Friday, August 26, 2011

Big-City Green

by Richard Crews
Greenifying ones domain is commonly thought of as the purlieu of well-healed suburbanites, but there are plenty of things that big cities and big-building owners can do too. The list at the bottom of this essay comes (modified) from Scientific American, August 25, 2011.

However, there are two remarkable possibilities that are not mentioned in the SciAm article: wind-generated electricity and rain catchment.

Imagine, if you will, a large city with a forest of windmills soaring above the parks and gardens of its high rooftops. The windmills would be silent, turning slowly; they would not interfere with bird migrations or helicopter surveillance or transportation. The electricity they generated would be used by the building that hosted them with the excess fed into the municipal power grid.

Windmills have significant advantages over solar panels: they are far less ecologically costly to produce and--in stark contrast to the few-years life expectancy of solar panels--they laugh at the passage of decades. A newly installed windmill can confidently be expected--with little or no maintenance--to be functioning efficiently 25 to 50 years later.

In addition, the rain that falls on the vast roof-top acreage of a big city is now channeled through run-off gutters and conduits into sewers for waste-water processing. It has two valuable attributes that are thus lost. First, rainwater (in contrast to ground water or well water) has no mineral contamination--no arsenic, lead, copper, manganese, sulfur, etc. Purifying it, even to the level of drinking and cooking purity, is cheap and simple--it involves course filtration (to remove leaves and debris) and minimal anti-bacterial and anti-viral oxidation (for example with ozone or ultra-violet light). Such purification can readily be done in small, roof-top appliances.

Second, when water lands on a roof, it has positional energy; in other words, it is high up. Most simply stated, it does not need to be pumped around for processing or delivery--properly channeled, it runs downhill to wherever it is wanted or needed. This can provide a significant energy savings.


There are other ideas around for greenifying big cities and big buildings. The following list, reorganized and summarized, is from the Scientific American article.

Green and White Roofs

Rooftop vegetation insulates buildings against heat and cold and absorbs storm water that might otherwise pollute waterways. Many cities are pursuing these roofs, and friendly competitions for the most square feet of green roofing have arisen among Chicago; New York; Washington, D.C.; and others. Enclosed rooftop farms above restaurants, schools, hospitals, or other institutions that serve many meals might be a coming urban trend.

Designs exist for entire high-rise, indoor, vertical farms. Growing food indoors can reduce fertilizer and freshwater use, shorten transportation routes for delivery, and recycle gray water otherwise dumped for processing by city water-treatment plants.

Rooftops painted white reflect heat, lowering a building's cooling cost and a city's heat buildup. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu emphasized this technique in a speech he gave in 2009. He extolled white roofs as an inexpensive move that can be done quickly and provide immediate payoff.

Urban Solar Electricity and Hot Water

Extensive solar panels can generate electricity in lieu of power plants doing so, and also shade rooftops to lower a building's cooling needs. Together, the cities of Ontario and Redlands in California, working with the Southern California Edison utility, have erected seven "neighborhood power stations" on large industrial rooftops, totaling 306,500 square meters (more than 75 acres).

Photovoltaic sheets on south-facing building facades can generate significant electricity. One notable demonstration of this is in Berlin. Thin films typically are less efficient than solar panels, but they can be cheaper to make (per unit area) and are flexible, leading to novel architectural designs.

Water-filled tubes connected to tanks on roofs can be heated by the sun to provide domestic hot water instead of using gas or electric furnaces. All new buildings in the fast-growing city of Rizhao, China have rooftop systems that provide hot water for bathing. The systems cost around $200. In the U.S., hot water accounts for 17 percent of energy used by homes.

High-Rise Construction and Reconstruction

Super-insulated windows quadruple the thermal performance of double panes and can be made from the glass in existing windows. Serious Energy reused the glass in all 6,514 windows in the Empire State Building, New York City to make super-insulated windows that are four times more energy efficient. The retrofit took seven months and will be paid for in energy-cost savings in less than ten years.

