Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Government to the Rescue

   Like it or not,  the drop in GDP and consumer spending would have been several times worse if the federal safety net programs had not been in place, to automatically kick in when they did.  An article in the Washington Times claims that reliance of the entire economy on federal transfer payments is now at an all time high.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Crop Residue Boom

            According to a May 16th article in the Des Moines Sunday Register, three large corporations are now collaborating in a research project aimed at cashing in on the coming boom in crop residue.  Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, and Deere & Co are trying to work out ways to harvest, transport, and process cornstalks into profitable products, such as ethanol, cattle feed,  or chemical feedstock.  Cellulosic ethanol is far past the stage of a starry-eyed vision, when major corporations start betting serious bucks on it.
            According to Paul Gallagher of Iowa State University, after leaving enough stover (crop residue) in the field to maintain soil fertility and protect against erosion, Iowa could still produce 26 million tons per year for industrial uses.  That equals 2 billion gallons of ethanol.  And as crop yields increase, stover yield will increase too.
            For many people, the term “alternative energy” conjures up visions of some hirsute Mother Earth News reading  hippie trying to live “off the grid” on his goat ranch in Idaho.  That was thirty years ago.  Today, large companies like GE are building huge multi-million dollar wind turbines, and the largest power companies on earth are buying and installing them, while Deere & Co, ADM, and Monsanto are trying to figure out how to run the country on cornstalks.  I’ve seen the future and it looks a lot like north central Iowa.  Interestingly, Texas and other western states who were the main energy suppliers in the oil boom may supply even more energy in the wind power boom.  (And wind won’t pollute the groundwater.)
            The ethanol industry may soon reach a stage of development where it becomes economically viable even without government mandates and subsidies.  But without those mandates and subsidies, this progress could not have happened. Yet from day one, we’ve heard complaints that none of these subsidies or mandates should have been used--that if technologies can’t pay their own way, then they must be a losers and the government shouldn’t be throwing money at them.  Of course, the complainers are morons and we should ignore them.
            Almost every successful industry passed through a phase where it was heavily subsidized.   Airplane manufacture has been subsidized by lucrative military contracts since WWI, and grain production has been propped up by federal price supports since the 1930s.  Yet these are our two most successful export industries.  And the recent bail out of the auto industry is only a tiny portion of the total subsidy this industry has received, if we consider that our highway system represents the largest single public expenditure in the history of the human race.
            Private enterprise’s most astounding accomplishment may be its ability to simultaneously lobby for more subsidies, while brainwashing us into believing that it’s not receiving them.  Europeans are less schizoid about it.  If they want something—they buy it.  And the public money spent is not a source of embarrassment--it's a source of civic pride.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Climate Change Report

The Wall Street Journal reported May 20 that the National Academy of Sciences has delivered to Congress an 869 page report on climate change .  Congress requested this report in 2008.  The report basically confirms the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,  saying that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks.  This update is much more alarming that previous reports.  The 2007 IPCC report said that sea levels might rise 1.9 feet by 2100. The new report say it would be as much as 6.5 feet. The report went on to urge bold steps to immediately reduce carbon use--either high taxes on carbon--or a cap and trade system.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Cat Replies;

