Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Environment vs Economics

There seems to be a belief that we cannot have a strong economy with strong environmental laws. Evidence of this belief is verbalized in most discussions concerning the record low growth rate of the economy coming out of the 2008 recession.  When the discussion involves business friendly participants, too much government regulation is the culprit, including over reaching environmental laws.  The recent decisions by the Trump Administration to opt out of the Paris Accord on climate change, and to roll back and/or negate the Obama Administration's rules for power plant emissions, seem to place him squarely in the camp that says jobs before environment.  

But is it necessarily true that we can't have both?

The May edition of the National Geographic Magazine has an interesting chart which ranks 100 of the world's major cities in three areas; people (social), planet (environmental), and profit (economic health).  It is called the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index.  

Before detailing some of the more interesting findings, I thought it best to research Arcadis, to find the source of the information.  As we all too painfully know, proving a point through scientific study or research is quite easy when the answer is predetermined.  I am sure if one were to look hard enough, "science" which debunks the connection between coal mining and black lung disease can be found.  In the case of Arcadis, it is a global design, engineering and management consulting company based in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with origins dating back to 1868.   While this indicates a bias towards their version of what a sustainable city might look like, now and into the future, they are successful at what they do; 350 offices in 40 countries with revenue of 3.3 billion euro in 2016.  So, factoring in a bias towards "greener" projects, and perhaps European cities, I am comfortable offering the following information from their chart.

Of the three factors, the social aspect ranks lowest for 34 cities.  Sixteen of those are in North America, 16 out of the 23 cities ranked.  For 12 of those 23 cities, profit was the highest of the three factors.   Certainly, a clear indicator of priorities for our continent.

Profit is ranked last in 19 of the 32 European cities while 14 of the 32 rank highest in people.  Again, a clear indicator of priority.

There are three Canadian cities on the chart, and they ranked first, second and fourth overall in North America with New York ranking third between them.  

The highest ranking city in the United States, overall, was New York which also ranked first in Profit, and Environment but in the middle of the pack in People.  The top ranked city in the People category was Boston which was also second overall.  Following New York and Boston, were San Francisco and Seattle.

Zurich was the highest rated city overall, first in planet, top 5 in Profit, mid 20's in People.

Interestingly, of the top 10 ranked cities in the Profit category, eight of them also ranked in the top sixteen overall; Singapore, Hong Kong, London, Edinburgh, Stockholm, Paris and Prague, along with the aforementioned Zurich.  Perhaps some evidence that profit need not eliminate all concern for people and environment.

Conversely, of those cities in the top 10 rankings for Environment, all but one were in the top 50, six were in the top 25, three were in the top 10, and two were in the top 5 for Profit. Hmm.

Could there be a correlation between people who feel that when factors such as health, education, income equality, work-life balance, crime, housing and living costs are adequately addressed, profit follows?  It is certainly true that a robust economy does not usually exist when there is chaos, whether politically or socially generated.   The bottom five ranked cities were Kolkata, Cairo, Nairobi, New Delhi and Manila.  None had any factors which placed them in the top 75.  

Certainly, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and London might effect future rankings.  And I doubt we will see a migration of people from North America to Edinburgh or Prague in the near future.  But the point is that profit can exist side by side with a concern for the environment and the people who live there when cities make an effort to consider its inhabitants as more than just income generators. 

Of course, there were some places where the difference between profit ranking and environmental ranking was 65 or more; Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpar.  Hopefully, those who stress the incompatibility between profit and environmental concern are not offering these cities as their model.

In the end, as usual, it comes down to balance.  Certainly, the debate is necessary as to how far the pendulum should swing in any one direction.  Stifling economic growth unless a project or plan perfectly protects all living things is as absurd as approving all business plans as long as one new job is created.  But the premise that we can't have both, in varying degrees is just plain wrong.  It surely belies the belief that by ignoring our responsibility towards keeping our planet and its occupants healthy, America will be great again.         

