Sunday, February 21, 2010
A new map from the Department of Energy shows Ohio's potential for wind energy at a height of 80 meters. You can check out other states at http://www.windpoweringamerica.gov/wind_maps.asp
Everything we do is in the service of the self---and there is no self.
Since everything is but an apparition
perfect in being what it is,
having nothing to do with good or bad,
acceptance or rejection,
one may as well burst out in laughter.
---Long Chen Pa
Frost across the river...
all I'd hope for lost
in the gathering autumn night.
Among the reeds and flowers,
a thousand miles alone.
But moonlight fills the boat.
My education is in what are known as the "arts." I studied only the required courses in science. Toward the end of my college days I became interested by a professor who taught the Philosophy of Science. In graduate school I tried to study Phenomenology, but I was lost. (Phenomenologists, to say nothing of Logical Positivists, probably would laugh at that sentence.) So when it comes to alternative energy, engineers currently allow me at a discussion table with them...but the voice of a poet isn't seen much as advancing the cause.
I decided Bush was right about calling it Climate Change instead of global warming, but probably for different reasons. People chop through this winter's ice and make cynical remarks about the warming. The fact is the warming of Pacific Ocean temperatures produces more moisture in the air, which proceeds to blow over us and come down as a delightful wintry mix. But here again, I'm not a science guy---and certainly neither are most of the conservatives I have to tangle with...so it's not for me to argue. When the weather is weird, Climate Change may be a term that explains it better.
But anyway, whether it's Climate Change or not, oil and coal have their limits, and what can it hurt to look at sun and wind? Union miners find themselves screaming the company line at EPA hearings, but the jobs-jobs-jobs are disappearing for them for lots of reasons. AFL-CIO leadership is wising up that training for energy conservation retrofit is the way to go.
The box office movie smash Avatar makes a point that our nation's younger generation had begun to understand even before those kids put on the 3D glasses. They're getting it that when a privileged American flicks a switch for his personal energy use, someone somewhere sacrifices something to provide it. A few people rake in big profits and some others have jobs, but for the most part a lifestyle suffers to enhance mine. And if we with the privilege look around deeply enough, we may see our luxury days are numbered too.
So as I still drive my car 10 miles into town, I do what I can to support supplemental energy plans that are being discussed at town meetings and Ohio University---which burns coal for the power it needs but is looking seriously at other possibilities. As a result I'm excited with the release on Friday of a new map of the contiguous United States that shows our nation's potential for wind energy. Here's the story from Wired~~~
America’s Wind Energy Potential Triples in New Estimate
By Alexis Madrigal February 19, 2010 | 1:31 pm |
The amount of wind power that theoretically could be generated in the United States tripled in the newest assessment of the nation’s wind resources.
Current wind technology deployed in nonenvironmentally protected areas could generate 37,000,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year, according to the new analysis conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and consulting firm AWS Truewind. http://www.windpoweringamerica.gov/wind_maps.asp The last comprehensive estimate came out in 1993, when Pacific Northwest National Laboratory pegged the wind energy potential of the United States at 10,777,000 gigawatt-hours.
Both numbers are greater than the 3,000,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity currently consumed by Americans each year. Wind turbines generated just 52,000 gigawatt-hours in 2008, the last year for which annual statistics are available.
Though new and better data was used to create the assessment, the big jump in potential generation reflects technological change in wind machines more than fundamental new knowledge about our nation’s windscape.
Wind speed generally increases with height, and most wind turbines are taller than they used to be, standing at about 250 feet (80 meters) instead of 165 feet (50 meters). Turbines are now larger, more powerful and better than the old designs that were used to calculate previous estimates.
“Now we can develop areas that in [previous decades] wouldn’t have been deemed developable,” said Michael Brower, chief technology offier with AWS Truewind, which carried out the assessment. “It’s like oil reserves. They tend to go up not because there is more oil in the ground but because the technology for accessing the oil gets better.”
The new maps, at the DOE link, are useful for would-be wind-farm developers who need to find promising sites on which to place their turbines. They want locations with high wind speeds, access to transmission lines, cheap land and a host of other smaller logistical concerns. If you purchase the best versions, the Truewind maps have a resolution of 650 feet (200 meters), which is less than the spacing between modern machines. That means they can be used to provisionally site individual machines on the ground.
