October 2008


Current News Thoughts

I have a confession to make.

Other than reading The Economist from cover to cover every week, glancing at edition.CNN.com a couple times every day, and reading a few articles about NYC in the New York Times every day, I really do not follow the news. From what I’ve heard, that probably puts me ahead of the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, a woman whose job it is to know what’s going on in the world in case the geriatric cancer-surviving Republican Presidential candidate kicks the bucket.

Somebody I recently talked to (was that you Ian in Hamburg?) reminded me of the Quayle Quarterly, a delightful magazine that recorded Dan Quayle’s idiotic remarks while he was Vice President. This person expressed the hope that should McCain become president that the magazine might be revived. As I recall, Quayle also spawned the President’s Prayer Circle, praying for Bush Senior’s survival because the prospect of President Quayle was so dismal.

This past week several people have asked me about current world events. Embarrassingly, one thing was completely new news to me!

The first was the $700 Billion Bush Banker Bailout—asking me what I thought about the huge drop in the Dow Jones. Sadly, I didn’t have any thoughts—I hadn’t actually heard about the huge Dow drop and that the US House was voting down the Bush Banker Bailout.

Now that I’ve thought about the $700 Billion Bush Banker Bailout, I can safely say that bankers are getting their comeuppance. It’s been way too easy for people who shouldn’t be able to buy houses to actually buy houses. I don’t blame them for doing what they did; I blame the banks that foolishly gave them the money. I also blame the regulatory environment (or lack thereof) that encouraged and facilitated such foolish loans. Republican George W. Bush, Republican John McCain (who freely admits to not understanding economics), and the Republican Party are to blame.

It is unfortunate taxpayers will pay for the Bush Banker Bailout. It’s also unfortunate taxpayers are paying for Bush’s Iraqi War.

Remember that Republicans took the Clinton Democratic Surplus and turned it into the Bush-Republican Ginormous Debt and I’m sure that the taxpayers of 2020 and 2050 will remember the Bush years with as much fondness that I already do.

Another day somebody asked me what I thought about the pirating of a ship off of Somalia, except it was oddly phrased and at first I thought he was asking me about the Europeans kidnapped in Egypt and taken into Libya—except that there wasn’t a ship involved, so I knew I was missing some critical information.

A quick trip to CNN gave me the headlines and a couple of key facts: Somalia pirates apparently seized a ship not realizing they had hit the proverbial pirate jack-pot: Lots of expensive Russian military equipment headed to some as yet undetermined African country (either Kenya or one of its neighbors, I believe). I don’t know what I think, other than to say that I am against naval piracy, and that I hope the pirates are prosecuted to the fullest extent possible under appropriate law. Given that it’s Somalia law, I suspect that means 30 days, time served.

Of course it actually raises the larger issue of selling arms to developing nations in Africa or elsewhere. It’s probably quite profitable for Russia (and other countries, like the USA), while being morally suspect (who exactly will the future owner of the arms being shooting at?). In general I am opposed to the indiscriminate arms spreading, and while I wish I could wag my finger at Russia, I know that probably the United States is a worse offender.

Finally India’s nuclear ambitions came up. The US Senate supports selling of nuclear equipment to India. I believe this is a terrible idea (thanks Republican George W. Bush). I don’t care what faux-environmentalists say, under no circumstance should another nuclear power plant ever be built anywhere on this planet. There are far better ways, albeit more expensive and environmentally friendly, for India to improve its standard of living.

My fundamental concern with nuclear power is not that the countries might use the by-products to build a nuclear or dirty bomb, but that nuclear waste is radioactive and will remain unhealthily radioactive for many centuries to come.

If the richest country on the planet cannot figure out how or where to safely store its own radioactive waste after more than half a century, what makes us think that relatively poor India can figure it out? If a relatively politically stable country, like the States, cannot figure out where to safely store its nuclear waste (NIMBYs, anyone?), what makes us think that India, a country that is still at war with itself and its neighbors, can figure out how to safely store its nuclear waste?

Nuclear waste is fundamentally dangerous on a level that makes coal’s externalities look like a piece of cake. I sincerely doubt that a economically feasible or technically reasonable solution will ever be found—it can only decay. For this it must be stored for centuries, over seen by an organization ensuring the safety of the waste. To my knowledge there is only one organization that has survived for more than a few hundred years: The Catholic Church, complete with its schisms.

We know that human beings are intensely curious about their environment. Humans crawl everywhere on earth they can and explore space to the extent humanly possible. Nothing has discouraged them and they’ve left no area unexplored: from the inhospitable Sahara Desert to the inhospitable Antarctica, humans have tread; digging into The Pyramids, climbing Devil’s Tower, and otherwise defiling places past societies considered sacred and untouchable.