Construction material made locally with carbon dioxide that is pumped out by city power plants could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Calera Corp. is bubbling the gas from a power plant in Moss Landing, California through nearby seawater to make cement. The process also eliminates the roughly one ton of emissions that would normally be created in making a ton of cement the conventional way.

Urban Transportation

Commuter trains, subways, and even many primary roads in Portland, Oregon are located underground in massive tunnels, freeing the surface for easy, clean bike and pedestrian traffic. Many cities have miles of subterranean transportation but Portland is diverting such traffic as part of an integrated overall plan to encourage more walking and biking, and to provide for the redesign of public spaces.

Large portions of taxi fleets converted to hybrid vehicles reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in San Francisco and New York City. After New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had encouraged fleets to purchase hybrids (and many did), his administration tried to penalize owners who didn't switch, but courts struck down the policy. Nevertheless, about one third (4,300) of the city's yellow cabs are now hybrids.

Charging drivers higher rates to drive in congested neighborhoods (so called "congestion pricing") eases traffic. By the end of a six-month trial in Stockholm, traffic had dropped by 25 percent, emissions had decreased 14 percent, and 40,000 more people daily were taking public transit; moreover, buses were reaching their stops more quickly. The Stockholm Congestion Charging System is now permanently in place. Singapore has initiated similar efforts.

Subterranean garages near commuter destinations eliminate the need for cars to surface. Many cities have had enough foresight to build at least some underground parking but Paris stands out. Drivers are encouraged to use the lots with fees that are typically lower than for above-ground spots, and the lower levels are monitored by security cameras, so they are considered safer than city streets.

Ample bike lanes and bike racks encourage more people to ride instead of drive; they also promote health. These straightforward steps can make a huge difference. Despite its long, cold winters, Minneapolis has been ranked as the best cycling city in the country by Bicycling magazine, largely because such measures have encouraged many riders, even when the mercury dips low.

Wave and Tide Power

In Orkney, Scotland hinged cylinders anchored in the seafloor are pushed by waves, turning onshore turbines that create electricity. In New York City licensure is pending for installation of 30 turbines on the bottom of the East River along Manhattan. These could generate one megawatt of power (enough to satisfy the power needs of 200 to 250 homes).

Three-Bin Recycling

Requiring businesses and homes to separate refuse spares landfills. San Franciscans use three garbage bins: recyclables (papers, bottles, cans, and plastics), compost (food scraps, soiled paper), and trash (the rest). The city charges residents for collection based on the volume in the trash bin, not the others, which encourages compliance.

Satellite Irrigation

Satellite control of park and lawn irrigation systems cuts water consumption and pumping power. Municipalities such as Los Angeles subscribe to a service provided by companies (such as HydroPoint Data Systems) which forecast weather and soil moisture for each area and turn portions of the irrigation systems on or off accordingly, greatly reducing wasted watering and lowering water bills.

Low-Flow Appliances

In San Francisco; New York City; and Austin, Texas, water-saving toilets and showerheads installed in new and existing buildings save millions of gallons annually. Austin began a retrofit program years ago that has left most of the city with low-flow devices, reducing water usage by 19 million liters (5 million gallons) a day and wastewater flows by 680,000 liters (180,000 gallons) daily.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Negative Interest Rates

by Richard Crews
A couple of weeks ago an astonishing thing happened: the largest bank interest rates fell below zero. This is equivalent to depositors saying, "Please, please take my money--no interest payments needed. Oh, that's not good enough? OK, I'll pay you to take my money."

On August 4, 2011 the Bank of New York Mellon, the world's largest custodial bank, announced that they would charge 13 bps on deposits more than 110% of a client's monthly average (bps stands for "basis points"; each one bps equals 0.01% interest). That day the rate on short-term U.S. Treasury bills fell below zero percent.

As N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard, pointed out, "The problem with negative interest rates, however, is quickly apparent: nobody would lend on those terms. Rather than giving your money to a borrower who promises a negative return, it would be better to stick the cash in your mattress. Because holding money promises a return of exactly zero, lenders cannot offer less."

