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Friday, December 11, 2009

Thoughts on the Recession

From the standpoint of production, the low point was right near the beginning of 2009, as illustrated by the above graphs.   (Click on them to enlarge.)  So production has been generally increasing during 2009, but total production is well below pre-recession values.   This of course means that U.S. industry is working well below capacity, and of course this means that large numbers of people are not working at all.

One way to correct that would be to share the work, i.e., to have large numbers of people working part time, or to simply reduce the typical work week to something well below 40 hours.   This would also correspond with a transition to a sustainable economy, rather than a growth economy.   Of course I am strongly in favor of such a transition, but at present this represents a minority viewpoint, and a very small minority at that.

What is actually going to happen is a slow return to excess production so that Americans can have lots of junk that they don't need and most people will again work 40 hours or more.   But that is not sustainable, so there will be another recession, likely worse than this one, and I would guess this will happen about 2014, where it will coincide with large numbers of baby boomers reducing their consumption levels.

That recession could be postponed for many years if green industries boom in a big way.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Arizona Mismanagement

My state seems to have the worst government in the nation, at least where handling money is concerned. I heard on NPR this morning that the per capita budget deficit is number one in the nation, and that
bankruptcy is a possibility. State income is at 2003 levels, whereas state spending last month was at a record high, as was the previous month. Another relevant factoid, not mentioned in today's news, is
that state spending on public schools, per student, is close to the nation's lowest, competing with Mississippi.

Now John McCain is not the only multi-millionaire in Arizona.  We have our share of very rich people.  As you might guess, I suspect that the wealthy people of AZ are not paying much in the way of taxes, as I think they should be.  But I have not researched this so I don't know how the tax collections compare with other states.  I also don't know how the state's expenditures compare with other states, except for the public school system.  We have both a sales and an income tax, and we spend a minimal amount on the schools, yet we don't collect as much as we spend!

The legislature has been arguing about this for a year or more.   All they talk about is cutting spending.  I never hear about any proposed tax hikes other than a sales tax hike, which was proposed and rejected.

Oh, yeah, they have put the Capitol Building up for sale!   They plan to sell it and then pay rent, using the proceeds to forestall bankruptcy for a year or two.   What a dumb idea, but if you cannot raise taxes, maybe it's better than bankruptcy.  It's only a short term fix, and it raises the states expenses, because of the rent they will have to pay.   Also, this is not the time sell real estate.  If they wait two or three years they can probably get more money for it.  Of course, if they wait, they might not have to sell it, assuming they do something serious about their deficit problem.

Of course the majority of the legislators are republican, as is the governor.


Friday, October 23, 2009

A Conspiracy Theory - October 2009

The captains of industry have the power to bring Obama down. I just realized that recently. It's due to a confluence of events. Although business is improving for most of the major corporations, and most are making profits, they are not hiring. The media pundits keep saying it's because they are cautiously waiting for the recovery to be definite. But the economists have been saying for a couple of months that the recovery has started. What if they are holding back hiring because they want to bring Obama (and the democratic party) down? They have never done this in the past; why now?

Well, some things are different. For starters, there are fewer major players due to 40 years of mergers and acquisitions. Fewer players make it easier to form a conspiracy. Secondly, there is greater polarization between the right and left than ever before. I'm assuming that most of the captains of industry are republicans. My thinking is that, in the past, profitability would come first in their thinking, and maybe civic duty would play some role. Today's CEO's are not big on civic duty, or maybe they just define it differently. Trying to bring down the other party by not hiring workers would not occur to them, in the past. The third thing is that employment is the key to the present recession. If it goes up, the recession is over, and the democrats probably win the next election. If it stays low the republicans are likely to unseat the dems.

So I'm thinking, suppose the CEO of Proctor & Gamble is chatting with the CEO of Heinz during a cruise on one of their yachts. One of them says that business is not bad, but I hate to hire more people; it will help Obama look good. The other agrees, and one of them realizes that they don't have to hire anyone! They are in charge, and the media have given them a rationale. Sure, the company could earn more money by boosting production with additional workers, since sales are good and inventories are low. But who cares? That would only benefit the stockholders. You and I have plenty of money, they agree, more than we can spend. We run our companies, not the stockholders! Let's not hire anyone and help stick it to Obama. Well, of course they casually mention this to their CEO buddies, and, little by little, the word spreads.

Could this be happening? Yes, it's paranoia, but is it justifiable paranoia? Yes, this is a conspiracy theory. I have never been involved with conspiracy theories in the past, but I suppose I'm partial to my own creation. :)


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

When media pundits or politicians talk about world hunger, climate
change, or pollution, there is something that they almost never mention. And yet, this forbidden topic is the root cause of these global problems! If this elephant cannot be effectively dealt with, there is no chance of reducing pollution, nor alleviating hunger, nor keeping global warming under control.

