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.