Smart meters and stakeholder engagement

 

You may have missed it last week, but there was an excellent piece on the opposition to smart meters in California in the New York Times.  PG&E has installed 7 million smart meters in California since 2006; they transmit real time data on consumers’ electricity use to the utility, helping them to allocate power more efficiently.  The goal is to give consumers information about how they use power, and incentivize them to use less of it.  However, opposition to the smart meters comes largely from two different constituencies: Tea Party conservatives and consumers afraid of EMF.  Initially, you may remember, opposition to smart meters came when electricity bills increased; critics first charged that the meters were inaccurate, but it soon became apparent that the old meters were undercharging.  Now, opposition from Tea Party conservatives to smart meters is predictable; doubtlessly PG&E is just the latest Big Brother out to destroy their lives.  However, the anti-EMF opponents are a constituency that PG&E can work with, and should have worked with.  After all, it would be easy enough to find a way to connect these meters to broadband lines.

However, if we step back and examine this problem, a lot of the fuss comes down to stakeholder engagement.  Both Santa Cruz and Marin Counties put up obstacles to these meters because PG&E did not effectively engage with them beforehand.  Ultimately, we are going to have difficulties adapting to our warming climate; as we make policy changes, it will be more important than ever to properly engage and address concerns before and during rollout.  Unanimous consent is probably an unrealistic goal, but acknowledging and working with people is a must.


Capitalism, Justice, and Inequality

In the United States, the concept of the American Dream is accepted as the natural state of order, in which citizens are not tied down by caste, class, or family background, but can go as far as their ambition, initiative, hard work, and discipline will take them.  The growth of the American economy throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries provided opportunities that inspired immigrants the world over to travel to Ellis Island, and nurtured the development and dominance of capitalist economies around the world.  John Rawls, philosopher and author of A Theory of Justice, wrote in 1971 that:

“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. They are the principles that rational and free persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamentals of the terms of their association.” (Rawls)

Rawls echoes the idea of the American Dream, that in a free, capitalist society, justice is opportunity, through the effort put forth by individuals, to improve their station in life.  Rawls believed that each individual should have a right to the maximum amount of liberty, but that any economic inequality should be arranged so that they are the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society.  In short, Rawls was egalitarian, consistent with the concept of the American Dream.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, economists like Francis Fukuyama, who wrote The End of History and the Last Man, argued that an unending era of prosperity and peace under capitalism was upon us.  However, despite the rapid growth of capitalism during the last 50 years, and despite the end of the Cold War, inequality continues to grow globally.  In the United States, the percentage of total income that went to the top 1% of Americans increased from 8.9% in 1976 to 23.5% in 2007.  In 2007, the combined net worth of the Forbes 400 Wealthiest Americans was $1.5 Trillion, while the combined net worth of the poorest 50% of American households was $1.6 Trillion (IPS). Globally, the Gini Index, which measures the degree of income inequality in countries, shows that the level of global inequality is very high, and has risen during the last four decades (Anand).    This global inequality brings into question the concept of justice espoused by Rawls, and embodied in the idea of the American Dream.  What is it about capitalism that precludes equality?

Successful countries have advantages over developing countries that include superior educational institutions, superior and patented technology, and greater capital that allows for economies of scale and efficiency of production.  These same advantages hold true when you look at income groups instead of countries; even in the United States, the ‘land of opportunity,’ the son of a Harvard educated investment banker has significant advantages over the daughter of a working class family.  A recent examination by the New York Times of the epidemic of law school graduates, unable to find work and saddled with debt, featured a telling quote:

“Many Thomas Jefferson [School of Law] students are either immigrants or, like [Michael] Wallerstein, the first person in their family to get a law degree; statistically those are both groups with generally little or modest means. When [Beth] Kransberger [Associate Dean of Students at Thomas Jefferson] meets applicants engaged in what she call ‘magical thinking’ about their finances, she advises them to defer for a year or two until they are on stronger footing. ‘But I don’t think you can act as a moral educator,’ she says. ‘Should we really be saying to students who don’t have family help, No, you shouldn’t have access to law school? That’s a tough argument to make.’” (Segal)

The problem experienced by Mr. Wallerstein and many other law school graduates is a lack of capital; he overleveraged himself, with the American dream that he would get a job in a high-powered law firm.  Unfortunately, he made a bad bet.  John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, has written about the systematic overleveraging of developing nations through massive loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; like Mr. Wallerstein, those developing nations, such as Panama and Indonesia, were not positioned to undergo the kind of economic development that took place in the United States.  They are inherently at a disadvantage, and stunted by the game that is capitalism.  Unfortunately, the equality that Rawls proposed is not fundamental in our global economic system.  The American Dream, and by extension our globalized economy, is inherently rigged towards those that are already successful.

