Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sunday PG ... (always good for a snark)

In today’s Post-Gazette, Jack Kelly is still trying to whip up that sense that conservative internet bloggers and commenters express that Democrats have reached up from behind to influence destroy the economy and cause a recession/depression. Yes, the Democrats have held the Congress for the last two years, but as I have pointed out previously and elsewhere, Harry Reid has done an insufficient job confronting the Senate Republicans. The Republicans threatened to change the rules of the Senate because four of President Bush’s more radical appointments to the federal courts where held up (while literally dozens of seats were left unfilled during the Clinton years, causing a case back log in the federal courts). But Harry Reid has chosen to remove legislation from consideration just because Republicans threaten filibuster. Reid could force the Republicans to make good on the threat to filibuster, make Republicans stand up for hours or days talking. Sure, Congress would get less done, but it has not gotten much done now. The Republicans blocked the auto bailout that even President Bush realized was needed, so President Bush was forced to dip into different money to provide it. My point being that the Democrats have been so far unable to initiate reforms needed for the current crisis the economy faces.

Jack Kelly’s point is that things are bad now, but the Democrats will (future tense) probably make things worse. “An example of moral and intellectual bankruptcy is the $1 trillion "stimulus" package Congress is contemplating to encourage us to continue the behaviors that got us into this mess in the first place.” Key word: “contemplating”. Meanwhile, who was in charge in the last eight years while the “behaviors that got us into this mess in the first place” were taking place? Well, Bush was in the White House and the Republicans held Congress outright from January 2003 to December 2006. Yet Kelly says: “Democrats will run things for the next four years, so the recession should last at least that long.” (obviously Kelly thinks that Congress, even if it changes hands in the midterms, is not terribly important). But he sees the period of our excesses as a longer time “We're like alcoholics who've been on a 30-year bender.”. In other words, we went off course in 1978, when credit cards were first made available nationally. During that time we had twenty years of Republican Presidents and ten years of Democrats, but whose counting. Kelly also says “The stimulus package Congress passed last spring didn't work, and this one probably won't either. But it will delay necessary reforms and could make the inevitable crash more painful.”. Necessary reforms? You’ve got to wonder why the necessary reforms weren’t put in place in the last eight years. We did have Congress deciding that people couldn’t take a deduction on their credit card interest, more then ten years ago. Kelly does say “America can't in the long run be prosperous unless we make things other people want to buy, and finance most of our investments through our own savings.” So Kelly is an old fashioned isolationist. We need to sell everybody else stuff, but allow no foreign investment or imports into our country. I suspect he also wants the results of the election overturned and John McCain and Sarah Palin put in charge. It’s an interesting image, but not exactly practical.

Meanwhile, just to point out, the Cutting Edge section of the PG has simply given up trying to find local blogs to quote from. The PG has decided that no one around (online) here has anything interesting to say.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What will it look like?

Back sometime in my sophomore or junior year at Oberlin, I took an environmental economics class from a visiting professor who happened to be a real economist. Not that the econ faculty weren’t real economists, but Oberlin students were sometimes hostile to real life, and it affected things. But this guy (and I can’t for the life of me remember his name) did his best to bring an economic take to the nascent environmental movement (we are talking somewhere between ’80 and ’82). He talked about hydrogen powered cars (he liked fuel cells) and creating and trading pollution credits. He also talked about how, if we were/are serious about reducing waste, we need to create one or two or more types of re-usable containers. One container, specifically for food, could be a cube like thing with a cylindrical lid on a wide mouth opening. It could hold, say, a quart and one could bring a bunch of them to the store. It could be easily stackable in (canvas) bags or on bikes or in specially designed trunks in cars. In the store one could step up to the various rice or pasta dispensers and use one or more of these containers to get what you wanted. The containers could have RFID chips to record how much and what is in them (as programmed by the dispenser). The idea would eventually be to have all the food in dispensers, or if fresh, with some setup to identify it. I remember the professor saying the thing would need to be built like a tank, so if it was thrown away it could simply be retrieved (I suspect people would want them light). Obviously this type of container could revolutionize packaging as we know it, and we could dramatically reduce our waste. And technology is getting more and more sophisticated, so I expect someone could create the reusable containers with advertising that would appear on the sides when the food was dispensed into it.But would people accept these containers? Already some of us are carrying reusable canvas bags to the grocery store to use instead of paper or plastic bags, but I have to say there are a lot more reusable bags at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods than at Walmart (how many at the Giant Eagle probably depends on which iggle you go to). Although we are getting more accepting of canvas bags, the reusable containers would still be a radical departure from what we do now.