    Mr. Cheesto had interesting comments on the political philosophy expressed in the cat’s biography.  If you haven’t yet read this, please do so.  I have given others the first chance to respond to Mr. Chreesto.  I have placed his manifesto on a stick and waved it high in the air so that my friends might use it for target practice.  But they seem uninterested, so I’ll take up the challenge.
      First, Mr. Chreesto, let me sincerely thank you.  I asked for civil discourse—for comment that offered ideas--and you have responded abundantly.  This is a brand new blog, and yours is the first response.  I hope that others follow the example of civility that you have set.
      Also, my great fear was that perhaps no one would ever read this blog except those who were already in general agreement, and that this would leave little to discuss. But you sir, have attacked every core belief I have ever held—and have thus provided me a splendid opportunity to defend every belief I’ve ever held.  Again, I humbly thank you.
      Now—to address the substance of your remarks:  Yes, I too have noticed that we no longer have slavery, and that suffrage is now nearly universal.  Of course, these improvements were brought about not by conservatives, but by liberals and radicals, over the passionate and well organized opposition of nearly every conservative on the planet.  Some might find it hypocritical that you conservatives should now celebrate that which you tried to prevent. But I do not.  Rather, I see it as a victory that after 150 years of liberal hectoring, we have finally converted you.  (Ironically, the Republican Party, which claims to be the party of conservatism, still has to claim Abraham Lincoln, who was the most radical liberal ever elected to the presidency in the history of the Republic.  The original Republican Party was formed entirely from disgruntled radical liberal elements from the two other parties.  In the Lincoln–Douglas debates, Douglas was the conservative.)
      As I understand it, your argument against liberal goals and policies attempts to make two points:  First, that any kind of compulsory redistribution of wealth is unfair, and second, that it doesn’t really work.  This is the standard conservative argument.
      To elaborate:  you conservatives try to claim that redistribution amounts to “compulsory philanthropy” and that this is unfair for two reasons:
       One:  My money is mine because I earned it fair and square; I played by the rules; I obeyed the laws.
        Two:  The opportunity was there for everyone.  Anyone could have done what I did.  If others have chosen not to use these opportunities, that’s their problem.
      So far,  Mr. Chreesto, would you say that I have fairly described your position?  Have I not used the same rhetoric that conservatives themselves generally use to describe their position?  Then let us continue.  I might accept the characterization of liberal policies as compulsory philanthropy, depending on how we define philanthropy.  Will Rogers defined a philanthropist as “a guy who’s giving away what he ought to be giving back.”  Does “playing by the rules” really confer much legitimacy?  When a southern slave owner worked a slave to death, or beat him to death, was he playing by the rules?  Absolutely!  In fact, most southern states had laws specifically indemnifying slave owners from prosecution for the death of slaves, even if they were deliberately beaten to death.  How very convenient!  So who passed those laws?  Was it the slaves?

      In any society, even societies with universal suffrage and freedom, not all groups have equal influence in causing laws to be passed.  Claiming that you played by the rules doesn’t mean much if you made the rules.  And in America today, those making most of the money are also making most of the rules.
  If you doubt this, there’s an interesting article, “Too Big for Us to Fail,” in the April 26, 2010 issue of The American Prospect,   by James Kwak, and IMF economist Simon Johnson.  They say we should not expect any meaningful reform of the financial sector, because the fix is in.
    The campaign cash from Wall Street sources, to both parties, exceeds the total from all other sources.  There will be minor cosmetic changes, but the fundamental changes needed to curb the practices which caused our current meltdown will not happen because Wall Street does not want them to happen—and Congress will do what its masters tell it to do.  Wall Street investment bankers will be subject to no regulation except those regulations which they happen to like.  And since high-risk games with other people’s money are profitable, they will continue.  By the way, Mr. Chreesto, how’s your 401k doing?  Or by now, is it about a 201k?  The reason crime doesn’t pay is that when it pays, we don’t call it crime.  So much for, “I played by the rules.” 
      Second question:   Is opportunity really equally available for all?  Well, it would be if this country was really a meritocracy—but it isn’t!  If hard work and frugal living were the ingredients of success, then migrant fruit pickers would all be millionaires.  But they aren’t.  They do the hardest work, and are the most impoverished people in the country.  While it’s true that people who start somewhere near the bottom, through a lifetime of hard toil, sacrifice, and luck can often make it to a notch or two above where they started, the people at the very top, where the real wealth and power is, are mostly people who were born there. Most of the people who brag about hitting a home run were born on third base.   And the main concentration of wealth resides with families who haven’t worked at all for two or three generations, and who couldn’t even tell you which kind of industry (or kind of treachery) allowed great-grandfather to amass the family fortune.  Yet they fund the PR campaigns aimed at convincing us that conservative economics has something to do with allowing hard-working folks to keep more of their earnings.  And you, Mr. Chreesto, who have probably worked hard all your life, have been suckered into helping them pull off this snow job.  Do you ever get the feeling that someone up there is laughing at you?
      Occasionally, a few people who start from working class beginnings do make it all the way to the top--people like Joe Kennedy Sr., George Soros, Warren Buffett, or Andrew Carnegie.  But these people seldom take your side of the argument.  The Kennedys are all liberal Democrats, Soros funds causes even farther to the left than I am, Buffet says that the trouble with this country is that rich people don’t pay enough taxes, and Carnegie wanted a 100% inheritance tax!
      Yet the question remains; do liberal policies work in the real world?  Yes, they seem to be working quite well in a dozen countries in Europe.  The right-wing press tries to portray Europe as the weak old man of the world, whose economy is stagnant.  Actually, Europe’s economy is now the largest in the world, almost as large as the U.S. and China combined.  And Europe is doing much better in this crisis than we are.  Their unemployment is slightly lower; fewer loans are in default, and fewer industries collapsing.   And remember, they would have no economic crisis at all if we hadn’t given them one.   “He who sets fire to his neighbor’s house should not complain about the smoke.”   (A wise old cat once said that.)    On the European Continent today, especially Germany, France, and Scandinavia, people receive much higher wages, are better educated, healthier, live longer, and have a lower infant mortality rate than we do.  And their main industries are stronger, partly because of the “co-determination” laws which require worker participation (in effect, union participation) in all major decisions. 
      The overwhelming majority of the CEOs of Europe’s most successful industrial corporations say that co-determination has been a positive factor.  (See Nation magazine, May 10, 2010, page 23, “Europe’s Answer to Wall Street.”)  When difficult decisions are made, if workers are involved in those choices from the beginning, they usually find creative ways to make sure those decisions succeed.   And they are also more willing to accept their share of the pain whenever things don’t succeed.  In America, workers are always invited to be involved in the crash-landing, but are never invited to the take-off.
      I see you took the obligatory swipe at unions, suggesting that they were only needed to keep 12-year-olds out of dangerous industrial jobs—but that we don’t have that problem anymore.  Oh really?  At this moment, in Black Hawk County Iowa, the ex-CEO of a meat-packing company is being tried for 83 counts of child labor law violation.   Keep in mind, meat-packing is now the most dangerous industrial job around, since it involves workers packed together cheek by jowl weilding industrial sized electric knives and saws. Think of it as a “line dance” where each of the dancers is swinging a chain saw.   One witness testified that when he was first hired, he was 12 years old.  Another testified that there were so many kids working there that it “looked like a junior high school.”  (For details, see Rubashkin trial, the Waterloo Courier, starting  about May 10.)
       Unions have indeed lost power and influence in this country, and with that loss we are now beginning to see a return to the industrial horrors of the pre-union era.  And why wouldn’t we?   Thanks again for your comments, and good luck with the ’67 Corvette.  By the way, I’m not a Marxist.  But then, in his later years, Karl Marx often explained that he wasn’t a Marxist either.  One final point:  You complained, rather dismissively, that my ideas are more suited to a Bohemian cafĂ© in 1960s San Francisco.  If my memory is correct, you’re quite wrong.  It happens that I was actually part of the San Francisco coffee house scene in the early 1960s—too bad you weren’t—you might have learned something.  But my San Francisco coffee house year, probably the best year of my life, was not where I learned the communitarian values that have oriented me toward progressive politics.  I already had those values—I learned them growing up in Iowa. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010


