December 28, 2013

Saturday Morning Saturday Morning Essay: Extinction, Reconsidered

Brought to you by Peet's French Roast coffee...

Naturally, as a supporter of the scientific method, I hasten to add that the Thursday edition of my Saturday Essay was about a global warming paper that apparently had no refereeing or peer review. The writing was definitely over the top; I've been reading a lot about global warming over the last couple of years, and I don't know of anyone else, no matter how dire a spin they choose to place on the available data and reasonable extrapolations thereof, who's talking about the oceans boiling and 120 degree C air temperatures in the year 2080.  I just thought that Mr. Light (the author) provided a rousing, angry, human-bashing finish right up there with some of the best dyspepsia of Kurt Vonnegut on a downer day.  Who can resist that?

Perhaps the paper in question was an example of the increasingly common "open access" method of publishing scientific articles.  Indeed, the research scientist from the Great Southwestern University is so familiar now with this particular end-run around academic quality control that he's written a hilarious parody, "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down & Publish My Own Papers."  A sample:

I'm gonna sit right down and publish my own papers,
And make believe they're peer reviewed
Referees they drive me nuts
They're ad hoc & anonymous
Nerds strokin’ their libidos
Shootin their little torpedoes...

No doubt peer review brings out the snark in a lot of competitive academics.  On the other hand, maybe it makes it a little tougher to scare the shit out of your readers with unfounded claims.

Anyway, I favor the "intellectual commons" approach to discourse championed so eloquently by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty.  An idea should stand or fall on its own merits, and must withstand the most withering criticism if it is objectively true.

I actually found the paper in question on a thread commenced by Guy McPherson on Facebook.  It was Christmas, a slow news day, and the Near Term Human Extinction loyalists were out in force. The conclusions of this "paper" on the "methane bomb" were apparently accepted at face value by almost anyone, except a couple of "Extinction Deniers" who tried valiantly to inject some scintilla of hope, only to be attacked mercilessly for their Pollyannish addiction to "hopium" (as in hopium of the masses, I guess).

Speaking of Russian political history, it always astounds me how those of the Left hand side of things always manage to arrange themselves into warring factions. The Russian revolutionaries all opposed the Czar, but their hatred for his cruel despotism eventually took a back seat to the internecine struggles among the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Trotskyites.  Recall that Trotsky was eventually assassinated more than 20 years after the Revolution by a Stalinist hit man who found him in Mexico City.  The global warming movement has become sort of like that, too. 

Personally, I am failing to see the upside of accepting the inevitable extinction of humanity 16 years from now.  Especially when the hard science really does not point in that direction.  I know the situation is bad; I know that humans have never resided on Earth when the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was at 400 parts per million.  I know what the "hockey stick" of recent temperature trends looks like.  It's scary what has happened to the ice masses of the Earth in so short a time frame. I'm not a global warming denier.

Still, to help things along, I posted a link on that thread to David Archer's analysis of recent methane papers, an analysis I discussed previously here at the Pond.  David Archer knows his stuff.  He describes in considerable detail how the methane beds and permafrost were formed in the Arctic Circle and along the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.  He uses Henry's Law to support his argument that methane clathrates could not have formed at any depth shallower than 250 meters of Arctic water. The deeper they are, you see, the better, since dissolution of methane bubbles in the water column as they make their way to the surface is an important buffer, along with the fact that methane hydrates at depth are more resistant to melting in the first place.

I like Henry's Law.  Henry's Law governs the solubility of gas in liquid under varying conditions.  When you open a beer bottle, or pop a champagne bottle (maybe Tuesday night?) and hear that "pfft" or "pop" - that's Henry talking to you.  That's the sound of the carbon dioxide escaping into the room, CO2 that has come out of solution.  If you leave the beer bottle on the counter, eventually the beer will go flat, meaning the partial pressure of the CO2 in the beer will equilibrate with the CO2 level in the room.  I was thinking: if you had done that little experiment in 1966 (perhaps the first time I would have done so), the beer would be flatter than it would be today.  Not enough to notice, but still. Three cheers for global warming!

Others on the Facebook thread picked up my act of supreme dissidence (Objective Intellectualism, always a crime under totalitarian regimes, requiring re-education), and it got back to Guy.  I was in trouble now:

Guy McPherson: "^ Infused with hopium, as is customary at Real Climate. They favor the "it'll all be okay" approach forwarded by the corporate media and the corporate governments of the world. As we approach the brick wall, they propose accelerating."

I don't think that's fair, and not just because I like David Archer.  I find him a humane and circumspect fellow who really knows his stuff.  Questioning whether we'll all be dead in 2030 is not the same, in my view, as saying "it will all be okay."  

I guess that's what I get for being a Trotskyite.  But I'm still thinking: if David Archer is wrong, take him on directly and disprove his analysis.  Sittin' right down and publishin' your own papers is one thing; taking pot shots with only ad hominem attacks may be a good deal worse.

December 26, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: On Graduating from Global Warming Class

Brought to you by Peet's French Roast...

From a paper provocatively entitled "The Non-Disclosed Extreme Arctic Methane Threat" by Malcolm P.R. Light, published a few days ago (

The Earth is a giant convecting planet, the underlying molten magma being heated by deep seated radioactivity and the oceans and atmosphere are its cooling radiator which allows the Earth the facility to vent this heat into open space (Windley, 1984; Allen and Allen, 1990). Mother Earth has carefully held the atmospheric temperature within a stable range necessary for oceans to exist for at least 4 billion years and nurtured the earliest bacteria to evolve into today's space faring humans (Calder, 1983).

The fouling up of the Earth's cooling radiator from Human emissions of greenhouse gases derived from fossil fuels will be counteracted by Mother Earth in her characteristic fashion by emitting vast volumes of deadly methane into the atmosphere from the Arctic regions. This will lead to the total extermination of all harmful biological species that produce greenhouse gases in the same way that Mother Earth did during the Permian and other extinction events. In this case however we have totally tipped the balance with our extreme carbon dioxide and methane emissions so that there will be no chance of recovery for the Earth in this time frame, because the methane release will cause the oceans to begin boiling off between 115oC and 120oC (Severson, 2013) in 2080 and the Earth's atmosphere will have reached temperatures equivalent to those on Venus by 2096 (460oC to 467oC)(Wales, 2013; Moon Phases, 2013).

Mankind's greed for fossil fuels will have completely destroyed a magnificent beautiful blue planet and converted its atmosphere into a barren, stiflingly hot , carbon dioxide rich haze. The earth will have moved permanently out of the magical zone (Circumstellar habitable zone, Goldilocks zone) where life (some of it probably highly intelligent) also exists elsewhere in the myriad of other solar systems that are located within the far reaches of our Universe.
Well, I must say, sir:  that's really bringing it.  Mr. Light is not shying away from identifying Who Fucked It Up.

With my course credits in hand, I naturally feel empowered to comment.  This is not the way we discussed things in my virtual class room.  David Archer, that is to say, who is a very skilled teacher, did not conduct the class with his hair on fire, and while we did discuss the fate of the other two "Goldilocks" planets (Venus and Mars), and we did touch on the topic of oceans boiling away and Venus suffocating beneath a blanket of CO2 so thick it's actually kind of like an atmospheric ocean, we did not talk about Earth in the same terms, now or in the future.  The future being 2100, because it's sort of alarmist to talk about shorter time frames.

I prefer the statelier pace of global warming discussed in class.  Such as the "Slug Theory," which is about the rate at which we belch CO2 into the atmosphere.  Essentially, we have an atmospheric "budget" for doing so, and given the long-lasting nature of CO2 once it's up there, in some senses it doesn't matter how fast you emit it.  It's the total load or "slug" that is introduced that matters. Currently, under this approach, we have emitted about half that budget since the beginning of the Industrial Age (about 500 gigatons of carbon).  To keep global average temperature below the Magic Level of 2 degrees C increase, what we consider (probably unjustifiably) the safe range, we should avoid emitting any more than that amount again until we stop CO2 emissions altogether.

