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Showing posts from 2017

The Fugger Factor

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Five hundred years ago, as the Reformation was brewing in Germany, the Fugger family soared to
heights of wealth never before attained by captains of industry. Though the Fuggers strove to monopolize all of their markets, other capitalists caught on to the possibilities and managed to join the conspicuous ranks of the aristocracy. On the brink of Europe's most sweeping cultural change in centuries, the wealth of the upper class brought about what Will Durant called "the greatest economic disparities as Europe had not known since the millionaires and slaves of Imperial Rome."

In commemoration of this quincentennial, I would like to offer a new metric for recognizing the potential for disparities in economic wealth to bring about radical societal disruption; introducing "the Fugger factor." I'll leave it to folks like Thomas Piketty to quantify this metric, but suffice it to say that today's Fugger factor in the U.S. is as high as it's been since the…

It Takes a Pillage

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The preliminary version of the Department of Education's budget proposal looks like they took the Green Party platform on education and came up with ways to do everything the opposite.


Green Party PositionBlowhard BudgetThe Green Party supports equal access to high-quality education, and sharp increases in financial aid for college students.The Blowhard administration supports unequal access to high-quality education by promoting private schools, and sharp decreases in financial aid for college students.The Green Party is strongly opposed to the dissolution of public schools and the privatization of education. We believe that the best educational experience is guaranteed by the democratic empowerment of organized students, their parents and communities along with organized teachers.While advocating local control, DeVos proposes to use federal dollars to entice districts to adopt school-choice policies, adding new investment in alternatives to public schools.We must stop disinvestme…

Sonny, Don't Blow Up the Kids!

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In my previous post, I referred to rising U.S. food prices and included a link to the latest monthly data as evidence. Critical readers may have questioned whether that supported the idea that we are seeing food price outpace inflation over any significant period of time, rather than just the latest month. You may research it yourself or take my word for it, but I took the PPI data from the BLS pages and compared the cumulative food price rise to core inflation over the 7+ years of data given and determined that food prices have, indeed, risen faster than inflation by 0.2 percent - not enough to even notice, but my statement stands. I could have researched CPI data and come up with slightly different results, but since my initial reference was based on producer prices, PPI should be adequate for this discussion.

The global picture is much more stark. Using data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, it is easy to see from this graph that, since around 2000, food prices have ris…

Apocollapse Now

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I may have missed it, but in my twelve years as a cost analyst for the Department of Defense, including the highest level of certification from the Defense Acquisition University, I never once heard of Baumol's Cost Disease. Nonetheless, the late William Baumol was famous for his discovery of how the cost of services rises implacably while the cost of goods decline. Cost analysts could be spared much consternation through this principle, but it also clarifies the situation for the man on the street.

When you look at the declining productivity gains over the past few decades, much of the slowdown can be attributed to this "disease," wherein more and more employment has shifted away from manufacturing and into services. Manufacturing processes are more easily automated than most service jobs, so the shift to large-scale, centralized manufacturing has improved efficiencies and profits in that sector.

I have built my projection of our economic future on the concepts in The L…

Everything is Fine

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Wages are up and unemployment down in the latest monthly figures for the U.S. economy. Everything is fine...except that the rise in employment probably doesn't make up for the drop in productivity, which is caused, at least in part, by the sour mood of national politics. At least the economy keeps humming along... which is actually the problem.

We cannot continue to pursue growth in a fossil fueled economy. It's a dead end - at the edge of a cliff - dropping off into the raging sea which is pounding at the cliff and threatening its collapse. Old Blowhard is opening up the throttle of free enterprise and disconnecting the governor. At this speed, our runaway engine won't be able to avoid sending us off the cliff. We need to back down on the throttle and steer in a new direction. A renewable economy would steer us away from the cliff, though that is a course Old Blowhard has clearly abandoned with his appointment of Daniel Simmons to head the Office of Energy Efficiency and …

NAFTA Sucks

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The best thing that I got out of the Climate March in D.C. on Saturday was meeting someone with a similar background who is also a permaculturalist. Even if they fail to catch the attention of politicians, protest marches and rallies serve to build community and solidarity around ideas and solutions. More protests followed the next day and again the next with a focus on the rights of workers. Seems the honeymoon hasn't led to a very happy marriage.

