Beyond Economics

The End of Growth and Time for a New Era

Category Archives: News & Politics

“A Game-Changer” for the U.S. Auto Industry

One of every three Motor Trend magazine covers over the last year featured a Mustang. The last two issues showcased the Volt. The staff of Motor Trend are mostly muscle car guys but they were gaga over the Volt. Has the transition to the era of the electric car finally arrived? The Volt is technically classified as an extended-range EV (electric vehicle) in that it has a small gas engine to provide range beyond 35-50 miles, but it will be the first car that Americans will plug in.

“This is a fully developed vehicle with seamlessly integrated systems and software, a real car that provides a unique driving experience. And commuters may never need to buy gas!”

As one of the consultant judges on this year’s COTY panel, Chris brought the deep insight and professional skepticism you’d expect of someone who’s spent his entire working life making cars. But our 2011 Car of the Year, Chevrolet’s ground-breaking Volt, has blown him away. Like all of us on the staff at Motor Trend, Chris is an enthusiast, a man who’ll keep a thundering high-performance V-8 in his garage no matter how high gas prices go.

“I expected a science fair experiment. But this is a moonshot.”

In the 61-year history of the Car of the Year award, there have been few contenders as hyped — or as controversial — as the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt started life an Old GM project, then arrived fully formed as a symbol of New GM, carrying all the emotional and political baggage of that profound and painful transition. As a result, a lot of the sound and fury that has surrounded the Volt’s launchhas tended to obscure a simple truth: This automobile is a game-changer.

Motor Trend: Car of the Year (feature story)

How the Volt Works (more technical)

Motor Trend vs. Rush Limbaugh
Why the right-wing can’t stand the Volt

For a truly revolutionary approach to our automotive future, see Shai Agassi’s TED presentation. More to come about this in a future post.

“I expected a science fair experiment. But this is a moonshot.”Read more:

Unconventional Natural Gas: A Game Changer?

Perhaps. You may have heard about hydraulic fracturing (“fracing”, pronounced “fracking”) and horizontal drilling, a technique to release natural gas trapped in hardy shale-rock formations. These sources of natual gas around the world have been known about for some time but not thought to be economically viable. This article from The Economist has major implications for geopolitics, climate change, and energy independence based on both the quantity and location of these unconventional reserves.

NIMBY and environmental concerns may be a contraint. The Comments at the bottom are worth reading and provide both support and skepticism.

An Unconventional Glut
Newly economic, widely distributed sources are shifting the balance of power in the world’s gas markets
Mar 11th 2010 | HOUSTON | From The Economist print edition

The availability of abundant reserves [of unconventional natural gas] in North America contrasts with the narrowing of Western firms’ oil opportunities elsewhere in recent years. Politics was largely to blame, as surging commodity prices emboldened resource-rich countries such as Russia and Venezuela to restrict foreign access to their hydrocarbons. “The problem is, where do you go? It’s either in deep water or in countries that aren’t accessible.” This is forcing big oil companies to get gassier…The oil majors watched from the sidelines as more entrepreneurial drillers proved shale’s viability. Now they want to join in.

[One] idea that would have ramifications for the global oil sector is to gasify transport. T. Boone Pickens, a corporate raider turned energy speculator, has launched a campaign to promote this, and has support from the gas industry. All this is some way off. The coal industry will not surrender the power sector without a fight. The gasification of transport, if it happens, could also take a less direct form, with cars fuelled by electricity generated from gas.

A gasified American economy would have profound effects on both international politics and the battle against climate change. Displacement of oil by natural gas would strengthen a trend away from crude in rich countries, where the IEA believes demand has already peaked as a result of the recent spike in oil prices.

But two factors could reverse the picture again. The first surrounds the uncertainty about how fruitful shale exploration will be outside North America. Second, there are reasons for caution above ground, too. Despite natural gas’s greener credentials than oil’s or coal’s, shale drilling has critics among environmentalists, who worry that water sources will be poisoned and landscapes despoiled.

Bill Gates, Climate Change, & Conservation

In a recent article in The Huffington Post, Bill gates suggests that we should focus on innovation rather than conservation in order to bring about the CO2 reductions needed to stave off climate change. I think he does make some good points here.

Why We Need Innovation, Not Just Insulation (1/20/2010)

If the goal is to get the transportation and electrical sectors down to zero emissions you clearly need innovation that leads to entirely new approaches to generating power.  Should society spend a lot of time trying to insulate houses and telling people to turn off lights or should it spend time on accelerating innovation?… you can never insulate your way to anything close to zero no matter what advocates of resource efficiency say. You can never reduce consumerism to anything close to zero…In fact it is doubtful that any such efforts in the rich countries will even offset the increase coming from richer lifestyles in places like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, etc.

With that kind of clarity, people will understand the need to get to zero and begin to grasp the scope and scale of innovation that is needed…There just isn’t enough work going on today to get us to where we need to go.

What I am afraid of is that Gates’ point will be misinterpreted and misused. Americans, especially, are afraid that the implications of climate change mean a great sacrifice in our way of life. I think that this is why the denial campaign has been so successful of late. If climate change isn’t really happening or is a hoax, we won’t have to change afterall. However, when it soon becomes unavoidably obvious that the earth is warming and the climate is being disrupted, the denial campaign will change its tune and latch on to part of Gates’ logic, i.e. that conservation won’t actually help very much so let’s just wait for a technological fix or geoengineering to save us, no point in undue sacrifice.