      I hope to provide links to current short, interesting, and often overlooked pieces from print media, both mainstream and obscure. I will offer occasional word-crafting of my own, usually book reviews, local histories, photo essays, and a few short rants. In all cases, comment will be offered and is solicited. Though we now have many forums for intelligent and reasonably civil discourse, my purpose is to offer yet another.

I hope to attract comment that argues ideas--not vicious personal attacks, and not strewn with unnecessary obscenity. On the matter of obscenity, bear in mind that I know all the words. I spent forty years as a skilled construction worker. I’m the only person I know who might use “mother****ing” as a gerund, rather than in its more usual adjectival form. And I have always thought of grammar as descriptive—not prescriptive or proscriptive.

But not all levels of usage are equally suitable for all situations. Prose displayed in public is more effective if written in usage that does not pre-emptively alienate vast sections of the public, including people who might easily agree with the ideas expressed. Those reading this blog are mostly unknown to me and have done me no harm; therefore it hardly behooves me to insult them gratuitously. So when offering comment, please keep a civil tongue in your head—or keep one in a jar of formaldehyde—whatever. ………….The Runcible Cat.

Runcible Cat: A brief biography.

       I have been told that in publishing a blog, especially under a pseudonym, one is expected to provide a modicum of information—therefore I, Runcible Cat, will now disclose all.

