October 27, 2011

Solving the problem of global warming. Could consumers lead better than nations?

After the American Century

It seems that governments are not going to solve the problem of global warming as quickly as it needs to be ddealt with. Yet it need not be tackled by legislation. It could also be a consumer-led change.

1. Create a system that ranks countries into four groups (A, B, C. D), depending on to what degree they contribute to global warming. The rankings might be produced by the World Wildlife Fund or Greenpeace, or perhaps a consortium of environmental groups. The rankings would have to rely on information that is already publicly available, at least at first, but if the movement were successful it might have resources to develop its own data banks,

2. Once a year, a month before Christmas, consumers worldwide would hear via Facebook and other social media where each nation ranks, so that they have the chance to choose intelligently and buy products from nations with better ratings. The hope would be 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. Once the rating system has been developed for nations, next allow corporations to be rated as well, so that an environmentally responsible company can get a high ranking even if  the nation where it is located cannot.

4. The third step would be to give ratings to cities, 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. Concurrent with these developments, encourage nations to give foreign aid for conversion to clean energy technologies focusing on those developing nations where the military budget is less than 2% of GNP. It is absurd to pour money into a nation that is investing in tanks rather than insulation, bombs rather than solar panels, or jet fighters rather than wind mills. If poor nations are not focusing their resources on the problem, why should anyone else?

6. Give annual awards to successful projects that are actually completed (not just proposals) that both improve the quality of life and reduce global warming. Make the awards as glamorous as 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 a presenter at the awards, but they would be welcome to attend.

7. After these ideas have been implemented, go after the trading system. nstead of considering all trade  to be a good thing, no matter what is traded, nations would be encouraged to revise their import taxes and tax codes to favor products whose production and use have the least environmental impact. This sort of taxation would encourage corporations to manufacture in an environmentally responsible way. I do not suggest that such taxes be punitive. Rather, they could be a restructuring of current VAT, and be applied to c. 25 consumer goods that are particularly large consumers of energy, such as automobiles, air conditioning, stoves, televisions, and so forth.

I realize this is only a sketch, but hope such ideas can be expanded and implemented. An umbrella organization would be needed. Ideally, someone with deep pockets might support it, or perhaps the Norwegians, who have a large budget surplus and a history of environmental awareness, could take the role as a lead nation. But as I said at the beginning, the best thing would be a consumer movement that is not a hostage to politics.

100 Danish Poems, From the Medieval Period to the Present Day - Bilingual Edition

After the American Century

This is the 300th entry in this blog, and a book came to hand that serves nicely to celebrate this milestone. 

100 Danish Poems: From the Medieval Period to the Present Day  are not just any 100 poems but a careful selection of the best in Danish literature. They present a complex translation problem, as it simply would not do to have all the poems sound as if they were written in 2011, nor would it be a good idea to write in a modern idiom and then sprinkle in a few old words here and there from the appropriate time periods. 

Fortunately, John Irons, who is British, has more than 25 years experience as a translator. He has lived in Scandinavia for more than 40 years, and frequently translates from Norwegian into English as well. He holds a PhD in Modern and Medieval Languages from Cambridge University and is a published poet himself. Irons is sensitive to the language and the rhythms of the poems and to the changes in literature that occurred from the medieval period onwards. In addition, he was able to work closely with both the Danish poet Klaus Høeck and the editors of the volume, Thomas Bredsdorff and Professor Anne-Marie Mai, who selected and edited the poems. She has also written a 43 page introduction that provides the historical and literary context many English readers will require. The poems themselves are presented without headnotes or footnotes that might distract.

Readers who know both Danish and English can decide for themselves whether they like the translations in this beautifully produced, bilingual edition. The original and the translation face each other on every page. Here is a sample, from pages 182-183, the first lines from a poem by Hans Christian Andersen:

Det gamle Træ, o lad det staa

Det gamle Træ, o lad det staa
Indtil det døer af Ælde;
Saamange Ting det husker paa.
Hvad kan det ikke melde.

Irons renders these lines as:

That ancient tree, don't let it fall
Until old age is knelling;
So many things it can recall
What tales it could be telling.

