How to Beat the Inflation

“Buy less” is the most obvious answer. Yet often this isn’t possible. In Mexico, one quart of Haagen-Dazs vanilla at my supermarket now costs $15.00 US, almost what it costs in the USA. That outrageous price certainly won’t keep me from buying it. Only if the price goes to $20 would I perhaps reconsider.

I’ll bet most of you are like this with items you lust after. You cut back on things like socks and underwear, making do with holey old stuff. Beer, for some, is another non-negotiable. What do people do in rural red states, forced to buy gas to commute to their uninspiring jobs? Hard to figure that one, when there ain’t much budget left to cut.

Maybe that’s why the hard right is making such headway. If Biden does manage to get through Congress his billions to help these folks, they will piss it away on gasoline or beer, and then what? You bite the hand that feeds you.

I am just as bad. The pickup cartridge on my lovely vinyl-playing setup is going south after many years of usage. It is of course an essential link in getting the music to my ear, and a new one of equal quality will cost about $500, plus shipping here (maybe another $100). Not buying it renders my whole collection mere wall decoration. Buying a cheaper one is cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. How many quarts of Haagen-Dazs is that worth?

These kinds of quandaries are of little concern to people with real money. Instead they complain about the stock market dropping and worry about what they should do—as if there were any choice but to just hang on. Suzie Orman was interviewed on CNN the other night. Actually she looked pretty good for a 70-year-old dispensing commonplace advice. Her counsel on the stock market? Just do nothing and hang on; the market will come back; it always does (like it did in the 1930s?).

For the rest of us, my uncalled-for advice is like Suzie’s: just hang on. Or you could try one of the four tips from a popular Google site: “ask for a raise.”

Have the Dems Finally Found a Voice?

Years ago I coached political people in how to give effective speeches. Only a few had the kind of controlled passion that Michigan Senator Mallory McMorrow demonstrated last month. She understood that a speech has to be very personal if it’s going to move you. It has to reflect who you really are.

With the furor aroused by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade debacle, you can be sure that women will dominate the discourse to come. Most men sound foolish and presumptive discussing abortion. Women will inevitably put the issues on a personal level. They will be the best political weapon the Democrats have.

Power to the People

Guy Immega

I started this blog writing on climate change but soon became confounded by two obstacles—one, the complexities of the problem and two, as a non-scientist, trying to penetrate the fog of global politics surrounding it.

 To respond to Bill McKibben’s somewhat rosy case for renewables, my friend Peter Yedidia thought to enlist his former colleague on an Africa project to tell us on Zoom why McKibben’s view came up short. We also wanted to know how he looks at the immediate future of power distribution.

 A retired aerospace engineer, Guy Immega has worked for many years on the problems and the promise of renewables and the electrical grid. Per his bio, “From 1980-1985, Guy was the Renewable Energy Coordinator for the Province of British Columbia (Canada). He contracted an engineering survey of small-hydroelectric sites and organized the first wind and solar installations feeding the electrical grid.”

 Guy is still very much involved in the global aspects of electrical power, its distribution, and its economic dynamics. Here is some of what he told us about these issues, a bit edited and shortened.

 We’ve got to stop burning coal. We must stop it. Stop it now. But we can’t because there are some places like India where you can’t stop it. Probably can’t stop it in China either. These countries have economic pressures that make it almost impossible to stop because they need the cheap energy from coal.

Coal is a fossil gift from the past and we simply have to stop burning it. The problem is you’re not trying to compete using solar. Solar has already won, it’s a done deal. There will be a small refinements in solar where it will get more and more efficient, but the efficiencies will be just small percentages here and there.

The solar singularity has arrived. Solar is cheap. Solar is reliable, but solar will not supply a base load. And that’s what you have to compete with. One way to make power available is to build a coal-fired power plant. Another way is to have giant batteries on the grid. Another way is to have all the Tesla cars plugged into the grid at night. You can’t just say buy solar because solar is cheap. That’s a one-dimensional answer to a multi-dimensional problem. So the real issue is what is the cheapest way to maintain the right mix—so you can always turn on the lights, right?