However and wherever today’s man stores nuclear waste, we can be sure that idiotic future man, perhaps in a hundred years, perhaps a thousand, will want to poke at it with a sharp stick thus releasing the still invisible, radioactive, and toxic waste into the environment thus killing future man. There is no universal language (English will not remain the lingua franca forever, and word meanings do mutate), no universal warning symbol, no universally inaccessible place where it’s safe to store nuclear waste for the centuries it needs before becoming safe.

I’ve come to the conclusion over the past year that I’m not an environmentalist in any sense of the word; rather I am a neo-environmentalist.

As a society we should strive to reduce our energy consumption. We should strive to use green-energy sources as much as possible. We should strive to use as little paper as possible. We should strive to reduce our impact on the environment. I pick up litter when I see it, I drink water straight from the recyclable bottles (thus saving glass washing), and I turn off the facet while brushing my teeth. I try to have good habits.

Now in terms of my carbon footprint, I realize I’m not that great—I fly hither, thither, and yon.

Again, it’s a trade off. Somebody recently implied that I shouldn’t fly for my vacations. I put them on the defensive by asking them which was worse: the carbon impact of flying to Armenia, or keeping my economic impact in the EU. Spending 3-400€ (hotels included) over the course of a week in Armenia does more, in the long run, to improve their quality of life, than the 6-700€ (hotels included) I might spend over the course of a week in Berlin does to improve Berliners lives. It’s not that one should be obligated to visit Armenia, Moldova, or Swaziland, it’s just that excluding the possibility of visiting is morally corrupt.

Environmentalists often are fixated on the wrong issues. I believe it’s good to focus on improving fuel economy and it’s bad to fixate on eliminating all cars. I believe it’s good to focus on encouraging and facilitating future green-friendly energy sources and it’s bad to fixate on destroying existing coal-powered energy. It’s good to focus on encouraging fuel efficient and efficient air transport and its bad to tell airlines to cease all operations immediately.

I could probably babble a lot more about these issues, but I suspect that at nearly 1,400 words, few will read quite this far.

If you did, thanks for listening. It’s been cathartic.

10 comments to Current News Thoughts

  • I majored in Environmental Studies. It made my head spin. There is really no solution to any problem. Almost everything could be argued for and against with reasonable arguments: recycling v. washing, ecotourism v. leaving places alone, this type of energy v. that type of energy. Everything felt like lose-lose! And what it all impacts is the mysterious far-off future, which is hard to get anyone to feel very fussed about in the here and now. That’s why I went running to epidemiology instead, where I discovered there aren’t any answers either. Gah!!
    But, back on the environmental thing, I agree that we should really argue for moderate solutions like fuel economy, and we should try not to politicize environmentalism so it’s not rejected outright because of politics. My college adviser wrote a good letter in response to a cancer article once – it’s regarding cancer but the general feel of it I think is relevant to a lot of the sort of attitudes and extremism you see in environmentalism:
    (scroll to very last letter)

  • So what far off locale are you and I going to support with our Euros and Dollars soon?

    One thing I learned about the Swaziland trip was that those in power have a great ability to hide the poverty of their own citizens from outsiders visiting their country. Though I think the experience at the Pigg’s Peak petrol station gave us a small glimpse into the dire situation of the country.

    I felt badly for the people selling their hand made trinkets, but at the same time wondered if I should have bought something. Then into my mind came thoughts of who do I choose to buy from and if I pick just one, will the entire mob mug me? Even if I do buy something, will I end up just throwing it away because I can’t possibly bring it back to my home with me?

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.


  • jen

    very nice post. i find it so funny that everyone is really concerned about being green, and they avoid making one of the greenest moves possible: going vegan. the way humans eat is more detremental to the earth than anything else humans consume. factory farming is a pollutant, the resources involved in raising and shipping meat/eggs/dairy is costly, etc.

    and in true american spirit, i don’t have to cite my sources-(guffaw, guffaw). seriously–even if people cut back on animal products we could reduce our carbon footprint.

  • G

    There are very many reasons that we will have to “bail out” the financial sector, and the primary reason is to prevent a new depression. The liquidity crunch is so great that the economy is paralyzed. And the two huge bank runs we just had, on WashMu and Wachovia, show that we are not immune to reality. WashMu should not have gone under. It did so because of the revaluation of it’s portfolio, not because of a real reason. Or at least not an exigent reason. Due to that revaluation (to about 22 cents on a dollar from 80+ cents) there was a bank run and the bank needed federal intervention. The largest bank failure in history, I think.
    The really frightening thing is that at a time when we need decisive federal intervention President Bush is so loathed that any plan that he is for (even when economists of all stripes agree that a plan of such a kind is needed) is a plan that many want to vote against.
    As a former small business owner, with many friends who still own businesses, let me assure you that working capital requirements are not being met. That payroll needs to be kept in banks and that such accounts can be, and are being, frozen. This is not quite “cats and dogs, living together”, but it really is pretty frightening. Six other countries managed to bail their banks out without this chaos. They are smaller of course, but we need to get this taken care of and then fire the people responsible. Including the rating agencies who yell fire not when the house is burning, but after it is ashes.
    Btw, look to Clinton and Frank if you want to see who string armed the banks and FNMA into loaning to people without money, including requiring them to take welfare payments and unemployment as income basis for mortgages.