Note that he has retained not only the sense of these lines but also their rhyme and rhythm. He makes it look easy, but it is not.

Here is a second example, the lovely last verse of Jeppe Aakjær's "Maynat" (May Night), 1916 (pp. 200-201).

Saa ensomt bræger det spæde Lam
paa Bakken langt i det fjærne,
og Frøerne kvækker fra Pyt og Dam,
som sang det fra Stjærne til Stjærne.

The lonely young lamb on the hill beyond
can be heard with its plaintive small baa,
and the frogs all croak from puddle and pond,
as if star now were singing to star.

My third and final example, is the opening four lines of a work by Tove Ditlevsen,  from 1947  (pp. 250-251).

Blinkende Lygter

I Barndommens lange og dunkle Nat
brænder smaa blinkende Lygter
som Spor, af Erindringen efterladt,
mens Hjertet fryser og flugter.

In childhood's long night, both dim and dark
there are small twinkling lights that burn bright
like traces memory's left there as sparks
while the heart freezes so and takes flight.

The reader may be tempted to try revising this example, but in doing so will find how difficult it is to preserve simultaneously the rhyme, the meaning, and the rhythm. John Irons retains the rhyme and the meaning, but to do so must sacrifice the original rhythm. I spent some time trying to improve it, but found I could not. Yet the effort helped me to see the Danish original more clearly, which is one of the pleasures of a book that presents both the original and the translation on facing pages.

The book is available in both Denmark (from Museum Tusculanum Press) and the United States (from the University of Washington Press).

This posting is #300 on After the American Century

October 22, 2011

Obama Correct to Leave Iraq

After the American Century

After months of negotiations, the US and Iraq were unable to agree on how many troops might be left behind to help train and support the coalition government. Reportedly, the US suggested a level of 10,000, but the Iraqis wanted only half that, or even less. President Obama then decided, after repeated attempts to get a clear agreement, to pull the plug.

This seems the right decision, and probably the only option. Would a few thousand American troops really make much of a difference to the country's security? Keeping a symbolic force in the country might well have been a continued provocation to the opposition. Much better to give Iraq a clear message: the US is leaving. Iraq, you are now on your own, as a sovereign nation, to succeed or fail.

Nine years is a long time to intervene in any country, and the United States at some point must have higher priorities than continuing to keep 42,000 troops in Iraq. There were once four times that many, plus troops from the "coalition of the willing."

I was never a supporter of the invasion of Iraq, which was justified by the false claim that it harbored weapons of mass destruction. The country was ruled by a terrible regime, but removal of that regime has cost 700+  billion dollars and an enormous loss of life. The war itself was not difficult to win, but the Bush Administration disgracefully showered huge contracts on its political allies to rebuild the country and treated prisoners disgracefully, angering the entire Arab world against the abuses, displayed in photographs for all to see on the Internet.  An on-line poll conducted by MSNBC has found, as of this writing, that 87% of the respondents do not think the Iraq war was worth it. Many commentators share this view, including the Center for American Progress.

This nine years in Iraq offers quite a contrast with Libya, where the cost was far lower, the time required shorter, and American troops never entered the country. This difference strongly suggests the difference between Bush and Obama, Republicans and Democrats.

The arts of peace are more nuanced and difficult than the arts of war. Let us hope that Iraq will do better governing itself than it has under the occupation. But for the US, it is time to spend its scarce resources elsewhere. Think what that $700 billion might have been used for.

October 21, 2011

The Politics of Energy Efficiency: Blue States Lead the Red States

After the American Century

What a surprise. These are the states that are the most energy efficient: Massachusetts (1), California (2), followed by New York, Oregon, Vermont, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Maryland. This information comes from The American Council for Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). To give a sense of what this means, in Maryland, number 10 on the list, "Marylanders have already saved over 700,000 MWh of electricity and over $91 million dollars since 2009." These are savings that can be spent or saved, every year.