There are a dozen ways that you can smooth the power out, but they’re all expensive and a little bit awkward and not easy to control. So if you want power at night, batteries are still more expensive than coal. That’s the issue. And so we’re looking at dozens of small tricks to maintain stability on the grid. I’m an advocate for the smart grid though there are lots of politics around the smart grid that I don’t pretend to understand.

You need to be able to absorb renewables like wind and solar into the grid. And one way to do this is to ship the power where it’s needed instantly. If you can move the power around with “power wheeling” (it’s an actual technical term) that means that you can ship power from Maine to California cheaply.

And so if a wind farm is going great guns on the coast somewhere, and you don’t need the power locally, then you ship it somewhere else. One of the problems with Hawaii is that the local Hawaiian power grid turns off windmills when there’s too much extra power. When you install a wind farm in Hawaii, you have to sign a contract that you will shut the turbines down when they tell you because their grid gets overwhelmed with wind power and they can’t control it. They have no way to store it. And there it is, the gnarly problem. I like that word gnarly. It’s a gnarly problem—distributing energy easily and smartly.

In British Columbia we were able to wheel power to Washington state, one of our big customers. Do you remember when you had the Enron crisis in California? They were turning off their local power plants and buying our power. Well, it’s ridiculous what happened. British Columbia gouged California and sold power at the highest possible price because California was desperate for electricity and we wheeled it down there and collected the money. And then later California sued. And we had to pay back $750 million of gouged funds. So, you know, that’s another little power morality tale.

I’m sure the coal industry is putting political pressure on Joe Manchin, but this can’t last. If coal doesn’t make economic sense, then they’ll jump to something that does. But the problem is technological at its foundation, and that is cheap energy storage. We aren’t there yet, and nobody’s come along with a magic bullet.

So the fact that discrete elements like solar are cheaper than coal is, well, that’s nice but that doesn’t get us there. And that’s the big gap I see and, for me anyway, McKibben’s article is really misleading. Well, that’s why I was disappointed with it.

You know, we hear the dire forecasts—basically that if we don’t get off our ass, we’re going to be hopelessly behind and never catch up. But given the current state of affairs, you could have said that a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago. Now with all the attention focused on the war in Ukraine, how many people are really paying any attention to that IPCC report yesterday?

Yet that report is such a big shock that nobody knows what to do with it. We’re being told that doom awaits us, and nobody has a solution. If you look at the numbers what the IPCC has been advocating is emissions control. So they’re saying we have to stop burning fossil fuels. All very good, and emissions control is the restraint necessary, but nobody’s doing enough of it.

Nobody’s keeping up. Canada is not keeping up with its commitments. You know, India is going to burn coal because it’s pulling itself out of poverty with coal and they just won’t stop. They will not stop burning coal. And so we’re going to have problems clamping down on emissions. And what will happen is you’ll have more and more wild and extreme weather events. Another reason to stop burning coal is that we can’t further acidify the ocean. Ocean acidification is a huge problem, and cooling the climate won’t stop that.

There’s so much coal in the world that it’s infinite. I’m using coal as a metaphor for fossil fuel. It’s the dirtiest, it’s the nastiest, and it’s the most abundant. Germany decided that nuclear was bad, and they would switch off all their nuclear power plants.

And so they put up some wind farms in the North Sea. Good for them, but that’s not enough. They’ve got to have Russian oil and gas and this is a big problem now with Ukraine in the picture. So they have to get off oil and gas and they want to get off nuclear. So what they do is burn coal. They have huge coal mines in Germany, and coal is keeping the lights on and industrial Germany alive.

So I guess what I’m saying is take it piecemeal. I don’t know of any other way. We had to find as many small fixes as possible. In World War II they had victory gardens, people growing vegetables in their backyard. That was a little piecemeal solution to an agricultural crisis. Conservation is good, finding ways to use less energy, but that’s not enough either. It’s just part of the mix. We need top-down solutions, too. That includes large scale storage—grid scale batteries. We need wheeling of power on a smart grid. We need to use every trick to make it possible to absorb more clean renewable power.

