This Blue Marble

Forty-three years ago NASA completed the final Apollo mission, placing American astronauts on the surface of the moon for the last time. In honor of that program, our language still preserves the term “moonshot” to describe a venture of such technical daring and human significance that it transforms our world.

In the decades since the last moon landing almost every President has backed a grand proposal for manned missions elsewhere in our solar system. Those plans remain hollow. The technical challenges, though significant, have never been impressive enough to stand in our way. We haven’t formed a realistic plan to send human beings to Mars because we’ve yet to find a purpose for such a mission.

Though the idea of space travel still fills us with wonder and admiration, one lesson from the Apollo Program stands out above all others. There is nothing up there for us. This blue marble is our only home.

When pressed to explain some purpose for the Apollo Program beyond the mere wonder of seeing human beings on the moon, proponents mention the scientific and technical advances that emerged in its wake. Those benefits are very real and extend far beyond Velcro and Tang, but they are less a product of space exploration, per se, then of government capital investment in science and technology. There were and are many ways to foster that kind of technical progress without flinging human beings around the solar system.

Occasionally, someone will mention a more distant purpose for the mission – the need to prepare our species to live beyond Earth. What really drove us to the moon is the same drive, deeply rooted in our evolution, which drove Europeans across the Atlantic. We wander.

For millennia our ancestors explored relentlessly. In each new environment they exploited the available resources until the landscape changed, then then moved on to find better conditions elsewhere. Civilization is still new to us, still an evolutionary anomaly. We have not yet mastered the art of sustainable, settled living. Our bred-in solution to the damage we inflict on our surroundings is to follow the horizon toward new ones.

As our understanding of the universe deepens, two disturbing facts are becoming clear. First, there are no wild places left to conquer. We now own and control the fate of every patch of land and sea on this planet. Second, there is no other world waiting for us beyond Earth. Perhaps in time we will find some suitable alternative home in the universe, but not before we’ve mastered civilization here. Humankind will thrive or fail here on this spinning rock.

No conceivable damage we might ever inflict on Earth could render it half as hostile to life as Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter. To continue to survive and thrive we must confront an evolutionary glitch. We must confront our urge to consume and migrate, developing instead a means to sustain civilization that does not destroy our surroundings. There is no alternative.

Sixty years of space exploration has given us massive advances in science and technology, but that may not be its most significant legacy. Perhaps more telling, our space exploration has produced an orbiting garbage field so dense that it threatens future missions.

Every well-conducted experiment is a success. It may not prove the conclusions anticipated by its hypothesis, but even by “failing” it pushes the boundaries of our understanding. Our programs to place human beings in the solar system have been just this kind of failure. Their bold exploration has not found another place for human beings to live, but by failing they have shined a new light on our dilemma.

This precious rock on which we live is a great gift. It is time we learned how to live on it in a manner that preserves it for those who will follow us.

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Posted in Environment, Evolution

Texas Lege Update

For yet another year, the inherently conservative structure of the legislative process in Texas is working to thwart the radicals who call themselves “conservative.” The short timeframe of each session, the numerous informal rules that stymie legislation, and a pretty miserable work ethic (the session amounts to a long series of lobbyist parties), make it nearly impossible to get anything besides a budget passed. Even with a massive legislative majority and a certified whacko running the Senate, most of the worst plans of the far right are slowly dying.

Here’s a general overview of where legislation stands as we head into the final days of the session:

Private school vouchers: probably dead

The effort to privatize the state’s education system has stalled. Given the opposition from House Speaker Strauss it will be nearly impossible for this plan, which passed the Senate, to ever reach the floor of the House for consideration. There just isn’t time and there’s no indication that the Governor would call a special session for it. It’s probably dead.

Marijuana legalization: dead

This never really had a solid shot anyway. What made it interesting was its sudden, unexpected arrival on the legislative agenda and the support it gained in committee. Expect this to be an issue to watch in the next session. Someone is bound the recognize the opportunity here.