You can kind of sense that's absolutely the wrong thing to tell a species like Homo sapiens.   You can have 14 drinks for the week, you tell the alcoholic on Sunday, and as many as you want (up to 14) on any given day, so long as you do not exceed that maximum.  You can be assured your alkie will knock back ten drinks on Monday followed by the remaining four on Tuesday, followed by various acts of subterfuge to get around the limit for the rest of the week. (The drunk will be seeking "alcohol credits" by talking a teetotaller out of beginning a life of boozing.) This is more or less exactly the approach followed by the nations of the Earth since they began the dog & pony shows of "CO2 reduction" a couple of decades ago. 

The Slug Theory is nice and linear, it has some pretty solid science behind it (climate sensitivity to CO2), it's given activists like Bill McKibben a full-time job, and it makes President Obama sound...presidential when he talks about "80% reductions by 2050" with a straight face.  It also places humans in a better light.  Sure, in our youthful exuberance about fossil fuels we went way over the line and blew through our allowance, about 531 gigatons so far.  But now that we know what sort of mess we've made, we'll begin the process of building solar panels on the moon which will microwave their electricity back to Earth (a proposal as one part of a new energy regime to make up for the terawatts of energy we will lose when we stop burning fossil fuels).

Then this damn methane shows up like The Masque of the Red Death at Prince Prospero's crib.  Natalia (or Natasha) was rueful about spoiling the party when we talked about this on the shores of the Laptev Sea.

"Is shame," she said.

"Is damn shame," I answered.  "Is ruining a lot of perfectly good geophysics textbooks."

"Is I know," murmured Natasha, stricken.

Well, I'm sure we'll still get to build the lunar solar panels; but first we have to build this Star Wars array of methane blasters up here in this godforsaken tundra.  Manned, or boyed, by a couple of 13 year-old American X-Box fiends powered not by fossil fuels, but by industrial quantities of Pringles and Jolt Cola.

December 21, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: Life on the New American Plantation

Brought to you by Trader Joe's Dark Roast as the Tropic of Capricorn takes a direct shot from the sun...

From ZeroHedge: "Blackstone Group appears to be trying to oligopolize the business of renting single-family homes in the U.S.. As Bloomberg reports, after the housing crash left more than 7 million foreclosed homes in its wake, the investment firm has spent more than $7.8 billion purchasing about 41,000 single-family homes for rental conversion. The world's largest private equity firm has quickly become the largest landlord (of rental homes) in the U.S. and in October, Blackstone offered the first-ever "rental-home-backed" security on Wall Street. One has to wonder if this was the plan all along?" 

Interesting idea. My older brother predicted The Great Foreclosure many years back.  Maybe this, indeed, was the plan all along. Certainly at the time the prediction was made it seemed vaguely paranoid, but I have come to see that paranoia is a perfectly reasonable adaptive attitude in a world dominated by private corporations. To wit, it is not paranoid to think that they do not have your interests at heart, because they don't. If you think they do, even for a moment, you've been watching way too many Jimmy Stewart movies.

 Get the American hoi polloi to mortgage their houses to the moon with adjustable rate mortgages, pump the consumer economy with equity loans, then when it all pops, scoop up all the distressed properties for pennies on the dollar and rent them to the people who used to own them. As a wise man once said, you'll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

Calling this latest grift a "plan" might be a little too grand.  Capitalism simply seeks profit "opportunities."  Regarding Blackstone's raptor-like feeding frenzy as part of a conspiracy may be an example of the "ant in the sandbox" fallacy suggested by the polymath Herbert Simon decades ago; to wit, if you examine the path of an ant across a sand box, you will be impressed with the clever, efficient way he traversed the hills and valleys to follow a fairly straight line.  When, in fact, all the ant was doing at every stage was making a choice to go left, right, over or down the terrain.

So it is with the Great Foreclosure.  The Robber Barons got rich on fraudulent mortgage products, and now they're assembling new fraudulent Rent Backed Securities (RBS - that's even a good logo for Robber Barons) out of the wreckage.  What else are they supposed to do? They're here to make money.  L'argent, c'est moi.

At least someone is still getting rich in this country, something increasingly difficult for the ordinary member of the Booboisie.  Blackstone and other financial predators are helped enormously by the Federal Reserve's policy of "exceptionally low interest rates for the foreseeable future."  If you're big enough to borrow for practically nothing; then buy a house in Florida, say, for $100 k; then rent that 2/2 with lanai charmer for $900/month, annual income of $10,800; then even with a 10% management fee, your gross cap rate is around 10% a year.  Bet you can't get that on your B of A money market, can you?  Now if you're like Blackstone and can do this scam 41, 000 more times, you've got yourself a nice little business going.  And you can build on that by bringing in investors on whom to pawn off the whole operation, pay them a nice 6% on their money, pocket 4% for having the brilliance (and corrupt connections) to pull this caper off, and essentially have no skin in the game. And then when the economy finally and completely collapses, maybe from an attack of acute nausea, Blackrock can let someone else hold the bag. Probably us again!

Sweet.  It's the modern version of a sharecropper's life on the plantation, in a way, and it's what's left to the middle class now that the economy has been completely hollowed out by our decision to globalize and become an "open economy," as the Plantation Liberal Economists have always urged.  As Gail Tverberg notes in her latest insightful post,

Economists, through their wholehearted endorsement of globalization, have pushed industrialized countries into a competitive situation which we are certain to lose. While oil prices tend to push wages down, competition with Asian countries makes the downward push on wages even greater. These lower wages are part of what are pushing us toward collapse.

I wonder to whom Gail could be referring?  Well, this isn't a "Science" post so I certainly won't mention any names.   Globalization and hyper-specialization of the economy, all guided by ruthless capitalism, are the status quo here on the Plantation, and Plantation Liberals always work within the status quo. If your specialized occupation, like assembling auto generators at a plant in Indiana, went away to a warmer clime where the workers aren't so fussy about "benefits," then you're just going to have to learn to do something else, such as Planning or Tanning, admittedly at a lower rate of compensation.

Maybe more "transfer payments" will help the new tenants to pay their new landlord. We can always print the money to send more cash to the poor to keep them in the houses as tenants which they used to own.  And I'm sure Blackstone (probably a description of the company CEO's heart) will be reasonable and charitable lessors.  Just get through the credit check, deposit the four months of rent, and pledge your youngest child as a security deposit.  And if it doesn't work out, as a free gift to all applicants, a large cardboard box and map to the closest bridge.

December 14, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: Homage to Corinth

Brought to you by Peet's French Roast French-pressed...

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  I Corinthians 13:11.

I'm sure any number of my readers can appreciate the irony of quoting Saint Paul and Carl Sagan seriatim.

One perspective to bear in mind at all times, when we indulge in contemporary Doomsaying, is that the human race is in fact, as a physical certainty, bound for extinction.  We often forget that in our giddy New Age narcissism.  During the second half of the Sun's main sequence, probably within the next 1.5 billion years, the luminosity of our closest star will increase to such an extent that the Earth's atmosphere will be effectively boiled away.  That will be it for life on Earth.  

So it's all relative, you know?  It depends on the time frame you choose.  We are desperate to head off disaster now in the hope we can be around to face certain disaster later.   That's as good as it gets.  The best case scenario.  I didn't make these rules governing organic life versus implacable universe.  I simply live subject to them.

The Sagan clip above is kind of thrilling in its insights.  Facing his own extinction, Carl's deceptively simple description of the conundrum of modern human existence essentially says it all.  The interview was nominally about Carl's book on the "demon haunted world" (the retreat in modern times into unscientific obscurantism), but Carl quickly pointed out that there was really nothing new about such thinking.  It's just that in the face of modern technology and industrial civilization, it had become exceedingly dangerous.  

It's sad that we've lost public intellectuals of Carl Sagan's caliber.  No one has really taken the place of the likes of Sagan, Richard Feynman and a few others.  Immensely intellegent thinkers with a comprehensive appreciation of the human condition in its broadest terms.  

In my reading of physics books for the general public, such as Time Re-Born by Lee Smolin (currently in my regular Kindle rotation), an observation that recurs is the mysterious reality that the physical laws governing the universe can be represented by a mathematical system of human devising. If you throw a ball, as Galileo observed, the arc it describes as it falls to the ground will be a parabola. You can throw it high in the air, a fastball from the shoulder, a casual toss across the yard: always a parabolic curve.  That curve can be stated as a simple mathematical function and graphed.   Legend has it that Galileo was in church (of all places for him) when he noticed that the chandeliers, moving with the wind, had the same period regardless of the amplitude of the swing.  

