Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Stimulate the American Economy -- Recycle

``Nightly News'' on NBC produced an interesting report that Asian economies including China have been buying greater and greater amounts of recycling from the United States -- the figure rose to $6.1 billion in 2006 from $1.2 billion in 2002.
This is a by-product of huge economic growth of the national clients of firms that sell recycled goods. An eco-system, however, is quite vulnerable to being a victim of economic expansion.
So the situation represents good and bad.
The recycled materials are scarce in these booming markets' geographical areas.
For the U.S. to supply recyclables is good for their economies and the U.S. economy and, in one respect, their eco-systems.
It takes 90 percent less energy to produce a can from recycled cans than from ore, the ``Nightly News'' report said. Use of recyclables involves less water, less energy, and it produces less waste and greenhouse gases, according to a spokesman for the Natural Resource Defense Council whom the network interviewed.
But the key word here is less. What is the total consumption of water and energy, what is the total production of waste and greenhouse gases, even after the recyclables are included? After the large-scale use of recyclables is instituted, does a nation's industrial system become sustainable -- does it not jeopardize the environment -- or does it only delay the day of reckoning?
As I said, the key word is less, also as in consuming less.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Getting A Grip on Oil Speculation

A lot has been made, including in Congress, of the idea that gas prices would not be as high as they are today if it weren't for speculators playing in the oil commodities market.
In an NPR interview, Andrew Liveris, CEO of the Dow Chemical Company, made a comment that makes me wonder if there is an implicit agreement between speculators and the big oil companies for the oil companies to put much less effort than they might into development of alternative energy sources.
Dow Chemical's products are plastic goods, which are made from petroleum. This week Dow announced that it will raise prices and slash its production because of lower demand for its products and the increased cost of petroleum.
Today, NPR's ``Day to Day'' interviewed Liveris as part of a report on the upward effect on inflation caused by increases in the price of oil. Liveris called for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and off the coasts of the United States. Both proposals are controversial, Liveris admitted.
He said he is not only interested in the drilling projects. He called for an effort -- a new Manhattan Project, as he put it -- to build more nuclear power plants and develop wind- and solar-power technologies.
``The signal on increased production, and really speeding up the alternatives in terms of nuclear and, of course, renewables; I think that would send a signal to the market and help stabilize this volatility we're all seeing,'' Liveris said.
(The Manhattan Project was the huge international effort that produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II.)
Liveris has in mind a program that would necessitate government action. The drilling would require legislation to go ahead. Also, Liveris suggested use of funds from the Department of Energy in part to development more efficient forms of transportation.
Today I e-mailed Liveris, asking if energy firms aren't undertaking a large-scale effort because volatility may be in their interest. ``The trend of sticking with petrochemicals has meant, of course, dramatic increases in the price of gas, a component of increased profits. Also it seems, at least for now, to be benefiting oil-commodities speculators.''
I asked Liveris if he would agree that the petrochemical industry, to serve its at least short-term interest, is doing significantly less than it could to steer the U.S. away from its status quo carbon-based economy.
It shouldn't surprise anyone if Dow does not reply to my message. It's a huge company, and Liveris and his public relations people have bigger matters to attend to. If I get a reply more substantial than a form letter, I'll post an update.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

To Speak Ill of the Grieving

For maybe half a minute Rush Limbaugh came off like a classy guy. On Monday, June 16, Limbaugh mentioned the untimely death of Tim Russert three days earlier.
``A very, very, very sad thing.'' Limbaugh said. ``I knew Tim Russert, and he was just a prince of a guy.''
But in the next breath, he describes the media follow-up as an ``orgy'' that's ``been about the media and who they think they are and how important they are.
``All these people, second and third, fourth, fifth tier people coming out, `Yeah, Tim was a big friend of mine,' and telling all these stories. The media doing everything they could to make this about them and their role in American culture today. It got to be a little unseemly after a while...''
I watched ``Meet The Press'' hosted by Tom Brokaw last Sunday. Brokaw and his guests told stories about Russert, his life, and his work habit of careful preparation; I don't particularly remember themselves and their role in American culture as a topic of conversation.
But of course, that's not the point.
The point is that he's no one to complain about media figures boasting about their significance.
The day before Russert died, Limbaugh was on the air denying that he was the source of the rumor that somewhere out there was a videotape of Michelle Obama in the pulpit of  Rev. Jeremiah Wrigbht's Trinity Lutheran Church, using the word ``whitey.''