Protecting you from imaginary Sharia Law: passed, pending Governor’s signature

Like I said, it is very difficult to pass any legislation of consequence in Texas, so the lege likes to rally around show-bills. This is a bill that does absolutely nothing. Seriously. Take a look at the text. This bill has one purpose – to prove to the paranoid bigots that drive Texas politics that their legislators are just as worried about controlling scary foreigners as they are. If anyone should understand the dangers posed by religion creeping into civil law, it’s the Texas legislature.

This year’s unconstitutional restrictions on abortion rights: passed the House, headed for Senate vote

Every legislature must demonstrate its righteousness by inventing a new way to harass women carrying unwanted pregnancies. This time they are about to impose rules that will make it practically impossible for minors to get an abortion without parental consent. The state’s women are grateful for the caring intervention of their benevolent overlords.

Efforts to block high-speed rail: probably dead

Every good Texan knows that Satan rides the rails. The state is ripe for high-speed rail, with several major population centers just far enough away to make fast rail useful and not quite far enough away for air travel to make sense. But pouring money into public transportation is always unpopular. After all, how are you going to keep black people thugs from using it? They could sit down right next to you, or even your daughter!

Nonetheless, a consortium has formed that thinks they can make high speed rail a reality in Texas without getting a dime of state money. They can’t, of course, and the effort itself is a bit of a sham, but that hasn’t stopped rural legislators from taking action to kill the project in its crib. Their bill would effectively block the state’s transportation agency from even participating in any potential plan. It looks like they will fail, but their failure won’t make the prospects for rail in Texas any brighter.

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Posted in Texas

Link roundup May 17

Having a great time. Here are a few things that have penetrated the haze of red wine and espresso to catch my attention.

Giordano Bruno is not amused by your antics.

Giordano Bruno is not amused by your antics.

Google launches self-driving cars in public tests this summer.

There’s no environmental disaster quite like a Soviet environmental disaster.

Follow up to article about redlining and riots. Jamelle Bouie describes the lingering legacy of redlining in Baltimore.

Video from Aeon: The psychology of the ever-imminent apocalypse.

Posted in Uncategorized

Gone for a while

It will be quiet around here for a while. These next two weeks will be consumed with a work/pleasure trip to Europe. That will be followed with another work trip to sunny Canada. Then we’ll be taking a family vacation back home in Texas.

There might be a post here and there, but probably not much. Don’t drift away though. There will be some very interesting news coming in June.

Posted in Uncategorized

Link roundup, May 12

Here are a few highlights from around the web:

– A new Pew survey documents the continuing, steep decline of Christian denominations in the US.

– And a flashback to a 2011 GOPLifer post, on the rise of Disorganized Religion.

– As Mexico experiences a continuing economic boom, most new immigrants are coming from Asia.

– For those of you who, like me, are about to board a plane today, why is there a tiny hole in your airplane window?

– And in today’s edition of ‘crazy shit your Legislature did today,’ the Texas House is deciding whether to follow in the footsteps of our forebears and stand in the church-house door over gay marriage. House Bill 4105 would block local officials from complying with court orders to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. None of the state’s major news outlets are covering this. Details are available from the Texas Observer.

Posted in Uncategorized

Marijuana legalization in Texas

A committee in the Texas Legislature just took a remarkable step toward the legalization of marijuana in Texas. Procedural obstacles unique to the Texas Legislature mean that a bill allowing full legalization will not likely make it to a vote in both Houses in this session. Nonetheless their action is an unprecedented landmark, a sort of Reagan-in-Reykjavik moment for conservatives in the debate over the drug war. Here’s why.

Two Republicans joined three Democrats on the House’s Criminal Jurisprudence Committee to approve the sweeping proposal and send it to the House’s calendar committee. One of them is David Simpson, a Tea Party star who introduced the measure.