Thursday, June 15, 2017

DC shooting

I thought it important to comment on the horrific shooting which occurred in Washington a few days ago.  Regardless of how we feel about the current direction of the GOP and the Administration, there is absolutely NO justification for this behavior.  When we resort to violence to communicate our displeasure with our elected officials, with our neighbors, with our family or with those who look, worship, or believe differently than ourselves, we spit on the very fabric of our democracy, and move one step closer to being exactly like those we like to call terrorists.

I would also like to call on every liberal, democrat and progressive to make a similar statement, either on Twitter, or Facebook, or on their respective TV, radio or other media outlets.  We MUST not condone this behavior through silence.

Finally, I would ask both sides of the various debates that surround such a shooting, Dem vs GOP, liberal vs conservative, Trump supporter vs non-supporter, more gun control advocate vs less gun control proponent, and any of the other myriad issues which are contributing to such a vitriolic atmosphere that encourages acts such as this latest shooting, to be aware that we are all guilty of inspiring violent outbursts when we exaggerate, misrepresent, stereotype, and outright lie about the actions and beliefs of those with whom we disagree.

Being in the public eye through achievement, intelligence, education, success or fame includes a responsibility to present information that is factually based, perhaps tinged with opinion, but at least founded in provable elements.  There are far too many people who read for content they agree with, and are far too eager to be provided with a rationalization to lash out with violence.  Our right to free speech is precious, but perhaps there are times when we must question whether it should be exercised if the content is inflammatory.  It is far better that we exercise self restraint rather than create a situation where free speech is rationed via a political or institutional filter.

Finally, to all Americans who are involved in the discussions of the day, who feel our country is moving in the wrong direction or finally moving on the correct course, channel your energy to create talking points and common ground with those with whom you differ.  Work with or for an elected official or perhaps even run for office in an effort to better understand how our government works, or volunteer to a particular cause which inspires you.

There is only one other option if we allow our democracy to collapse through skepticism, complacency and the exponential growth of us vs them politics.  Anarchy might make for an entertaining TV show, but it is not a reality we would enjoy.      

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Russian Controversy

I haven't commented on the Trump/Russian controversy yet.  Partly, I have been reticent due to the extremely partisanship nature of the debate.  On the left there is salivating at the idea that Trump might be caught colluding with our most dangerous adversary, and on the right there is rampant amnesia in regards to which country stands to gain the most from western democracies which fall too far down the rabbit hole of nationalism.

At this point, rather than wait for Special Prosecutor Mueller's probe to come to fruition, I thought I would offer my assessment of the situation, and prediction for the outcome.

First, it is certainly true that the Democrats are still reeling from their surprise defeat last November. While calling the investigation a witch hunt is certainly disingenuous coming from a party that held countless Benghazi hearings, I also think that this is more of a red herring, on both sides.  I say red herring, not necessarily because I believe the Russian connection is false, but because there is far bigger fish to fry in reference to the agenda of this president and his (current) allies in the legislative branch.

It seems clear that their is a concerted effort to undo everything President Obama accomplished, either by an ongoing stream of exaggerations and outright lies, or through executive orders and legislative efforts.   From statements referencing the "absolute mess" that Trump inherited, to the constant predictions of the failure of the Affordable Care Act which has its existence controlled by the very people who are eager for its demise, our continued focus on the Russia Controversy seems to be a classic trick of magicians and con men alike.  Look over here while what is really happening occurs over there.

I say this, because in the end, President Trump will not be impeached over this embroilment.  Perhaps a couple of his associates, Manafort and Flynn to name a few, will be found guilty of some sort of misdeed, or Sessions might be forced to resign, but Trump will escape with his supporters in tack. Not necessarily because he is innocent, but because the standard which needs to be attained for obstruction is not reachable.  Clearly, presidential candidate Trump encouraged the hacking of DNC and Clinton emails, perhaps conveniently ignorant of the fact that his election was desired by Putin, but I don't expect there to be any smoking gun to prove that he traded such activity for future easements of the penalties imposed on Russia by the west as a result of the Crimean annexation, as well as those imposed by Obama due to the suspicions of an organized cyber attack during the recent presidential election.

The fact is that Hillary Clinton and the DNC made some critical mistakes in regards to Bernie Sanders during the campaign, provocateurs under the direction of Putin's government disclosed them and Clinton (or Sanders) lost an election she should have won handily.  As a result, there are many democrats looking under any and every rock to delegitimize their loss.