"Nobody would lend on those terms" unless one (or both) of two considerations prevail: First, no other investment looks safe. Even mattresses can burn up in a fire, and there is a financial "fire" burning in the Eurozone these days with Greece, Spain, Ireland, and now even Italy looking like they may not be able to pay their bills, that is, the governments may not make good on their bond debts. And a lot of big banks are holding those bonds. Some of the world's safest investments look shaky.

Second, inflation can eat away at your winnings. If you are pretty sure that $100 stuck away in a mattress today will only have $97 buying power a year from now, you might be willing to store that money someplace else where it would be sure to have $99 in buying power in a year.

Lending of money for (positive) interest has long been frowned on by major religions. Christians called it "usury." "Riba" is the word in Arabic, and "ribbit" in Hebrew. Philosophers dating back to Plato and Buddha opined against it.

But bankers and wealthy investors are a clever lot. They have always found ways to get around restrictions imposed by religious or legal authorities. In the Middle Ages Hebrew scholars decided that although, by Talmudic Law, Jews could not charge interest payments to other Jews, they could morally lend money to non-Jews for interest. And in the wake of the Great Recession, the Dodd-Frank Act of July, 2010 set up a panorama of consumer protection, banking, and Wall Street reforms, but it did not establish any federally mandated interest rate maximum--though many people thought it should.

We live in strange times--not just technologically, ecologically, and politically, which are obvious, but in terms of macroeconomics as well.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Recession Bottoms

by Richard Crews
Yogi Berra said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

But Lord knows lots of people try hard to make predictions about the economy in general and the markets in particular (like stock or commodity markets, real estate markets, import and export markets, etc.). There's a lot of money in it.

There are two general approaches to making such predictions. One is called "fundamental analysis"; the other is called "technical analysis."

Fundamental analysis depends on looking hard into the factors that cause the changes--unemployment, consumer confidence, the money supply, the credentials and track records of the people making key decisions, etc. This seems like a good approach. The trouble is that there are always a lot of factors and no one knows for sure which ones have the greatest weight. There are always enough reasons to explain anything. If the stock market goes up, fundamental analysts say that was because of reason A and reason B; if it goes down, that was because of reasons C and D; if it stays the same, or goes up and then down, or down and then up . . . there are always good reasons to fit the result.

Technical analysts say, never mind the reasons--there are always plenty of good reasons to go around--just look at the pattern of changes. They point out that certain patterns in the fluctuations of prices occur again and again--in different markets, for different reasons, but similar patterns. So they draw graphs ("charts") of prices vs. time, and talk about patterns like "head-and-shoulders," "flags," "support and resistance levels," and so on.

Fundamental analysis gets a lot of respect--after all, it makes so much sense, and the reasons it puts forward seem correct (in retrospect). Technical analysis, on the other hand, is too esoteric and complicated; it depends on studying and recognizing patterns that most people have no idea about. It doesn't make simple sense like fundamental analysis.

Perhaps that is why one hears a lot of "fundamental" reasons these days for the stock market's gyrations and the ups and downs of economic indicators, but one doesn't hear much that--"Say, folks, this is what a technical bottom looks like: lots of violent gyrations, no clear direction; these markets are just 'building a bottom.' The future is up."

Of course technical analysis is not always right. But there are some things that it is surer about than others. And this is one that looks very strong and clear. This turmoil we're seeing right now is to be expected as the recession bottoms.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Singularity at the Gates

by Richard Crews
There is a powerful concept that comes out of theoretical nuclear and astronomical physics; it is soul-wracking when one really looks at it closely. That is the concept of "singularity." In the depths of giant stars where gravity has sucked inward into itself so powerfully that nothing, not even light, can escape, all the laws of physics no longer apply. Time and space have no meaning; everything we understand--reason itself--has no meaning. This state is called a "black hole" or "singularity."

In all of nature from the smallest sub-atomic particles to the largest clusters of galaxies there are four fundamental forces: the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity. Science has long chased the notion--theoretically and experimentally--of a "fifth force," but none has been found.