Another thought that passed across my brain had to do with cattle and red meat. Now, we are starting to learn that grass fed beef is better for us, in part because grain (corn) fed beef has to be fed antibiotics to enable them to digest corn. Also, the way the market for red meat has developed, cattle are now fed steroids to make them bigger, and the amount of corn they are fed makes them fatter (and fatty). Anyone who has read the Omnivore’s Dilemma remembers Polyface farm (and some people may have heard about it other ways). The book describes a method of rotating a herd of cattle so that grass land is not overmunched (the right word escapes me at the moment). In fact, all sorts of animals are rotated along with the cattle, to cultivate the land as wisely as possible. The wisdom is not the genius of man, though, it is the natural rhythm of wild animals, that move in herds and don’t stay in one place and eat. Well, to be perfectly clear, this is an idealized sort of farming using domesticated animals and grass meadows surrounded by trees. There is an artificial diversity created by the farmer, Joel Salatin, that has been carefully worked out. The funny thing is that when Salatin’s father bought the land originally, much of it was considered too hilly to be useful. Salatin takes environmental issues seriously, he refuses to ship the meat his farm produces (he has a good business with Virginia locavores).

But how could we produce all our meat in this way. It’s not impossible to imagine a conveyor belt with grass (in several varieties) on it, or some such kind of thing. It is possible to imagine a new kind of factory with grass fed cattle. The thing is, our meat might get more expensive (as might other foods if our farmers grew less (subsidized) corn). But if our food is no longer subsidized, parts of out taxes could go down, or be used to offset the cost of national healthcare (which needn’t cost that much more than our current system, but that’s a subject for another day). But we might not continue to be the bread basket for the rest of the world. I think that they might not mind, as long as they could get some help starting to grow their own food.

But we are talking about a relentless sort of pragmatism. We don’t generally do that sort of thing (except on Star Trek). Maybe Obama will start to help us move along that direction. Meanwhile, you can do your part (as can I). You can do some things I have already done, such as replace light bulbs with compact fluorescents. You can use canvas bags for groceries. You can recycle plastic bags at your local grocer or Walmart. You can drive more carefully to save gas. And you can do things I have yet to do, like grow your own vegetables and compost your food waste (I think I’ll stop there in my list of shortcomings). All these things are steps along the way towards what probably should be a different future. How it will look is up to us, but we should try to think about it rationally.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday's offerings

There are a couple of easily digestible nuggets in today's PG forum section. First, in the "Cutting Edge" section, a quick quote from the President via "The American Prospect": the thing Bush most regrets from his term is the failure of intelligence in Iraq prior to the invasion. So not the invasion based on the faulty intelligence, not the (tens or hundreds of) thousands of deaths, but the bad intelligence. I would take that a step further. Would it be a good thing if there had been WMD's in Iraq? If Saddam had smuggled one into the US? Or, more likely in my estimate, smuggled one (or two) across his border and detonated it (them) in Jordan next to Israel or/and in Iran in Tehran? Bush's way of thinking is once again startling.

