ebadi and to the Iranian people.

November 27, 2009

The Weakening Dollar

After the American Century

For much of the twentieth century the American dollar was the benchmark currency. Whenever a crisis arose, world investors moved money into the dollar. For decades, the dollar was a good investment for anyone living in an inflation-prone economy, like those in Latin America or Africa. Likewise, because the dollar was stable, it was the preferred currency in the oil market.

The apparent rock-like stability of the dollar began to weaken already in the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard. Until then, at least for very large investors, one could redeem dollars in gold. After then, the dollar was a little less rock-like, but on the whole was the preferred currency in any crisis. One could see this again in the wake of the financial collapse during the fall of 2008. Even though American banks were largely responsible for the sudden downturn, many people around the world instinctively moved money into the dollar.

Those days are over, and probably over forever. Rationally speaking, the dollar is not a smart investment at the moment. It has been declining in value for months, and has reached its lowest point in 14 years against the Japanese yen. The current interest rate on dollar savings accounts is also very low, so that even assuming the dollar's decline ends soon, nevertheless, the rate of return is better in the Euro zone.

The Chinese, meanwhile, are keeping their currency artificially weak, as a way to stimulate exports and continue building up already massive foreign reserves. In effect, the United States is letting its currency fall in value for the same reason, to stimulate exports and dampen the desire for imports. But China is way ahead in this race to the bottom, while Japan and Europe are both being hurt. Because China and to a lesser extent the United States have weak currencies, both Japanese and European goods cost more - forcing some factories to close or to move overseas where labor costs are lower. Japan and Europe have higher unemployment and fewer exports because their currency is too strong.

This is a dangerous game for all concerned. As President Obama pointedly told the Chinese leadership on his state visit, Asian economies need to play by the same rules as the rest of the world. Asian consumers, particularly in China, need to buy more, and their currencies should be worth more, to bring the world's economic system into balance.

For the United States, the danger is that it will soon be forced to increase interest rates in order to fund its growing national debt. This will increase the dollar's value, but it will also slow or halt economic recovery. This in turn will reduce American demand for foreign goods, as the economy stagnates.

Unfortunately, precisely this scenario (in which the US weakens) might be what China wants. For if it comes to pass, then China's massive holdings in American dollars will increase in value, while the US itself will grow slowly or not at all. The Chinese economy might then outpace US growth by 5% or more per year, until, in perhaps a decade, perhaps less, the US currency would enter a more definitive decline.

I hope this scenario is wrong. Should it prove at all accurate, then the dollar's reign as the world's reserve currency might not last longer than about 2020. Clearly this is not a happy thought for anyone with a pension or investments in the United States. Just as importantly, the relative decline of the US economy vis-a-vis the rest of the world will soon necessitate a major realignment that takes account of new players: Brazil, India, Indonesia, and most of all, China.

November 26, 2009

Obama and the Copenhagen Climate Summit

After the American Century

President Obama has announced that he will briefly attend the Copenhagen Climate Summit. This is welcome news. But the timing of the visit (early) and its length (brief) suggest that the White House does not expect a major breakthrough to occur. After all, in the American system of government the President can only carry out what the independent Congress has mandated, and no laws are yet on the books that endorse even the modest 17% cutbacks that Obama has proposed.

One weakness of the preparations for the Copenhagen Summit is that there seem to be no clear guidelines on the methods of calculation that all nations share in advance. So when Obama says the US will cut CO2 emissions by 30% in 2025, this sounds much like what the EU is offering to achieve by 2020. It is not. The EU calculates from 1990 while the US is using a 2005 baseline. What the US is actually promising is to make reductions back to about where it was in 1990, while the EU is promising to go 20% lower than the 1990 level.

A second problem is that the focus really ought to be on per capita energy use and CO2 emissions. The United States uses about twice as much energy per person as Japan, so the US would need to reduce its total energy use by one half just to get to get even. Nations such as China and India, which each have more than four times as many people as the United States, look at per capita energy use, and relatively speaking do not see themselves as the problem. India uses less energy that the United States, and millions of its people still do not have regular electrical service. China is now the world's largest polluter, but the United States is by far the largest per capita.

A third problem is that the summit seems to be focused primarily on ends - CO2 reductions - without a corresponding showcase for the technological means to achieve it. Some nations, notably the UK, are adopting atomic energy as the way forward, since nuclear plants produce almost no CO2 compared to coal-fired ones. The problem is that atomic energy does produce serious amounts of toxic waste, and it must be stored for hundreds, or in some cases for thousands of years. Look around for examples of hermetically sealed buildings that have been constantly guarded for even 100 years. There are none. When all the long-term costs and dangers of atomic power are included, is it not likely that wind, tide, thermal, and solar power are more desirable?

In short, in addition to having a big political circus with heads of state coming that negotiate on the ends, the world needs an equally big demonstration of what is already possible. We already have the means available to build houses that are close to self-sufficient. We already can make automobiles that are twice as efficient as the average vehicle on the road today. There are hundreds of new technologies and best practices that just need to become better known and put to use.

The Kyoto agreement focused on noble ends, but they have not been achieved. In practice, not even one of the major industrial nations that signed the Kyoto agreement has in fact managed to do what they promised. In every case, energy use has continued to rise. (See my October 1, 2009 blog on this.) It is time to focus more on the technological means. The leaders can promise whatever they like, but will they know how to achieve those noble ends?