This article from TreeHuggar makes a few other countervailing points.

Bill Gates’ Vision of Combating Climate Change is Mostly Myopic (1/21/2010)

I’m not sure any advocate of energy efficiency would say it can get you to zero emissions…What some of the most vocal of them do say though is that we could reduce electricity demand by 34% through efficiency improvements in the United States. That alone could replace 62% of coal fired electricity.

…there’s a huge difference between a standard of consumption based on human need and ecological sustainability and the dominant paradigm of consumerism-based, aggregate-growth-fetish culture spreading around the world.

The scale of the conjoined issues of climate change, peak fossil energy, population growth, biodiversity loss, and natural resource overconsumption are such that even those of us who deal with them on a day in day out basis have trouble grasping the big picture all at once…We’re talking massive paradigm shift, behavioral changes, economic changes, even changes in consciousness I’d argue, to deal with them.

…but there is no one solution…no silver bullet.

Public Discourse: If Socrates were alive today

Socrates in America: Arguing to death
From The Economist – 12/17/09

This article comments on the sorry state of discourse in politics and public policy in America as it might be seen by Socrates if he were around today. For those who are interested, the full article provides a primer on the life and times of Socrates (Athens of the fifth century BC).

[Socrates] life…was dedicated to the love of wisdom…It was [he] who made the momentous “turn” of Western thought away from speculation about the composition of the physical world and towards the liberal questions of morality, justice, virtue and politics.

Socrates would…interrogate America’s politicians, talk-radio and cable-television pundits in search of honest discussions that lead to truth, and thereby expose their confusion, contradictions and ignorance. He would avail himself of America’s…freedom of speech, and simultaneously be horrified by the speciousness of the speech that Americans choose to make.

Visiting America today, Socrates might have dropped in on last summer’s “town hall” meetings, in which members of the public allegedly came to debate the reform of health care with their elected representatives. Socrates would have beheld hysterical firebrands shouting that America’s president and senators were Marxists, Nazis or both.

In America today, Socrates would recognize sophists and rhetoricians in partisan spin doctors such as Karl Rove and David Axelrod or equally in talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann. [Suggesting that] a master rhetorician unqualified in medicine could get himself elected as surgeon general over a qualified doctor who is not rhetorically gifted.

What is missing in both public and private discussions of political, economic, and social issues:

Socrates’s alternative was “good” conversation or dialectic. To converse originally meant to turn towards one another, in order to find a common humanity and to move closer to the truth of something. Dialectic, in other words, is decidedly not about winning or losing, because all the conversants are ennobled by it. It is a joint search…He hoped to bring all involved to a higher state of awareness.

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What Would Andrew Jackson Do?

Today, some of us, myself included, have tolerated the disturbing policy response so far in the hopes that this was a necessary step for achieving a long-term solution. But as a recent WSJ article “Loopholes Lurk in Bank Bill” highlights the red flags all over proposed legislation, there does not seem to be any substantial source of opposition to banking interests in Washington. While certain individuals are fighting tirelessly, this is the exception rather than the rule.

In a recent Bloomberg opinion column Cowboy Banks Get Big Bucks as Indians Get Little from Ann Woolner

 Over here you have the bazillions of U.S. bucks doled out to Wall Street’s cowboys for reckless conduct that wrecked the world’s economy.Over there you have a $3.4 billion federal settlement with people from whom the U.S. had been essentially stealing for more than 100 years.

To seek what was owed them, American Indians spent 13 years in court where judge after judge decried the government’s gross mismanagement of their funds and “mendacity” in litigation.

And yet it took that long for the Justice Department to step up to the plate and agree to pay more than a pittance.

If the Indians had been AIG, the $3.4 billion settlement announced this week would have been many times larger. The real AIG — insurance giant American International Group Inc. — sopped up $180 billion in government aid after helping to create the economic havoc felt around the world.

The Indians sought no bailout, no handout when they filed suit in 1996 to claim royalties due them for oil, gas, timber, mining and grazing rights to lands allotted them under an 1887 agreement with the federal government.

I would just like to take a moment to look back to our seventh President of the US, Andrew Jackson. While he may have been a son of a gun, we knew what we were getting. He was a fierce opponent of the bankers and fought to take them down. He stood up for those he swore to serve (so just the whites) and although he did a terrible job once he defeated the Second Bank of the US, at least he never backed down and got the job done.

While Andrew Jackson was a Native-American slaughtering racist, EVEN HE REFUSED to bow down before the banks. Nowadays, our political leaders continue to treat American Indians like dirt, AND NOW they don’t even have the courage to stand up to powerful interests. JUST FANTASTIC!

I would argue Andrew Jackson was a product of his time to a certain degree, the biggotry, prejudice etc, but if our current leaders are also a product of their era, what adjectives come to mind?

I probably shouldn’t go there!

Here’s an interesting Andrew Jackson quote:

I too have been a close observer of the doings of the Bank of the United States. I have had men watching you for a long time, and am convinced that you have used the funds of the bank to speculate in the breadstuffs of the country. When you won, you divided the profits amongst you, and when you lost, you charged it to the Bank. You tell me that if I take the deposits from the Bank and annul its charter I shall ruin ten thousand families. That may be true, gentlemen, but that is your sin! Should I let you go on, you will ruin fifty thousand families, and that would be my sin!

You are a den of vipers and thieves. I have determined to rout you out and, by the Eternal, I will rout you out.