Sunday, June 20, 2010

RIP Jose Saramago

The great Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago passed away this week. I've only read his book "The Cave," but damn what a good book. Check out the NY Times retrospective on him here. It's a pretty good review of his career, outside of the unsupported exaggeration that Saramago"was known almost as much for his unfaltering Communism as for his fiction." Not an exaggeration of his political views, but that they threatened to overshadow his literary production. She sums up his style, at least from what I read in "The Cave," quite aptly, a combination of "surrealist experimentation with a kind of sardonic peasant pragmatism." I hope to delve into his work more in wake of his death. "Blindness" sounds particularly interesting.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Great On Point w/ Douglas Brinkley and Naomi Klein Plus Good Resources on Spill

On Point w/ Tom Ashbrook on NPR put out an excellent program today on the Gulf oil spill that I highly recommend. Tom talks with Douglas Brinkley, Naomi Klein, and Julia Reed about the spill in wake of the President's Oval Office speech yesterday. So much of the coverage of the politics of the oil spill has focused on perceptions and political consequences, such as whether the President is showing sufficient anger or what the electoral implications of the spill might be. It's incredibly refreshing to hear a program that presents analysis of this administration's actual response, not just his words.

It's also nice to hear an avowed leftist like Naomi Klein on NPR, which normally elects panelists with safe, predictable views from the powerful DC think tanks, like Heritage or AEI on the right and Brookings on the center-left. Ashbrook does seem to have the most unique show widely broadcasted on NPR stations, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised.

Like most of us who think the Democratic party is too tight with monied interests and too militaristic in its foreign policy choices, she has criticized Obama from the beginning for his lack of action on global warming and his rather accommodating treatment of financial capital. As expected, she continued to critique him in this vein. What's really interesting is to see historian Douglas Brinkley, more of a liberal than a leftist and a pretty mainstream guy, agreeing with her and lambasting the President without mincing words.

The consensus from these three is that, while talking tough for the cameras, the President in practice has deferred to BP and even protected the company rather than taking charge of the cleanup. To some degree we are at the mercy of BP and its engineers when it comes to stopping the gusher, but the President could have taken control of the broader cleanup and coastal protection from Day 1. Formerly Secretary of Labor Robert Reich proposed that the President put BP under temporary receivership, something quite within his powers (if you can do it with AIG, you can do it with BP) (see this post on his site here). Yet the President would rather let BP take all the heat and protect his approval numbers, which despite public anger might be better for BP's shareholders than serious action like receivership and putting all our resources to bear on protecting the coastline.

In a side note, Brinkley wrote an interesting article in the Financial Times today (if you register, you can get a daily email update and 8 articles a month, it's worth the minute it takes) calling on the President to allow the Mississippi River to revert to its natural, undiverted state to rebuild the wetlands. The canals and levies on the river, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent flooding in the Mississippi Delta, have caused a gigantic amount of wetlands to disappear as the river's sediment settles out deeper in the Gulf, where it cannot accumulate and create wetlands. This is a pretty radical idea that I haven't heard even a lot of environmentalists propose, but the situation demands its implementation. The oil will likely speed up the already rapid rate at which the wetlands are lost. We need our wetlands as a crucial home for wildlife (including fisheries crucial to the area's economy) and component of the broader Gulf ecosystem, which is already suffering from oxygen-poor dead zones due to agricultural pollution running down the Mississippi as well as this massive, massive spill. On top of the ecological benefits, more wetlands would provide the natural protection from storm surge the New Orleans once enjoyed. And, as Brinkley notes, why not make BP pay?

Finally, check out the Center for Biological Diversity's excellent page on the spill. It includes breaking news as well as a constantly updated history of the spill. The Center brought to the media's attention the Salazar/Obama administration's continued granting "categorical exclusions" from doing environmental review since the spill, 27 times in fact. If you peruse my blog, you will see that I have been no fan of oil- and rancher-friendly Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and we need to keep up the heat on him as well as the President.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Great Jeremy Scahill Destroys Ed Koch

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If you haven't heard of Jeremy Scahill, he's an excellent investigative journalist that works to expose the injustice of American militarism and imperialism. He began his career as a correspondent for Catholic Worker and Democracy Now!. Scahill wrote the excellent expose of private security contractors, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Currently he writes for The Nation magazine (as well as a blog on the magazine's site).

What I enjoy about Scahill's work is that, much like Bill Moyers, he combines a journalist's attention to fact with the aim of working for a more just society. It's rare in these times of talk-format "news" shows and regurgitated talking points to see real journalism, especially when it professes a political goal. Political journalism lately has devolved into blogosphere hysterics on all sides (I'm going to hurl if I hear another reporter say both sides, as if our Democrat-Republican dichotomy encapsulates all possibilities of political opinion).