November 15, 2009

Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma Champions Copenhagen Consensus

After the American Century

My American readers may be embarassed, but those from Europe will perhaps be delighted to hear that the buffoon of the United States Senate, James Inhofe says he plans to come to Copenhagen for the December climate conference. Since the media yesterday told us that the great powers have informally agreed that nothing binding will actually happen in Copenhagen, it is good to know that other entertainment is on the way.

Senator Inhofe is a most militant opponent of environmentalists. He famously declared that global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” For years during the Bush majority he chaired the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe favors drilling for oil and gas in the Alaskan wilderness, and he resists efforts to save endangered species. He frequently quotes the Bible in his speeches.

Danes should not feel too smug when laughing at Inhofe, however, as he also likes to quote their own Bjorn Lomborg, whose crusade against global warming has been, well, warmly supported by their own government. Inhofe has used Lomborg's arguments at some length in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post.

The Copenhagen Consensus, Lomborg's "think tank" gets a direct grant from the government. Lomborg is not a scientist, but a statistician. If he has actually had an original scientific idea of his own, I am not aware of it. However, he says what big oil and coal companies like to hear, and he gets major economists to confuse talking about apples as though they were oranges, (i.e. with such questions as which is better, to solve the global warming problem (orange) or to save children who are malnourished (apple)?) When Inhofe comes to Copenhagen to declare that there is no global warming problem, count on Lomborg to line up some compliant Danes to sing backup vocals.

And so, the Danish government will have it both ways. They will sponsor the conference and appear to be leading a reluctant world toward a cooler and greener future. But for years the same government has paid Lomborg and funded his center to attack the whole idea that any money should be spent on global warming at all. With one hand they admonish the Obama Administration to help stop global warming, and with the other hand they give completely different advice to Senator Inhofe.

November 03, 2009

Unsustainable Cheney vs. Sustainable Gore

After the American Century

In recent weeks two vice-presidents have been in the headlines. If either of them were a prospective presidential candidate, this would hardly be unusual. But Dick Cheney is too old to be considered realistically as a candidate, and his health is also a question. And Al Gore clearly does not want to run for president again, after passing up the 2008 campaign.

Both men are in the news because they can be taken to represent opposed elements in American politics. Cheney the former oil executive who is a hard-liner on foreign policy stands in stark contrast to Gore, the advocate of green energy who won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Both men have been willing to "put their money where their mouth is," by which I mean they have invested their personal fortunes in the kinds of industries they believe in. Curiously, however, only Gore seems to be in the spotlight this week. He has been criticized for investing in the green technologies that he wants governments to adopt. This is no different than Cheney, who vigorously defended the coal and oil industries while serving as vice-president, except that Gore is not in office. He is a private citizen, and there is no conflict of interest in his case. Gore has never worked as a lobbyist. So the charge that Gore might profit from green energy investments seems idiotic coming from Republicans. Do they have something against business now?

It would be in order, however, for Congress to hold an investigation into Dick Cheney's relationship to Halliburton while he served as Vice President. Cheney retained many personal ties with Halliburton while in office, and that corporation was given multi-billion dollar contracts to rebuild Iraq - often with no competitive bidding - on the grounds that the response had to be rapid and asking for and evaluating bids took too much time.

Then there was Dick Cheney's big gift to Halliburton in the 2005 Energy Bill. A provision was added to that bill, at Cheney's request, which took away from the Environmental Protection Agency the right to regulate some forms of oil drilling. In particular, a process invented by Halliburton called hydraulic fracturing was exempted from EPA control. And, yes, hydraulic fracturing can lead to pollution of the water table, as toxic chemicals are involved. For more on this, see the article in the New York Times. This addition to the 2005 Energy Bill is often called the Halliburton Loophole.

This then is the contrast. On the one side, Dick Cheney, a vice-president who used his office to protect and enrich the company where he used to be chief executive. On the other side, Al Gore, a former vice-president who as a private citizen has put his own money into green technologies. Is it really impossible for Republicans to see that Cheney is a reprehensible self-serving pawn of special interests? Apparently so. Is it really impossible for Republicans to see that Gore is an idealist working within the capitalist system, risking his own money on what he believes in? Again, apparently the Republicans really are this inconsistent and blind.

The persistence of such Republican misconceptions helps us to understand why they are able to see "drill baby drill" Sarah Palin as a feasible presidential candidate.

October 27, 2009

On winning a book prize

After the American Century

Some readers of this blog already know that my 2006 book, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With, was selected as the winner of this year's Sally Hacker Prize by the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT). The award was handed over at the annual banquet of that association in Pittsburgh, October 17 amid what seemed to me to be wild cheering for at least 2 or 3 seconds.

In previous years the winners of various prizes each made a little speech, thanking friends, family, and fellow scholars for their support. We have all heard such speeches, and know why SHOT might think it a good idea not to have them. So I did not give a moving testimony or tell any humorous anecdotes, but simply stood to have my picture taken with the prize.

Getting rid of the other acceptance speeches was a good idea, but in my case, of course, it was not. I had many important ideas to communicate at just that time, and indeed the wine of the previous hours had enhanced my thinking considerably. I am only sorry that these deep insights into the nature and purpose of research and "the meaning of it all" did not get out, because these penetrating thoughts now seem to have evaporated.

Instead, I will merely note that the prize was given for a work published in the previous three years that best explains some aspects of the history of technology to a wider audience. The plaque abbreviates this to "the best popular book." While I was extremely pleased to have fooled the usually more alert jury and gotten this award, one now former friend dryly asserted that this was the prize for the "least unreadable academic book."

