July 02, 2010

Beyond composting toilets

The linked article by Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel, is one of the smarter things I've ever read on how the USA could (but does not) create jobs in high-tech fields (h/t Willy). To summarize inadequately (because the essay is far clearer and more thorough than any summary I can present), America's irrational addiction to Free Market Fundamentalism puts us at a decisive disadvantage in "scaling up" high tech industries such as photovoltaics, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries, all of which are being manufactured overseas (particularly in China) at ratios of 10:1 versus American production. Other countries, lacking our free market purity (and obsession with wars), invest government money in priority projects, rather than leaving the whole thing to "garage" startups, the fantasy approach advocated by New York Times columnists and other American "intellectual" leaders. This allows rapid scaling up of important industries so they produce jobs, and also establish the "high tech ecology" which permits other advances in related fields.

Alas, in the USA we listen to people like Thomas Friedman, who doesn't know anything about anything (including how to write) and to Paul Krugman, who writes the same, identical column twice a week, advocating more "stimulus" without ever specifying (a) how much or (b) where the money should be invested. It's not surprising; neither one of these guys knows anything about how business or high-tech is really done. Mr. Grove does. I suppose it's an advantage of a place like the PRC that they are not so dazzled by Celebrity Thinkers who lack all substance but are high profile nonetheless, like most things in this country. I doubt that Barack Obama, given his background, knows anything about how to actually prioritize and build business in the high-tech and alternative energy fields. He would rather chase the 50 al Qaeda members hiding in Waziristan than bring photovoltaics back to America. And note to Tom Friedman: I don't think you really should fantasize anymore about "cleaning China's clock" in the alternative energy field. Not while they're busy mopping the floor with us.

July 01, 2010

The Immigration Reform Speech

But before getting to that, an answer to John's question about Dmitry Orlov's onboard toilet facilities: my understanding is that the yacht is equipped with a composting toilet. My own very limited experience with such facilities suggests that a composting toilet aboard a a fairly small boat (32 feet) could present some olfactory challenges for the average American, who tends to be somewhat squeamish or sensitive about such matters, more so than (I'm guessing) a native of Orlov's homeland, the Soviet Union. Americans do not like body smells of any kind, actually, which is one of the reasons we have trouble with international travel. As for the rest of Orlov's carrying charges, I doubt he generates much trash or garbage, living as he does. The cost of berthing a boat in a metropolitan area probably varies by season, but I agree that's a major consideration. I took a tour around the berths of Orange County's Balboa Island recently, and the guide made it a point to impress us with the outrageous cost of berths, which often exceeded the rent on a good-sized apartment. Then again, if you're handy with oars you can moor the boat instead of berthing it. I suspect overall, however, that being freed up from mortgages and real property taxes (and paying much less for insurance) results in a far lower shelter cost, and Orlov, who's an engineer by training and very rigorous in his approach to, well, everything, no doubt has thought it all through. By the way, the picture is of the house of the infomercial king who came up with not just the Veg-o-matic, but Spray-On Hair, a monument to American entrepreneurship in one of its last bastions, the RepublicanLand of Orange County.

But what of the President's speech today on Immigration Reform? How can we let such a milestone pass without remarking on this singular event, and asking what one hopes are salient questions. Such as:

1. Why the hell is the President giving a speech on Immigration Reform?

That's all I can come up with right now.

June 29, 2010

Paul Krugman's Wild Week

Noted Nobel Laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently threatened Germany with U.S. Congressional action, followed that with a threat of trade sanctions against China for its currency manipulations, and then threw a tantrum in the form of an essay because no one is listening to his demand that the federal government dump some more stimulus money on the U.S. economy. Since we won't listen, he told us we were in for a Depression.

Krugman is kind of like a guy in a bar at 2 a.m. who's been spoiling for a fight all night long and can't find an opponent, so at last call he just starts hurling insults in all directions.