From my earliest kittenhood, I remember that we lived in a spacious old Victorian house, with kindly and attentive humans, and a lot of leftover tuna casserole. We were allowed out into the garden, and it was a wonderful garden, with interesting little beetles to eat, or at least to pounce on, and flower beds of all kinds to dig up. And one of the humans kept pigeons, and that was our undoing. The humans did not seem to mind my father chasing the pigeons; they thought it was funny. You see, my father, being old and arthritic could not actually catch pigeons. So his feeble attempts were a source of amusement. But one Sunday morning, while being an unusually competent cat, or perhaps in pursuit of an unusually incompetent pigeon, he actually caught one—and ate it. And I believe that is how we came to lose our “situation.” That was our original sin which occasioned our fall from grace and our expulsion from the garden—and even worse, our expulsion from the house.

I’m not sure where my litter-mates ended up, but I was sent to live with Aunt Lulu and my eccentric Uncle Thomas, who spent his last years investigating the operation of can openers. After Uncle Thomas died, Aunt Lulu lived on for many years. She was a very popular kitty, and always seemed to be having kittens, but few ever survived kittenhood. There were drowning accidents mostly, always in the same pond. Aunt Lulu would explain, “I tried to tell them, ‘If you’re going to play inside a burlap bag, then be very careful not to play too near the water. But you know how kittens are these days—they just won’t listen.’”

I’m now a very old kitty. For hobbies, I’ve tried knitting, but whenever I see a ball of yarn, I just want to play with it--but you probably all have that problem. For my preferred reading, my favorite Bible story is the one about the five loaves and two fishes. I especially like the part about the fishes. And I belong to a choral society. The other cats, all sturdy yeeoowmen, think we should learn some Maori songs.

Yet I have my fantasies. Sometimes, when I’ve had a bit too much catnip, I imagine that I am a human—some old white guy living in some incredibly bucolic rural part of northeast Iowa. This old guy, as I imagine him, was born about 1939. Being born in the Roosevelt administration and growing up in the Truman administration, his political attitudes stand out as radical left-wing populism in most circles today.

But he never thinks of himself in that light. You see, the ideas he believes in--that everyone has a right to a secure job that pays a living wage, and the right to union representation if they want it, and the right to basic medical care, and to a decent education, and to a place to live—these ideas were at one time considered absolutely mainstream in America, and he still remembers that time. He even remembers when trade policies were aimed at improving the lives of the working class—not the investing class. And he hopes to live to see some of these ideas become mainstream again.

As I imagine him, he grew up in an industrial town in the Midwest, the 3rd son of 2nd generation immigrant parents. When in high school, his plan was to join the Navy and then go to college on the GI bill, as his elder brother had done. He had hoped to be an engineer or a science teacher. But when the Eisenhower administration ended the GI bill in 1956, but did not end the draft, he had no “plan B.” He tried to work his way through college by alternately working in the local factories a semester, then going to college a semester. I think he declared a double major of physics and economics and enrolled at UNI, then called Iowa State Teachers’ College. But after two years of college, he was twenty-two, and when he quit school that year to look for another job, he lost his student deferment and was drafted.

Naturally, he enlisted for an additional year so as to qualify for a better school. He was sent to the U.S. Army Signal School in New Jersey, then arguably the best electronic tech school in the world. He spent the last few months of his tour of duty in Viet Nam, but never saw any combat. He was part of a team of electronics experts, sent in to install a portable ground station for the world’s first geo-synchronous communications satellite. When discharged, he was 26, still had only two years of college, and there was still no GI Bill. Having few options, he tried to market the technical skills the Army had given him, eventually becoming an IBEW electrician doing heavy industrial work. Finding this work more interesting and rewarding on several levels than he had ever imagined, he remained at the trade nearly 40 years, wiring factories, power houses, refineries, etc. But to remain employed, he often worked hundreds of miles from home, leaving his wife and child at home.

Now retired, this burned out old electrician has been happily married to the same woman for nearly forty years. They have one adult daughter, now gainfully employed in some abstruse technical field. He subscribes to a dozen periodicals including Nation, The American Prospect, In These Times, Dollars & Sense, and Wall Street Journal. (Why WSJ? Sometimes their news pages contain investigative pieces not covered by anyone else.) His activism extends to the environment, alternative energy, and social and economic justice. His musical tastes are eclectic, including opera, bluegrass, blues, Cajon, klezmer, and many other styles. Being a persistent autodidact, he reads almost entirely non-fiction, usually economics, science, history, or archaeology. And he and his wife do extensive gardening.

Since I, the Runcible Cat, enjoy pretending to be this old guy, please let me enjoy my fantasies. Without them, what would I have left? So if in my postings I assume the voice of some old guy in rural Iowa, just indulge me--please.