If any of my loyal readers are interested, Technology Matters is in paperback for only a few dollars more than it costs to download it in the format of Amazon's Kindle reader. There is also a strange French translation that eliminates most of the notes and some passages of the work, clearly in an attempt to make it even more popular and better suited for the general audience. A German translation has also appeared. This is much longer and seems more scholarly than my original. Indeed, it appears to be so much more profound and more heavily-footnoted in German that I am hoping it will win a prize as a work written not for the general public but for specialists.

Should it win in German, I will insist on giving the speech I have forgotten from the banquet in Pittsburgh.

October 10, 2009

The Peace Prize, Unexpected but Deserved

After the American CenturyJustify Full
Yes, it is a bit surprising that Obama received the Peace Prize already in his first year as President. But no, I do not think it is undeserved, though this seems to be the standard pundit's response in the US today, where I happened to hear the news while driving across Pennsylvania. Obama has done quite a bit for a man in office far less than a year. Not one commentator that I heard over the afternoon noted it, but he has abandoned the Bush program of installing missiles in Eastern Europe, while angered the Russians and blocked progress in many other areas. This was a major change that opens the way for progress while giving up on an idea that did not make a great deal of sense in strategic or military terms. (It also would cost a lot of money, now saved.) Then there was a major speech given at the University of Cairo, opening a useful dialogue with the Arab world. These two things alone are more than George W. Bush did for peace in 8 years.

But this is not the whole list. Obama has talented full-time negotiators trying to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to talk again, and he has tried to be an honest broker, pushing the Israelis to stop the illegal settlements on the West Bank. Obama has also pressured Iran to abandon its nuclear program, but done so with softer rhetoric than Bush, and tried to begin a dialogue, albeit an almost impossible task with the current leaders in Teheran.

And what about saving the American economy from collapsing? This in itself has been a major achievement of his administration, and it did help to keep the world from spiralling downwards into economic collapse. Peace is not so easy to work for in poverty as it is in prosperity.

But most of all, Obama's achievement of becoming the first non-white person to be elected to the highest office anywhere in Europe or the Americas, must have looked to the Norwegian committee like a powerful demonstration that racial differences can be transcended, that millions of white people could trust and vote for a black person. Apparently, not only the Republican Party but also the pundits, just do not get this. But it made a tremendous impact in the rest of the world, and Obama is not only a symbol of hope, but proof that hope is not delusional.

Ironically, most Europeans and the Nobel Prize committee can see Obama more clearly than the blathering commentators on American radio and television. I admit that I am a little surprised he won this soon, but he would have to be on anyone's short list for the years immediately to come, had he not received it now.

October 01, 2009

The Olympics: Chicago or Rio in 2016?

After the American Century

Tomorrow, in Copenhagen, the International Olympic Committee will decide where the 2016 Olympics will be held. I gather that the odds makers think Tokyo has little chance of getting it and Madrid only slightly better prospects. Apparently the real battle is between Brazil and the United States, or Rio and Chicago.

I would be happy to see the games held in either nation. As an American, I certainly can see Chicago as a good choice. I spent considerable time there in 2003, and was impressed by the city's continued growth and resilience. On the other hand, I have to admit that it seems unfair that no Olympics have ever been held anywhere in South America - though they were once in Mexico, which is Latin America but still part of North America.

There is another argument for Brazil that goes like this. The 2012 summer games are going to be held in London. Is it a good thing to have the games in the United States right after they are in Britain? Shouldn't they be moving around to different cultural and linguistic zones?

What does not come out in the all too brief news stories I have seen, is any detail about the actual facilities these nations are prepared to build or already have on hand. This is not only about the sporting facilities, but also the airports, security systems, hotels, roads, and public transport. Then there is the question of the safety of these cities. Where is the rate of robbery and petty crime high and low? Tokyo might have the edge on that particular issue, for example. Unfortunately, the public does not get a detailed explanation of why a particular city was chosen. London beat Paris last time, in 2005, but it was hard to see why.

We will soon know the result, and of course it could be any one of the four applicants. I have a sneaking suspicion that President Obama would not be coming personally to represent his home town if he did not think there was an excellent chance of success. But then, the President of Brazil came too.

Is Anyone Really Saving Energy?

After the American Century

Is anyone really saving energy? Time for a little reality check, as all the green rhetoric might make one believe the use of electricity and gasoline is falling.

The Kyoto Protocol was intended to help reduce pollution and CO2 levels. Signed by most of the world's nations beginning in 1997, it went into effect in 2005. However, during this eight-year interval, the signatory nations failed even to restrain consumer demand, which galloped ahead each year by an average of 500 billion additional kilowatts.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2005 the world was using one third more electricity annually than it had in 1997. This growth was by no means evenly distributed. Japan, whose economy was not growing much anyway, nearly achieved zero energy growth (4%) in contrast to China's rampant 223% increase. Germany (10%), France (17%), and the United Kingdom (12%) grew rather than shrank their demand, but they were less profligate than Ireland (51%), India (40%), Argentina (39%), or Brazil (27%). Almost everywhere the consumer wanted more and no nation had managed to reverse the trend.

The failure to reduce energy use cannot be explained by cost-benefit analysis. US energy efficiency could be improved by 23% through off-the-shelf technologies such as better insulation, replacement of inefficient appliances and light bulbs, and the like. The cost of making these changes would quickly be recovered through large savings on electricity bills. But consumers do not want to invest up front to get the longer term benefits.

Likewise, automobiles are on sale that are twice as efficient as the average car on the American road. Moreover, Europeans and Asians, who once could sneer at Americans for driving so much have adopted the car in ever increasing numbers. Indeed, earlier this year for the first time the Chinese topped the US in new car sales, with more than 1 million new vehicles sold each month. Not much help for global warming there.