He may be right about the Depression, depending on how it's defined. Some definitions I've read set the bar at about 25% unemployment, a standard reached during the Depression of the 1930's. It's worth noting that Roosevelt tried everything to lift the country out of the Depression, including massive stimulus and public works, yet nothing really worked until after World War II, when the world lay in ruins (except the USA) and the Marshall Plan maintained the home industries at war pitch. What Krugman leaves out in his simplistic insistence on simply spending money in an undirected way is that the U.S. economy, prior to 2007, was running on the fumes of debt-propulsion. I think the United States is in much worse shape, vis-a-vis the rest of the world, than we were in, say, in 1937. We have this weird "consumerist" economy, one that requires 10.3 hectares (about 25 acres) of Earth's surface in order to supply the "basic resources" (and deal with the waste), most of it plastic junk, generated by each American citizen. Compare this to the figure for Germany (5.3) or to the average for China and India (1.0 hectare). The German "austerity" which Krugman is whining about is simply a cultural value; they're more efficient, less wasteful and more productive, and Krugman thinks that is unfair.

It's because Krugman, like all the "name" American economists, is a growth fetishist. That's all they ever learned and all they believe in: the economy has to keep growing, even if that simply means a greater transfer of wealth to the upper fractions of one percent of the population. The GDP must increase.

Well, not really. We would be very fortunate if the average American enjoyed a quality of life comparable to life in Germany or France, and they manage such a life while using much less energy, and generating much less waste, per capita than their American counterparts. Thus, the GDP could contract, and contract substantially, while the overall quality of life in the United States improved, if the national economy were reoriented toward productive work, fair wealth distribution and environmental sustainability built on a no-growth framework. We don't do these things because this country is the way it is, but blaming Germany or China for our problems is just stupid.

June 28, 2010

H D Thoreau as one of the original survivalists

Just a passing thought, but one that hadn't occurred to me before: while half-paying attention to this pretentious, boring, stultifying thing called the "G-20," where a group of political half-wits gather to decide the fate of the world, it occurred to me that Thoreau would, in modern contemplation, be called a "survivalist." I don't know why that never occurred to me before, but sometimes I get distracted. The thought came to me last night while reading a series of essays in Dmitry Orlov's print-on-demand book (I hold copy number 149 of a run of 500) called "Hold Your Applause." Dmitry and his wife live on a 32-foot sailboat in Boston Harbor, own no car, bicycle everywhere, and are apparently quite content. Probably more so, and understandably, than an unemployed carpenter who used to live in a suburban tract home in Riverside, now foreclosed, whose unemployment has run out and has no prospects for future work.

So, in one of those "fractal" moments, I thought that this will probably be the shape of future American social evolution. No one other than those at the G-20 meetings and their thousands of hangers-on really wants to hear what they have to say about their "stimulus vs. austerity" arguments, their manipulation of electronic money, and the rest of their standard crap. Economies organized at the global level are really stupid and unworkable, and may it all go to hell. Meanwhile, as Orlov has demonstrated, the one great advantage of certain technological breakthroughs, such as photovoltaics and small-scale wind turbines, is that one can be a survivalist without giving up much in the way of modern convenience; indeed, the ability to convert solar energy at the very local level (micro application) means that you can derive everything that modern society actually can offer while unplugging from most of its useless, insane and environmentally destructive superfluities. Dmitri, for example, outfitted his sailboat with a few solar panels and a wind turbine. With the main expenses of life, a house and a car, out of the way, he can maintain his vital heat (and his wife's) without worrying about the G-20's call on whether to expand the Fed's balance sheet, e.g. Since the "captured" national government cannot find its way out of legacy industries, cannot lead the way to an alternative energy future because of its utter corruption and cluelessness, it will come about from the grassroots. Which is fine really, making expendable, as it does, the whole apparatus of Congress and the rest. Perhaps the changes will come about before macro-organized governments finish off the rest of the oceans.

Survivalism is obviously a growth industry, another demonstration that Henry David was always way, way ahead of his time. Many American manifestations of Thoreau's Walden cabin, of course, will feature .50 cal machine gun placements at 100 yards, but that's my country for you. Just set yourself up as far from such free-fire zones as possible.