Having Simpson back an unusual piece of legislation is perhaps not all that interesting. He’s the guy who led the State House’s idiotic fight against the Homeland Security Department’s airport screening rules two sessions ago. To put it succinctly, he’s an odd duck.

There are two other factors that make this scenario worth watching. First is Simpson’s reasoning. He introduces a rare touch of ideological consistency to a so-called “libertarian” movement that seems mostly interested in imposing Christian fundamentalist sharia. In an argument laced with more scriptural reference than the average Sunday sermon, Simpson makes this unusually insightful observation in a blog post at the Texas Tribune:

You would think that our country’s history with alcohol prohibition — an era marked by bootlegging, organized crime, government corruption and a rise in crime in general — would have prevented us from making the same mistake again.

But our current “war on drugs” policies, though well intended, have accomplished the exact opposite, spurring a proliferation of ever-changing exotic designer drugs and a disregard for constitutional protections in the name of eliminating drugs at any cost. Just think of no-knock warrants, stop-and-frisk, civil asset forfeiture and billionaire drug lords.

In other words, a far right Tea Party fundamentalist examined a complex issue of national importance and reached a nuanced, intelligent conclusion that could form the basis of bipartisan policy-making. This does not happen every day. It deserves appreciation.

But for a serious political watcher this is still not the most interesting thing about the committee’s vote this week. What’s truly groundbreaking is that Simpson was joined in his yes vote on HB 2165 by Republican Rep. Todd Hunter from Corpus Christi.

Who is Rep. Hunter, you ask? He is no one in particular and that’s what makes his vote interesting. Hunter is a solid member of the state’s shrinking bloc of relatively rational Republicans. He’s not a cartoon character or oddball, but someone who sits squarely in the party’s dull gray business base. He does his job and goes home. If Todd Hunter is willing to attach his name to a yes vote on HB 2165, then it really isn’t very controversial anymore.

Simpson’s office says that the early feedback from back home is very positive. If that’s true and that pattern holds up, it will represent a powerful shift. Simpson represents an East Texas base that is wildly religious and reflexively conservative. If his constituents don’t hate this bill, then come the next legislative session you can expect a serious, bipartisan push to end marijuana prohibition in Texas.

Here’s a breakdown of the committee vote on HB 2165:

Supporting Legalization:

Abel Herrero (D) Corpus Christi
Joe Moody (D) El Paso
Terry Canales (D) Edinburg
Todd Hunter (R) Corpus Christi
David Simpson (R) Longview

Opposed:

Jeff Leach (R) Plano
Matt Shaheen (R) Plano

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Posted in Drug War, Texas

Supporting the Civil Rights Institute

Democrats have historically been great at pressing for greater minority access to justice. Republicans have stressed the opportunity side of the problem of poverty and discrimination. Neither party has been able to formulate policy templates that effectively consider and embrace this challenge from a broader perspective.

Bringing minority communities into full participation in our culture, politics and economy requires more than a poverty agenda. We need a prosperity agenda. Understanding how to make this happen begins by asking questions, not making pronouncements. The Civil Rights Institute is working to do this.

Launched by Regina Roundtree, a black Republican activist in Connecticut, the goal of TCRI is to support research and policy formation that can open up economic as well as political opportunity for marginalized communities. I got involved with TCRI through a friend, Richard Ivory, who founded HipHopRepublican.com, but the organization’s leadership extends beyond Republican and African-American circles.

Our initial goal is to revisit the findings of the Kerner Commission, which was assembled by President Johnson to explore the roots of urban riots in the ‘60’s. Current events emphasize that issues addressed by the Commission in 1968 remain depressingly timely today. We are interviewing university researchers willing to utilize a community-focused methodology to measure progress toward the Commission’s goals and determine levels of support for potential policy alternatives.

The research itself will be funded by grants, but we need to establish a base of public support to help get the organization established. Grassroots support of this kind will be key to earning other forms of institutional backing critical to TCRI’s future. That’s why I’m posting this link to a fundraising page for TCRI.