But in the depths of a black hole these forces are crushed together so inexorably that they cease to exist as separate entities. The irreducible components of matter--molecules; which are made up of atoms; which are made up of protons, electrons, neutrons, and their ilk; which are made up of quarks; which may even be made up of smaller tidbits called strings--all of these are crushed inward so formidably that they, also, cease to exist.

A singularity is truly a place--or a state--where neither mathematics nor even imagination can penetrate.

In recent decades this mind-numbing concept of "singularity" has been extended into the daily world, the world of newspapers and history books. There is what has been called a "technological singularity." The modern world is developing so rapidly and changing so dramatically from year to year, that even the most imaginative science fiction writer cannot pretend to see into the mist a few years ahead. It has been said that a science fiction writer, in order to paint a picture of what civilization might look like and what humanity might be up to a few decades from now, must postulate a historical discontinuity--that is, must insert a nuclear war or some other catastrophic Armageddon into the narrative--in order to set the world back enough to examine it. Otherwise it is simply unknowable, unimaginable.

Consider, for example, how much the world of computers ("information technology" or "IT") has changed our daily lives in the past couple of decades. From cell phones and social media, from automatic bank teller machines to billion-dollar financial transaction that flit around the globe in fractions of a second, from hundreds of TV channels and millions of Website that can spring before our eyes with a few flicks of a switch--we simply do not live in the same world we lived in twenty years ago.

There are computers now that can beat the world's best chess players, analyze data better than the world's best scientists, and provide information and entertainment far more facilely than the books, movies, and live performances that preceded them. In addition to this explosion in IT, the burgeoning worlds of nanotechnology, of synthetic biology, and of meta-materials all promise (or threaten) to make dramatic changes in the ways we live our lives.

Throughout history the unknown catastrophe has loomed, potentially, not far ahead. Sometimes when there were foreign armies besieging the city gates or a drought or plague was upon us, the terror of the future seemed to have a form, a direction, a known outcome, however terrible. Even in the good times, the memory of pain and deprivation and the expectation of disease and death were not far away.

But there has never been a time when--by the wizardry of our own minds and hands--a dark and unknown future loomed up just a few years ahead.

There is a singularity at the gates--a technological singularity--and we do not have the faintest idea what it will bring.


Note: Purists may ask, "What about Hawking radiation?" My answer: Hawking radiation is tweeny; it reduces the blackness of a black hole by less than 0.000001%. Call me careless, but any time I write something that is less than 0.000001% wrong, I am satisfied with it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

New Old Age

by Richard Crews
Over the past century the life expectancy for middle-class Americans has gone up by about 30 years.

We are the first generation in the history of humanity that, with average luck and self-care, has a good chance of living to be 90.

Of course, just like the genetic lottery that gave us good biological equipment and the lottery of history that put us down in this time and place, the daily lotteries of circumstance are always circling overhead.

Each day Death casts its dice--and all must play,
Though those in health and youthful vigor may
Not feel the chill or hear the distant cry
Of who may live today--and who must die.

But as we round 60, with honest self-contemplation, we suspect--
we will probably never have a more intense relationship than we have had
we will probably never feel more pain, physically or emotionally, than we have felt
we will probably never be smarter, richer, or more influential than we have been
we will probably never be stronger, more robust, or more durable than we have been
we will probably never climb a higher mountain, see a richer sunset, taste a better wine,
hear a more poignant melody, see a more touching drama....

Is this to be a time of depression and despair? Or a time of calmness and relief?

We have been given no road-map to navigate this land. It is a new land; humanity has never had this in its temporal landscape before.

We do know that maintaining a careful diet is no longer optional. Oh, remember those joyous days when nothing was too sweet or salty, too heavy with calories or cholesterol to keep us from giving it a try!

The same is true of exercise. We learn that our bodies do not serve us well if we do not stretch and tire them out a bit faithfully, day by day.

And relationships? They are important, too. But we come to realize that death is always and only a private experience--a solo flight; no one can truly share it with us.

Eric Erikson called the stage of psychosocial development of the grandparent years "generativity"--a time to give back; a time to establish and guide the next generation.