Do not be lulled by green rhetoric into thinking that politicians have actually done anything much to stop global warming. CO2 emissions are rising along with consumer demand. This is a global problem and no nation has yet really demonstrated that it can reduce its level of emissions and consumption to below the 1997 level - which was the idea of the Kyoto Protocol. So far, it is all wishful thinking.

September 30, 2009

7,000 Killed by Drivers on Mobile Phones

After the American Century

We hear about it each time a soldier is killed in Iraq, but more people die each year on American highways, the victims of drivers who are busy texting or using their mobile phones. Studies have found they drive no better than drunks, causing more than 200,000 accidents every year.

I have written before in this space about the danger of texting or using mobile phones while driving. Now it turns out that the US National Highway Safety Administration did studies of this problem when it was just beginning to be serious, back in 2002. Guess what. They estimated that drivers talking on mobile phones were responsible for 955 highway deaths in that single year, plus a large number of non-fatal accidents. This number can only have risen higher since then, as more people now use these mobile devices than in 2002.

It gets worse. The bureaucrats in Washington decided to suppress these findings. The public never heard about it. The toadies did not want to anger Congress. Am I being unfair when I ask this, but is it not the duty of the National Highway Safety Administration to keep the roads safe? Hide the fact that annually 955 people (more now almost certainly) are dying on the highways because we should not anger legislators? Please recall that the idea of democracy is to serve the public, not Congress. A death toll of more than 7,000? More than 1.5 million accidents, with many maimed and damaged for life? In a statistical sense, this is about double the casualty toll from the 9/11 attacks. But these deaths happen just a few at a time, about 2 or 3 people killed every day.

Should we blame this on George W. Bush? Did anyone on his team ask that this information be squashed? Only now, due to pressure from journalists using the Freedom of Information Act, do we know that slaughter on the highways was thought preferable to riling up Congress. For more on this shameful episode, click here. But please do not read about it while driving.

September 29, 2009

Iran and the Bomb

After the American Century

This week we all learned that Iran had been hiding a second nuclear development site. It was buried underground, and never shown to the inspectors whom the Iranians wanted to convince its intentions were purely the peaceful development of atomic power. It is exceedingly hard for anyone to believe that now.

Decades ago I visited Hiroshima, where I visited the museum devoted to the victims of the first atomic attack. One exhibit remains burned into my memory. It was a little girl's watch, and the hands had melted into the dial at precisely the time the bomb went off. She was on her way to school. Heat that powerful seared her flesh and boiled the blood in her arm. That little girl would have been about 75 today.

Atomic weapons have no place in this world, and should be done away with. Proliferation is not an acceptable option. Not only should Iran be convinced to give up their bomb, but the Israeli and Pakistani governments should do the same. Otherwise, the risk is that other Middle Eastern states will seek "parity" with Israel and Pakistan.

Both the Russians and the Americans have been scrapping their nuclear arsenals, bit by bit. With enough time and a bit of luck, the detailed engineering knowledge of how to make these terrible weapons could be forgotten, even if we cannot unlearn the physics that explains how nuclear fission can occur.

In the meantime, I think the Iranian people should all be sent a photograph of that melted wrist-watch, in hopes that they will think again on the direction they are headed.

September 17, 2009

Shame on the Republicans

After the American Century

President Jimmy Carter has bluntly said what many people were thinking: that Republicans, including many sitting on Capitol Hill, have been showing a great deal of disrespect for the office of the president, as well as for President Obama personally. This seems especially clear to those Americans, like myself, who live abroad in constitutional monarchies. It would be unthinkable and socially completely unacceptable for someone to scream at the Danish queen during a speech that she was lying. Anyone who did that would be universally condemned, by all parties.

When Americans chose to be a republic, after there unhappy relationship to the British kings, the founders knew that the president would have to play a double role, as chief executive and as head of state. Some presidents have done this more successfully than others, of course, and the United States was fortunate to begin with George Washington for eight years.

Preserving civility and good manners is probably not the strong point of Americans generally, but it is important to try to show respect for those with whom one disagrees, and it is vital that a party that loses an election, as the Republicans did, respect the will of the people and try to work constructively as legislators. History will not be kind to the Republicans currently in office, however. I feel fairly certain of this, being a historian. Taking the long view, they are not behaving wisely.

Instead, we see an increasing tendency to rabble rousing, false slogans, and denial. Shame on the Republicans.

August 22, 2009

Obama's Success with the Economy

After the American Century

As the Obamas go on a 9 day vacation, one can look back at eight months in office. Given the enormity of the economic crisis he faced, it is remarkable that even as he takes a well eared rest, bankers around the world are announcing that the crisis seems to be easing. Mærsk, which runs one of the world's largest container ship operations, also sees clear signs that the economy has turned. And who would have imagined, back in December, that the virtually bankrupt American International Group Inc (AIG) would announce here in August that it would be able to repay its massive government loans?

It is tempting to give Obama all the credit, and certainly he deserves much of it. He boldly pressed through a large deficit spending plan, stabilizing the banks. He also made some hard choices about the American automotive industry, radically reshaping General Motors and Chrysler in the process. While unemployed has risen, this is characteristic of all such crises, and cannot be expected to fall again just yet. Overall, Obama can be given high marks for preventing a meltdown in the US economy that would have had severe repercussions around the world.