Our fundraising goals are very modest. A little goes a very long way at this point. It is my hope that TCRI may join a growing constellation of center-right institutions pressing both parties toward more responsive urban policy. I hope you’ll help me with this goal.

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Posted in Civil Rights

Unintended consequences of the solar revolution

In 2014, for the second year in a row, solar power was the largest source of new energy in the US. Solar power delivered by utilities doubled last year and the growth is accelerating. Last week, Tesla made an announcement that is likely to change the market for clean energy dramatically. Tesla’s Power Wall now makes it possible in practical terms for home users of solar energy to exit the power grid entirely at a price that is reasonably attainable for mass use.

We are approaching the tipping point beyond which our fossil fuel consumption in the US begins a rapid, permanent decline. Just as with cigarettes and sugar sodas, the oil and coal industries are likely to continue making serious money on the long tail of slowly declining developing world demand, but their reign at the center of the global economy is coming to an end.

This is exciting news that promises to solve some of the most frustrating and frightening policy challenges we have faced over the past generation. Achieving the best possible results from this technological revolution will require us to recognize some crucial realities. Every major change in our landscape creates new problems. For all its promise, the dawn of the renewable energy era could be a miserable mess if we fail to recognize and adapt to the new demands of this very different landscape.

Shedding our dependence on fossil fuels offers us a world of radically cheaper energy while solving stubborn challenges around climate change, air pollution, national security, and even the preservation of public land. In exchange we get a new set of problems to solve, every bit as complex and dangerous as those that came before. Mastering those challenges early means maximizing the template of benefits offered by this technology. The culture that accomplishes this feat first could enjoy a powerful leadership role in the world.

Mass adoption of solar energy spawns a range of fresh problems in terms of pollution (yes, pollution), social policy, and economics. We have no generally recognized solutions for any of these issues. In fact, we aren’t even discussing them at a policy level.

Solar energy is clean in the sense that it produces no waste product in the course of generating energy. However, the production of solar panels creates significant potential for pollution. Use of solar for utility-grade energy production creates land and water use issues. And most troubling of all, the batteries which are critical for mass-adoption of solar energy carry the potential to be an ecological nightmare.

It is that scenario of mass-adoption that offers the most exciting potential economic promise and the most frightening potential harm. The process of mining, refining, and disposing of the materials in these batteries has the potential to make fossil fuels look like mothers’ milk. On the positive side, Tesla is just one example of a company who is way out in front of those issues, addressing them with plans at every stage of the process. On the down side, as this technology spreads into true mass adoption you can bet that producers will emerge who are not as thorough as Tesla.

But that’s just the ecological picture. The challenges we face in politics and culture may be harder to address. Our power grid is a public service that we largely take for granted. For almost a hundred years energy has been delivered to almost every home in the developed world at low cost, with relatively few interruptions. Energy delivery is perhaps the most successful public/private partnerships in history.

Power delivery, especially in the US, operates like insurance. The economics behind our network of generating facilities, power lines, and support infrastructure depends on the idea that virtually everyone is connected and invested. Emerging solar technologies deliver two very significant disruptions to this system. For the first time ever a meaningful number of customers can potentially opt-out of the system entirely. And existing customers have the chance now to effectively reverse the deal, getting paid to pump electricity back into the grid in a manner that break the system.

Rising adoption of home solar units will inevitably undermine the logic behind the power grid. If history is any guide, we are likely to reach a crisis in the utility industry before we even recognize this dynamic. Utility companies are engineered to operate with massive fixed capital and massive fixed cost on miniscule profit margins. It is not clear at this point how many customers the utilities can lose without facing collapse. The entire concept is so new that we have done almost nothing to explore the matter.

Will we continue to need public utilities in their present form? Maybe, maybe not. What looms over us if home solar use develops as expected is a dangerous and all-too familiar gap-scenario. Wealthier households could shed their dependence on, and their political interest in, our network of utilities. Meanwhile the economics of centralized power generation becomes unsustainable – leaving the less affluent quite literally in the dark.