T \approx 2\pi \sqrt\frac{L}{g} \qquad \qquad \qquad \theta_0 \ll 1  \qquad (1)\,

And thus modern pendulum timekeeping was born, a simple technology that lasted until the 1930's.  Naturally, Galileo had to be placed under house arrest.

In the environmental books of the late 1960's and 1970's, books by writers such as Barry Commoner, Paul Erlich, Wendell Berry, Herman Daly and the studies written by the Club of Rome group, this capacity for mathematical representation of Earth's realities was being deployed.  When Paul Erlich estimated an approximate time for doubling of human population of about 37 years, he wasn't really guessing; he was using exponential algebra, the stuff you learn in high school.  Such writers were not writing books full of ominous ecological warnings because they were hysterical or were showing off.  They were performing services pro bono publico, as Galileo had done.

So why didn't these clear warnings do any good?  I think that's what Carl Sagan is talking to Charlie Rose about.  As Craig Dilworth describes in his majestic Too Smart For Our Own Good, we have been capable of amazing technological breathroughs in energy utilization (particularly fossil fuel use), nuclear weaponry, food production, electronic circuitry, materials science, medicine and many other technical fields.  Yet the regulation of all this scientific know-how, and capacity for self-destruction, remained as ever in the hands of the scientifically illiterate - the kind of democratic government that a bell-curved demographic always elects.  A Parliament of Morons.

The avaricious, venal, thoroughly corrupt "guardians" of our fate, bought-and-paid-for solons like James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Joe Barton of Texas, cast the environmental warnings as a threat to our "freedom," of our economic rights to prosper and live the American Dream.  Environmentalists ("Eco-Nazis," as Rush Limbaugh would call them) were urging socialism disguised as self-restraint, and a government takeover of business, and regulation of "consumer choices" - an environmental police state.  The warnings of climate scientists became a particular target of the Evangelicals, as Mr. Inhofe, op. cit., would describe.  Man cannot bring about his own destruction because that's God's job.  Economic freedom as defended by the demon-haunted Evangelicals: there's your perfect Doomsday storm, Carl. If you were only around to see how right you were.

The conservative, religious, obscurantist framing of the argument worked.  In the Land of the Free, as Dick Cheney told us, conservation was "a personal virtue."  It could never have anything to do with public policy.

And so it never really has.  

December 07, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: Mr. Krugman's Science of Black Box Economics

Brought to you by Trader Joe's North Beach Blend, brewed in French press...

Among our Plantation Liberal Economists, I only pick on Paul Krugman because he is the most visible.  It's also fun because he's (a) extremely arrogant and (b) fundamentally silly.  While he sees himself as an indefatigable champion of progressive causes, he is actually a kind of gift to the Republicans in a way that Rush Limbaugh is Christmas everyday to the Democrats.  That is to say, a purveyor of ideas so palpably out-of-date and nonsensical as to be easily caricatured.

One such theme in Mr. Krugman's scientific essays is the Black Box concept of macroeconomics. As previously noted, Mr. Krugman pays very little attention to the particular composition of the American economy, what you or I might call "facts."   His reference always is to "advanced industrial economies" or to historical records of the American economy, often dating back a hundred years or more.  I think of Dr. K's analyses as a kind of "hydraulic" systems analysis.  The variables of central bank interest rates or money supply are tweaked, and the variables of unemployment and GDP respond. If the results are not satisfactory after these dials are turned, the "fiscal policy" valve in the form of deficit spending by Congress is opened to achieve the right ambient pressure.

This pure, abstract approach allows Mr. Krugman to avoid the moiling, cacophonous debate among other analysts who talk about job offshoring and globalization, the effect of automation on the work force (of which Mr. Krugman was unaware, by his own admission, until a point within the last year), and the quality of jobs which are now produced by the American economy (that is, the McCrap jobs of baristas, burger-flippers, Wal-Mart aisle monitors, bartenders and food servers, almost all of which pay minimum wage). 

Other analysts are not so lucky.  For example, Herman Daly of the University of Maryland insists that economics is simply a subsystem of the ecological world (e.g., Reality) and not the other way around. Gail Tverberg (who has another fine essay just posted) believes in the fundamental importance of energy cost, on the tenable theory that nothing happens in the physical world without energy. The chart up above is of West Texas Intermediate oil prices; the recent decline in barrel prices, as we frack, squeeze tar sands, and dig for every drop we can find, probably explains the recent improvement in the McCrap Jobs market - Americans have a little more money to drive to McDonald's or to Wal-Mart to spend their food stamps.  Jerry Mander and others note that capitalism seems to have run its course, has finished its work of destroying the natural world, and that survival depends on a different relationship between Homo sapiens and Mother Earth.  Those in Shanghai, where the smog is now as thick inside buildings as outside during the worst days of pre-catalytic-converter Los Angeles, would probably tend to agree.

Such thoughts do not disturb the sense of serene mastery of the economic situation enjoyed by Mr. Krugman, Brad DeLong and the other Black Box economists.  Certainly we must pay attention to the destruction of the natural world as a regrettable externality that should be remedied to the extent consistent with optimal GDP growth (the economy is performing "below potential!").  If we listen to their advice on the right Black Box settings, the economy will come around.  It is only the pig-headed resistance of those who insist on looking at the world as a whole who stand in the way.

November 30, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: Dispatch From the East Siberian Arctic Shelf

Brought to you by three gallons of Peet's Coffee....

I think that's it.  It could be East Arctic Siberian Shelf. Or East Siberian Arctic Shelf.  I can't think straight right now because my head's frozen.  I understand, and accept, that the Arctic is warming at a rate about 3 or 4 times faster than the globe generally, but it's still colder than a well digger's nuts up here.

I'm waiting for Natasha to show up. You know her as Natalia Shakhova.  I call her Natasha, but on the other hand she thinks my name is Boris.  It's a private joke that only one of us is in on.  My reference is obviously to Rocky & Bullwinkle, but Natalia is Russian, for real, and I'm not, even if I've gotten in the habit of starting all of my sentences, when I speak to her, with "is." 

I'm wearing a wetsuit and standing on squishy ground on the shore of the Laptev Sea.  This is real Solzhenitzen country out here, bleak, windswept, desolate, with the Arctic, covered with a thin layer of ice, stretched out before me.  Yes, I have a tuxedo on under the wetsuit.  As if you needed to ask.  I don't know what Natalia will be wearing.  I know it will be something pretty good.  Global warming was a good field for her, because she's hot.

Natalia is the lead author on a couple of recent papers on Arctic methane.  Her work was reviewed by David Archer of the University of Chicago on the blog.  David happens to be my prof on the course I'm taking on global warming.  I knew all of this couldn't be a coincidence, so I called Natalia and made sure she knew about David's analysis (she did, of course), and pointed out the intriguing point Professor Archer had made about methane hydrates in the Arctic Sea.
Methane hydrate seems menacing as a source of gas that can spring aggressively from the solid phase like pop rocks (carbonated candies). But hydrate doesn’t just explode as soon as it crosses a temperature boundary. It takes heat to convert hydrate into fluid + gas, what is called latent heat, just like regular water ice. There could be a lot of hydrate in Arctic sediments (it’s not real well known how much there is), but there is also lot of carbon as organic matter frozen in the permafrost. Their time scales for mobilization are not really all that different, so I personally don’t see hydrates as scarier than frozen organic matter. I think it just seems scarier.

The other thing about hydrate is that at any given temperature, a minimum pressure is required for hydrate to be stable. If there is pure gas phase present, the dissolved methane concentration in the pore water, from Henry’s law, scales with pressure. At 0 degrees C, you need a pressure equivalent to ~250 meters of water depth to get enough dissolved methane for hydrate to form. 

Let me jump to the conclusion: Mr. Archer doesn't think you're going to find methane hydrates in 50 meters of water, and that's supposed to be the scary part about the East Siberian Arctic Shelf - all that methane locked up in ice "cages" in shallow water along the largest continental shelf in the world, losing its ice cover, exposed to heat conducted downward from the dark surface of the water.  Yeah, like pop rocks, alright: fiizzzzzzzz! Those hysterics over at the Arctic Methane Emergency Group have been free-riding on some of Natalia's research and talking about a "methane bomb" in a 2013 paper, although Natasha herself, ever demure and scientific, doesn't go there.