Works Cited

Anand, Sudhir and Paul Segal.  “What Do We Know About Global Income Inequlity?”  University of Oxford, 2006.  PDF.  Worldbank.org. January 12, 2011, Web.

The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).  “Inequality By the Numbers”  wealthforcommongood.org, November 2009, PDF.  January 12, 2011, Web.

Rawls, John.  A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Belknap, 1999.

Segal, David.  “Is Law School a Losing Game?” New York Times, Jan. 8 2011.  Nytimes.com, Jan. 12 2011, Web.


Ross Douthat misses the point

Ross Douthat, in his column today in the New York Times, makes it clear that the “rush to declare this tragedy a teachable moment” is a liberal, partisan position, one whose validity should be linked directly to the sanity and motive of the shooter.  It should not require an assassination attempt to criticize the intense partisanship and violent rhetoric that dominates our political scene, especially on the Right, with recent calls for “Second Amendment remedies.”  In light of the tragedy in Tuscon, Americans of all political stripes should strive to cool down the shrill, vitriolic rhetoric that populates talk radio, cable television, and political campaigns.  The status quo is simply not acceptable, nor sustainable.

George Packer captures the problem astutely here:

“But even so, the tragedy wouldn’t change this basic fact: for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn’t a big-government liberal—he’s a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He’s also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor. Even the reading of the Constitution on the first day of the 112th Congress was conceived as an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress. This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.) And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders. Partisan media encourages it, while the mainstream media finds it titillating and airs it, often without comment, so that the gradual effect is to desensitize even people to whom the rhetoric is repellent. We’ve all grown so used to it over the past couple of years that it took the shock of an assassination attempt to show us the ugliness to which our politics has sunk. The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America’s political frequencies are full of violent static.”

 


Coal, climate change, and our energy future

This Monday morning, I have one thing on my mind: coal.  Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons is ringing through the air:

“I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store”

Why am I thinking about coal, you might ask?  It is not just Ford’s sweet voice.  In the December issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows examines efforts in China and the United States to create “clean coal.” To many environmentalists, that is a dangerous oxymoron.  You probably saw this ad, filmed by the Coen Brothers:

That ad was in response to ads like this, from General Electric:

Well, on one hand you have folks that say clean coal is impossible.  On the other hand you have General Electric saying that “coal is looking more beautiful every day.”  Who is right?  Well Fallows’ article gets to the heart of that question.  He identifies some of the basic math that makes coal inescapably part of our immediate energy future:

“Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time. For instance: through the past decade, the United States has talked about, passed regulations in favor of, and made technological breakthroughs in all fields of renewable energy. Between 1995 and 2008, the amount of electricity coming from solar power rose by two-thirds in the United States, and wind-generated electricity went up more than 15-fold. Yet over those same years, the amount of electricity generated by coal went up much faster, in absolute terms, than electricity generated from any other source. The journalist Robert Bryce has drawn on U.S. government figures to show that between 1995 and 2008, “the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar”—and this during the dawn of the green-energy era in America. Power generated by the wind and sun increased significantly in America last year; but power generated by coal increased more than seven times as much.”

An article today in the New York Times shows that China’s hunger for coal has now resulted in coal imports from Australia, the United States, Indonesia, Canada, Columbia, and South Africa; new mines are even being planned in Washington State.  Fallows interviewed Ming Sung, a geologist who worked in the United States for many years for the Department of Energy and Shell Oil, and now works in China for the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force:

“People without a technical background think, ‘Coal is dirty! It’s bad, but will you turn off your refrigerator for 30 years while we work on renewables? Turn off the computer? Or ask people in China to do that? Unless you will, you can’t get rid of coal for decades. As [U.S. Energy Secretary] Steven Chu has said, we have to face the nightmare of coal for a while.”

Sung’s Clean Air Task Force is working to create partnerships between American and Chinese businesses to develop new technologies like underground coal gasification (UCG).  Here is a description of  UCG from the CATF:

“UCG processes coal where it lies, eliminating the environmental hazards of mining. In the process, coal is converted into a syngas through partial oxidation, creating the same reactions as surface gasifiers. The syngas generates “feedstocks” for several products, including electric power, chemicals, liquid fuels, hydrogen, and synthetic natural gas.  UCG allows for extensive pollution control and costs less to construct and operate than equivalent plants using surface gasifiers. The process has the potential to greatly enhance energy security, environmental sustainability, and economic competitiveness.”

In the United States, only one UCG plant is being constructed, the Texas Clean Energy Project, in Odessa, Texas.  However, in China, the development is occurring much faster.  In fact, development in all areas of energy research is occurring much faster:

‘In the search for “progress on coal,” like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday—the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well. “They are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me. “In America, it takes a decade to get a permit for a plant,” a U.S. government official who works in China said. “Here, they build the whole thing in 21 months. To me, it’s all about accelerating our way to the right technologies, which will be much slower without the Chinese. “You can think of China as a huge laboratory for deploying technology,” the official added. “The energy demand is going like this”—his hand mimicked an airplane taking off—“and they need to build new capacity all the time. They can go from concept to deployment in half the time we can, sometimes a third. We have some advanced ideas. They have the capability to deploy it very quickly. That is where the partnership works.”’