If we fail to recognize the contours of this changing landscape there is a very real prospect in the not-too distant future that we will face a miserable choice. Either allocate public money for massive public bailouts of the energy industry or tolerate mass blackouts that only affect the poor. It will not happen tomorrow, but you can be certain it will come sooner than we expect.

Emerging developments in solar energy are some of the best news for humanity in the modern era. Getting the best outcome from any innovation requires us to recognize and adapt to the disruption it inevitably brings. With solar, those disruptions are increasingly weird, with potential to wreak havoc on low income Americans.

None of the challenges we face from solar are as daunting as the ones we’ve conquered in previous generations, but they will hit us faster than we expect. If we fail to establish some policy guidelines at the state and federal level, the growth of solar power threatens to fracture the economic and political model that has made cheap power available to everyone. Honestly confronting the challenges of solar alongside its benefits – early – will be a key to a brighter American future.

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Posted in Economics, Environment, Evolution

How to destroy Texas’ public schools

Texas’ legislature is poised to approve the boldest school privatization program in the country. This is what happens when you place a mildly deranged radio host in a state’s most powerful elected office.

Sending public school students to private religious schools may not seem like a ticket to a well-educated citizenry prepared for 21st century demands. That’s ok. Those are not the goals of this program. Legislators are looking for ways to save money and rescue Texas children from the godless influence of science, history, and empirical knowledge.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about school vouchers. Thirteen states plus DC already have programs that let students attend private institutions with public funding under some limited circumstances. What makes Texas’ proposal special is its ambitious scope and its potential to remove the last major edifice of public capital in Texas.

Texas’ privatization proposal is based on two separate bills. One bill creates a right to attend private schools funded by vouchers. The second bill creates the funding structure.

Tea Party Senator Donna Campbell is the sponsor of SB 276. That bill establishes a right for students to opt out of public schools and take with them a voucher that funds their private education. Then it starts getting weird.

Campbell’s plan will only pay 60% of what the state was spending for that student’s public education. Common sense finally triumphs here over the demands of pointy-headed accountants. Want cheaper schools? Give them less money.

Campbell’s bill also works another little bit of magic. No government money will be spent on the program. Kinda…

Her bill stipulates that “Money from the available school fund and federal funds may not be used for reimbursement under this section.” So how are these vouchers going to be funded? Students aren’t the only people who would be opting out of the public school system under this program.

Campbell’s SB 276 has a twin. Funding for this program is delivered by SB 642, sponsored by Houston’s own Senator Paul Bettencourt. His bill creates an unusual new private entity called an “Educational Assistance Organization” (EAO).

An EAO would be a private charity with a twist. Any “taxable entity” making a donation to the EAO could get a full credit for their donation against their franchise tax liability, up to 50% of their total tax liability. All funding for private school vouchers would have to come from an EAO.

Bettencourt’s bill is what makes this approach truly radical. These two bills would not merely privatize schools. They would privatize the school funding system as well, creating an entire parallel world free from the liberal horrors of a real education infrastructure. Taxpayers could simply exit the existing public school funding system in favor of their own private school funding entities which they control entirely.

Scope of the program is limited under these two bills, at least for now, in order to make this a “pilot program.” Current versions of the bills would cap the total funding for the state’s EAO’s to $100 million. EAO’s would only be allowed to grant vouchers (the bill calls them “scholarships”) to students whose families earn less than about $60,000 a year. The program would not extend into rural school districts.

EAO’s would not be able to designate which kinds of schools they would fund, but that constraint comes with a Texas-sized loophole. There are virtually no constraints or review over which students the EAO might select for scholarships. What is blocked by one hand is allowed by the other.

So, let’s review. Texas’ proposed school reform would, at least on a limited scale for now, allow taxpayers to opt out of paying taxes to public schools in order to direct their contributions to EAO’s. Those entities would decide which students to fund in private schools, with no constraints on sending students to religious academies and no oversight on which students they fund.