By now you may have guessed that I'm talking about the size of the human population: 6 1/2 BILLION and growing! Presently, not all of them are even getting enough to eat, let alone having the kind of life to which they aspire. At least half of the planet hopes to have a car at some point during their life. Is this possible? Could our planet sustain SEVERAL BILLION automobiles? I think not. Much more likely is that, as the human population grows, the material standard of living will decrease for all but the very wealthy.

There are many who deny the population problem. They say that
technological innovation will allow us to feed more & more people,
without limit. They point to the "green revolution" of the mid-20th
century, when the widespread use of chemical fertilizers greatly
increased the yield per acre for those farmers adapting the new methods. This in turn allowed a great increase in the human population, which has doubled since that time.

There are at least two rebuttals to the deniers. The first is that
there are physical limits to how much food can be produced worldwide. Plants create food by the conversion of solar energy into chemical energy. The earth receives a certain amount of solar energy each day, and that is not going to change. We can increase the fraction of the earth's surface devoted to farming, and we can increase the efficiency of the solar-to-chemical conversion process, but there is an ultimate limit. By extreme measures we may be able to eventually support 20 billion people on this planet, a tripling of the present population.

But what kind of life will they be living? This question leads us to
the second rebuttal, which is that we all pay a price in reduced quality
of life. A world with twenty billion people will be quite different
from today's world. Most of the planet's surface will be taken up by
farms, habitations, factories, and energy production facilities. The
latter will be largely solar and wind, which require extensive land
area. There will be little room left for the natural world of plants
and animals; those will mostly be confined to parks. Where there are
now extensive forests, there will instead be the aforementioned farms, habitations, factories, and energy producers. So the natural world will be sacrificed in order to have 20 billion humans. However, most of these humans will be living in very small dwelling units, perhaps 40 sq m for families, and half of that for single people. Most people will live in large cities with very high population densities. Most will not own automobiles. The wealthy will have a different lifestyle, of course. They will be able to eat meat, which the ordinary people won't be able to afford. And they can live outside of the cities if they choose, and use automobiles. The world that I'm describing is roughly 100 years from now, so it's not just around the corner. If you have any grandchildren during your life, they will see it, as will their children (if they are able to have any).

If humans can learn to be content with one or two children per typical
family, this bleak vision of the future does not have to come to pass.
There is hope, because this has occurred in much of Europe, without
coercion. In China it has occurred due to coercion. But the majority
of the world's families are still producing several children.

This article was written as my participation in Blog Action Day.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Corporate Control of America

A couple of things put me in a pessimistic mood about our future. This time I'm not talking about the Biosphere, but about our democracy. It started with Bill Maher's interview with Bill Moyers. Moyers reminded me about the corporate control of America, and went into some detail. This is an issue that I was somewhat fired up about, a decade ago. But since then I had gotten used to it. (not happy about it, but not thinking about it.)

Then later that same day I went to the movies to see District 9. It's
quite a good Sci-Fi film, and quite unusual. But it's depressing. It
involves human & alien interaction in quite an unusual way. The humans turn out mostly to be the bad guys, and the ending is not a happy one, although not totally so. The movie left me in an unhappy mood, and corporate control of the world was part of the theme.

I first got upset about the topic due to seeing the movie: Bulworth.
This is a very entertaining film by Warren Beatty. (He produced,
directed, and starred in it.) It's mostly a comedy, but it has a
serious underlying message about corporate control of America. That was over ten years ago, and for a year or three I was concerned about it, but then, as people do, I gradually got used to the idea.

The basic problem is this: Election campaigns are very expensive nowadays, due mainly to the importance of television, and the high cost of airtime. Most senators and congressmen get most of their funding from large corporations and wealthy individuals. Hence, they must pass only legislation that favors these donors, or they won't get the needed funds, and are likely to lose their job. (and it's a very cushy job, with excellent perqs, including health care.)

"Hey", you might ask: "The airwaves are public property. The TV broadcasters require government licenses. Why are they not required to support political campaigns without profit?". Good question. Could it be because half a dozen giant corporations own almost all of the media? Corporations that the elected officials don't want to offend?

I'm not an expert in this subject. I googled on the phrase "Corporate
control of America" and got many thousands of hits. Here are a few
quotes, without their sources. You can find them with google if you are interested. I just want to provide some sense of what's going on.

"Rapid consolidation of network and cable television ownership in the
hands of a few corporate conglomerates has significantly harmed free
expression, quality, and creativity in television, the Center for the
Creative Community (CCC) told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today in Comments filed with the FCC."

"Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not
revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds its
expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to
cherish democracy, patriotism and the Constitution while cynically
manipulating internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic
institutions. Political candidates are elected in popular votes by
citizens, but they must raise staggering amounts of corporate funds to compete. They are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists in Washington or state capitals who write the legislation. A corporate media controls nearly everything we read, watch or hear and imposes a bland uniformity of opinion or diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip. In classical totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. “Under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true,” Wolin writes. “Economics dominates politics—and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness."