Not a single state in the American South is in the top ten.  Was this an accident? Consider the bottom group, states with the highest per capia use of energy:  North Dakota, Wyoming, Mississippi, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia, Missouri, Alabama, and South Dakota.  These are all in the South and trans-Mississippi West. The citizens of these states are spending more on gasoline and heat and air conditioning than the efficient states, which are investing in alternative energies, giving tax incentives to improve insulation, and investing in energy efficiency projects. Illinois alone has invested $600 million, creating jobs and saving energy at the same time.

The ACEEE study shows that Republican-dominated states have a poor record. Look at the Presidential election of 2008.

All ten of the most energy-efficient states voted Democratic.
All ten of the least energy-efficient states voted Republican.

This is not a coincidence. It tracks the repeated Republican denials of global warming and their heavy financial support from the oil, gas, and coal industries. 

October 20, 2011

Can the Euro Crisis Be Solved? Not in Greece

After the American Century

The Euro Crisis has not gone away. Several times there have been meetings and pledges of more money. The Greek Governemtn keeps making cutbacks, and the Greeks themselves keep protesting. The EU keeps up the pressure with one hand and gives the Greeks money with the other. Nothing seems to change for the better, and the financial fallout continues.
Who would have thought that all European consumers would be nervous because the Greeks profligately overspent? Why should this matter to other countries? Because the banks are all inter-related, and in Greece they are over-exposed. What is now possible is a kind of gigantic domino effect, in which the fall of Greece will topple some banks abroad, which will in turn have a knock on effect right across Europe and across the globe. 

Once upon a time the world was less connected, and some countries made a regular practice of overspending and then devaluting their currency. Take Mexico as an example. Starting in the 1950s for two decades the exchange rate was 12.5 pesos to one American dollar. But in 1976 this rate became impossible to maintain, and Mexico lowered the value of its currency to 20.4 pesos to the dollar. By June, 1982 the rate was 25 to the dollar, but things rapidly got much worse reaching 150 to the dollar by the end of the year. This was a serious crisis for Mexico. It got worse in the following decade, but it did not drag other larger economies to ruin.

By comparison, Greece has a smaller economy than Mexico, but it is much more tied into the economies of its neighbors. Mexico's peso fell pretty much on its own, but Greece has the same currency as much of Europe. 

So how bad is it in Greece? Worse than it was a year ago. The yearly deficit is getting bigger, not smaller, despite passage of austerity measures. It reached 19.2 billion euroes ($26.1 billion) for the first three quarters of 2011 compared to 16.65 billion euros for the same period last year. That is considerably worse than the EU Commission predicted in 2009, as can be seen in the chart above. The EU thought the deficit would be "only" about 12.3 billion for all of this year, but it looks to be about twice that once we have all four quarters. The cumulative deficit is growing even faster than the annual deficit, because it includes interest payments. The Greek rat hole is getting much larger, not smaller, as the size of the debt is exploding. Worse still, the cutbacks now being feverishly passed in Greece will reduce economic activity, in turn reducing revenues from taxation. It is a vicious circle, and nothing suggests that the Greeks are going to be able to avoid catastrophe. 

It may be time to give up on saving them and instead bail out the banks outside Greece, so that the European economy can continue to function. The banks should not be allowed to make a profit on their incompetence, of course, but it looks as though we must save them from ruin. I suggest this not for any love of banks, but because it seems the only plausible course of action to protect the rest of the EU. 

I said the European banks have been irresponsible. How so? Consider a chart from the Financial Times.

Far more than any other EU nation Greece has relied on foreign banks to buy its debt. This was smart of Greece, perhaps, but just plain stupid on the part of the banks. I would suggest an EU regulation that created a sliding scale for the amount of debt any member country could sell to outsiders. In other words, the worse the deficit, the less debt could be externally financed. A nation with almost no deficit would be able to borrow more and far more easily. Frugal virtue would be rewarded, profligacy punished, and punished much sooner than has happened in the present crisis.

Going off the cliff with Greece could ruin the EU economy for some years, and the Europe that might emerge after such a collapse will have fallen well behind Asia and the United States. Decoupling the banks from Greece will not be pretty, and the Euro will fall, but it will fall less and fall for a shorter time.In such a scenario, any Christmas bonuses for bankers would be obscene.