The May Day protests included a large contingent of immigrant rights advocates who have their own particular difficulties under a hostile administration in addition to being able to earn a decent living. New entrants to the U.S. workforce, immigrant or not, have had to struggle with stagnant or declining wages since 2000. Yet, worker productivity has continued to climb year after year, although the rate of increase has halved to less than 1% per year over the past decade.

Old Blowhard thinks that people are hungry for jobs, but the econ…

Robbing Hood

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Here's the kind of tax philosophy we were hoping to get from a people's president who promised to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.
... make corporations and the super-rich pay their fair share ... progressive taxation, shifting tax from individuals to corporations, taxing "bads" not "goods," taxing unearned income at the same rate as earned income, taxing speculation on Wall Street, and cutting corporate tax giveaways ... comprehensive tax reform to simplify the tax system ... eliminate loopholes and other exemptions that favor corporate and wealthy interests over tax justice ... Small business, in particular, should not be penalized by a tax system which benefits those who can "work" the legislative tax committees for breaks and subsidies. ... substantive and wide-ranging reform of the tax system that helps create jobs, economic efficiencies, and innovation within the small business community ... end "corporate welfare."  Campaign pr…

Good Neighbors Make Low Fences

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Regarding migration, which Samuel P. Huntington called "the central issue of our time," the Green Party takes a humanitarian, internationalist view. In the long run, the Green position is that North America should become more like the European Union with regard to border policies, rather than building walls on the U.S. southern border.

This week may be decisive as to whether Blowhard's promised wall will be built. He wants to get it into the bill that continues funding the government, but the 60% majority needed for its passage appears to be out of reach. He's even threatening to shut down the government for his pet project.

Spending oodles of tax dollars on a big wall to keep Latinos out would be a net negative. If Jared Diamond's observation that good international relations with neighboring countries is key to avoiding collapse, then we would probably be better off without a giant wall.  Good fences might make good neighbors in New England farm country, but th…

First they came for the Muslims, but I did not speak out - Because I was not a Muslim...

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George Calvert's vision for Maryland was a religiously tolerant colony where citizens would be entitled to live as landed gentry.  Lord Baltimore had embraced Catholicism, though much of Europe was turning to Protestant puritanism. As a consequence, Maryland became a refuge for all faiths; for Catholics especially.

It is not unlikely that there were even some Muslims among those who settled early in Maryland, but most came later to the colonies as slaves. It is estimated that up to 1/3 of the slaves in the colonies were Muslim. Their faith did not flourish in the new world, however, as religion was just another part of their liberty that their Christian overlords decided to withhold.

Repression of Islam by American society (like that which occurred in the early years of our democracy) has surfaced again since we became embroiled in constant war in the Middle East. A homegrown propaganda industry has warped many Americans' perception of Islam no less than the Russian propaganda…

Roots

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Being a Navy brat, and later navigating my own Navy career, nothing I could call home ever left much dust on my shoes before being washed away with the next tide. Having retired in the same southern Maryland town where I finished my Navy career, I haven't felt anyplace drawing me back home. Yet, intriguing information that my older brother just discovered, now makes me feel like Calvert County, Maryland is where I belong anyway.

According to my brother, who has long been curious about the Gillett family genealogy, our
great¹¹grandparents are Leonard R. Calvert and Alicia Grace Calvert through their daughter Mary and son-in-law Isaac Chapline. George Calvert, my great¹⁰grandmother Mary's brother, was responsible for arranging the chartering of Maryland as a colony apart from Virginia. He was a baron with the title Lord Baltimore, after which there followed six others with the same title. I've long had a vague sense of being deeply rooted in America because family oral hist…

Before Letting the GeNe Out of the Bottle...

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Applying the Precautionary Principle to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), we support a moratorium until safety can be demonstrated by independent (non-corporate funded), long-term tests for food safety, genetic drift, resistance, soil health, effects on non-target organisms, and cumulative interactions. - Green Party Platform (Agriculture)The Green Party would probably like to idle CRISPR until we better understand all of the ramifications of making changes to an organism's DNA, but its inventors have come out with a benign version that can be used just to detect a particular disease. It does this through matching RNA of the virus or other pathogen, typically from a blood, urine, or saliva sample. The fact that the new system, named SHERLOCK, can be impregnated into paper and stored there until needed makes it very cheap to produce by the millions for bedside detection of communicable diseases, cancers, and other urgent conditions. Each unique RNA sequence being checked (Zika…

America's Weak Immune System

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While weighing the possibilities of launching more Tomahawks on parts uncivilized, Blowhard has paid scant attention to a threat far more perilous than chemical weapons; even far more likely than a nuclear attack, but more deadly. That threat is from viruses in our environment that can mutate, spread, and multiply too quickly for us to respond if we are not organized and prepared. Once a virus is on a rampage, the result of unpreparedness could be millions of deaths in just a few weeks... for months on end.