So Prof. Archer asks the question:  

But these experiments spanned 100 hours, while the sediment column has been warming for thousands of years, so the experiments do not really address the question. I have to think that if there were some impervious-to-melting hydrate, why then would it suddenly melt, all at once, in a few years? Actual samples of hydrate collected from shallow sediments on the Siberian shelf would be much more convincing. 

One answer that occurred to me:  because the melting of the Arctic ice cap has occurred over a few years?  But David Archer must be aware of this.  Although he makes me a little nervous when he says that he would not be concerned with methane emissions in the Arctic unless they increased by "an order of magnitude."  Uh, my gal Natasha's work records that the methane vents in the Arctic increased in size from a meter across to a kilometer across.  I think that's 3 orders of magnitude.  Nevertheless, Mr. Archer is right: why not just go down in the goop and grab a handful of Arctic sediment and see what's in it?

You rang?

"Is thinking we dive down and grab handful," I said.  I'm wearing a black Borsalino just to be in character, although I'm talking on the phone.

"Is yes," Natalia says. 

So here we are on the shore.  Natalia shows up, but she's got that guy Semilitov with her, the Russian climate scientist who takes all those cruises with her around the Arctic during the summer, counting methane bubbles.  They're both decked out in down jackets about three feet thick.

"Is thinking is better use submersible from ship during summer than dive in late November," purrs Natalia.  Semilitov is wearing a smirk, like a KGB thug in a Bond movie.  "Is agree," he says.

Is bummer, I think.  I came a long way for nothing.

"Is local  bar and lounge where can find Stoli on rocks?" I ask, unzipping the wetsuit to reveal my down-lined tuxedo.

"Is of course," says Natasha. "Is Russia."  I love the way she says "Russia."  Like a native.

After a couple of Stolis, Natasha tells me that American climate scientists hate this methane angle. "Is messing up neat models," she says.  "Is, how you say, wild card.  Better to worry about 2100 than say a few weeks from now."

Is spot on, I'm thinking.  Semilitov is showing no signs of leaving, so I do.  They casually mention that maybe I'd like to come along on the Arctic cruise next summer.

"Maybe take the dive in submersible," she says coyly.  "Is room only for two."

November 27, 2013

Dmitry flicks it in

Dmitry Orlov has decided not to post Collapsarian blog posts at anymore, or at least that is the impression I got from his most recent post and from an email he sent to me and to other readers who have bought his books or supported the site.

I certainly understand the feeling.  He has a child now and he's probably tired of living on the boat.  He may find himself in the position of joining the workforce again.  This happens to new fathers; against all their better instincts, they drop "attitudes" in favor of responsibilities.  A little of the quotidian always sneaks into the purest of ideologies.  I read not long ago that Henry Thoreau's cabin at Walden was not actually that far from his mother's house.  Occasionally, tiring of the solitude and the rough fare by the Pond, he'd sneak over there for something to eat and a little comfort.

That's the way real life works.  You're here for one stretch between cradle and grave, and as you age it becomes increasingly clear that it had never mattered all that much whether you existed or not. The exceptions to this insight are very few and far between.  Dmitry probably longs for that awful thing called normality once in a while, and I suspect it's because he seems like a very normal, well-balanced individual. It's difficult to feel normal if you're writing about the collapse of civilization all the time.  Everything Dmitry writes may be true (I suspect most of it is), but in your one life you long for a little carefree time where you forget all about the heavy stuff.

Dmitry's unique perspective came about from his Russian provenance.  He saw the Soviet "collapse" after communism packed it up and departed from the last of what you might call the Western, European-style countries.  Anyway, that was his hook, and Reinventing Collapse was a funny, insightful book about the precedent that the Soviet Union set for the United States.

In a way, I don't buy that thesis at all.  Granted, the United States and the Soviet Union are (were) both very large, creaking, mostly ungovernable nations, but there are essential differences, starting with the premise that the United States has always been for sale to the highest bidder. Since America emerged from the last vestiges of its agrarian past, about the time of the Great Depression (when the Okies and small-scale farmers were displaced by drought and national bankruptcy), America has been about business in a way that the Soviet Union never was before its collapse.  David Halberstam's book The Fifties was, I think, very enlightening in this regard.  We are the home of the chain hotel (Holiday Inn), the chain restaurant (McDonald's and all its follwers), the Big Box stores (Wal-Mart, CostCo), the mega-hardware store (Home Depot, Lowe's), the strip mall, the suburban housing tract, and most importantly, the concept that corporate power should be concentrated in huge holding companies that own very diverse and large businesses.  On this latter point, whether Americans realize it or not, every meal they eat out, every processed food they buy at the market, every sundry (detergent, household necessities) they purchase wherever, every drug and almost everything else they routinely buy is sold to them by about 10 huge holding companies.  And all communications are essentially owned by 6 large corporations, so everything you ingest with your ears and eyes is also owned by a corporate cartel. Except Waldenswimmer, of course.

These huge companies are multinational in character,  with much of their business (and payroll) located overseas.  They are nominally American, but the sinking mass of the American middle and lower classes here are more or less of marginal relevance to them, and only to the extent that Americans form part of their customer base.  The American booboisie needs to be manipulated because the U.S.A. is still  nominally a democracy, de jure, although de facto it is what Sheldon Wolin calls an "inverted totalitarian state," one where the government is owned by Big Business.  We are not going to "vote" our way out of this situation, as Russell Brand, among numerous others (including Dmitry Orlov, most definitely) seems to get.

America is a corporate headquarters and tax haven which executes its business plans by means of a huge standing army, which does not often just stand around.  We got this way because (a) power always tends to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands, even in a liberal democracy, since as money aggregates it can get rid of legal impediments such as high taxation and anti-trust laws, and (b) because America was the most innovative and naturally-blessed (our peerless real estate) nation on Earth.  We also benefitted mightily from intellectual immigration to this country, made possible by the double-digit IQs in charge of Nazi Germany.

I don't think the United States is going to collapse in the sense that the Collapsarian community talks and writes about.  For one thing, the emphasis is too much on Peak Oil.  I've written before that I think Peak Oil represents a kind of deus ex machina for anti-American wish fulfillment.  Some sensitive souls, such as James Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov and many others, are so appalled by the grisly ugliness of the American crapscape, with its chain everything and grotesque proliferation of hideous suburban grids, that they long for some way to predict confidently that it must fall of its own weight. That's where Peak Oil comes in: you posit that an economy runs on cheap energy, especially petroleum in the American economy, and this gives you a means of assuring everyone that it will all be over soon and an anodyne vision of Norman Rockwell's neighborhoods will materialize peacefully out of the formless void.

No, I don't think so.  The lower 90% of the American populace has no way to go but down, until it reaches a rough parity with the hard-working masses in Asia who, after all, have many of the same employers as the Americans.  The American multi-nationals are indifferent to the fate of their so-called "countrymen," indifferent to the environment (mountain top removal, fracking, pesticide and fertilizer flushes into the Gulf and oceans, plastic waste, soil erosion, CO2 emissions) and essentially react only when conditions become so dire that the American "platform" is threatened.  We're inflating bubbles again through money printing to retard this natural contraction, and when the bubbles pop (again), we'll have nother "crisis" which will in fact simply be another step-phase down after the gooey soap is cleaned up.  I think that's how we'll get there, in a ratchet fashion.  We will even adapt to oil high prices, as in fact Americans have done since the 2008 financial crisis began.  Americans drive 3% fewer miles now per year than they did 5 years ago, despite increases in population and the "recovery."  Gasoline usage is way down, as people shift to fuel-efficient cars and just leave the car keys on the table in the hallway.  `Or by the oil can fire under the bridge.

The dramatic immiseration of the American people (thanks, Rob Urie) since 2008 has made catastrophe prediction and doomsaying one of America's chief growth industries, and many, many writers and speakers have gotten in on the act.  But it's not especially lucrative.  Owning one of the Big Corporations is better for that, so the doomsayers drop out and flick it in.  It's always nice to go over to Mom's house.

November 20, 2013

Sorry, Mr. Krugman. It Wasn't Me.