"Perhaps big-corporate control of America has gotten so out of hand over the last 30 years ... that it's now irreversible."

"Jefferson was as motivated to prevent economic tyranny as he was to prevent political oppression. Even prior to the industrialization, he saw in embryo the monstrosity of the impending corporate control of America as early as 1816."

"The world’s food has been fundamentally transformed in a way that these agribusinesses want to keep you from seeing. And that was the most shocking thing for me in making Food, Inc. I knew there were big factory farms out there, but I didn’t know agribusiness was essentially keeping us from really talking about it."

"Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln were the four Presidents of the United States who fought hardest against the corporate control of America."

Can anything be done to change this, to put control of America back in the hands of the people? Well, yes, in theory. We could vote out most of the present senators and representatives, and replace them with new ones who are committed to reducing the role of giant corporations and the super-rich in our government. The new lawmakers might even return to the old American practice of curtailing the size of giant corporations, and preventing the growth of cartels, trusts & monopolies.

Could this happen? Well, it's possible, but that ain't the way to bet.


Friday, June 5, 2009

The Myth That Malthus was Wrong

There is a widely accepted idea that we are NOT subject to Malthus'
notion that populations, including human populations, always
increase until reaching some limit where the available resources
won't sustain them. When that time comes there will be famine, or
other disaster, and the population will be greatly reduced.

But the truth is that it has happened many times in human history,
in many parts of the world. I was reminded of this recently when
watching a History Channel show about Europe's "Little Ice Age".
This occurred in the 14th century. Prior to that there had been 300
years of generally good weather in Europe. This led to excellent
crop yields, and also to expanding agriculture northward. This
greater food production had allowed the population to expand to
numbers never seen before in Europe. In the 14th century, when the
weather turned colder, and with long periods of heavy rain, food
production declined. This led, as was inevitable, to malnutrition
among a large fraction of the population, and that in turn led to
epidemics of diseases, which killed large numbers of people.
Europe's population was significantly reduced.

There is an excellent book, "Collapse", by Jared Diamond, which
describes similar events in many different parts of the world, and
at different times in history. So it is something the human race is
quite familiar with, although those living today in the World's most
powerful countries are not.

There is every reason to think that this will happen again. There is
a difference, though, when compared with past Malthusian
catastrophes, and that is the scale of globalization and
international interdependence. All of these events in the past were
local in nature, although some of them affected large regions.
Today, the world is functioning as an entity, at least in economic
matters. Very few, if any, nations are self-sufficient. The U.S. for
example, needs oil from abroad in order to grow the food which
sustains us. We need the energy in oil both for production of
chemical fertilizer and for transporting the food throughout the

Our technology has allowed us to expand yields by the use of
chemical fertilizer, and the development of new strains of plants
which can exploit that better than older varieties. But our
technology is useless against floods, droughts, storms, changes in
cloud cover, and temperature changes.

There will be disaster. The only way it can be avoided is to stop
the growth of the human population. But humans like making babies,
so we are not likely to do it on our own. It will take disaster to
do it for us.

I didn't say anything about WHEN there would be disaster. The good
news is that it won't be this year, or next, or any time very soon. The
bad news is that it will probably be in your lifetime, if you're under 50
years of age.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I'm Expanding My Subject Matter.

And the revised blog title is meant to show that. I don't have much more to say about the environment, and saving the biosphere. I still hope that it will be preserved, at least to some extent, but I'm not optimistic. As a blog writer, there are lots of topics that I'm likely to write about. I have opinions on the current political situation, on the nature of reality, on economics and investing, and various other topics. I can't predict when I'll be moved to actually write an article.

Poking around in my hard drive, I found this list of stuff I think I know something about:

health & fitness
computer science fundamentals
The Natural World
alternate zeitgests (philosophy)
Science & technology
Go (the board game)
Age of Empires (PC game)
effective living (does your life function well?)
History of the world, including humans
Alternate lifestyles

That list is in no particular order. I might write about any of those topics, but there are plenty of others also. In my long life I've done a lot of things, been to a lot of places. Mostly, I paid attention, and learned stuff. I have also sought out people who seemed to know something I didn't, and tried to learn from them. And I've read quite a few books along the way. There's been formal education also; I have a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from UCSD.

Clearly, I don't always feel bound by that old rule that says: a writer should not keep saying "I"! (But you won't find so much of that in the rest of the articles that I've written, or will write in the future.)

If you, dear reader, would like me to write about a particular topic, by all means please let me know! You can either post a comment to this article, below, or send me an email, to I really prefer to write a message TO someone, rather than simply write for an unknown audience.