  • G

    BTW, I usually look at you in a reader- is this a redesign? Looks very clean and attractive.

  • Oh. My. God.

    You have a reader going, “But, but, CLINTON!”

    Umm… Clinton has not been president for 7 1/2 years now. The Republicans were in COMPLETE control for 6 of the 7 1/2 years since Clinton left office. They DEREGULATED more and more lifting the checks and balances off the financial system in the name of corporate greed and re-distribution of wealth UPWARD. Not to mention the bill G is talking about was passed by the REPUBLICAN controlled congress in 1994.

    Yes, Clinton signed it, but if it was so bad, why didn’t the completely Republican controlled government REPEAL it?

    There’s enough blame to go around, but stating, “But, but, CLINTON!” doesn’t really provide a solution or an appropriate analysis.

  • Cathy

    *clap clap clap*

  • @CN: That’s an awesome letter. It needs to be said more often… I don’t think extreme solutions work in the end, they just encounter resistance and end up discrediting the extremes–although extreme rhetoric is helpful at times. Certainly Earth First! put a lot of issues on the table that might otherwise have been left off.

    @CQ: I don’t think we really saw it, by the time we got to Swaziland, we had been in South Africa, which has its wealth issues as well. Poverty can be quite subtle–even in Armenia, it is subtle.

    @jen: I’m vegetarian sympathetic, but I’m not one. Certainly factory pork isn’t good–but on the other hand in places like Wyoming, the ranchers are often far better stewards of the land than the government or the environmentalists. There are no easy answers.

    @G: First your second comment: I changed my blog software to WordPress a couple weeks ago. When I did that I changed my theme, so yes, it’s a redesign. I really like it–and there are over 30 photos that can appear at the top, so hit reload often. 🙂

    Now to your first comment: At no point did I say that I was against the Bush Banker Bailout, what I did say is that its unfortunate that the taxpayers have to pay (nobody else can cough up the kind of bucks needed). Perhaps it was the Clinton Administration that changed the regulations that facilitated the current crisis; the American Family Association seems to think so, they sent me a link to a 1999 NYT article about it.

    However the Bush Administration had 7.5 years to change the rules to prevent the crisis. Fundamentally it’s a Republican and Bush problem: They were unwilling to change the regulations or even to regulate banks, markets, or anything else. The Bush Administration has been interested in one, and only one, thing: Getting Saddam Hussein. We were going to go to war against Iraq no matter what, and 9/11 was the perfect excuse–never mind the fact that Hussein had nothing at all to do with 9/11 (although Fox News viewers tend to think Hussein personally trained the 9/11 terrorists, even though all evidence says that Hussein worried about Osama bin Laden and his cronies).

    All of this to explicitly say, I reluctantly support the Bush Banker Bailout. I just hope the voters remember it was Republicans who let it happen.

    You should listen to a recent episode of “This American Life” — specifically “The Enforcers“. Act 2, “Now You SEC Me, Now You Don’t” gives an amusing and disturbing overview of what happens when you have a Republican allergic to regulation running a regulatory agency. That helps explain why we are where we are.

    @Cathy: danke 🙂

  • Adam – still hoping for a revival of the QQ – unfortunately, it will only happen if Silly Sarah and Grampa John get in. What a dilemma!

    About the bailout and the mortgage mess that started it. The banks weren’t being foolish lending money to people who didn’t deserve it. They were deliberately targetting bad credit risks, then turning around and selling on that bad credit as if it was good – to any sucker who would take it.

    You listen to This American Life, right? They had a great backgrounder on it called The Giant Pool of Money. It’s available still – one of their most-downloaded podcasts of late.

    That podcast is so good, there was even a write-up on it in the International Herald Tribune last week:


  • I am so in love with Clintons, it is almost quite sad and pathetic. When I was little I wrote a book about recycling, filling up an entire 3 subject notebook with my big curly writing, and sent it to Bill Clinton so he could read it. Why I thought he would I don’t know. I did lost my wonderful manuscript though.

    On a more serious note and on behalf of my Indian counterparts, I have to say that India is def the next up and coming tech power. The IT industry and technology and manufacturing in India in this millennium is impressive, growth and innovation wise alone. You might be surprised as to what it can handle.