Walden swimmer's body found

CONCORD — Authorities say they have found a body in Walden Pond that may be that of a 63-year-old Lincoln man missing since he went swimming there on Sunday.

November 19, 2013

Mr. Krugman's Science As Not Even Wrong

The phrase "not even wrong" bears a peculiar relevance to the work (which takes the form of disseminated confusion) of Paul Krugman, Ace Economics Columnist for a Great Metropolitan Newspaper.  "Not even wrong" is usually attributed to the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, that brilliant, acerbic nuclear researcher noted for his marked inability to suffer fools gladly.

The phrase apparently originates with physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who used the phrase (in the form "Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!" — "That is not only not right, it is not even wrong!") to describe an unclear research paper. Pauli was known for his detestation of sloppy writing and arguments, and for his somewhat "colourful" objections to such things.

"Not even wrong" might be further defined to refer to work that is so far off the mark, or so conceptually unfounded, that it does not even eliminate a possible direction for further research or analysis.

In the case of Mr. Krugman's Science, the field of macroeconomics (a category in the more general field of economics to which Mr. Krugman came lately, when it was obvious that only The Big Picture concerning the American malaise was going to hold the public's attention), I have generally felt that the effort to summarize, or diagnose, the problems with all modern economies within a framework of diagrams, sketches and occasional forays into pretentious mathematics (all heavily jargon-laden though they may be) is somewhat less than useless. This is particularly true of Mr. Krugman's brand of New Keynesian balderdash.

Sometimes Mr. Krugman will write this kind of thing on his blog, "The Conscience of a Liberal:"

The case of the euro is a bit different: I was very pessimistic about the strategy of austerity and internal devaluation, which I thought would have a terrible cost — and I was completely right about that. I also guessed that this cost would prove politically unsustainable, leading to a crisis for the euro itself; so far, at least, I have been wrong.
My economic model worked fine, my implicit political model didn’t; OK, so it goes.
Now, learning from your mistakes can cause trouble, especially on TV, where people use “In 1996 you said A, and now in 2013 you say B. Gotcha!” as a substitute for substantive discussion. But it’s what you’re supposed to do.
So, have any of the signatories to that 2010 letter admitted being wrong and explained why they were wrong? I mean *any* of them. Not as far as I know.
And at that point this becomes more than an intellectual issue. It becomes a test of character.
Mr. Krugman does this sort of thing a lot.  He seems to suffer from a clinical case of self-righteousness. Usually self-righteousness, the arrant tendency to brag about one's character or integrity, is a sign of underlying pathological deviousness. As the kids might say, "Who does that?"  The funny part of the euro volte-face which Mr. Krugman describes above is that it only came about after Niall Ferguson, in his three-part takedown of the Great One, pointed out the error of Mr. Krugman's arguments about the imminent demise of the euro.  This is really something to behold as far as Mr. Krugman's uneasy relationship with honesty is concerned.  He is now bragging about his candor and forthrightness in admitting an error which he only admitted because he was called out on it.

Who does that?

Well, I admit that Mr. Krugman plays the role of Dr. Moriarty to my Sherlock Holmes at times, and in his favor, I concede that if I were to choose between the Two Great Ichthyological Schools in the Great Economics Schism (Freshwater [Univ. of Chicago, primarily]) and Saltwater (Ivy League, Berkeley), I would side with Mr. Krugman and his fellow Keynesian disciples.  At least they're sort of realistic, unlike the "efficient market" maniacs of the Freshwater crowd, who posit all sorts of nonsense about the rationality of people, and perfect information, and the rest of it.

Although as Nasim Taleb, the Black Swan fellow, has noted, it is macroeconomics in general which is the big problem.  Macroeconomics has no more scientific validity than sociology or fourth-grade social studies, but it has been elevated to a guiding discipline in the conduct of national affairs, with disastrous results, because these people really have no idea what they're doing, and the values they champion, almost to a person, are the values of the Chazzer Economy - the unsustainable growth paradigm from 50 years ago. It is more of a cult than a science, and the academics who rant and rave at each other about who's right and who's wrong are engaging in a polemical food fight with non-rigorous arguments which have about as much chance of producing a clear winner as a faculty lounge debate about whether Hemingway or Faulkner was the better writer.

To give you an idea of the vaporous nature of Mr. Krugman's positions, for example, consider now his most recent column on Monday, November 18, where Mr. Krugman, dazzled by a presentation by Larry Summers at the IMF conference, opines that the current slump may be "permanent."  Very interesting. Yet Mr. Krugman just wrote a book, which he hustled all over the country, called "End This Depression Now." I don't think it made much of an impression, and anyway it's just a compilation of the daily drivel from the blog and columns, but it raises an interesting question: if Mr. Krugman has had the answer all along to the stagnation of Western world economies (which he often brags that he does), then how can this slump be "permanent?"

Mr. Krugman's case is especially egregious, because the prominence of his position and influence, and his self-proclaimed "liberalism" (which consists primarily of being a staunch supporter of the big entitlement programs, just like AARP) probably does allow him to influence national policy, even if not to the extent of his own fevered imagination.  And where Mr. Krugman wants the country to go is in the direction of Big Time Consumerism once again, to pump up "demand" so that everyone is employed doing something or other and spending lots of money on this and that.  Anyone who complains about this mindless approach and its disregard of such minor details as the possibility of near term extinction of human life from climate change, or overpopulation, or overuse of arable soils, or running out of freshwater (and not the academic kind) is rebuked by Mr. Krugman as indulging in an analysis of the economy "as a morality play," one of his most frequent (and boring and trite) ripostes.  Money for Social Security, for Detroit bail-outs, for Wall Street banks, for Predator drones or new aircraft carriers, for new highways, it doesn't matter.  The spending is the thing because we've got to get this (stagnant) economy moving again.

In this way Mr. Krugman is the perfect mouthpiece for the status quo and for the Summers/Clinton/Rubin style of Democratic "liberalism."  He's an Insider, who is careful never to tarnish his credentials as a DLC-style moderate.  He might praise Occupy Wall Street, but you won't find him down there on the street itself, the way that Steve Keen (an Australian economist) has done.  Maybe it's true, as demonstrated by numerous careful analyses, that Quantitative Easing is simply a wealth transfer mechanism to banks already bulging with liquidity force-fed to them by their main enabler, the Federal Reserve.  Nevertheless, Mr. Krugman remains an ardent champion of QE, even if it has no ameliorative effect on unemployment, even if it does nothing for the American commoner.  (I've often thought that Mr. Krugman should disclose his stock portfolio; with that, and preexisting knowledge of his three houses, we might draw a finer bead on some of his undisclosed motivations about bubble-blowing).

So I've been looking for ways to bring about a more thorough-going criticism of Mr. Krugman's Science, and in reading Lee Smolin's excellent Time Re-Born, I thought I might have found an analytical lens.  Mr. Smolin is a physicist at the University of Toronto, an egaging writer, who has set himself the task of proving that Time is real, and not an "illusion" or hypothesized dimension.  And in his description of "physics in a box," I thought I saw a way through to a broadside against the unscientific.  Which I will get to.

November 17, 2013

Mr. Krugman's Science: Ace Economist Discovers America

Brought to you by Peet's French Roast, pressed in a French press in a thoroughly French way...

If I were Paul Krugman, I would immediately offer a profuse apology for the hiatus in blogging.  So luxurious is Mr. Krugman's sense of self that he warns his vast herd of gullible lemmings when he knows that his busy schedule will compel him to be away.  He advises us to "be patient."  We will all have to stagger around in a confused state until he returns to his Conscientious Liberal post, slaps up a couple of graphs, and makes everything clear again.