Many estimates have been made of the wind energy potential of the United States and the Earth. John Etzler made one of the first way back in the 1830s. He used loose numerical analogies to sailing ships to calculate that “the whole extent of the wind’s power over the globe amounts to about … 40,000,000,000,000 men’s power.”
The water-pumping windmill industry flourished in latter half of the 19th century, but wind energy potential calculations did not advance past the back-of-the-envelope until after World War II. When Palmer Putnam attempted to find the best site in Vermont for the first-megawatt sized wind turbine in the early 1940s, his first line of analysis was to look at how bent the trees were.
The 1980s saw a boom in wind energy in the state of California, driven by a number of federal and state incentives as well as an active environmental culture. Back then, the only way to really know how hard and often the wind blew was to put up a tower covered in sensors and measure. So, wind-farm developers concentrated their efforts on three areas — Tehachapi, Altamont Pass and San Gorgonio — and covered the places with towers to measure the wind.
“I still have some databases from back then and you look at them and say, ‘Oh my, they had 120 towers up,’ or something crazy,” Brower said. “That’s not how it’s done anymore.”
Even low-resolution regional maps did not exist until the early 1980s and the first national map was only published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (née Solar Energy Research Institute) in 1986. As you can see from the map at Wired, it was more of a general guide than a series of detailed local estimates.
The real boom in wind data came with the availability of cheap computational power in the late 1990s. It was then that Brower’s company began being able to marry large-scale weather models with small-scale topographic models. They created a parallel process for crunching wind data and ran it on small, fast PCs to get supercomputer-level power at low cost. Then, they refined their estimates with data from 1,600 wind measurement towers.
The result is a much more accurate forecast. Truewind’s estimates of wind speed at a location have an uncertainty margin of 0.35 meters a second. Good wind sites have average wind speeds of between 6.5 and 10 m/s, though most onshore areas don’t get above 9. Perhaps more importantly, their estimates for how many kilowatt-hours a turbine in a location will produce are accurate to within 10 percent, Brower stated.
The newest models are now sufficiently good that developers don’t need as much on-site data. They do still use towers to check the maps and models produced by companies like Truewind, but not nearly as many, which reduces the expense and time that it takes to execute a project.
“You might see 10 or 15 towers over an area that would have had 50 or 100 towers before,” he said.
The new data, including these maps and forecasting models, may not directly make wind farms cheaper, but the advances certainly makes them easier to plan for, develop and operate.
“I think of it more as greasing the wheels of the process more than producing a really big cost savings,” Brower said. “You reduce the friction, the transaction costs, and that enables you to get where you’re going faster.”
The better processes, along with state renewable-energy mandates, seem to be helping. In 2009, 10 gigawatts of wind capacity was installed in the United States to bring the nation’s total to 35 gigawatts.
The data plays a more subtle role, too. In helping make the case that wind energy can play a very substantial role in supplying electricity, the new maps and estimates could help convince industrial and political leaders to support renewable energy, particularly in windy heartland states like Kansas, Montana and Nebraska.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Montage by Carin Goldberg, based upon “Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull (1756-1843) and used to illustrate the NY Times article mentioned in the Wasserman essay.
There is a man who eats sparingly, but is never hungry.
There is a man who always is eating, but is never full.
Your inside is out and your outside is in.
God made the idiot for practice, and then He made the school board.
The downfall of the evangelicals...or Pentecostals or fundamentalists---whatever it is we call them---must be their pushiness. The difficulty we have naming them is because they call themselves Christians. When they say, "I'm a Christian," they mean something different than other denominations when we say I'm Christian. In fact, they disparage "denominations" altogether. They mean they're "born again," and that means they're at a different, higher level than the rest of us. There are privileges and obligations with such a stunning resurrection. The Truth has been engraved into their psyches, and now life is but a matter of spreading the word. When the End comes, they will go and we will be left behind. When Christ returns, they will be in his arms, but we will burn.