Finally, the IPCC should reconsider geoengineering solutions to actively cool the climate. But that’s another topic.

“You sound so Putinesque,” she said.

Two hip ladies having lunch were talking—not about the horrors unfolding in Ukraine but about Vladimir Putin, whose personality they found fascinating.

“His big thing is Russia’s return to greatness. There are two problems with that: one, he forgot the costs—in body bags and world opinion; and two, he’s going to lose his Kremlin buddies, who may in fact ultimately do him in.”

“Julia, you sound like a CNN analyst. I want to know how he came to be this way. So I consult my horoscope every week. You know, Putin is a Libra, and here’s what my astrologer said about them: ‘It takes a surprising amount of courage to confess, even just to yourself, that you aren’t where you’d like to be.’ Pass the salad, please.”

“You honestly think he’s going to do that? The grandiose overreacher? His strategic blunders in Ukraine and his basic character flaws will be his undoing. The interesting question is how world leaders were taken in by him for so long. Their blindness to this budding Hitler got us into the mess we now confront.”

“Does Putin have a wife? I don’t even know. Does anybody have any influence on him? The dude was smart enough to protect himself all these years from palace revolts or how much the Russian people are willing to put up with. Looks to me like Putin has worked hard to be a kind of Don Quixote, misled by his romance with the past. People still believe in that kind of fantasy.”

“I’ll have another cocktail, thank you, Gracie. I hope you’re not endorsing this war criminal. He has tried to create a colony of slaves. But he’d rather kill the slaves than free them.”

Personal Reflections on War and Ukraine

In 1944 I was 10 years old. World War II was raging and I, like some kids, got caught up in following the constant news reports and accounts of the fighting. Movie theaters showed weekly “newsreels” of the battles in the Pacific and Europe. My father’s friend Jack was flying B-24s with supplies for China over the Himalayas. He sent home wonderful photos that I still have of the bases and people of India and elsewhere that supported these missions.

Once again, it’s the civilians who feel the brunt of war. The fighting in Ukraine has focused on the rank and file and their struggle: their street fights, their persistence in the face of Russian atrocities, the million refugee women and children fleeing the violence. The United States homeland was never really at great risk in WW-II. As kids we were fearful, but in the spirit of the time we had immense faith in our military. Years later I explored massive, overgrown 16-inch gun emplacements hidden away on the coast of Rhode Island. The guns were never fired in anger.

Ukrainians are battling Russian tanks with thousands of molotov cocktails. They were also used in Finland in 1939, in Hungary in 1956 and, of course, in WW-II. It’s an old-fashioned and very effective weapon. Flamethrowers and napalm were modern variants used in Vietnam. The U.S. military stopped using them in 1978.

We were never subjected to photos of burned and mutilated corpses in WW-II. Now such images are all too frequently on the internet. It’s an escalation even from what we saw and heard in the Vietnam years. I was teaching and living in New York then, marching in protests, hearing speeches from eminences like Dr. Spock and Norman Mailer. Such protests, we know, did help end the war. But war was still something mostly remote and apart from our daily lives.

The Ukraine disaster has prompted Biden to declare that no U.S. troops will be sent to fight there—a legacy of our involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan. But social media and the internet now bring the conflict home and may well influence its outcome. Many people see Putin as a madman and comparisons to Hitler abound. Putin’s threats often put Hitler’s bluster to shame.

Since WW-II the U.S. has fought or undertaken and mostly lost numerous foreign interventions. “While the United States engaged in forty-six military interventions from 1948–1991, from 1992–2017 that number increased fourfold to 188.” These interventions have generally failed badly. The media have been relatively kind to various administrations in reporting this. But American geopolitical interference has contributed to the rise of China and, some would argue, the disaster in Ukraine. We are now paying the price for that.

The invasion has pointed up not only the futility of Russia’s strategy but our own. Some old technologies, like molotov cocktails, still work; the old battle plans and interventions do not. This horrendous invasion points up the need for powerful new strategies to avoid conflict. We don’t yet know what they are or how to implement them. And nobody knows the West’s endgame yet except to get Putin out of power.