Not surprisingly he's been all over Israel's violent assault of the Mavi Marmara in international waters. He posted on his blog the video (I posted it above) of his appearance on MSNBC debating Ed Koch about the incident. His rigor for facts partially explains why he destroys the hell out of Koch.

I'll mostly let Scahill's words speak for themselves (he adds to them in this post on his blog). I just want to highlight two things. First, the list of goods banned from Gaza is really ridiculous, both in length and the inclusion of certain individual items (it includes goats and common culinary spices like cumin). It's clear the blockade is intended to do much more than prevent rocket attacks, as Scahill drives home when he asks Koch how goats could be used to launch a rocket.

Secondly, links to the US are crucial here. Israel gets away with human rights violations and violent aggression because the US unconditionally backs it at the UN and provides generous military aid, no matter what party is in power here. Even now the Obama administration is working to thwart an independent international investigation of the massacre. Until we condition our support for Israel upon respect for international law and human rights, these injustices will continue and the matter of Palestinian statehood will remain unresolved.

I hope to have more later on the legal aspect of the assault, so stay tuned.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Errol Morris--Gates of Heaven

A friend of mine tipped me off about filmmaker Errol Morris back in school, and I really loved The Thin Blue Line, his documentary exploring the (wrongful as it turns out) conviction of a man for killing a Texas police officer. I was curious about what other movies he has made, and thus I came across his amazing first movie Gates of Heaven. It investigates the phenomenon of pet cemeteries in California in the late 1970's.

On the surface it can be entertaining to see how obsessed these people are with their pets, one of those damn-those-people-are-strange documentaries, yet this movie is much more than that. It shows how and why pets create meaning in people's lives, and also how the process of production, business management, and consumerism coincides with that creation of meaning.

There's a cool Werner Herzog connection to the movie. He was an acquaintance of Errol Morris, and made a bet that he would cook and eat his shoe if Morris actually completed Gates of Heaven. When he finished it, he followed through on his obligation and ate his shoe.

Check out the movie, it's a great one. Here's a video of some clips from the movie, and a clip from a documentary about Herzog eating his shoe.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Methane Release from East Siberian Arctic Shelf

Global warming creates a number of positive feedback cycles in which warming creates the conditions for accelerated warming. An example would be higher temperatures reducing the extent of Arctic sea ice, which allows the Arctic Ocean to absorb more sunlight and warm faster. There is one feedback in particular we should be scared shitless about: methane feedbacks.

Methane (CH4, same as that natural gas you might use to cook) is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2. Not only do humans emit methane in a variety of ways, but feedback cycles from warming caused primarily by our CO2 emissions drive further methane release. Higher temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctic (and remember that higher latitudes experience a greater level of warming) cause the frozen tundra soils, or permafrost, to melt. The melting triggers anaerobic decomposition of organic material in the soil, which creates methane as a byproduct. Joe Romm has been raising the visibility of this issue for a long time because the feedback cycle is not incorporated into climate models. That suggests that we need to cut emissions faster and deeper than the models say to stabilize global temperature at the same level.

Via Romm's blog Climate Progress, I came across a study that found a potentially more dangerous source of methane: submerged permafrost in shallow seas off the eastern coast of Siberia. In colder times, the area was tundra above sea level but in this warmer epoch it lies under water. The submerged permafrost contains massive amounts of methane that, if released, could cause the rate of global warming to increase hugely. Check out Romm's summary in its entirety as it condenses the findings quite well and contextualizes them with regard to overall climate and emissions trends.

The study found that already the area is emitting more methane into the atmosphere than the rest of the ocean does. The permafrost/methane formations show signs of instability as warming has created 100 hotspots of methane release. The really scary part is how the release of even a small amount of the methane stored in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf would destabilize the atmosphere:
“The release to the atmosphere of only one percent of the methane assumed to be stored in shallow hydrate deposits might alter the current atmospheric burden of methane up to 3 to 4 times,” Shakhova said. “The climatic consequences of this are hard to predict.”
Yikes. Given that the climate models used to make climate policy don't incorporate major feedbacks, we knew earlier that we had to make greater emissions cuts than the models say to stabilize at the same temperatures and in doing so avoid the worst impacts of global warming. This study suggests that we have to make those cuts not just to avoid a greater increment of warming, but to avoid a drastic jump in greenhouse gas levels from methane release that would greatly multiply the effect of human emissions and push our climate into a dramatically warmer era (we're talking like 10 degrees F warmer with commensurate consequences for people and ecosystems). I leave with you with the climate blogging master Romm himself:
It is increasingly clear that if the world strays significantly above 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide for any length of time, we will find it unimaginably difficult to stop short of 800 to 1000 ppm
In short, the would-be point of atmospheric stabilization, 550 ppm isn’t stable at all — it is past the point of no return. We must stay well below 450 ppm to save the tundra and hence the climate. The new research underscores that conclusion, especially since the planet will keep warming (slowly) for decades even once we slash emissions to near zero.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Krugman's Clear Primer on Greece