So lets go back to the beginning.  How do we create a sustainable future, with sustainable energy consumption?  There are a lot of perspectives out there; I see them every day.  I happen have faith in the potential of nuclear power, whereas some of my colleagues would sooner eradicate nuclear power and rely on solar and wind.  The geologists and businessmen in Fallows’ article believe that coal is inescapably part of our future.  Who is right?

In part, I suppose, it depends on how you envision energy consumption developing, globally.  Coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and oil provide the majority of our energy today.  To stop using them, and rely exclusively on wind, solar, geothermal, and other developing clean energy possibilities, will require us to consume energy locally instead of systemically, and it will require us to reduce the scale of our consumption significantly.  More importantly, to get there, it will require time, energy, and financial investments on a significant scale.  Additionally, it will require a sea change in the way we live.  Alternatively, the people in Fallows’ article look for a game changing technology that will create a ‘clean coal.’  Similar to those efforts, Bill Gates and others are looking to the  next generation technology of Travelling Wave Reactors (TWR), which promise to produce almost zero waste with lower costs, a significant progression from 1960s nuclear energy technology.  The big problem in following either path seriously is that like our political gridlocks, we face ideological inflexibility in developing climate solutions.  Fallows identifies the problem we face in America:

“But China’s very effectiveness and dynamism, beneficial as they may be in this case, highlight an American failure—a failure that seems not transient or incidental but deep and hard to correct. The manifestation of the failure is that China is where the world’s “doing” now goes on, in this industry and many others. If you want to learn how the power plants of the future will work, you must go to Tianjin—or Shanghai, or Chengdu—to find out. Power companies from America, Europe, and Japan are fortunate to have a place to learn. Young engineers and managers and entrepreneurs in China are fortunate that the companies teaching the rest of the world will be Chinese.  The deeper problem is the revealed difference in national capacity, in seriousness and ability to deliver. The Chinese government can decide to transform the country’s energy system in 10 years, and no one doubts that it will. An incoming U.S. administration can promise to create a clean-energy revolution, but only naïfs believe that it will. “The most impressive aspect of the Chinese performance is their determination to do what is needed,” Julio Friedmann told me. “To be the first, to be the biggest, to have the best export technology for cleaning up coal.” America obviously is not displaying comparable determination—and the saddest aspect of the U.S. performance, he said, is that it seems not deliberate but passive and accidental, the product of modern America’s inability to focus public effort on public problems. “No one in the U.S. government could ever imagine a 10-year plan to ensure U.S. leadership in solar power or batteries or anything else,” Joseph Romm, a former Department of Energy official who now writes the blog Climate Progress, told me. “It’s just not possible, so nobody even bothers to propose it.” The Chinese system as a whole has great weaknesses as well as great strengths. Its challenges, as I have reported so often in these pages, make the threats facing America look trivial by comparison. But its response to the energy challenge—including its commitment to dealing with the dirty, unavoidable reality of coal—reveals a seriousness about facing big problems that America now appears to lack.”

The reality is that we need to look to everything: we need to reduce our energy consumption, become more efficient, increase the development of wind and solar, and pursue new technologies like UCG and TWR.  With growing energy consumption globally, with the coming age of electric vehicles, we will need to have all of the solutions we can get our hands on.  There is no one Holy Grail here.  We need strict environmentalists to work with climate change denialists, and everyone in between, to increase investment in new technology, to increase efficiencies, to guard precious resources like rare earth metals, and to reduce the throughput of energy and resources in our economy.  We need to get over our disagreements and find common ground, pronto.  Clean coal?  I am willing to embrace the possibility.


No Mr. Brooks, follow the money

 

David Brooks

Image via Wikipedia

 

David Brooks is a sensible conservative; he writes for the New York Times, which means he gets written off as some sort of centrist by those on the Far Right, but I appreciate the way he approaches the complex issues of our time.  Brooks ponders the philosophical meaning of our problems, and strives for well thought analysis instead of trite ideological rants.  I always enjoy his columns, even those I disagree with.  Today, he argued that criticism of campaign spending is overblown, because money just doesn’t influence elections as much as people assume.

First of all, Brooks points out that based on a few studies, Democrats in competitive races are outspending Republicans.  He then examines polling showing Republican advantages in many races, and concludes that the money spent had no effect.  Brooks argues that independent group spending is only a 10th of political party spending, and that there is no way to prove that independent spending is more effective than party spending.  Finally, he argues that people do not respond to the din of political advertising.  Speaking about the Colorado Senate contest between Michael Bennett and Ken Buck, where there have been 5,358 pro-democratic ads and 4,928 pro-Republican ads, Brooks writes that “This isn’t persuasive; it’s mind-numbing. No wonder voters tune it all out. Amid this onslaught, there is no way a slightly richer ad campaign is going to make much difference.”