The other small piece worth looking at is once again Jack Kelly's column. Kelly looks at the Thirties, where he advances the claim that the Nazis were able to take power only after the US, looking at the depression, called in loans it had made to Germany. Kelly states that the Nazis only won a handful of seats in 1928, and then won a majority in 1932. I would note that's when FDR, a neophyte in foreign policy and a Democrat, came in. Kelly does not mention Obama by name in the entire column, but clearly that is who he has in mind as he mentions (current) Pakistan having a huge number of men of military age and Islamic fanatics, and Iran, Venezuela and Russia, suffering as oil prices fall. Incredibly, Kelly seems to be arguing the US needs to increase its foreign oil dependence by using and thus buying more gas, and I guess increase our foreign aid to Pakistan. Mostly he is calling us (again) idiots for having elected Obama over McCain. Go figure.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Car blather ...

When surveyed, most Americans as a group show more sense than more legislators as individuals. On abortion most Americans in surveys support a middle of the road approach, not supporting an out right ban, but supporting limits like a ban on partial birth abortions (except in the case of danger to the health of the mother, which is the only time I would hope doctors would perform this procedure anyway), they support parental notification and so on. In the case of gun control, most Americans do not support a ban on guns, not even on handguns. But they do support "reasonable" gun controls, like bans on assault weapons, rules and licensing for carrying guns, records and licensing for gun purchases, etc.

But I suspect when it comes to cars it has not sunk in yet for most Americans that gas is a finite resource, so using as little of it as possible is a good idea. Most people probably thing that bigger cars and SUV's give them better protection in crashes (sometimes, but not always) and that if they own an SUV, they are prepared for "emergency" situations that will never arise. The closest most Pittsburghers get to off-roading is when the park in the grass at Hartwood acres or Star Lake for a concert. And SUV's have the considerable potential to roll, because of their high center of gravity. Once they start rolling, the roof can sink down some and the person in the SUV can bang the top of their head against the roof repeatedly.

Never the less I believe the big three have decided that Americans want bigger cars, SUV's and pick up's, all with bigger engines and automatic transmissions. And as far as I can tell, Americans agree. They still seem to buy the bigger cars, SUV’s and pick up’s. Of course, the best selling car in America is the Toyota Camry, and the Japanese hybrids have sold briskly (faster than the Ford Hybrids). And a Pew poll found that Americans seem to overwhelmingly support higher mileage standards (in the form of higher CAFÉ standards).

But that doesn’t seem to matter to the big three. They make better cars in Europe, including a new version of the Ford Fiesta or Festa, or something. A diesel that does as good or better than the Volkswagen TDI, get something like 50 or 60 mpg. But it is not coming here, at least not in that form. It will be a gasoline engine, and bigger. In fact lots of car companies send cars with smaller engines to Europe, and cars with bigger engines (or just bigger cars) here. Now I hear that Chrysler is going to shut down for a month. It is hard to get too upset about that.

I have heard some people say American cars are just s good as anything made by the Japanese. Maybe, but what we seem to be able to count on is that the American car is bigger.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Burr(gh) Repore(t)

So all of a sudden it is the Burgh Report's turn (to disappear). No extended story about being outed. I know some people have wondered about the Burgher's incredible access to City Council (including me), but now what does it matter? Another pretty popular Pittsburgh blog appears to have bitten the dust. I might have to write more.

Pretty scary.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Global warming as religion ...

Truth to tell, I am sort of an agnostic about Anthropomorphic Caused Global Warming (I think an especially apt term, since Conservatives accuse liberals of making AGW a religion). To extend the metaphor, I will say I subscribe to a version of Pascal’s Wager concerning global warming. It may exist, it may not, and if it does it may or may not be caused by man. I am not enough of a scientist and I don’t have the time to put in the research to read all the different views. But I figure we should behave as if AGW does exist. Yes, it will be expensive to reduce carbon emissions and then get off fossil fuels all together. But let’s face it, there are other kinds of pollution caused by burning fossil fuels besides the effects of global warming, and the fossil fuels are finite anyway. Yes, we won’t be able to force everyone to stop driving cars right away, we won’t be able to get buses and trains in place right away to take the place of cars, we will be using gasoline for perhaps fifty years to come. And yes, China and India and other countries are going to want to develop and their citizens are going to want to be able to own cars. But we can start reducing the size of our new cars right now, we can implement speed limits and enforce them. We can do things now so that in fifty years our grandchildren will have oil for things they really need it for. And the planet will not be choked with pollution. Oh yeah, and the polar ice caps won’t have melted, assuming they were actually going to.