Those viruses may seem to favor squalid and exotic places, but globalization, decay of our cities and towns, and wild changes in our climate make the U.S. a better breeding ground than we would care to admit. Neglect of the environment only increases the chances of a pandemic. Blowhard is not only guilty of such neglect, he is also failing to appoint officials who can prepare us for any outbreaks that do occur - indeed, he is calling for drastic budget cuts to agencies whose job it…

The Solution to Pollution is Economic Revolution

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It may have escaped most people's notice that availability of the earth's resources has been swiftly declining for decades. This will soon be reflected in a declining rate of goods available to the average world citizen, including food. Widespread hunger will be a faithful witness that we lack the basic necessities to sustain a growing world population. Those of seared conscience will begin to take notice when they sense it in their gut, if not in the food line.

This predicament simplifies decision-making considerably. When decisions deal with feeding a starving population in the interest of the common good, choices that improve food production and distribution should receive highest consideration. Problems that weren't formerly seen in those terms are brought into stark relief when recast in the context of famine.

Many issues could be boiled down to how well the possible solutions improve food availability, but one salient example in my neck of the woods is the health of …

The Chesapeake Bay in Greater Peril Than Ever

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While the estuary on a stick known as Maryland girds for legal battles over continuing the federal program to restore the Chesapeake Bay, the global force of climate change will increasingly hamper the region-wide effort even if the program ends up being fully funded in the official federal budget.

We are already able to discern the impacts of climate change on the Chesapeake. For example, though most of the world is losing access to water, the northern Chesapeake Bay area where I live has gained 6.6 inches of annual precipitation over the last century. In some respects, this is beneficial, but the major negative effect of more heavy rain is runoff into the bay and its tributaries, causing pollution by nutrients and sediment. This is exacerbated by urbanization throughout much of the watershed. Building codes and local governments are racing to keep up with the problem of stormwater runoff caused by development.

Rising temperatures affects a number of other aspects of the bay ecosyste…

Smoke on the Water

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While states in the southwest dicker over who gets the last slurps of the Colorado River, here in Maryland we are at odds with other states in our region over the spillovers from their industries on our air and water. The paralysis at the EPA over budget cuts and policy changes leaves us hanging.

The water pollution in question is that affecting the Chesapeake Bay which is almost wholly located in Maryland and Virginia, though polluted water may enter the bay from the four other states in the watershed. Farming is often assigned culpability, but urbanization is more and more to blame. It has taken decades to get the six states and D.C. to agree on strict pollution reduction measures. Without the EPA to manage this agreement, it will be difficult to ensure that all parties abide by it.

The air pollution comes from several more states, mainly to the west of Maryland. The EPA has been less instrumental in helping Maryland and the bay with this problem. The problem stems from power plant …

Raiders of the Lost Watershed

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Maryland has decided to forego the fracking craze! One of the major reasons is the damage to aquifers from use and disposal of fracking fluid. Water is life.

If anyplace exemplifies that statement, it is Las Vegas. They need lots of water to make their desert village seem like an oasis to visitors. They get it from Lake Mead on the Colorado River. Unfortunately, like frackers pumping every ounce of oil or gas they can reach, Nevada has tapped Lake Mead all the way to the bottom in their desperation for water. If the long-term drought continues (though snowpack this year promises some relief), by 2030 there will not be enough water to conduct business as usual in Las Vegas.

Southern California, which would also lose its supply from the Colorado River, could at least start desalinating sea water. Vegas doesn't appear to have any realistic alternatives besides conservation which, gauging by the falling level of Lake Mead, hasn't been enough to beat the drought. I doubt there was a…

Sticky Tarheels vs. Loose Wildcats

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Today's plans include a homemade pizza
(pepperoni, mushroom, green pepper), a boilermaker, and CBS at 5 pm (EST) where UK and UNC vie for a spot in the Final Four. My several reasons for taking time to watch a televised college sports match are that (1) I have close family in both states (one being a UNC alum), (2) I have lived in both states at different points in my life, (3) I like watching sports, and (4) these two teams represent a clash between player aggrandizement and competition for team glory.