Ukraine Was Predicted

Sometimes Tom Friedman blathers and sometimes he speaks the truth. But he often has a sense of history and geopolitics that others lack. He came on strong in The New York Times yesterday about how the U.S. and its NATO allies aren’t just “innocent bystanders” to Putin’s despicable offensive in Ukraine.

In my view, there are two huge logs fueling this fire. The first log was the ill-considered decision by the U.S. in the 1990s to expand NATO after—indeed, despite—the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And the second and far bigger log is how Putin cynically exploited NATO’s expansion closer to Russia’s borders to rally Russians to his side to cover for his huge failure of leadership.

In what now seems like the dreamlike ‘90s Friedman says that the U.S. chose recklessly “to quickly push NATO into Russia’s face when it was weak.” Bill Perry, Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, later recalled that moment in 2016: “Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.”

Our present disaster, however, has been years in the making. After NATO expanded in 1998, Friedman talked with George Kennan, then and still one of America’s wisest foreign policy professionals. Here’s what Kennan said to him in full, though you should read the whole piece.

I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.

We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.

Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.

Friedman comments: “It’s EXACTLY what has happened.” We also should note that Putin is living out a distorted view of history, a revanchist effort to restore Russia to its former Soviet glory. How we get into conflicts like this can be as important as how to resolve them.

Grand Delusions about Ukraine and U.S. Power

The mess in Ukraine is part of a broader picture of how U.S. policy has failed for many years to impose a liberal order on the world. Here John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago speaks compellingly about our delusions of power and influence—and how they have led us to the edge of conflict with Russia.

Mearsheimer’s arguments put into perspective what many of us have felt. I urge you to hear him out. You’ll learn what “liberal hegemony” means.

 

The Good News for 2022

Every new year begins with hope for a better one. This is traditional and expected. After the disasters of 2021 there seems to be a greater push than ever for optimism and change—even while we all feel the negativism out there. So how do you balance hope against realism, wishful thinking against despair? How can anyone account for the unpredictable path of the pandemic?

Some rely on the pseudo-science of forecasting, like the folks at Vox. See “22 things we think will happen in 2022” which features a fairly pompous introduction justifying the imperfect discipline of polling. They see the end of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Bolsonaro reelected, and the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Not too hopeful, is it? Most prognosticators like Brian Sullivan of CNBC focus on the economy, predicting a series of booms in areas that a majority of climate activists hope won’t happen—things like more babies and copper mining.

The one positive event that many seem to be ignoring is the launch and deployment of the James Webb telescope, a great scientific achievement that will, sooner or later, alter all our lives. Also, if you can believe the NY Times, Artificial Intelligence will begin to be used

to detect and combat algorithmic bias. Last month, 193 countries signed a first-ever global agreement to devise a common framework for the ethics of A.I. More recently, a researcher unveiled technology that might be used to predict breast cancer in healthy people. And maybe next year, robots will make better calls in baseball games.

One should especially pray for the latter development.

The Times also published an essay by Margaret Renkl entitled, “I Just Turned 60, but I Still Feel 22.” In it she doesn’t talk about feeling 22 but instead rambles on about feminism, getting fatter, and how it feels to be 60. She offers bromides about facing the future. I have to say that anyone who feels they are 22 at age 60 is not really facing the future. Or the past, for that matter.

For me, the really good news for 2022 is that a growing majority of people around the world are finally beginning to face the climate problem. Among them are young people, who of course are the best hope for the future. In an LA Times editorial, Tony Barboza writes that “when participants across the political spectrum were told that growing numbers of people are angry about climate change, they were more inclined to express their own outrage and support taking action.”

Anger and focused rage can be big motivators in persuading local officials and federal representatives to finally do something about the climate. 2022 could be a turning point. There’s always hope.

Comments on the Rittenhouse Verdict

I said I would eschew politics in this blog but events always confound our best intentions. By now most of you know that a jury exonerated Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges. House libertarian Megan McArdle of the Washington Post wrote a disgraceful pseudo-defense of that verdict with a number of preposterous claims.

