Wednesday, July 23, 2008

McCain's Ignorance and Incompetance, revisited...

About a week ago I posted about how, though I'm relatively happy with the two candidates this time around, I'm still somewhat frightened by McCain - his inability to understand basic economics, complete lack of familiarity with modern technology, and (perhaps worst) incompetence in choosing worthwhile advisers. This op-ed by Frank Rich at the New York Times makes much the same point, and is extremely thorough. Republicans, read at your own risk!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Defense Secretary Sounding Smart...

Here is a surprising message from a US Defense Secretary - particularly one nominated by Bush. Its a shame that it wasn't the prevailing mindset for most of the past seven years...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Clean, Green, Gore...

As many of you have heard, no doubt, Al Gore gave a speech on Wednesday calling for the US to set a goal of powering itself 100% on clean or renewable sources within ten years. I don't normally embed videos, but here is the speech, it's worth watching:

As far as my take on the speech, let me say that I'm extremely happy about Gore's analysis and presentation (although some of his language is still a bit erudite). If he gave a speech with this much passion eight years ago, he may have been elected president. At the same time, the cynical part of me wonders if bold rhetoric translates into change, or not being taken seriously. Given that this is Al Gore, I imagine he is difficult to dismiss, so the bold rhetoric is useful - so long as we understand that 100% of our energy will not be generated using non-carbon sources within ten years, especially if one includes coal in the mix.

However - this caveat does not mean that similar bold goals aren't attainable - for instance, reducing the vast majority of our dependence on oil as a resource, and triggering significant cuts in emissions and heavy metals over the next ten years. Here is a useful document from the Edison institute. The most telling section is page five - where there are pie charts giving our energy production breakdown.

Using this data, a few things become clear. First, reforming coal power is perhaps the single most important short-term reform in terms of emissions: 50% of our electricity comes from coal. Policies on the adoption of clean coal technologies need to be prioritized. Second, renewable energy sources are currently a paltry 9% of our energy portfolio (not including hydro power, which is severely handicapped by the location of potential sources, only 2.4% of our power is renewable). However, nuclear power currently accounts for almost 20% of our electricity generation - and thus represents a useful technology to be expanded (the french, for instance, rely primarily on nuclear power). Contrary to popular myth and fears, modern nuclear power plants are some of the safest, most cost-effective, and most reliable sources of electricity we have access to. They are not "three mile island, take two" waiting to happen. Investment in nuclear plants likewise represents an excellent, less infrastructure-intensive option to revamping our electrical grid. So - in terms of how we generate our electricity, a number of relatively simple approaches exist - approaches that don't displace whole industries (e.g. the coal industry - referenced in Gore's admission of the need for new jobs for coal miners).

Given the still-present efficiency hurdles in solar, geothermal, and wind power, we should think about some more readily achievable steps in reforming how we generate electricity - though this is not to suggest that fully renewable sources shouldn't be explored in greater detail. This seems to be particularly true since the same is not the case in terms of our oil dependency and transportation habits. Consider, for example, our vast foreign oil dependency - yet only 3% of our energy is produced with oil. What this means is that the oil dependency is a matter of our transportation habits far more than our energy generation habits (assuming we switch to clean coal and expand effectively). That is a far thornier problem requiring substantial investments in new technology, public transit infrastructure (inter-city and intra-city), urban planning, and transportation regulations.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Presidents, Knowledge, Worldview, and Age

Now that the general election is upon us, let me say that I'm actually reasonably pleased with the two candidates we have. McCain is a moderate republican with a history of bipartisanship (something he should be emphasizing in this election more than he is, but that's another discussion), and Obama preaches a message of bridging differences and including republicans in his administration - a pragmatic, goal-focused approach that takes input from all comers (incidentally, this is why current positions aren't "backpedaling" - Barack's just shifting the emphasis to those positions he holds which are centrist, rather than his democratic policies - smart pragmatism and selective emphasis, but not flip-flopping).

Having said that I'm generally happy with the candidates, let me raise a brief point - I'm not sure whether this is attributable to age, political inclinations, length of time served in national office, general worldview, or overall education/intelligence... but one major reason that I prefer Obama to McCain is his flexibility and the fact that he seems much more "in touch" with the rapidly changing conditions of the world we live in (for a good recent piece from CEPR, see this link). On the one hand this is a domestic point - energy policy, economic policy, education policy, health policy, etc. all need to be addressed after eight years of relative neglect - and Obama has a fairly substantial understanding of economics (partly training from his international relations undergraduate, partly inherited ability from his father - a Harvard-trained economist from Kenya). There's also points here about the increasingly multi-cultural, multi-religious society we live in, but I'll leave that alone for now.

On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, this is a significant foreign policy point. It's true that McCain has been around the block more than a few times on foreign policy. But we need to consider the context of most of his experience and how valuable it really is. For most of John McCain's life, and a significant portion (if not most) of his time in office, we lived in a Cold War paradigm, and foreign policy was dominated by a Cold War, superpower-focused, quasi-colonial mindset. Experience is valuable, yes, but it also shapes the way in which we think, and we can have trouble adapting as we age (I'm not saying this to be insulting, only as a fact of life to be considered). This depth of experience leaves McCain vulnerable to assessing current problems from a framework that is finally past its shelf life. Its arguable that the Cold war mindset was useful in the 1990s transition era, but the current players now are China, India, Brazil, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Russia... and Russia is far from the most important.

Obama is young only by the standards of the presidency, by any other standard he is a middle-aged man (forty-six). He's not a starry-eyed youth, someone fresh out of grad school. Even more telling - his advisors are well-seasoned, flexible foreign policy experts who have been around the executive office for eight years... nearly all are Clinton veterans who guided us through a difficult transition decade with remarkable success. I have faith that these advisors can show similar flexibility, intelligence, and pragmatism again. But, put simply, I have my doubts about McCain.

It really is hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

Housing Bubble and Education

Here's something so obvious, I can't believe I didn't think of it before. First: A question. What is the chief source of financing for public education in the United States? Answer: Local funding comes, by and large, from property taxes. Next question: what happens to property tax revenues when property values plunge after a real estate bubble bursts? You guessed it - revenues drop off fast, and with them, so do school budgets (barring unpopular tax rate increases, of course). Given the shortfall and more general need to make up the shortfall in local and state budgets - Mark Weisbrot at CEPR has a rather common-sense proposal to help make up the difference: start taxing sales from online vendors, who are currently exempt from sales taxes.

To forestall the obvious complaint that this could be an accounting nightmare for online vendors selling across the country - my answer is not more more so than for standard brick-and-mortar stores, particularly since UPC codes allow for individual product tracking, and most online vendors are large enough to handle the burden given that they already save on the cost of maintaining physical assets.

More generally, this is just a drop in the bucket compared to a much larger problem - why are we funding public education with property taxes in the first place? Given the inequality (even adjusted for Cost of Living) between property values (even within one county), and given the sheer importance of education as the bedrock of a society... does it really make sense to have the fuel for the system vary drastically by regions? I know there are legal (and arguably constitutional) issues in federal funding and standardization of education... but its about time we looked into the idea seriously. We consistently score at the bottom of the industrialized world in terms of education - and as other countries start to catch-up economically, we won't be able to count on our size to protect our economy (arguably, we already can't). That says nothing of the social, political, and lifestyle benefits of a well-educated population... though those are arguably even more important than the economic ones. Just some food for thought - I'm sure education will become a theme of this blog eventually.