Most compellingly, it is a "new" time. Let us think about it and begin to chart it wisely for the generations who come after us.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Who Is a "Person"?--The Science, Law, and Prejudice of Personhood

by Richard Crews
Back in 1776, the United States' Founding Fathers didn't like the way things were going with England (mostly tax-wise). So they went to a lot of trouble to do something about it.

It was a dangerous game. They knew if they didn't stick together and the British cops got them, they would lose everything (as Benjamin Franklin said, "We must hang together, gentlemen...else, we shall most assuredly hang separately").

Their efforts seemed pretty ridiculous to most of the world--which meant to the British world: "Britannia rules the waves," "the sun never sets on the British Empire," and all that. How on earth did a few upstart woodsmen in a savage province think they could get away with thumbing their noses at one of the world's super powers? As Kenneth Roberts said, they were seen as "rabble in arms."

The "upstarts" wanted to give their rebellion stature in the eyes of the world--that is, of the scholarly and politically powerful world. So they set about answering the questions, "Who are we?" "What are we up to?" and "Why are we doing this?" in as resounding and philosophically compelling way as they could. Their educations were classical--from Socrates to Locke. So there, philosophically, is where they started.

Out of that humus and hubris came Thomas Jefferson's famous words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." That, in a sense, is a carefully thought-out definition of "personhood." Jefferson was trying to answer the question, "When you strip it all down, what does it really take to be a full member of civilized humanity, and what do you get for that membership?"

First, the "who" was "men," by which he meant wealthy, adult, white, Christian men--certainly not women or children, certainly not blacks or Native Americans. And certainly not apes--even smart apes--or crows or whales or elephants just because they may know hundreds of words, make and use tools, call each other by personal names, organize social events, act altruistically, mourn their dead, and so on.

Second, as to what they get, they are "created equal," that is, they start out their sojourns in life on--somehow--an equal footing. And WHAT is it that is "equal"? Clearly not their abilities, their inheritances, or their potentials. No, only their "rights" are equal. And a pretty constricted set of rights at that: "life" (don't kill them--without a good reason), "liberty" (don't lock them up--without a good reason), and "pursuit of happiness" (let them do as they choose--as long as they don't interfere with any more powerful person's "pursuit").

In the 21st century there have been some broadened concepts of "personhood." For example, in addition to questions of human rights and animal rights, the Supreme Court recently ruled in a case called "Citizens United" that corporations have the Constitutional right to free speech which, through strange legal metamorphosis, becomes the right to secretly use massive amounts of money to influence elections. Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential hopeful, recently said, in response to a question about taxation of businesses, "Corporations are people."

And what "rights" are on the horizon for computers that are smarter than human beings--that can beat the best human chess players, find oil and ore deposits more efficiently, solve medical and engineering problems more effectively, and out-remember and out-calculate any human brain?

In our modern world we have made the concepts of personhood very complex, and they promise to get muddier still.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Truth about the Debt-Ceiling Compromise

by Richard Crews
In accordance with legislation just enacted, a powerful Super-Congressional Committee will be formed. They will either agree on enormous budget cuts by the end of the year--budget cuts that the Congress must then vote either up or down (not modify or filibuster). And if the Committee and Congress do not succeed in installing such cuts, then draconian reductions to the military (reductions which the Republicans staunchly oppose) and to Medicare (which Democrats staunchly oppose) will AUTOMATICALLY be enacted.

Sounds fierce and fair, right? Austere and inevitable?

In what world? That must be the world ruled by the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause where all good Boy Scouts go to heaven. It sure isn't this world.

Congress has so many ways to modify, circumvent, delay, revise, ameliorate, or rescind any proposal of the Super-Congressional Committee--whether enacted or not, whether the draconian penalty is triggered or not--that the Compromise is, in fact, written in fairy dust on a cloudy sky.

And if you think that a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution (due for debate this fall) would be effective, consider that the federal budget is another study in fairy dust. Recall that Bush never put trillions of dollars of expenses for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into the budget--they were extra add-ons. And that in this age of enormous natural disasters, from hurricanes and tornadoes to heat waves and dust bowls, federal expenditures for these can be extended by hundreds of billions of dollars quite outside of budgetary constraints.