Paul Krugman's column from yesterday nicely explains the Greek crisis in a manner comprehensible even for someone who studied environmental policy and geography. The key is that being in the Eurozone, Greece cannot devalue its currency, which would make its products cheaper in other countries and other countries' products more expensive in Greece, thus improving its trade balance.
But that’s a much harder thing to do now than it was when each European nation had its own currency. Back then, costs could be brought in line by adjusting exchange rates — e.g., Greece could cut its wages relative to German wages simply by reducing the value of the drachma in terms of Deutsche marks. Now that Greece and Germany share the same currency, however, the only way to reduce Greek relative costs is through some combination of German inflation and Greek deflation. And since Germany won’t accept inflation, deflation it is.
He also had some interesting things to say about how the crisis hit them. Entering the Eurozone had opened the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) to lots of investment because of confidence in the euro, but the financial crisis caused it to "dry up" as he puts it. This is what drove these countries' government into such dire fiscal straits. Spain was even experiencing a budget surplus prior to the crisis. Perhaps for countries who don't have a lot of financial capital themselves it's not the best idea to completely liberalize investment in addition to trade.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Greek Debt Crisis (Part 1): Moral Hazard For Nation-States But Not Banks

I've been trying to follow this Greek debt crisis closely. Not only is it clearly affecting global financial markets, but it says a lot about big issues of political economy and social relations. Who is paying for this recession in terms of class and geography? What is the appropriate fiscal policy response to deep recession to pull us out of it? Is a double-dip recession around the corner? I'm going to leave these big issues aside for now, and juxtapose the EU's response to this crisis and its response to the earlier financial crisis.

First off, this Greek crisis has laid bare the gross hypocrisy of neo-liberal elites in Europe (and here) with regard to moral hazard. So many commentators have stated that Greece (and so many of them conflate this with the Greek working class) must be punished with severe budget austerity as a condition of a EU or IMF bailout, or otherwise other countries will not be sufficiently deterred from running into debt trouble themselves. This is a basic principle of capitalism. To achieve market efficiency, people who make bad decisions must pay the price or else they will continue to make bad ones. And to be absolutely clear, the Greek government is responsible for much of this crisis. It used interest rate swaps with the help of the wonderful people at Goldman Sachs to conceal its actual debt levels before the recession, after which greatly reduced tax revenues pushed its budget much, much deeper in the red. (How much is our fault as the collapse of our housing bubble set off a global recession? Ah, but I digress.)

Yet big European and American banks made similar if not worse mistakes. They over-leveraged i.e. ran up too much debt, made poor investments, and hid liabilities through shadow institutions and tricky devices like the Repo 105 method of Lehman Brothers. According to classical capitalist thinking, they should have been allowed to fail, or at the very least punished severely in exchange for being rescued. Instead, the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank (ECB), and the Bank of England offered extremely low interest loans to these banks, bought toxic assets off their books, and guaranteed loans. Governments similarly provided great amounts of cheap capital for these inept banks, except they used taxpayer funds rather than "printing money." Of course, some response was necessary to stave off a worse collapse, but they did practically nothing to punish the banks. So much for moral hazard!

What does it say morally about the structure of the EU's political economy when a nation-state is punished for running into solvency issues while banks are coddled? Sure there are people that work for banks, but saving banks is mostly about preserving the value of money and assets, mostly held by the rich. Last I checked governments are responsible for entire populations. Call me crazy, but I think people are more important than banks.

There's a very interesting link between these two crises, and not just in how they expose the hypocrisy of neo-liberalism. Why are interest rates on Greek bonds going so high? The media refers to the market causing this as some sort of mystical force that dispassionately calculates the risk of Greek default. In the real world, it's bond traders that determine that rate by their interest in purchasing the bonds. Given the immense concentration of huge wealth in transnational financial institutions, this gives them a lot of power to mess around with rates. In other words, speculation and even bullying plays a role in addition to calculated analysis. The great Marshall Auerback of the Roosevelt Institute calls these folks, the very same ones we bailed out I might add, "big dick swinging bond traders." Is it rational to allow these jerks to push our governments and by extension us around? I encourage you to check out an excellent article by him on this subject at the New American Perspectives blog here.

The other important players are the rating agencies that assess the risk of different bonds. The lowered rating of Greece and other smaller European countries by Moody's is what drove their bond rates so high and set off this crisis. Hmm, Moody's, sounds familiar. Oh yeah, they're those incompetent bastards who gave AAA ratings to securities consisting of bundled sub-prime mortgages that would later bring down global financial markets!

So not only is the EU punishing Greece after it propped up the financial sector, but it's letting that very same bailed-out financial sector run its smaller member states into the ground. Remember that the next time you hear an American commentator bemoan Greek "profligacy" and "excess."