 I’ll give you a few of the comments outraged readers made (8,000 and counting) about her piece instead of writing mine. Readers sometimes have more sense than writers.

    •  An almost all white jury picked in a day by a judge who insisted that the dead men could be called “rioters” and “looters” but not “victims.” That’s your benefit of the doubt, extended almost unilaterally to white men with guns, and no one else.
    • This is the sort of grandiose self deception that always leads to tragedy. Just like George Zimmerman playing cop killed Trayvon Martin, in the same way Rittenhouse wanted to play militiaman, and when it turned out that he was not invincible, as soon as he felt threatened, he panicked and shot over and over. Privelged White boys with deadly toys.
    • Bottom line: open carry vigilantism is now the law of the land.
    • What a delusional piece of garbage. This gives license to all the little Nazis out there to declare open season on protests.
    • Let’s not candy coat this. He should not have been there at all. He should not been allowed by police to roam around armed. When it looked like he might be in over his head he chose to use that weapon and shot to death two people severely injuring another. Why isn’t he accountable for at least something, anything? What a travesty.
    • McArdle really should have waited awhile before penning this post trial assessment. What this trial reveals is a clear example of white privilege, that’s what the article writer refers to as the “benefit of the doubt.” . . . The minute the foolish young man decided to grab his gun before leaving home for a protest out of state was the moment his fate and his victim’s fate were sealed.
    • Left or right, it doesn’t matter. The fact is two people died, and one was injured. The fact that these people couldn’t defend themselves, (they didn’t have a gun, Rittenhouse did) , they never made it to court, because a 17 year old boy decided to take a gun into a dangerous situation and decided to shoot. I didn’t buy his display of tears, all good defense attorneys coach such performances. Make him look like a choir boy, and the jury will forgive him. They did. But what message does that send to other 17 year old boys, who think carrying a loaded AR-15 rifle is “cool,” and are not trained to handle intense situations. Where were this boy’s parents? Who in their right mind would allow their kid to carry a loaded weapon into an inflammatory situation? If Rittenhouse wanted to give aid and put out fires, why did he bring the gun with him? Guns are only used for one reason, to kill. This verdict doesn’t surprise me, considering the behavior of the judge, who bent over backwards to help the defendant. Juries are keenly aware of when a judge consistently dresses down a lawyer, justified or not. Justice was not served today.

By the Time I Retrieved My Fly Swatter,
the Fly Had Flown Off

Our concept of time constrains, to one degree or another, everything we do. Delay frustrates the best-laid plans, stresses every outcome, and makes for bad decisions. Look at the climate crisis. We still can’t comprehend the magnitude of its unfolding. The remedies proposed are insufficient and politically impossible, even if we had the time and will to impose them.

Democrats keep struggling to agree on their social spending plan, and the results look worse and worse. Biden wants an agreement before he goes to the Glasgow conference to avoid looking like a climate blowhard. But the pressure of time won’t make for a better deal. To link an event like Glasgow to drafting major legislation is typical of how we lock ourselves into political and social deceptions.

And yet I think we all function better with deadlines. Channeling the pressure of time to an agreed-upon outcome produces results, especially when dodging the deadline has serious consequences. But this only works on the mundane level of things to do. How does Nancy Pelosi enforce her legislative deadlines? Out of necessity she fudges them.

Political impotence is the result and has been for years. Anything short of major political reform won’t change things, and so we’ll keep trying to swat flies like Sinema and Manchin because we’re not going to see major political reform, are we?

My outlook is gloomy because real political reform seems more than ever a pipedream, and the world is enmeshed in a capitalistic system with deep historical and social roots. Amitav Ghosh has written a new book about this which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Our concept of time has led to the great divorce from nature that has finally resulted in massive climate change. We still see time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. But in fact, as I’ve said before, “progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.”

The way we perceive time is basically an illusion. So says physicist Carlo Rovelli in a wonderful book, The Order of Time, which I’ve read. “Perhaps, therefore, the flow of time is not a characteristic of the universe: like the rotation of the heavens, it is due to the particular perspective that we have from our corner of it.”

Still, our awareness of time passing “contains all the ambrosia and all the gall of life.”