No, Rush said, the rumor had been out there for quite some time, and so, as of May 30, he could not put off mentioning it anymore because it had hit ``critical mass.''
``So it had finally risen to a heat level, if you were, that it warranted mentioning on this, the most listened-to talk radio show in America.''
No, it wasn't really a story, Rush Limbaugh said, until it got on Rush Limbaugh. When the liberal media
``are looking at Republicans or conservatives to really nail us to the wall, until I mention it, it doesn't matter. 'Til I bring it up, it doesn't exist.''
Talk about bragging.

Then he went on to say that perhaps Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, should advise the church to close down for five months, or move it into Rev. Jeremiah Wright's home, in a gated community, ``so noboby can know what you're doing in there.''
A little unseemly, Rush.

The Weakening of the Dollar is Spooky

Last night, ``NBC Nightly News'' ran this succinct report on the consequences of the weakening of the US dollar. The network hooked its story on the proposed takeover last week of Anheuser-Busch, which makes Budweiser, by InBev, a Belgian beer company. The report also refers to the possible transfer of the Chrysler Building to foreign ownership.
The point is that the extent to which fewer American-based manufacturers and pieces of real property in America owned by Americans, the standard of living here will go down. The big money behind our business and our real estate migrates. As the report quotes one of its sources:
``We've been buying more than we've earning, and as a consequence the world wants to be paid. And the only thing we have left to pay them with is our property.''
The only trouble with the story is that it does not say one way or the other whether it is too late to do anything about the problem. And if it is not too late, what can government do about it? How should individuals change their habits?
We can't kill this recession through a program of conspicuous consumption. After all, the weakening of the dollar was caused by ``buying more than we've been earning'' (read=consumer and government debt). As a whole, we certainly aren't earning a lot now. I don't see how more conspicuous consumption on credit would suddenly bring about a positive result.
Furthermore, when we talk about consumption, we talk inevitably about using up petroleum and food. Energy is involved in the production and transportation of everything, and corn is used in production of food, goods, and fuel itself. The supply of gas is finite, the supply of corn short. The laws of supply and demand dictate the price of these can only rise.
We also have to do away with government debt in the form of massive military budgets. For what it's worth, I elaborate on that a little here.
All of this is scaring the hell out of me.
``Somebody get me a Bud. I want to get a little wiser.'' -- Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside, from the stage of the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts, around November 1995.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I want to see an advertisement for the Best Business Bureau.
Until then I will not be satisfied.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

We live in a world running out of food, out of fuel, and out of room.
Yet the tone of a June 11 Associated Press report that life expectancy in the United States has passed 78, ``as top diseases decline,'' demonstrates an eerie detachment from the consequences of scarcity.
The AP marched out complaints that the United States wasn't doing as well as other countries. Expectancy in Japan, Switzerland and Australia is even higher, the report noted.
Samuel Preston, ``co-chairman of a National Research Council panel looking at why America's life expectancy is lower than other nations,' '' is quoted as saying, "The international comparisons are not that appealing, but we may be in the process of catching up."
The implicit end message is: The older and greater number of people to consume food, deplete soil, burn fossil fuels and project greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the better.
I have no problem with people living longer. We have a moral obligation to care for people, and sustain them toward the end of their lives, if that's what they desire.
Still, public policy has to bring in an emphasis on population control. We are really good at extending endings, as we should be. We don't have the first idea of how much better we must be at limiting the number of beginnings.
So the AP story was not entirely good news. It was news about the continued clotting of highways and the continued deterioration and inflated pricing of housing. Of course, declining populations will mean fewer workers to pay into Social Security and Medicare, which will eventually go insolvent. But we'll still need these programs. Funding the programs will require reduction in military spending, which will mean figuring out ways to solve problems without resolving to war. Wars tend to be conflicts over scarce resources; we must stop needing so many fossil fuels. We must start developing alternative energy technologies, in such a way that they are readily cheaply available, and beginning a massive program of construction of public transportation. It must be done immediately with a New Deal-type scale and articulated sense of emergency. There is no getting around this.
Life expectancy, according to the report, is defined as ``the period a child born in 2006 is expected to live, assuming mortality trends stay constant.''
``Mortality trends,'' one way or another, won't stay constant over the next 78 years anyway, making life expectancy really nothing more than a silly notion to be toyed with. I am deathly afraid that mortality trends will be affected for the worse by the worsening environment. My nephew was born in 2006, and of course I hope he lives a good long time.