One must also recognize, however, that the structure of the world economy as a whole is shifting, and in the future it will not be quite as focused on the success or failure of the United States. Unlike Europe and the US, China and India have not suffered shrinkage in their economies, only slightly slower growth. The Economist forecasts a rather robust 8% growth for China in both 2009 and 2010, and it will maintain a large trade surplus with the rest of the world. India is growing almost as fast, at a rate of over 6%. In other words, Obama and the Democrats have stopped a slide in the American economy, which may regain the ground it lost in a year or two. But China and India are forging rapidly ahead, increasing their importance to the world economy as a whole.

In short, Obama's programs seem to be working. The American economy is reviving. But the real story, once we have some decades of perspective, will almost certainly be that the crisis of 2008 was the last time that the United States mattered so much to the world economy as a whole.

August 18, 2009

Drugs on Your Paper Money

After the American Century

In the past two days a story has been widely repeated on the Internet about cocaine on dollar bills. The gist of it, as reported on Danish national radio was that 95% of the dollar bills circulating in Washington DC have been used to sniff cocaine. Or that was the impression given. While I admit that this would help explain the erratic behaviour of Congressmen, I thought the science behind the story might be interesting.

As seems to typically be the case with Danish journalism, this story was made as sensational as possible without looking into the matter very far. A few minutes on the Internet cleared up the story somewhat. The research on which this story was based has been done by several people employed at the University of Massachusetts branch campus at Dartmouth. They gave a paper at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting in Washington. As reported in Science News, "of the 234 banknotes sampled from 17 U.S. cities, those with the heaviest cocaine residues – as much as 1,240 micrograms per bill – tended to come from relatively big cities with serious drug problems. Cities like Baltimore, Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles."

Note the numbers here. They looked at 234 dollar bills from 17 cities, or on average slightly less than 14 from each city. That sounds like a small sample. It also turns out that just one tainted bill passing through a bank counting machine will contaminate the equipment and many bills that pass through the equipment afterwards. The American chemists had very sensitive measurements, and could detect an amount of cocaine as small as 1/1000 of a grain of sand. Some bills had 100,000 times as much. In short, a few "dirty bills" could contaminate a very large number of others.

Then there were the international comparisons. According to the story, in Brazil 80% of the banknotes had traces of cocaine, while China had only 20% (22 of 112 bills examined). Japan's currency was the cleanest, only two of twelve having traces of the drug. But are all currencies equally liable to retain cocaine? They are not. The Argonne National Laboratory found that the British pound, for example, is made of fibers less abrasive and more tightly woven than those in American greenbacks, with the result that little adheres to them. I always knew the Brits were uptight in many areas, but this was new to me.

All in all, then, we should not conclude that 90% of Americans are snorting cocaine through their declining currency. Take the report with a grain of, er, salt.

August 08, 2009

Global Warming: Lomborg's "Idea" is Not New

After the American Century

Denmark's Radio once again has failed to do a background check on a story. In this case, they report that "1900 unmanned ships should said around the world's oceans and spray saltwater up in the air. This is Bjørn Lomborg's latest idea." ( "1900 ubemandede skibe skal sejle rundt på verdens have og spraye saltvand op i luften. Sådan lyder Bjørn Lomborg seneste ide.") Nonsense, this is not his idea, nor is it new. Last autumn newspapers outside Denmark reported the same idea, attributed to a 69 year-old inventor in Maryland, USA, named Ron Ace. He has filed for a patent on precisely this idea.

Whether this particular kind of geo-engineering (or any other kind) will work is not easy to say, but it will cost a good deal of money. Before endorsing this "solution" to global warming, I urged my students to consider some of the other ideas that have been advanced. Last spring I gave a seminar on eleven of these, notably,

Eleven Technological Fixes for Global Warming

1. Carbon sequestration, i.e. pump liquid CO2 underground and hope it does not resurface later.

2. Add tons of iron filings to the oceans, stimulating algae to grow. Dead algae falls to the ocean flood, taking CO2 with it. This is being tested in the Pacific Ocean as I write.

3. Create a ring of tiny particles around the earth, using satellites to "shepherd them" thereby reducing sunlight. Cost estimate a mere $6.5 trillion. However, how much would it cost to remove these particles if they cool the earth too much?

4. Pipe water from the ocean deeps, bringing more nutrients to the surface, which will stimulate plankton to grow and remove more CO2. This would also cool the ocean surface. What would it do to fish and other ocean creatures?

5. Bury massive amounts of charcoal, taking this carbon out of the system.

6. Launch 16 trillion small reflective disks into space. These will act as "high-tech" parasols. Would take 25 years to do this, and not clear how one would remove them if they caused problems.

7. "Fake volcano" irruptions, injecting suffer dioxide int the atmosphere. This would create a cloud of droplets that block sunlight. The claim is that we would need to launch 5 million tons each year for four years, to stop global warming.

8. Create 500,000 giant artificial trees, the size of windmills, equipped with special filters that remove CO2. There is no prototype.

9. Grind up a cube of volcanic rock ten km across. Grind small, and dissolve in the sea, making it less acidic. CO2 will then be absorbed, returning sea's alkalinity to where it was 60 million years ago.

10. Change the diet of cows, which produce 100+ liters of methane a day, mostly form belching. Making cattle and sheep feed more digestible will cut back on global warming,

11. Spay sea water into the air from a fleet of unmanned wind-powered ships - the idea mistakenly attributed to Lomborg.

All of these ideas have been proposed by responsible persons, some at universities such as Harvard, Columbia, or Arizona. However, I do not endorse any of these ideas, and in fact have some aversion to the very idea that the "solution" to global warming is a technological fix. At root, all of these ideas say: "No need to change human behavior. Use just as much energy as before, and let scientists monkey around with the atmosphere, the oceans, or outer space, without a definite idea of what might happen." No thanks, whether the idea comes from a publicity seeker with no scientific credentials such as Lomborg or a real scientist.