But I am willing to listen to the skeptics, or the adherents. I think seems like a sensible web site, for example. Did you know we are in a La Nina (however that’s spelled) year? If I did I had forgotten, but it is one of the reasons why I guess things were cooler last year and this year (although the winter has been quite mild so far). It was in an AP story. I caught it because I looked at a blog entitled “Democrats-Lie”. The blog post was complaining about how Democrats/liberals act as though global warming is a religion and are insane. There was one sentence quoted from the AP Story: "While skeptics are already using it as evidence of some kind of cooling trend, it actually illustrates how fast the world is warming." From this one quote, the blog author decided that the media is in the pocket of the global warming mafia. However, the rest of the paragraph mentions that we are in a La Nina year. In fact, we have seen something of an increase in El Nino and La Nina years, and this may be because of global warming. That was the actual meaning of that sentence.

Because I am something of an agnostic here, I am more in favor of taking steps that save people money (even as they change their life styles). So more bicycles, more mass transit, more CFL’s and LED lights, and as I said smaller cars and enforced 55 mph speed limits on the highway. I’m not saying that you should get rid of your SUV (unless you want to), but when you go to replace it, unless you have a job that takes you off road, you should think about downsizing. Various taxes, on gas or carbon, are not a bad idea, but they should be refunded at set intervals, at least to poor people. Our approach to global warming should be to try to change behaviors, not punish people. If we (the US) do that well, the Chinese and Indians will follow suit when they start to get tired of their own pollution.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Racism, Sexism, whatever-ism ...

The Obama team now faces a different crisis, one of their own making. Obama has made noises, as we know, about bringing people together. The problem with that was always that Obama’s chief rival for the nomination was a woman, Hillary Clinton. Now there is a story (from the Washington Post, and to me via 2 Political Junkies) that Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau was caught in pictures fondling a cardboard cutout of Mrs. Clinton. This was apparently at a party, pictures made their way to Mr. Favreau’s Facebook page for a few hours Thursday afternoon before being taken down.

Maria at 2PJ’s suggests the guy would be fired if this happened at a private corporation. Commenters argue that’s too harsh, it was a private party (but public pictures). I think Maria might be wrong in the sense that corporations might excuse the behavior of lesser employees and think that higher level employees were too valuable. But Maria is not wrong in her assessment of what should happen. The Clinton team is laughing off this incident (what else can she do), but they shouldn’t have to.

Maria goes on to comment on how Clinton and Sarah Palin were characterized during the campaign. Personally I don’t believe I used sexism in my criticisms of either woman, but particularly with Sarah Palin, it was hard not to criticize her for being uncurious without stepping very close to the “dumb broad” line. The sole saving grace here was George W Bush, the most uncurious George who was a man and also President.

But the larger point is quite valid. I think sexism (and our progress on it) can be likened to racism (and our progress on it). Racism still exists, not only in the lives of the people who live in Garfield or Homewood, but in the lives of lawyers downtown who happen to be black, or doctors or college professors. As for sexism, there are no ghettos of women, but in every family and every business, there are the subtle dynamics of power. Women have been more common in every facet of the workplace since the 1970’s, but the glass ceiling still exists and is well understood. I suspect a female Secretary of Defense nominee would raise a hail of protest. I think both open racism and open sexism have become unacceptable in certain parts of “polite society” (i.e. wealthy parts), but other parts of society still cheerful indulge in either or both. But more importantly institutional sexism and racism are still both thriving, which would include making it not unacceptable to make fun of Sarah Palin in a sexist manner (i.e. her head on a nude woman’s picture). But that should be unacceptable. Whatever Sarah Palin’s failings that might make her an inferior candidate for President at this point, they do not include simply being a woman. Because being a woman is not a failing, just like being an African American is not a failing.