The debt-ceiling "crisis" was artificial. The U.S. and Denmark are the only two advanced countries that even have debt ceilings at all. The "crisis" was concocted by hyper-political Republican obstructionists in an effort to emasculate and discredit President Obama. But it got away from senior Republicans and was transformed by Tea-Party terrorists willing to hold the good faith and credit of the country hostage to get their misguided demands met.

There will be some high-level debt and deficit shenanigans in Washington over the next fifteen months. Even if the Republicans succeed in passing legislation to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy past the end of this year, President Obama will veto such legislation; that alone will produce $3.5 trillion in added federal revenue over the next ten years. A balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution may pass Congress and be sent to the states later this year; how much teeth that would have depends on the definition of "budget" written into the amendment, and Congress (politically cowardly as it is) is unlikely to write a strong definition.

But the real story about the U.S. long-term debt-deficit problems will be told at the presidential election in 2012. And the results of that election depend on three factors:

(1) The health of the U.S. economy; if the Republicans succeed in crippling the U.S. economy, President Obama will have an uphill battle to stay in the White House for another four years.

(2) The rapidly evolving use of information technology (IT) such as Twitter and YouTube. Twitter and the other social media are often wrong, often misinformed, often more histrionic entertainment than thoughtful wisdom, but they are powerful factors affecting the stormy flow of public opinion. The question is which of the political parties will be more adept at staying up to the minute in IT developments and in manipulating public opinion through them.

(3) Big bucks from secret corporate and private campaign donors--the result of the Supreme Court's decision in "Citizens United" which threw out decades of campaign finance reform. The question here is which of the political parties can summon more multi-million-dollar donations into their coffers.

Assuming the best--that the Republicans succeed in shooting themselves in the foot and President Obama is returned for a second term in office with strong Democratic support in both houses of Congress, we can expect the regenerated president--one of the most brilliant and charismatic men ever to hold the office--to come roaring out of the gates for his second term a new-made man. He will be armed with his original brilliance, humanitarian philosophy, and charisma, but now fortified with four years of horrendously difficult experience on the job. We can expect significant tax reform, entitlement reform, infrastructure refurbishing, and environment protection, and--most significantly--an education revolution, pre-school through graduate school, which can lead to a formidable partnership with China, India, Europe, Africa, and South America for a 21st century global civilization that is higher technologically and philosophically than the world has ever known.

Or . . . maybe not. There are a lot of places this idyllic resolution can go off the tracks.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

American Middle-Class Dream

by Richard Crews
Michael Moore paints a poignant picture "of a time [only a couple of decades ago] when working people could raise a family and send the kids to college on just one parent's income (and college in states like California and New York was almost free). Anyone who wanted a decent paying job could get one. People only worked five days a week, eight hours a day, got the whole weekend off, and had a paid vacation every summer. Many jobs were union jobs, from baggers at the grocery store to the guy painting your house, and this meant that no matter how 'lowly' your job was you had guarantees of a pension, occasional raises, health insurance, and someone to stick up for you if you were unfairly treated."

When you live in a dream like that, you take it for granted--you think it is "natural." Even though history tells us people didn't always live that way and the daily news shows us that many people don't. You would be tempted to say "still don't"--adding the "still" to convey that this is clearly the way of the future. Having found it, we are surely not going to let it get away from us.

But it has gotten away from us. Why? Where did it go? Can we ever get it back?

The American middle-class dream was a product of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" fortified by the enormous burst of economic productivity occasioned by World War II.

To quote from Wikipedia: "The New Deal was a series of economic programs implemented in the United States between 1933 and 1936. They were passed by the U.S. Congress during the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The programs were responses to the Great Depression, and focused on what historians call the '3 Rs': Relief, Recovery, and Reform. That is, Relief for the unemployed and poor; Recovery of the economy to normal levels; and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression...."