If expanded, this offers a Texas’ religious fundamentalists a huge achievement. They could finally destroy their most hated public institution – the schools. This proposal would gradually starve the public schools of their revenue stream, further cutting the amount that the state pays after years of careful under-funding. Meanwhile it would leave the public schools trapped under their existing infrastructure and mandates, a trap that would finally finish off the beast.

Undersized vouchers would fail to deliver enough funding to support a competent private education. Affluent families would get to take the money and run, receiving a state subsidy which they could combine with their family own contributions to pay for a reasonably good private education. Middle income families who can’t afford to pay above the voucher value would be left in the lurch, trapped between a collapsing public school system and a collection of cheap, storefront Christian madrassas.

A new generation of young people will be spared from learning about their history or discovering anything about the natural world that might challenge their religious assumptions. They’ll be ignorant, bigoted, and reliably pious, which this legislature will see as a big fat win.

The roots of this concept are perhaps even worse than the shape of the plan itself. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision striking down racial discrimination in schools, Georgia passed a constitutional amendment in 1954 allowing their legislature to privatize the entire school system. They never took that radical step, but the law remained in place until Georgia introduced a new constitution in 1982.

One of the architects of Texas’ current plan is Arthur Laffer, a man who has manufactured a successful career out of being wrong about everything. He became famous for formulating what George Bush, Sr. famously called “voodoo economics.” Laffer most recently used his policy voodoo to rip the bottom out of Kansas’ state finances. People are still listening to this guy because results don’t matter in politics.

It isn’t clear whether the current proposals can gain enough support to pass in this session. The Senate has already approved the plan, but its future in the House is uncertain.

What is clear is that Texas’ experiment with radical Neo-Confederate government is reaching a crucially painful stage and there is no relief in sight. This disastrous and bizarre proposal may fail this year, but there is nothing to stop it from emerging again and again until it, something even worse, finally passes. Elections have consequences and there are no signs of Texas elections delivering sanity any time soon.

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Posted in Neo-Confederate, Texas

Growth of negative-yield bonds

All over the world now you can enjoy the privilege of buying government debt that pays you a negative yield. In effect, you are paying a small premium to the issuing government for the privilege of carrying their debt. This is, let’s just say, an unusual condition.

In Switzerland your bank will charge you money for holding large deposits. Chase is trying to start doing the same in the US.

Why is this happening? There are lots of theories, but as is so often the case in economics no one really knows with confidence. Why would people buy bonds that pay a negative yield? A couple of potential reasons stand out.

First of all, a lot of investors are effectively forced to purchase treasury bonds because of the low risk. Even at a small loss, they may be more desirable than placing a billion dollars of employee pension money in relatively risky stocks. Second, and more worrying, is the possibility that these bonds are still a good deal. The negative yield is only negative if inflation hits certain targets. Many investors are betting on deflation, which would increase the value of those bonds. Which brings us to the final concern.

What the hell has happened to inflation? The standard explanations related to government austerity and the overhang from the financial collapse are growing a bit thin. We’ve been carrying an effective zero-interest rate in the US for six years now without reversing the trend. All the while economic growth has returned to near-90’s levels.

There’s another possibility – that an innovation economy carries with it inherent deflationary tendencies. It’s the same dynamic that capitalism has produced for almost three hundred years, but on a steeply accelerating curve. It replaces productive work with automation at radically lower overall costs while delivering much more concentrated profits. One way to create an apparent deflationary scenario is to suddenly take half of a state’s money and give to a handful of people. If that’s what’s happening, then setting central bank interest rates at or below zero will actually make it worse.

We don’t really have an established program for coping with such a scenario. Our generation’s Keynes has not yet emerged and if he does show up, he probably won’t be an economist. In the meantime we’ll keep treating this new condition with the old medicines and hoping for the best.

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Posted in Economics
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