Now, I should point out that both women and African Americans muddy the issue somewhat. Many women dress and wear makeup in such a way as to be generally attractive to members of the opposite sex. Some African Americans dress in a distinctive “gangster” style, including wearing clothes so baggy they can conceal weapons. Many women take off time form work to raise children, and then are upset because they feel penalized for it. Many white people say that if African Americans dressed and spoke like white people, they would be accepted and not discriminated against, many African Americans are suspicious of this.

But the qualifiers should not justify sexism or racism, to me they just mean we have more work to do. The important thing is to speak out against racism and sexism where ever it exists.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

One opinion

I remember reading that William Ayers biography (the name of which escapes me, but I am sure you can find if you care) was an imaginative piece of history, which is to say the reviewer thought Ayers changed the facts of history to suit his (Ayers) own cognitive dissonance (my phrase). That came to me as I read Ayers' essay in the NYTimes this morning (, titled "The Real Bill Ayers". We probably all do that, change our personal history to assuage our conscience. As I was reading Ayers saying he never killed anyone, I thought of the (blog) commenters who had accused Ayers of being a murderer, instead someone who had just damaged property (did he also steal or rob to stay on the run; I'm not sure). During the election, Obama was also accused of various failings, being a communist, a Muslim, a terrorist.

I could say something about how none of us (bloggers) profit from the accusations we make or the praise we give, but to avoid facing my own issues here I will avoid addressing the culpability of others (the beam in my own eye). I will just say that I thought Ayers essay is probably largely true, and certainly a worthwhile read in any case.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Obama the ... what?

Well, I notice I haven’t posted in December, and its already the fourth, so …

I have been thinking that it seems like a lot of conservative bloggers and commenters characterize Barack Obama as a communist or socialist (as well as a Muslim or terrorist). Truly I am not sure how they get this stuff. Apparently there are people who spend all day just digging up dirt on other people, comb through records and probably make stuff up too. So Obama received a letter of recommendation from an PhD with an Arabic sounding name to get into Harvard Law, I think it was (K something) and apparently financial assistance from this K something as well. I thought recommendation letters were confidential, but I guess the right can appeal to people's patriotism or something. I guess the community organizing was part of his communist training as well; you know, ACORN and all. I think this is all supposed to come from the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) or the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or something. The New York Times (a front, clearly) did a story recently about how the office of the Communist Party in New York was like this two (tiny) room setup in Brooklyn, filled mostly with leaflets. But, whatever, they are the threat, not that the Soviets are gone and the Chinese are … capitalist?

Obama is different from other US Presidents – he’s black. But he’s not really American black, in the sense that he spent his early school years in Indonesia, where he was also different, in being American and not Muslim. So Obama spent his years from six to ten as a curiosity. He probably was assumed to be smart, and probably found he was. When he returned to the US he was enrolled in a private school, where he was one of three black students (out of a couple of thousand), so again he didn’t pick up any American black culture. The point being its not surprising Obama is comfortable around a lot of different types of people.

I haven’t read his book, but I gather in some senses Obama was a troubled youth, doing drugs in high school. I’m not surprised, he had that odd childhood, a father he didn’t really see much of, a step father, life in a foreign country, coming back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. But as far as I can see his issues didn’t move him towards politics. I don’t know what he studied at Occidental, but he graduated in Political Science from Columbia.

It’s hard for me to see where Obama would have found the time to become a secret communist, or some part of an American terrorist group. It’s also hard for me to see how a communist group would know that Obama would be a good choice for such a project. Obama did not really get national attention until his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Even then, no one really saw as much more than a rising Democratic star. By then he was a US Senator, someone who a) would be hard to reach and b) hard to convert.

This business about Obama being a communist and his election part of a plot really does seem like the height of paranoia and silliness. With all the issues facing the US, and the huge need for intelligent policy, the right is giving away its credibility with this stuff.