"Historians distinguish a 'First New Deal' (1933) and a 'Second New Deal' (1934–36).... The 'First New Deal' (1933) dealt with diverse groups, from banking and railroads to industry and farming, all of which demanded help for economic recovery. The 'Second New Deal' in 1934-36 included the Wagner Act to promote labor unions, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief program, the Social Security Act, and new programs to aid tenant farmers and migrant workers. The final major items of New Deal legislation were the creation of the United States Housing Authority and Farm Security Administration, both in 1937, then the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set maximum hours and minimum wages for most categories of workers, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938."

The New Deal was the source of the American middle-class dream. It was strengthened by the surge of industrial activity of the Second World War, and then after the end of the war by the G.I. Bill which provided college or vocational education for returning World War II veterans as well as one year of unemployment compensation. The G.I. Bill also provided loans for returning veterans to start businesses and to buy homes with low-interest, zero-down-payment home loans. This enabled millions of American families to move out of urban apartments and into suburban homes. Prior to the war the suburbs tended to be the homes of the wealthy.

These were the sources of the American middle-class dream. Where did it go?

For the past few decades, a distorted income tax system (described by one commentator as "14,000 pages of institutionalized corruption") coupled with heavy money influences through campaign donations and Washington lobbying have led to gross distortions of income and wealth distribution in the U.S. The wealthiest few percent of the U.S. population now own the vast majority of the wealth of the country; the CEOs of large corporations make hundreds of times the income of lowly "line workers" in their industries yet, as Warren Buffet has pointed out, pay much lower percentage taxes on their incomes than "ordinary" people.

Meanwhile the surging advances of information technology and the ecological demands for green energy have made a lot of 20th-century jobs obsolete. Losing ones job these days commonly means retraining for a different, more modern one.

Health-care costs have also contributed to the demise of the American middle-class dream. These costs have escalated because of the socio-cultural myth that everyone "deserves" million-dollar health care with the use of the latest expensive tests. And the use of these tests has multiplied through "defensive" medical practices as doctors try to assure they will not stumble into exorbitant "malpractice" liabilities; as a result doctors pay tens-of-thousands of dollars a year in malpractice insurance to avoid predatory lawsuits, costs which are, of course, passed on to their patients. The pharmaceutical industry and health-insurance companies have also contributed to exploding health-care costs.

The American Dream was built out of response to the Great Depression. But we have forgotten the lessons of history. The American Dream has been attacked and eroded in recent decades. In truth, as a result, it may be dead. We shall see.

Friday, August 5, 2011

My Punditry Merit Badge

by Richard Crews
So, President Obama didn't invoke the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis. Does that mean I don't get my Boy Scout Merit Badge in Punditry?

I'm not sure. I hate to be a sore loser (in fact, I hate to be any kind of a loser), but we'll have to wait and see if the Debt Commission turns out to be a good idea. It might be--or it might be a political and legislative disaster.

I still think (as I explained) Obama would have had a clear checkmate with the 14th-Amendment thing--let the Congress founder in vitriolic paralysis, and then ride in on his white horse to save the day. But maybe using the impending disaster to force some sort of bipartisan compromise my have been a good strategy, too. We'll see (toward the end of 2011).

We'll also see if the Federal Reserve still has enough ammunition in its quiver to stimulate the economy back into recovery mode despite Congress' budget cuts. The stock market doesn't seem to think so.

And then there is the how-vast-is the-ocean factor. Maybe the U.S. economy is just so damn big and has so much momentum on its own that it really doesn't matter what the federal government does. In addition, the economies of the rest of the world are so skittish these days (especially the Eurozone, Japan, and the Arab-Spring-lands), that the Big-Bully U.S economy, awful as it is, may just shine by comparison.

At any rate, we currently have the most politically sick Congress in U.S. history plus multiple impending catastrophic challenges (environment, war, civil liberties, infrastructure, education, worldwide drought-floods-famine, population explosion, water-table depletion, mineral resources exhaustion, and on and on and on). These make this an exciting time to have a front-row seat (which the Internet and TV provide).