The New American Ambassador to Denmark

After the American Century

Laurie S. Fulton arrived in Denmark as the new US Ambassador last week, presenting her credentials to the Queen last Monday. From casual conversations and from my reading of the Danish press, it appears that the full strength of her credentials has not been evident to all the journalists, and some misconceptions seem to have formed. Let me try to set the record straight.

Laurie S. Fulton is from a family that has been active in American politics for decades. Those who did not emigrate to America were also deeply engaged in politics, as her great-grandfather served in the Danish Folketing from 1918 until 1940. She comes from South Dakota, a largely agricultural state where a good many Scandinavian immigrants settled between c. 1880 and 1914. Among these immigrants was her grandfather, who fought on the American side in World War I. She did her undergraduate studies in Omaha, the largest city near her home, in the neighboring state of Nebraska, and graduated near the top of her class in 1971, magnum cum laude. For the next year she worked in the presidential campaign of George McGovern, then Senator from South Dakota. After McGovern lost to Nixon, she joined the staff of U.S. Senator James Abourezk, working on Capitol Hill from 1973 until 1977.

While working for Senator Abourezk she became close with another new aide, Tom Daschle, whom she married. She helped Daschle in a successful campaign for the House of Representatives in 1978, where he remained for eight years, until successfully campaigning for the Senate in 1986. He later has served as both Senate Minority Leader and Majority Leader.

However, as Daschle rose to power his marriage unravelled, and the couple divorced in 1983. His former wife decided to attend law school at Georgetown. Again Laurie S. Fulton excelled as a student and again she graduated magnum cum laude. One clear sign of her achievement was that she was selected to serve as managing editor of the American Criminal Law Review, a position achieved based on merit. She did well despite the fact that at the same time she was working on the Hill for the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Since that time she has worked for (and become a partner in) the large and influential law firm of Williams & Connolly. (This firm handled Bill Clinton's defense in his impeachment. Another partner in the firm, Howard Gutman, has been selected as Ambassador to Belgium.) She has represented clients both in court and before Congressional committees, as well as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Election Commission. She developed a speciality in white collar crime, including cases that involved criminal antitrust, bank gratuities, fraud, false statements, theft of government property and trade-control. Ms. Fulton has also served as co-chair of the Criminal Litigation Committee of the Section of Litigation of the American Bar Association.

In addition, she has been involved in many non-profit institutions, focusing on peace, homeless children, the Girl Scouts, and others too numerous to mention here.

In short, the new Ambassador has long political experience, an excellent legal education, and extensive experience in Washington. She also has had a ringside seat to the some of the most dramatic events of the last 35 years, including all the presidential campaigns, the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Reagan years, the Clinton years, 9/11, and everything else leading up to the election of Barack Obama. Indeed, she played a small part in that victory, working in particular as a fund raiser.

However, a silly rumor I have heard now from three Danes needs to be refuted at once. Her own financial contribution to the campaign was small, and I find no logic or foundation in fact to the rumor that she "bought" her position as ambassador. This seems to be a favorite lie Danes like to tell, about each new ambassador, besmirching their reputations no matter how strong their credentials.

It seems that Danes are for the most part incapable of understanding that Americans do not share their faith that only a professional class of diplomats can become Ambassadors. That is simply not how Americans look at it. Laurie S. Fulton should make a fine Ambassador, and Denmark is fortunate to have been sent someone with her impressive education and experience.

August 02, 2009

US Unemployment Benefits Running Out

After the American Century

Unemployment means something much worse in the United States than in much of western Europe. In nations like Denmark, Norway, Germany, or Holland, the unemployed receive higher benefits than in the US, and these benefits last much longer, often several years. At the same time, the European unemployed are given access to free training courses to develop the skills needed in the job market. Best of all, regardless of whether they work or are unemployed, these workers get full health coverage.

In the United States, unemployment benefits vary somewhat by state, but in normal times are for only 39 weeks. In the current crisis the Congress has extended them up to 72 weeks, or about 16 months. As a result, by the end of July "only" 100,000 Americans had exhausted their benefits. They receive nothing at all. In most cases, they have no health insurance.

The situation is about to become much worse. The financial crisis emerged rather suddenly a year ago, and accordingly the number of the unemployed who will receive no benefits at all is about to rise dramatically. It appears that already in September 500,000 people will have no benefits. By Christmas, the number could be 1.5 million. (Click here for more details.)

When that many people fall into destitution, they will lose their homes. After foreclosure, some will be able to move in with relatives, but many will be forced literally into the streets. They will overwhelm charities and public shelters. If nothing is done, Americans may see scenes reminiscent of the Great Depression. Cities and states, already struggling with deficits, and already making considerable cutbacks in services, will not be able to respond to the crisis. If unemployment benefits are not extended, the economy as a whole will also suffer, as the housing market will decline. The gap between rich and poor will widen.

At the same time, the Obama Administration is trying to pass a comprehensive health plan, amid considerable opposition from doctors and insurance companies. In short, the need for that plan will be increasing, but the ability to pay for it will be declining. Thanks to the ineptitude of the Bush years, the US may feel it is unable to afford the change it needs.

But not to worry. It appears that the banks are solvent again and giving big bonuses again.