On his last point, Brooks is both right and wrong.  On one hand, people do not respond to marketing like they used to, political marketing included.  With the spread of smartphones, even our formerly quiet parks are now forums for messaging.  We have ready access to e-mail and other media, at every moment.  We are saturated.  On the other hand, because of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, corporations can again open the spigot of campaign spending.

The Center for Responsive Politics, the same group that Brooks quotes, reports that as a result of the Citizens United case, there is record spending by independent groups in this Midterm Election.  Unprecedented spending, and despite the Supreme Court insisting that corporations must disclose their political spending, this does not mean that the ad must make that support clear.  Instead, innocent sounding fronts called Citizens for a Better America or Minnesota Forward collect the corporate cash and hide its source from the American public.  Of course, you hear similar complaints from Republicans over Union spending.  Citizens United only served to make the political waters murkier, rather than more transparent.  Brooks views the effect of this new spending as insignificant:

“In the end, however, money is a talisman. It makes people feel good because they think it has magical properties. It probably helps in local legislative races where name recognition is low. It probably helps challengers get established. But these days, federal races are oversaturated. Every federal candidate in a close race has plenty of money and the marginal utility of each new dollar is zero.  In this day and age, money is almost never the difference between victory and defeat. It’s just the primitive mythology of the political class.”

Brooks is naive here.  People should know where the money comes from.  Voters should know what special interests the candidates are supported by, and which candidates their businesses support.  Voters should be able to use that information to decide whether they want to continue to support that business.  Voters should know when businesses write legislation that is blindly adopted by candidates the businesses supported in previous elections.  Voters should understand the complexity behind the significant problems we face.

There is one way to level the playing field: federal financing of election spending.  That levels the playing field and leaves the ideas and promises of the respective political parties as the only currency.  Of course, voter education will be a tough nut to crack. The political system aims for the lowest common denominator; voters are conditioned to listen on that level.  We should celebrate citizen involvement in elections, in the day to day grind of political life.  Citizens should participate in their Democracy, not only during exciting elections, but every day.  It can start at the community level, with citizens more actively engaged in the decisions their elected representatives make on their behalf.  In the end, it comes down to participation and engagement.


Do Americans respect Islam?

Are we at war with Islam?  George W. Bush, author of the “War on Terror,” said this about some American statements critical of Islam, way back on November 13, 2002, after a meeting with UN Secretary General Kofi-Annan:

“Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans. Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America.”

The current controversy over the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” shows that the sentiments of a vocal minority of Americans are not so welcoming of Islam.  They may claim that they only oppose the Islamic Center being built on “hallowed ground,” but you see Americans protesting mosques all over the country.  Is that just NIMBY?  Or, do they have a problem with all Mosques and Islam?

When you have Christians in Florida creating a Burn the Quran day on September 11, it is hard not to see a War on Islam from this vocal minority.  The danger of this rhetoric is that it may be feeding the radical minority of jihadist Muslims from groups like Al Queda.  By grouping those extremist few with the global Islamist whole, the rhetoric may be helping the radicals recruit and fundraise.  The Wall Street Journal, bastion of Rupert Murdoch, seems to agree.  They quoted independent terrorism consultant Evan Kohlman of Flashpoint Partners saying “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”

In the same breath, those that view President Obama as a secret Muslim without a birth certificate feed into the same rhetoric.  It shows an America that is intolerant of religious freedom, despite our Bill of Rights and our Constitution.  This whole “controversy” is a disgrace.  David Brooks has an excellent column today in the New York Times, where he talks about the “underlying” problem in America:

“In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Occasionally you surf around the Web and find someone who takes mental limitations seriously. For example, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.” He and others list our natural weaknesses: We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.  But, in general, the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness… There’s a seller’s market in ideologies that gives people a chance to feel victimized…To use a fancy word, there’s a metacognition deficit. Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate. A few people I interview do this regularly (in fact, Larry Summers is one). But it is rare. The rigors of combat discourage it.  Of the problems that afflict the country, this is the underlying one.”

Unfortunately, American attitudes towards Islam are often wrongheaded.  Before the Iraq War, most Americans did not know the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni, let alone a Sufi Muslim.  We tend to view Islam through the lens of the Iran Hostage Crisis, Al Queda, and the violent historical intersections between the minority of extremist Muslims and American foreign policy.  If we are really so serious about the Constitution that we inherited, and the freedoms encapsulated in the Bill of Rights, we need to reaffirm those freedoms by respecting Islam and the Muslim community in America.


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