Although yesterday...yesterday, Mr. Krugman did something rather strange. In commenting at length on a presentation Larry Summers made to the International Monetary Fund, that organ of imperialistic Neoliberalism which used to be very successful in transferring the material resources of the Third World to Wall Street and other Western capitals, Krugman let slip that the American economy is permanently fried.  As in:

"So how can you reconcile repeated bubbles with an economy showing no sign of inflationary pressures? Summers’s answer is that we may be an economy that needs bubbles just to achieve something near full employment – that in the absence of bubbles the economy has a negative natural rate of interest. And this hasn’t just been true since the 2008 financial crisis; it has arguably been true, although perhaps with increasing severity, since the 1980s."
For Mr. Krugman, Ace Economic Reporter for a Great Metropolitan Newspaper, this insight is stunning.  He needed Larry Summers, a genuine Big Thinker, to point it all out for him, and then Krugman, of course, had to muddle the picture with his usual jargon and obfuscation - the stuff about "negative interest rates" and, elsewhere in his fumbling analysis of the Summers take, his usual "liquidity trap" ....claptrap.   Mr. Krugman lives in constant terror that his readers are going to see just how obvious it is that the American economy is stuck in what Summers calls a permanent "secular stagnation."  If people begin to see that, then Mr. Krugman's shamanistic incantations about "Keynesian stimulus" and deficit spending and the rest are going to be seen for the futile, dangerous acts of lunacy which they are.  If the American economy isn't going to recover to its robust, humming 1964 essence (which is Mr. Krugman's apparent vision), then Mr. Krugman and the other mainstays on the New York Times Op-Ed pages (the Council of Morons consisting of David Brooks, Bill Keller, Tom Friedman and Mr. Krugman himself) have become completely irrelevant. Worse than irrelevant, because the "globalization" cheerleading of guys like Mr. Krugman and Mr. Friedman have assured America that it now has nothing left to fall back on.  Without the housing bubble, for example, the Planning (parties & weddings) & Tanning (one's own skin, not cowhide) Economy cannot reemerge, because the discretionary income to propel it is all gone.  American Commoners are just scraping by, saving their money to pay for relentlessly high gasoline and food prices, with only 62% of the working age population actually employed in some kind of job.

You have to work at places like the New York Times and Princeton to miss all of that. If you're an unemployed auto worker living in Detroit, you figured it all out a long time ago, and the wonders of the Flat Earth have been lost on you throughout this "secular stagnation."  Indeed, my reaction to Mr. Krugman's epiphany is identical to the young Alvey Singer's to the perennially-worng Ivan Ackerman. Forehead slap!

It is gratifying to see that others are coming around to the truth about Mr. Krugman.  For example, in a long piece on Counterpunch, Paul Craig Roberts muses about the possibility that Mr. Krugman might be a "voodoo economist." 

"Krugman has a social conscience for which I respect him. I am confident that he would agree with me that economists who lack a social conscience do more harm than good.  In my opinion, for what it is worth, Krugman does not understand or realize the way in which jobs offshoring has changed the US economy, the position of US workers and employees, and the efficacy of economic policy.

As I have often explained, when US corporations pursue higher profits at the expense of US labor by offshoring the jobs that produce the goods and services that they sell to Americans, they separate the US labor force from the incomes associated with the production of the goods and services that they consume.  Eventually, this destroys the consumer market.  According to the Census Bureau, American median family income is 9% less than a dozen years ago. This means that what once was spending power of American consumers is now the paper wealth of the mega-rich.

Keynesian stimulus policy works when the jobs from which people have been laid off still exist. By boosting aggregate demand for goods and services, the stimulus puts people back to work.  But if the jobs have been moved offshore and the factories closed, the jobs no longer exist.  No stimulus policy can put the unemployed into jobs that no longer exist.

Krugman has not come to terms with this basic fact.  Nor have the majority of economists. Economists assumed that new and better jobs would take the place of the offshored ones. However, as I am forever pointing out, there is no sign of these jobs in the employment data.

Most economists believe that jobs offshoring is free trade and that free trade is beneficial, which simply demonstrates their confusion.  Jobs offshoring is based on the pursuit of absolute advantage, the antithesis of comparative advantage that is the basis of free trade."

Well, Paul Craig Roberts is maybe new at this game, and there is a tendency at the outset to pull one's punches when dealing with Mr. Krugman, who, after all, is a Liberal and must therefore be a force for good.  In time Mr. Roberts will get over this misconception and will not bother with the obeisance and flattery.  He will see that the American Commoner is the very least of Mr. Krugman's concerns, and in time Mr. Roberts may even begin to appreciate the effect of the finite nature of Planet Earth's resources, and the unsustainable ecological path we are on, and how this "factor" precludes the "recovery" of any Western economy, now and forever. 

One cannot hope for everything at once.

November 02, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: The Big Duh

Gail Tverberg begins her latest essay on the "Our Finite World" blog as follows:

 "A few years ago, I had an ah-hah moment when it comes to what we as humans would need to do to live in a sustainable manner. It is very easy. All we have to do is leave our homes, take off all of our clothes, and learn to live on the raw food we are able to gather with our own hands. We have a built-in transportation system, so that is not a problem."

Such a viewpoint has a lot of implications, of course.  On a casual reading, without studying other essays she has written on Peak Oil, energy and resource scarcity, and overpopulation (and the impotence of alternative energy to overcome all of these problems), her ah-hah seems like the somewhat dotty raving of a cranky Luddite.  But Gail's not like that at all.  Mrs. Tverberg is an actuary and trained in the careful use of mathematics and probability.  She's run the numbers.  Modern industrial civilization is unsustainable, and switching to alternative energy sources to maintain 7 billion people at anything like the lifestyle of modern Western countries is not possible.

A lot of people are edging up to this conclusion.  Take Russell Brand, for example, in this funny interview which has gone viral:

When you get a feel for such things, you realize it is the interviewer who is being preposterous.  You begin to ask yourself a question (you begin sounding, in your own head, like David Byrne in "Once In A Lifetime"):  Where does the interviewer get his serene confidence in the status quo?  What is he talking about?

You may ask yourself:  How did we get here?  I would not presume to assess Mr. Brand's depth of understanding.  He seems like an extraordinarily intelligent person who has thought about the plight of the modern world, and his generation, at great length.

There are many points on the circumference of the circle with radial vectors toward the same center.  Jerry Mander's The Capitalist Papers, Clive Hamilton's Growth Fetish and Requiem for A Species, Craig Dilworth's Too Smart For Our Own Good (which Gail cites numerous times in her latest essay): The Big Duh is coming into focus now. The threat to our existence comes from the way we live.

It was pretty easy, even 40 years ago, to laugh off the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth and Paul Erlich's The Population Bomb, along with Herman Daly's Steady State Economics and the thermodynamic analysis of Barry Commoner.  Guess what, Fat Cat Capitalists, all you real-life Scrooge McDucks:  the joke's on you (and thus on us, too).  They were all right, and you were all wrong.  Dead wrong.

Naomi Klein (not to be confused with Naomi Wolff, the subject of a different interview, this one by Da Ali G), has turned her attention to global warming (tip o' the hat:  Dan).  It's a great essay, and I look forward to her book and movie to follow.  I am fascinated by such topics in the same way I would be fascinated to know, standing on a railroad track and feeling the first tremors in the rails,  whether the engine bearing down on me is a steam locomotive, an electro-diesel, or a TGV powered by good honest French nuclear power.

Revolution. Revolt.  Take off all of your clothes and live like a root-grubbing primate.   I suppose that's an approach that will make all human beings part of the One Hundred Percent.

October 26, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: Mr. Krugman's Science; or, You Wanna Get Nuts? Let's Get Nuts!


Megalomania is an occupational hazard in blogging, and I have witnessed any number of prominent blogmeisters succumb to the siren song of intellectual grandiosity.  Karl Denninger at Market Watch is a prime example.  He has gotten completely carried away with his Nostradamus Complex and with his "mathematical" certainties about the economic future.  Plus, he now knows everything, as indeed everyone does in this age of Wikipedia.  Karl was among the first to downplay the dangers of Fukushima, a call he made early in the ongoing disaster at the Daiichi plant.  He simply would not countenance the "hyperbole" surrounding what little real reporting there has been about radiation from the site, even as 300 tons of radioactive water began flowing from Daiichi into the Pacific Ocean, even as reports filtered in that all large fish caught in the Pacific these days contain traces of Fukushima radiation.  Even as we have learned that three of the nuclear reactor cores "have gone missing."  Yes, that's right; TEPCO, the hapless operator of the plant, cannot tell us where the molten remains of the melted-down reactor cores of Reactors 1, 2 & 3 are right now.  Somewhere down there, they're pretty sure, maybe under the concrete floor of the reactor buildings. Maybe they're in the groundwater, maybe they've already reached the Pacific Ocean.  Maybe they're in China.  They'll turn up.