July 31, 2009

Ladybugs Plague Denmark

After the American Century

"The air was filled with countless dancing gnats, swarms of buzzing flies, ladybugs, dragonflies with golden wings, and other winged creatures." -- Hans Christian Andersen, "The Marsh King's Daughter"

A veritable army of ladybugs has descended on Denmark, as often happens at this time of year. Other nations suffer from plagues of grasshoppers or locusts, and for decades Americans have worried about the northward progress of the killer bees. But as befits a small and peaceful nation, Denmark suffers a more genteel nuisance, as swarms of ladybugs invade the land.

This morning, I found ladybugs all over my car, crawling vigorously around my garden, and diving by the drove into my rain barrel. They seem to have no natural predators at this time of year, proliferating exponentially. Based on the number in my side yard, I conservatively estimate that there are at least five per square meter, more than 1,000 in my small yard alone. Extrapolating from this admittedly inadequate sample, it is possible that there are somewhere between two and five billion ladybugs here at this time of year.

However, this may be too small an estimate. A neighbor back from a vacation in the wilds of Jutland reported seeing clouds of ladybugs at dusk, turning the sunset a darker red. Strangely, they often swarmed on the beaches, attacking German tourists, nipping their sunburned skin. Apparently they cannot resist the smell of certain suntan lotions.

Scientific studies are not yet complete, but it appears that the ladybug plagues are intensifying as a result of global warming, which prolongs their mating season, making it possible to produce at least one additional generation each summer. In wet years, their food supply is also greater. Longer and wetter summers apparently account for the sudden multiplication of ladybugs in late July. Since ladybugs consume aphids and mites, gardeners the world over are glad to have them around, and one can only speculate over whether there is some unintentional connection between the policies of the current Danish government and what must be an enormous production of garden pests sufficient to feed these beneficent predators. (Polling is incomplete, but the vast majority of ladybugs appear to be social democrats.)

New species of ladybugs have also invaded Denmark, however. There are about 5,000 kinds of ladybugs worldwide, and I make no pretense to being able to identify them. As one might expect, some are from Southern Europe, brought home by Danish tourists in their cars or in their suitcases, usually as unnoticed eggs that hatch after arrival. However, there are also more exotic ladybugs, including one large, individualistic North American variety. There is also a Chinese one that is a bit flatter and rounder, with stubby wings for steering, which appears to spin like a miniature flying saucer.

In my back garden is a multicultural ladybug nation, a globalized phenomenon, a trillion footed buzzing society that has chosen Denmark as its preferred destination. Within a few days, I expect my garden to be striped clean of aphids, mites, and insect eggs. I expect they will also drive away any lurking conservative politicians. And as the sun sets over Denmark, look for the telltale reddish-black cloud of ladybugs heading for another summer evening at the beach.

July 28, 2009

Texting While Driving A Menace

After the American Century

Once again technological-social change has outrun the rather lame politicians, and your life is in danger every single day as a result. Anyone paying attention knows that many drivers now are not looking at the road, but at a hand-held device, texting. New studies have now appeared that confirm a common sense understanding that such distractions are extremely dangerous. People who text while driving are at least as dangerous as those who are drunk. Their risk of being in an accident is 23 times greater - 2300% higher - than for non-texting drivers. For more details, see the New York Times.

What to do about it? The problem is two-fold. Both laws and public attitudes must change. Many nations and most American states do not prohibit driving while texting, which is rapidly becoming "normal" behavior. Delay in getting legislation on the books is politically negligent, because the longer it is legal the harder it will be to change the public perception of texting while driving. It ought to be perceived as the equivalent of driving while intoxicated - which causes thousands of highway deaths and injuries. At the moment, however, there is little or no social stigma attached to texting while driving. Most people do not drive when drunk, but most people have at least occasionally sent or received text messages, often while moving at 100 kilometers an hour or more. At such speeds, cars travel a long way in 5 seconds, which is how long a "texter" is not looking at the road. We alredy knew that talking on cell phones is a dangerous distraction, but now it is clear that texting is far worse.

July 23, 2009

Where is the Logic? State's Rights and Gun Control

After the American Century

The Republican Party has long championed "State's Rights," once a code word for racial segregation, but more recently an all encompassing term to indicate opposition to federal meddling in state affairs. But for all but two Republicans in the United States Senate, States' Rights is clearly less important than giving individuals the freedom to carry concealed weapons. The Senate has just narrowly defeated an attachment to a military spending bill that would have permitted anyone with a valid license from one state to carry a concealed weapon (usually a handgun) in all other states as well.

Republicans claimed that this was only fair, resembling the fact that a driver's license from one state is recognized and valid in all others. However, no one is driving a car concealed under his armpit. States do not issue hunting or fishing licenses that are recognized in all other states. Indeed, even lawyers must pass the bar exam in any state they want to practice in. The right to practice law in Massachusetts does not confer the right to do so in Connecticut or California or anywhere else.

If passed, this law would be profoundly undemocratic. Two thirds of the States, 35 of them, have passed laws that prohibit gun ownership (concealed or not) to certain individuals - notably those convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors. Furthermore, many states insist that gun owners must have training courses. The narrowly defeated provision would have permitted someone who had been in prison for armed robbery or murder to go to a state with lax gun laws, acquire weapons, and carry them legally anywhere in the United States. Even more frightening, it would have allowed Dick Cheney to carry a concealed weapon in Massachusetts, where all such weapons are outlawed.

This bizarre legislation was supported by almost all Senate Republicans and by most rural Republicans. However, it was vigorously opposed by the Mayor of New York, who is Republican, but for some reason does not like the idea of allowing concealed weapons in his city. And fortunately Richard Lugar, Republican Senator from Indiana, did not support this bill either.