Samuel H. Preston
None of this is to be disrespectful to Dr. Preston. He is hardly interested in filling the world with people and warfare and misery.
The Frederick J. Warren professor of demography at the University of Pennsylvania, Preston has studied the effects of economic growth on health, and the effects of the Iraq War on veterans.

Monday, June 9, 2008

I Should Have Mentioned Woody Guthrie As I Paid Tribute to Utah Phillips

I put up the first two videos because they are reportedly the only surviving footage of Woody Guthrie. The last one I included because it's lots of fun -- images of Woody juxtaposed with scenes from New Orleans and some hokey effects. Of course, Woody and Utah were balladeers of freedom, if you will, but I won't tire you with that.
``Ranger's Command:''

This one has Woody singing ``John Henry'' with Sonny Terry (harmonica) and Brownie McGhee (guitar). Sharing anecdotes are Alan Lomax, the great folklorist who discovered Guthrie, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, and recorded an international compendium of folk music and dance, and Ronnie Gilbert, who was a member of the Weavers with Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman and Lee Hayes. Guthrie recorded a lot with Leadbelly and with Terry. Before that I had concluded that black and white folk and blues musicians never recorded together. This is apparently a British documentary. Those Americans and their folk culture. Turns out Arthur Stern was in the Almanac Singers.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Dylan at the March on Washington

I suspect all that a lot of people know about Martin Luther King Jr. is his ``I Have a Dream'' speech that he delivered to Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington. That and the Mountaintop sermon. What fewer people know about the march is that Bob Dylan sang there! ``When The Ship Comes In,'' with Joan Baez; ``Only A Pawn in their Game,'' concerning in part Medgar Evers, an NAACP field secretary who had been gunned down in his driveway by a white supremacist June 12, 1963; and ``Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,'' with Baez and Len Chandler, a New York folk music scene regular of whom I otherwise know nothing.
We have got to get a political uprising carried forth by substantive popular culture. We have got to get corporate funding of political campaigns.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bruce ``Utah'' Phillips 1935-2008

When I encountered Utah Phillips, he was standing at the bottom of the narrow stairway that led to the basement at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts. I would have had to go out of my way to keep my head down to avoid eye contact, which is not what he wanted. He had just finished a set of songs and stories of the lives of hobos and workers who provide their labor, as the saying goes, for a song. After the set we went downstairs, I to the bathroom and he to the dressing room. Phillips was interested in the people he sang and spoke of. A great many people are bums or working stiffs, and the only way they will have a chance in this life is if they keep talking to each other, so let nothing isolate them from each other. Phillips took an opportunity to resist alienation in a small way by gently insisting, through his body language at the bottom of the stairs, that audience members say hello and exchange a few words.
Utah died May 23 of congestive heart failure at age 73.
All I knew about Phillips was what I heard from a tape, ``The Telling Takes Me Home,'' that my girlfriend's father had loaned us, and which I listen to while changing the sheets and the blankets. I asked Utah if he would play that song with the line, ``I don’t a lot about what you call class/But the upper and middle can all kiss my ass.’’
``Larimer Street'' condemns gentrification for pushing out the hobos by demolishing their haunts, the flophouses and bars, and the bookie joint and the Chinese cafe that was open all night, and replaces them parking lots and ``counterfeit hippies and plastic boutiques.’’
Utah told me he didn’t remember ``Larimer Street’’ well enough to sing it that night. Turns out the song goes back a ways. It didn't occur to me that the song would be old enough for him to forget. Despite the references to hippies and boutiques, it sounds contemporary to me.