TEPCO is now about to undertake the most dangerous engineering project in the history of human civilization.  It's going to remove the 1,500 fuel rods from the spent fuel pool in Reactor Building 4. This building was badly damaged in a hydrogen explosion that occurred early in the disaster in March, 2011.  The spent fuel pool is leaking, listing, it has no roof, and the computer-controlled apparatus designed to remove the fuel rods doesn't work anymore and cannot be repaired.  Mr. Denninger, who favors nuclear power (of the thorium breeder-reactor type) remains serene.  He even warns his readers, mostly of the libertarian persuasion like Mr. Denninger himself, that any "alarmist" commenting on his site about Fukushima will be deleted and the commenter will be banned.

Kind of touchy, I think.  Mr. Krugman, Ace Economic Scientist for a Great Metropolitan Newspaper, is similarly touchy.  The care and feeding of his own enormous ego is essentially Mr. Krugman's entire shtick.  He deliberately provokes controversy by attacking those who disagree with him in the most ad hominem terms possible, then retreating behind a facade of decorous propriety and civility.  Mr. Krugman was recently the subject of a three-part broadside by Niall Ferguson, the Scottish writer and historian at Harvard and Stanford's Hoover Institution.  Ferguson pointed out errors that Krugman has made, despite Krugman's oft-repeated assertion that he's right about everything.  Ferguson's attack was followed up by a long piece in Forbes that piled on with more anti-Krugman diatribes (h/t: W of the Show-Me State).

Well, of course Krugman is as wrong as often as he is right, whatever those designations may mean.  Krugman is an economist.  He's involved in a silly game of posting graphs and describing the correlations he wants to tease out of them.  Krugman doesn't even talk about the American economy. I don't think he's very interested in it.

Krugman is the ultimate Bar Bet Economist and Faculty Lounge Debater.  His goal is to draw attention to himself, and he is extraordinarily good at that.  And Krugman is smart enough to know that the field in which he plies his dubious trade is about as rigorous as third-grade social studies.  He knows he can't be "right" about anything, not in the same way his Princeton colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Studies are right about things.  And by the same token, he can't be wrong about anything, either.  Mr. Krugman wants to be taken seriously as a "scientist," but he knows that's not possible, because he's in the wrong field.  So he's doing what he can with his field, which is to make himself rich and famous, and a man of his somewhat limited intellectual resources (and awful, clunky writing style) can best do this by creating controversy about himself.  Thus, Niall Ferguson has played right into Mr. Krugman's hands.  Mr. Krugman revels in this stuff.  It's what he's after: attention.

As he travels from his home in the leafy neighborhood of Princeton, to his apartment in Manhattan, or jets down to his condominium in St. Croix, Mr. Krugman makes a big show of demonstrating his deep compassion for poor people.  They are his cause.  Okay, sure.  But to fill in the time and the blizzard of blog posts, Mr. Krugman will throw down the gauntlet to keep himself the center of attention, challenging those things that "everybody knows" that Mr. Krugman knows just aren't true. 

1.  Contrary to popular belief, globalization is a good thing, and it has not harmed the American working man.

2.  Contrary to another popular belief, America does not need Chinese support for its Treasury bond market; indeed, it would be good if China sold out its position altogether, if the dollar became weaker, and we simply allowed the Federal Reserve to buy all of our own debt, and, Friday's capper:

3.  Contrary to the "apocalyptic" ravings of the Deficit Scolds:  

"And I do mean fantasies. Washington has spent the past three-plus years in terror of a debt crisis that keeps not happening, and, in fact, can’t happen to a country like the United States, which has its own currency and borrows in that currency. Yet the scaremongers can’t bring themselves to let go."

There you have it.  Mr. Krugman has at last arrived in the bulrushes of the Hamptons, along with George Costanza.  America cannot have a debt crisis, because the dollar is our currency, we borrow money denominated in dollars, and therefore we can never run out of money.  If those holding dollars won't lend it to us anymore, our own central bank can just conjure the money out of thin air and buy our own bonds.  It's that simple.  You wanna get nuts?  Let's get nuts!

October 18, 2013

On the Book Shelf

Currently I'm reading an Italian novel by Fabio Volo (in English translation, of course). He's a European sensation, this guy Volo, whose easygoing writing style reminds me of Nick Hornby's books.  Fabio is a radio personality, a film maker, an actor, and a lady's man.  I don't guess he's having much fun in Roma, right? 

This novel is called "One More Day," and it's kind of an extended thought experiment.  A young Italian guy living in Rome, Giacomo, with a ho-hum job, takes the tram to work every day.  His schedule is the same as a young woman's who also takes the same tram almost every day.  He becomes obsessed with her.  He finds her a thing of matchless grace and beauty.  Uncharacteristically, he finds he is too shy ever to speak to her or to make much in the way of eye contact.  This goes on for a long time.  Finally, one day she asks him if he would like to get off the tram and have a cup of coffee with her.

So he does.  They talk and it develops that the next day she is flying to New York to take a new, dream job.  She is having a party that very night, in fact, and she (her name is Michela) invites Giacomo to come.  He makes up an excuse and begs off (his diffidence still in place).  The next day, however, he goes to the airport to spy on her departure.  Giacomo sees Michela in the company of a young man and figures she must be attached (this proves to be wrong; it is her brother).  Naturally, at some point Giacomo travels to New York to find her, and it is at that point that the "thought experiment" about relationships begins.

I like simple human tales like "One More Day."  I needed a break from the doomsday stuff, frankly, having just finished a couple of books by Clive Hamilton, the Australian economist/natural philosopher, including "Requiem For A Species."  This book, as the title hints, explores the reasons that humans never did anything about global warming.  Why the outbreaks of Denialism, the obstinance, the venality that blocked any effective response?  If, 30 years ago, we had simply reacted rationally, as a species, it is probable that the global warming crisis could have been averted without significant pain.  Indeed, it is likely that the overall quality of life would have been much better at this point.

A "reaction," of course, would have meant a comprehensive response involving Draconian population control, a powering down in energy usage, a massive retreat from consumer materialism, a "de-Americanization" of the world's economies, and a shift to ecological rhythms and limits in the way we live.  But it would have been fine.  It would have been nice. I would actually prefer it if the Pacific Ocean were not filled with a Texas-sized slurry of degrading plastic.

That's not what we did, of course.  We went the other way, although we began talking a great deal about what we weren't doing.  We substituted "concern" for action, and that's still mostly where we are. 

As far as the "Requiem" is concerned, I'm not completely convinced of explanations, where human psychology is concerned, that involve "many reasons."  I don't think humans really process decisions that way.   The adage that a decision is simply the last thing we were thinking when we got tired of the problem makes the most sense to me.

I think that human beings are simply naturally fatalistic.  While modern industrial civilization, the artifact of human ingenuity, has now produced our own extinction event, we each had a personal extinction event that predated this one.  We call it death.  When we read that we must do something now to avoid a sea level rise of 20 feet in the year 2100, for example, unconsciously we do a quick calculation and move on to the...Fabio Volo novel.

Eventually, the threat of near-term extinction will match up, or be congruent with, the timeline we associate with a human life.  We may well be there now, but the vagaries of climate science give us enough wiggle room to avoid thinking that way in conclusive terms.  Maybe I will get through my life and experience only these "super storms" that the mass media now write about, timorously suggesting that maybe this is connected to climate change, before the news outlet is inundated with vicious, corporate-sponsored Denialist troll attacks.   The weather has always varied!

It's what makes this trudge toward oblivion darkly humorous, in a sad, George Carlin way.  Our extinction is hiding in plain sight.  It's the weather, for crying out loud.  But as I say, maybe that's all I will ever see, and with luck, it's all my daughter's generation will ever see.  Strangeness in the weather, as the Arctic ice disappears, and Greenland melts, and the oceans acidify, the meridional flow of the jet streams brings us odd climate events like annual 100-year floods and searing droughts - but we get through it okay.  The wheels don't completely come off. 

As a selfish Homo sapiens, another ape not half so smart as he thought he was (and definitely Too Smart For His Own Good), I would gladly take that.  Let me read about Italian romances in peace, and may my daughter have the same luxury.  That's all I really ask at this point.