On the other side, we have a president who is such an egoist that he can't fathom the idea that he didn't win the election due to his brilliance.  That he was helped in any way.  It is reflected in his exaggerations about the size of his inaugural crowds, in his constant use of phrases like "the greatest, the best, the most" and in his over riding belief that he alone can solve all the problems that we face. From there, his unwavering supporters quickly move to the premise that anyone against him is against America, any news that contradicts him is fake news.

Sometime I have real sympathy for President Trump.  He won, yet he is constantly on the defense. His attempts to fulfill his campaign promises are thwarted at every turn, and he is expected to be on point at all times, while his tweets are expected to be always factual, more presidential than whatever thought floated into his head at the time.  His behavior is no different from his successful campaign, yet it is no longer working for him.  But then I remember that he spent a number of years questioning the birth nation of ex-President Obama, while he and many of the far right news and media machine took little pains in questioning Obama's love of America in general, and white people in particular. Kharma can be a bitch!!

When it came time to vote last November, I considered Trump and Clinton two sides of the same coin.  Clearly, there is too much money being used to pervert our democracy.  Clinton, as a career politician, represented the perspective that all politicians are self serving, and so many middle class Americans chose to vote for Trump even though, in my mind, he represented the class of rich people who had enabled those greedy politicians to fill their coffers at the expense of the American taxpayer. For me, assuming both had baggage, it came down to the candidate who most shared viewpoints that I deemed most important; climate change, income inequality, access to affordable health insurance and quality health care, and a humane immigration policy.  On those issues, Hillary Clinton was more in line with my values.

Ironically, many Trump supporters thought that electing a successful and rich businessman would help reduce the flow of red ink in Washington and scale back the influence of special interest groups.
Unfortunately, Trump is a novice when it comes to governing, and his many mistakes reflect this learning curve.  Also, he appears to be loyal to those within his circle, but, as they are a reflection of himself, he cannot see their faults.  And, of course, campaigning is far easier than governing.  As a CEO and business icon, Trump is ill prepared to navigate the waters of politics where many opinions and perspectives must be considered when creating policy.

Washington, for all its problems, is not like the business world of a billionaire.  It is not an environment where Trump can "suggest" to an employee that a certain thing must happen without actually saying, knowing it will be "taken care of".  It is not an environment where Trump can dismiss the thoughts of those who disagree with him knowing that, as the boss, it is his way or the highway.  And, even more strangely, it is not an environment where rules can be ignored as long as results are produced.  Perhaps that was one reason that Trump garnered some votes, people tired of politically correct politics and decisions which consider everyone's feelings, but that is precisely the strength of our democracy.  We allow those in the minority, whether it be based on race, religion, political affiliation or gender preference, to have a say.

In the end, the Russian Controversy is just another example of Trump attempting to run America as CEO rather than as president.  We know he had dealings with Russian businesses and Russian banks, just as we know that Exxon Mobil and Rex Tillerson have/had business dealings with Russia.
If there is one thing that is true, it is that the opportunity to make large sums of money trumps politics and national affiliation.  As a private citizen, Donald Trump sought outlets to expand his brand all over the world, Russia included.  If I knew that, through such business ties, Russia would aim their nuclear weapons away from Europe and the United States, I might feel heartened.  But, alas, I think that a win is a win, and if looking away while a foreign entity works to disclose private thoughts of ones' competition while spreading half truths as well, then Machiavelli would be proud.

Sadly, regardless of the outcome of Special Prosecutor Mueller's investigation, both sides will claim victory.  The left will focus on the statement that inappropriate communications did occur but nothing illegal, and the right will celebrate the conclusion that Trump did nothing wrong.  And that is the problem, neither side willing to seek truth regardless of who is at fault, both sides willing to ignore culpability when someone else can be blamed.