UK is an NBA player factory. High school superstars go in and professional players emerge a year or so later. North Carolina is not about that. High school superstars go in and they remain homeboys through graduation and beyond. Since I abjure professional sports, I'll be rooting for the Tarheels.

North Carolina is one of the top five states for Division I basketball recruitment, three others of which are concentrated around North Carolina. This gives UNC an ample recruitment p…

Putting Away Childish Things

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Richard Branson lost an airline today. However, he has another in the works under the Virgin brand; more precisely, a spaceline: Virgin Galactica. Maybe we should just call it a high end airline - elites only, one of whom is pledged to be Stephen Hawking.

Stephen isn't the only disabled person getting a boost. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools must develop challenging curricula for every learning disabled student according to their capabilities. No longer can schools claim success with these students by teaching to the level of the lowest common denominator. In other words, special education students are going to be getting special treatment.

In sports, special kids are rising to challenges with the special olympics which is just about to wrap up for winter in Austria. For the rest of us, sports festivals are a kind of special olympics for not so special athletes. They help us keep fit and raise money for charity. Beyond that, adults competing in sports are, l…

New Worlds Coming?

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Besides the return to industrialism (and later, agrarianism), another resemblance the U.S. has to Russia is our continuation of costly space programs. Spin-offs of these efforts do compensate at least partially for our investment, but space programs that support continuation of globalism (for example) may not pay off very well as trade dwindles due to diminishing resources. Another longshot, or rather, moonshot, is the proposal to NASA by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to set up infrastructure on and around the moon that will be the beginnings of an effort to support "millions of people living and working in space."

That sounds like it could become a bit expensive, even if undertaken by fanatically dedicated engineers. I can't help but wonder if the urge to populate space stems from a Plan B choice regarding the carrying capacity of Plan A (Earth). If that is the motivation, then it seems to me that we could get along fine without Plan B if nations would be willing to live …

Losses in Space

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Artificial intelligence, though developed with benevolent purposes, might soon open up IT to catastrophes that would turn us away from technological overreach. Combining AI with robotics raises the possibility of a Frankenstein scenario. An intelligent computer that wanted to solve the world's problems might conclude, through machine learning, that we humans must be culled in order for life on Earth to continue. Inside a brigade of self-arming robots, that knowledge could spell trouble. Yoshimi, we may need you soon.

On the way to creating Frankenstein's monster, intelligent computers will be employed in fights against one another. Most IT systems are developed with information security and anti-tampering tools added on, rather than included from conception. As a result, early versions are often more vulnerable to hacking than those which have matured. If AI systems incorporate self-taught protection from cyberattacks, the cycle is likely to become shorter, provided the system…

Rogue Agencies on Steroids

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Tim Berners-Lee, co-inventor of the Internet, had some points to make at SXSW concerning disturbing trends that point to the Internet becoming a tool of political forces to manipulate user opinions, thus placing even more power in the hands of political elites.

More disturbing still is the rapid growth in recent years of artificial intelligence which enables computers to take actions based on experiential learning. Aside from elevating more geeks to the privileged classes, many abuses of power and miscarriages of justice are possible in an AI dominated system that presumes to interpret human traits and behavior.

While the Internet may be a tool to manipulate the masses, AI and cyber surveillance are tools more suited to regimenting the elite. Under ostensible democracy, non-elites can be fed propaganda tailored to their world views which may suffice to determine the outcome of elections. Elites, however, need to be more regimented, because deviations from the norm by those of their ra…

The First Step's a Doozy

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It is ironic that 1974, the year that John Michael Greer ascribes to the commencement of our catabolic collapse, corresponds to the emergence of tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who brought IT into homes, cubicles, and pockets all over the globe. Collapse was taking place in the rust belt industries as silicon became the raw material of choice. The industrial sector giving way to the information sector is not unlike farmers abandoning the plow and moving to the city. It doesn't necessarily indicate impending collapse. Instead, it marks a point when the underlying economic elements of one era have matured to the point where more of the same isn't essential to sustaining society.

Nonetheless, if our industries continue to undergo neglect and decay, the scene could begin to look like a William Gibson novel with all manner of esoteric virtual reality gadgets strewn among the detritus of the Industrial Age.  The SXSW festival itself is something of a virtual realit…