October 17, 2013

Sound & Fury, Signifying Nothing

Another line borrowed from the "This Shit Writes Itself" man.  A particularly good line, actually, although Shakespeare's reference was to all of life.  Anyway, the corrupt solons of the District of Calumnia are busily strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage, but it's not likely we'll hear no more from them.

Partly as an answer to good friend TJR's welcome letter: I have managed to maintain a sang-froid attitude about these budget & debt ceiling shenanigans because I don't think the country's real problems are related to choosing the right "political theory" to manage the economy, or to redistribute wealth, or to ensure our "freedoms."  The use by the Tea Party of Obamacare as its rallying cry, because enforced health insurance is the surest sign of tyranny, must be some kind of bad joke. How utterly confused can you get?  Obamacare was devised by the Heritage Foundation, a right wing think tank.  It is a corporate giveaway that channels money from the government to private health insurance companies by means of tax-supported subsidies.  Obamacare is the result of liberal/conservative compromise because it's politically impossible to provide single payer health care in this country to the general populace.
But we all knew that.  The Tea Party is simply the kind of political movement that arrives right on schedule whenever times get hard for the general populace, and things have gotten hard and will probably stay hard...more or less forever.  That is because we have reached the limits to growth in the United States and in the Western world (including Japan) generally.  Tea Parties, or the Ku Klux Klan, or the Nazis, are political parties of resentment and opportunism.  The Tea Party is mostly made up of obese, diabetic, poorly-educated, Baby Boom white trash, and their militaristic cadres in the younger generations,  who know their lives have gone off the rails, who don't understand how the modern economy works (or why it doesn't work), and are looking around for someone to blame.  In Germany scapegoats were provided by the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and Slavic untermenschen.  In modern America we have turned to our perennial favorites, African-Americans (thus, the rabid, irrational hatred of the President), along with immigrants and gays, who have been brought back for a command encore. Playing off these hatreds and prejudices can propel a mediocrity like Ted Cruz to national prominence, exactly as it did a failed Austrian artist about 80 years ago in Germany.

Well, what other avenue was Ted Cruz going to follow to the top?

Meanwhile, back at ground level, the Earth's bounty is beginning to sputter.  Although you would never know it from reading liberal economists such as Paul Krugman, an economy is ultimately dependent on the natural world, a circumstance which arises from our carbon-based essence.  Mr. Krugman and his ilk, who live inside dry lab models of an America which existed mainly between about 1950 and the late 1990's, cannot admit their irrelevance without becoming one of the unemployed masses studying books on subsistence organic farming.  As Gail Tverberg wryly notes - Mr. Krugman, or Larry Summers, or Eugene Fama, the latest Nobel winner in this dubious field, these witch doctors are proponents of a political system called "Economism," which posits the likelihood (and necessity) of endless growth on a finite planet, with an ever-increasing population.  Thus, the addition of more and more debt, which multiplies itself exponentially, will never be a problem because of the exponential growth that lies just ahead, as soon as we come up with the right re-jiggering of the elements of the economy, the correct level of money-printing, or stimulus, or tax redistribution.

Well, it works on paper.  Does it work so well in the real world where the increasing cost of the basic energy fuel, petroleum, keeps going up because of the increasing costs of extraction and the daunting difficulties of getting at the ever harder to find remaining supplies?  Does it work so well when the atmosphere now has 400 parts per million carbon dioxide, and ominous signs, such as methane vents in the Arctic and Siberian tundra, presage the onset of a runaway greenhouse effect?

That's the real world, if you ask me.  The circus in Washington is a massive, hallucinatory diversion in which the corporate politicians give interviews to the mouthpieces of the corporate media and talk as if all this "debt ceiling" and budget cutting nonsense is any kind of answer to the problems of the real, physical world.  As you watch the spittle fly from Chris Matthews's bloated face, do you ever hear him place these problems in any kind of environmental context?  Does the President ever mention this stuff?  He's talking again about igniting "growth" in the country so we can have "good jobs" and "get America working again."  So America can "pay its bills."

Nature bats last, as Guy McPherson reminds us.  We are moving full-speed into a resource-constrained world, where oil, fresh water, arable land, and a viable climate will all be in increasingly short supply.  We narcotize ourselves with ideas of easy transition to alternative energy and "renewables," figuring there will be plenty of time for such a seamless transition "some day" into a Green Future, but for the moment, let's bail out General Motors, squeeze those tar sands, level those Kentucky mountains and extract that "clean coal," fill the Pacific Ocean with cesium and strontium from crumbling reactors.  We have all the time in the world, we just have to get the country moving again so that the economy is operating at "full potential."

The ultimate fantasy being: the world at large will enjoy the American lifestyle, in all its opulent, porcine glory circa-1985, all seven or eight billion people, warm, toasty and well-fed with their solar and wind-powered everything doing the work.  It will all take care of itself, and no one ever has to even talk about it.  We just need to lift that debt ceiling and get America back to work, doing something or other, powered by something or other else.

October 08, 2013

The Default Lies Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves

Further proof that This Shit Writes Itself. 

I am genuinely agnostic about the prospect of a default by the Treasury on its humongous debt obligations. I see the whole controversy as ranting and raving about the ultimate zero sum game.  What's the difference, when you come right down to it?  The worst that could happen is that all these incredibly annoying people in Congress would become unemployed, Chris Matthews could wipe the spittle from the corners of his mouth one last time, Bill O'Reilly could stop writing memos to himself, and that would be that.  All of the states have governments. They could take over.

And just because it's such a tantalizing and attractive idea, you know it will never happen.

Now, I should point out that the Treasury's position is out of control for self-inflicted reasons.  The budget could be brought into balance almost immediately by eliminating 75% of the military-industrial complex (reducing its drain from $1 trillion per year to $250 billion, and emphasizing the nuclear umbrella, which is all we really need to deter aggression against us), but the politicians in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, cannot do that without giving up their hobby of playing war all year long, year in, year out.  If they throw down their guns, American citizens will begin to notice that all Washington, D.C. really does is recycle money through two elaborate insurance schemes, Social Security and Medicare, and both of those functions could be outsourced to call centers in Bangalore, India.  Plus our Customer Representatives in India could, while we're on the line, reboot our internet connection and tell us how to program the DVR.  Try that with Ted Cruz.

Beyond the military, state governments would be perfectly competent to handle what little else the federal government does (for example, let the states run the wildernesses known as the national parks).   We don't need a federal government.

 Congress can't eliminate the military without losing a major source of baksheesh from defense contractors, not to mention their raison d'etre (attacking foreign countries), and if they try to eliminate Social Security they're up against this:

"For nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of elderly beneficiaries, Social Security provides the majority of their cash income. For more than one-third (36 percent), it provides more than 90 percent of their income. For one-quarter (24 percent) of elderly beneficiaries, Social Security is the sole source of retirement income.[21] (See figure below.)" Center on Budget  and Policy Priorities.

Crunch the math on the above sad situation for a moment.  If the average Social Security old age benefit is $1,200 per month, which it is, then in general for two-thirds of the elderly, $1,200 represents, on average, most of their income, meaning that total income is less than $2,400 per month. If the federal government suddenly removes more than half of this amount from a huge number of elderly retirees (about 40 million people), then Congress will plunge this cohort of habitual voters into deep poverty.  The following day, a Million Walker & Wheelchair March would descend on the Capitol Dome, and Republican chances in the fall of 2014 would go into the toilet.

So the Congressional clowns aren't really going to do anything like that.  The Republican morons have made a lot of noise about Obamacare, but that's for The Base.  They know Obama cannot back down on that, his only accomplishment as President.  But he will back down on something else, probably food stamps, and that will be the next trophy on John Boehner's wall, displayed proudly next to the Sequester and the repeal of the FICA tax break, all without mothballing a single aircraft carrier or cancelling a single war.

Nor can the Republicans allow a default.  Manufacturing dollar bills is this country's main industry and our chief export.  Congress cannot play games with this money machine (quite literally).  It's all over if we do, because we have nothing else other than bombs and Frankenstein food to sell. 

Relax and enjoy the circus.  Oh look!  Ted Cruz is going to run all the way across the ring and jump onto the back of that white horse with a chihuahua for a jockey!