Lugar's opposition was needed. For Republican support would not have mattered if the Democrats were opposed. But their leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, was all for more concealed weapons, and several of the sponsors were Democrats as well. Indeed, all together there were 58 Senators eager to have more concealed weapons on America's streets. Only 42 voted against, but that was enough to defeat a rider to the bill. For this was not an amendment or a refinement of the bill being voted on, and it had not been vetted by a committee that heard from expert witnesses. In such cases, Senate rules require 60 votes in favor. It was a close call.

In case anyone believes the rhetoric about Democrats being the liberal party of big government, keep this near fiasco in mind. And anyone who thinks the Republicans do not want the Federal Government to meddle in the states, think again. It depends on the issues. Republicans would be happy to have Washington legislate definitively against abortion, gay marriage, or gun control. There is seldom a logical political philosophy guiding the Republicans, or, for that matter, many Democrats.

Even more troubling, majority bi-partisan support that would effectively eliminate gun control suggests that the Senate is not thickly populated with intelligent individuals with high ideals. Can we count on such people to create a new and better health care system?

July 21, 2009

Will Danes Adopt Preventive Health Care?

After the American Century

My vacation is drawing to a close and you can expect more postings here at After the American Century. In Denmark at this time of year there is little news, as most of the country has gone on vacation, including most of the politicians. Life seems a bit more pleasant without them showing up on the evening news.

However, there was one worthy idea, hardly new, in the news today, namely that all citizens ought to receive twice a year health check-ups. This was standard in the United States by the 1970s, and when I arrived in Denmark in 1982 and was assigned to a doctor, I immediately went by his office to get acquainted. I assumed there would be a physical examination, to establish a baseline for my future care. The nurse and receptionist were cordial but bemused. Regular physical exams were not part of the procedure, and amazingly, they still are not. In other words, while Danes have a free (tax supported) health system, it does not focus on prevention, only cure.

By now the health system has a pretty full record on me, or anyone else who has been treated for various ailments. Yet this record is a bit haphazard. Measurements of weight, blood pressure, and the like are not taken in a systematic manner, and there is no baseline to measure progress or deterioration.

Unfortunately, this "new idea" has been launched at a time when no one is paying attention, because the country is vacationing. But regular examinations is essential to a preventive health program, the goal being to keep citizens healthy rather than wait for them to fall ill. And while it might look expensive, studies show that preventive health programs save money, because problems or worrying developments are caught sooner.

Readers outside Denmark will probably be amazed that the health system has not yet grasped this basic idea. But for those who know a bit about it, this is not surprising, as Danes generally are not quick to learn from outsiders. I know many foreign-born permanent residents who have said for years that preventive medicine ought to be the national policy. But it is hard for outsiders to get a hearing. This, however, is a story for another day.

June 29, 2009

Climate Changes Faster Than Lawmakers

After the American Century

The climate is changing more quickly than lawmakers are. We know that species of fish along the coastlines are moving out from tropical zones into new areas. For example, fish not seen before in the North Sea have arrived because its waters have become milder. We know that summers are getting longer, that hurricanes are becoming stronger and more frequent, that the glaciers covering Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster each year.

Researchers at MIT plug statistics from such developments into a computerized model of the world's weather system. They include projected economic growth rates, and run hundreds of simulations, to see what might happen given different combinations of factors. Their latest findings are dire. Global warming is occurring twice as fast as previously thought, and they project a global temperature rise of 5.4 C by 2100. Their worst case scenario is a change of more than 9 Celsius. Most of southern Europe would likely become desert. The only good and fair thing is that in the US the predominantly Southern politicians would see their constituencies dry up or sink under rising seas.

We have now had quite a few such studies, but they have not led to major efforts to change human behavior. Every year the world has more CO2, more coal-fired power plants, more cars, and more electricity use. And this is true for almost every country. The United States House of Representatives, with only a small majority, has passed a law (that still must be approved in the Senate) which recognizes the problem and begins to take some mild measures toward change. It is not enough, although it is good to see the United States begin to take responsibility for its pollution. Meanwhile, the nations that signed the Kyoto Accords, promising to lower their CO2 levels have little reason to be smug. Most of them have failed to live up to their promises.

It may be that human beings are just not capable of long term planning. Is it possible that the time horizon of the brain remains somewhere between one to five years? However, it will take decades to replace existing housing and transportation systems with energy saving alternatives. The problem of global warming must be confronted immediately, because it will take decades of concerted action just to slow it down. Permanent changes in energy use are needed, but most governments have done far less than they might.

A small case in point. The Danish government put together a stimulus package for the economy, focused on home repairs and improvements. I applied for money to insulate the last remaining part of our house that is not insulated. The application was turned down, emphasizing explicitly that insulation was not covered. Now my little job will get done anyway. But does it make any sense for the Danish state to pay for such things are painting and wallpapering, but not insulation? Such policy mistakes tell Danish citizens that climate change is not really on the government's agenda. (Not that this surprises me. The government created a little independent agency, as a special platform for a prominent denier of global warming who is a statistician, not a scientist.)

Many national economies are shrinking, yet global warming is speeding up. Politicians do not yet realize that the goal can no longer be just to keep economies expanding. The old, high-energy form of expansion is at the core of the global warming problem.

Global warming is not merely a technical matter awaiting some technological fix that will make it go away. It is a problem of changing human behavior, including prohibitions and incentives built into the laws of each nation.