Perhaps someday the American voter will stop accepting the concept that it is OK to flaunt the law if you can prove someone else did it as well, will stop believing that our problems can be solved without communication and compromise, and will begin to vote for their interests knowing that no candidate will agree 100% with their perspective, but 7 out of 10 is pretty good.  Of course, telling voters what is in their best interest is the mark of a skilled campaigner, as is connecting with the one issue voter, so actually taking our responsibility more seriously when in the voting booth might be the real, the only answer, to our shared problems.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

America First

The recent decision by President Trump to remove the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, was defended by the President, as well as his supporters, as another example of putting America first.  The specifics of that reasoning seem to center around the requirement for the nations of the developed world to offset the costs of nations in the undeveloped world as they switch from cheaper, but dirtier forms of energy to cleaner but less cost effective methods, as well as the short term cost to the United States for doing the same.  

Strictly speaking, there is logic to such assertions.  Why should the tax payers of Pittsburgh or Des Moines foot the bill for foreign nations to change their energy strategy?  Even more pointedly, why should Americans risk an improving economy by committing to future emission reductions which will harm the existing energy industry, possibly resulting in lost jobs and higher energy costs?

Why indeed?

Perhaps the answer lies in the basis of an America first policy.  Certainly, maintaining the status quo in terms of carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses relieves us from the pressure of thinking about the possible consequences of such actions.  While defending the status quo is not generally a rallying cry for a populist movement, such as the one which resulted in Trump's election, it is certainly easily justifiable if one assumes change will be disruptive.  When America First translates into going it alone, without the cooperation of other countries, then there is very little reason to engage in any cooperative enterprise because cooperation with others necessitates compromise.  

This mantra should not be surprising as we try to understand our President's logic; time after time during the campaign and since his inauguration, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he alone could fix our problems.  It is reflected in his comments about the Middle East situation being not that hard to resolve, in his comments about how surprised he was that health care is so complicated, and even his admission that being president is much harder that he thought.  When one is used to making a decision then having zero negative feedback on its merits, when one is used to working with people whose only goal is to tell you how wonderful you and your ideas are, when one is able to fall back on unbalanced tax laws that enable you to write off your mistakes while raking in as much as possible when successful,  America First is just an extension of Donald Trump first.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that this decision is unwise.  The real question is, does reducing greenhouse gasses by moving away from fossil fuels to more greener energy sources, put America first?  

If you believe that climate change is the biggest challenge facing America, and the world, then any program that reduces our carbon emissions places the short and long term interests of America first. Put another way, the costs of doing nothing far outweigh the cost of working gradually, so that short term expenses can be spread out over time and be less intrusive.  What seems ironic to me is that even if you believe that the rising temperature of the earth is natural, part of a cycle beyond the capacity of man to influence, it is still true that the earth is warming.  Again then, wouldn't a plan which helps to minimize the effects of such warming, flooding of coastal cities, changing weather patterns, alterations of growing seasons, etc, place America First?  

Pulling out of the Paris agreement and then proposing a more specifics driven plan to address the changing climate in a way that will be the most beneficial for America and her citizens might be unpopular abroad but, perhaps acceptable to those of us who believe a strategy is required.  But pretending that there is no future cost for our delays, or worse, that the science is not in yet, smacks more of a strategy aimed at rewarding the fossil fuel industry for its campaign donations.  

But there is more to this America First philosophy that troubles me.  Clearly the name itself, America First, is hard to counter.  Why wouldn't we want to place America First?  Of course, actually placing America First and just talking about it are two different things, but perhaps it is the ease at which the America First doctrine is accepted that is the real danger.

History, even recent history in the form of the Patriot Act, teaches us that too large a percentage of the population judges a program or policy based on its name, not its content.  The fact that the Patriot Act, among other things, authorized the interception and accumulation of emails, telephone calls, and other forms of communications of the American people by the government was buried in the vast number of pages of that law.  Perhaps justified in our war on terrorism, but buried nonetheless so as not to glaringly contradict the name of the act.  Had it been called the Advanced Surveillance Act of American Citizens it may not have garnered as much support!

As those born in the early 20th century continue to pass from our lives, we are being inundated with a lot of articles about this "greatest generation" who were called upon to suffer not only the horrible days of the Great Depression, but to actively fight (and die) in the world wide effort to defeat Hitler and the Nazis.  One might argue that they placed America First, if we surmise that they knew that should Europe fall, so then might the United States.  But we call them the greatest generation because they accepted the sacrifices demanded, to save all of humanity; it wasn't in answer to cries of America First that inspired the millions of young men and women to serve in WW2.

America First feeds from the hubris that only America can solve the problems of the world, just as it feeds from the hubris that President Trump knows more about wars than the generals.  Sadly, once the American people fully internalize such a belief, it is easy to appeal to the more damaging concepts of isolationism, nationalism, xenophobia, and outright prejudice against anything not American.

What is truly unfortunate is that we have seen this play before.  It was rampant nationalism that helped fuel the two World Wars.  But it was nations cooperating which produced the defeat of those who, at the time, rallied to one man's views on the superiority of the Aryan race, the greatness of the Fatherland, and the importance of ridding the earth of those he found inferior.

The Paris Climate Accord was not a perfect document, as few, if any documents are that are signed by as varied a group as was represented by the 195 signatories.  But, it is perhaps the first document whose sole aim is to provide an agreed upon set of guidelines for combating a problem that threatens the entire planet.  The first Earth First document, one might say.  

It can be said that the greatest generation understood the challenge, understood the short term costs and sacrifices needed to overcome that challenge, and still rushed headlong into the fray.  I hope that our backwards slide to a more selfish perspective is brief and someday, hopefully soon, the next greatest generation will emerge, a generation able to understand and dismiss the limits of America First, and embrace a larger viewpoint that puts Earth First.                 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Zero Gravity and Living Forever

As usual, inspiration from this month's Smithsonian, June edition.

First article called "Up in the Air", about a zero-gravity future where thousands, if not millions of Earthlings live and work in space.  In the article, visionaries like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are actively investing huge sums of money to make the science fiction of the Jetsons the reality of tomorrow.

What is truly inspiring is that there are many men and women, famous and unknown, who encompass a staggering range of interests, from manufacturing in space to providing shelter in space to researching new drugs in space, that are not content with just talking about these advances.  And, thank goodness for the rest of us that they do.  Of course, dreaming about these incredible advances and making them a reality takes not just imagination but real life resources, in other words, lots of money.  Reading about companies like Blue Origin, Made in Space, and SpaceX, makes me proud that such research and commitment still exist in our species.  That there are still so many individuals who seek a better life for themselves, their children, and humanity.

The second article "Life without End", discusses the belief that death can be delayed, perhaps hundreds of years.  It is an incredibly complex issue, fraught with economic, political and religious ramifications.  But it is not just someone's fantasy.  The science behind increasing our mortality is real, involving research into understanding why our cells degenerate over time.

A particularly interesting area of investigation centers around the senescent calls within our bodies. These cells activate during cell division, a time when cells can easily fall victim to mutations.  They act as very powerful tumor suppressant mechanisms which reduce the chance of mutation. Unfortunately, over time, they also contribute to inflammation which itself leads to disease.  From an evolutionary perspective, for the vast majority of history, mankind lived 30-40 years.  One might conclude then, that the senescent cells were only needed for that amount of time, sort of a planned obsolescence.  When we realize that living into one's 50's and 60's, not to mention, 80's and 90's, is a relatively new phenomenon, it makes sense that a mechanism to reduce mutations might evolve but that the mechanism might only be effective for a defined time.

As our ability to reduce the incidence of death from causes that claimed the lives of people from the dawn of history to as recently as the 19th century, mankind's lifespan has jumped astronomically, perhaps surpassing our own bodies ability to keep us healthy.  Understanding the senescent cell and how it works might lead to therapies that keep it active longer, thereby improving the body's chances to live longer, and healthier.

One thing that is clear when reading the article is that there is much debate about how longer life might effect mankind, whether a bridge between a longer life span and a longer health span can be realized, and whether immortality should even be a goal to attain.

That is the real beauty of the article; it asks as many questions as in answers.

In a time when we seem so focused on the perceived problems of our day, when the future is more feared than longed for, it behooves us not to read about people who embrace what is to come, but more than that, work with an open mind and heart to imagine a better world, and then work tirelessly to see it come to fruition.

I often say that if everyone read the Smithsonian, a wider perspective might emerge.  The June edition confirms my belief.