Bring this philosophy into politics and the schools and what do we have? Well, we seem to have the United States in 2010, that's what. This showdown has been coming for a long time, most of my lifetime anyway. I was 13, I think, when somehow (legislative? executive order by Ike?) the Pledge of Allegiance got "under God" added to it. In my upstate New York hometown, I didn't even know a Democrat. I wasn't a normal kid, but I surely wasn't politically radical---yet. I hated the addition. I refused to say it...and still do. The Pledge is ruined for me. At that time it was instinct, something about how I understood the country. But now, all these years later, finally historians are standing up to teach us about the Founding Fathers (and mothers...although we may have to wait a week or 2 for those monographs).
Yesterday The New York Times magazine carried a major article about the current spiritual "revolution time." http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/magazine/14texbooks-t.html?ref=magazine Anticipating its publication, Harvey Wasserman wrote an op-ed with his own version of who were the Founding Fathers. In his inimitable style he may go a bit over the top, but it's a concise list and I think it's useful. His SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030, is at www.solartopia.org. Wasserman is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and writes regularly for www.freepress.org~~~
Our founders were NOT fundamentalists
February 14, 2010
Today's New York Times Sunday Magazine highlights yet another mob of extremists using the Texas School Board to baptize our children's textbooks.
This endless, ever-angry escalating assault on our Constitution by crusading theocrats could be obliterated with the effective incantation of two names: Benjamin Franklin, and Deganawidah.
But first, let's do some history:
1) Actual Founder-Presidents #2 through #6---John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams---were all freethinking Deists and Unitarians; what Christian precepts they embraced were moderate, tolerant and open-minded.
2) Actual Founder-President #1, George Washington, became an Anglican as required for original military service under the British, and occasionally quoted scripture. But he vehemently opposed any church-state union. In a 1790 letter to the Jews of Truro, he wrote: The "Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistances, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens." A 1796 treaty he signed says "the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Washington rarely went to church and by some accounts refused last religious rites.
3) Washington was also the nation's leading brewer, and since most Americans drank much beer (water could be lethal in the cities) they regularly trembled before the keg, not the altar. Like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, virtually all American farmers raised hemp and its variations.
4) Jefferson produced a personal Bible from which he edited out all reference to the "miraculous" from the life of Jesus, whom he considered both an activist and a mortal.
5) Tom Paine's COMMON SENSE sparked the Revolution with nary a mention of Jesus or Christianity. His Deist Creator established the laws of Nature, endowed humans with Free Will, then left.
6) The Constitution never mentions the words "Christian" or "Jesus" or "Christ."
7) Revolutionary America was filled with Christians whose commitment to toleration and diversity was completely adverse to the violent, racist, misogynist, anti-sex theocratic Puritans whose "City on the Hill" meant a totalitarian state. Inspirational preachers like Rhode Island's Roger Williams and religious groups like the Quakers envisioned a nation built on tolerance and love for all.
8) The US was founded less on Judeo-Christian beliefs than on the Greco-Roman love for dialog and reason. There are no contemporary portraits of any Founder wearing a crucifix or church garb. But Washington was famously painted half-naked in the buff toga of the Roman Republic, which continues to inspire much of our official architecture.
9) The great guerilla fighter (and furniture maker) Ethan Allen was an aggressive atheist; his beliefs were common among the farmers, sailors and artisans who were the backbone of Revolutionary America.
10) America's most influential statesman, thinker, writer, agitator, publisher, citizen-scientist and proud liberal libertine was---and remains---Benjamin Franklin. He was at the heart of the Declaration, Constitution and Treaty of Paris ending the Revolution. The ultimate Enlightenment icon, Franklin's Deism embraced a pragmatic love of diversity. As early America's dominant publisher he, Paine and Jefferson printed the intellectual soul of the new nation.
11) Franklin deeply admired the Ho-de-no-sau-nee (Iroquois) Confederacy of what's now upstate New York. Inspired by the legendary peacemaker Deganawidah, this democratic congress of five tribes had worked "better than the British Parliament" for more than two centuries. It gave us the model for our federal structure and the images of freedom and equality that inspired both the French and American Revolutions.
It's no accident today's fundamentalist crusaders and media bloviators (Rev. Limbaugh, St. Beck) seek to purge our children's texts of all native images except as they are being forceably converted or killed.
Today's fundamentalists would have DESPISED the actual Founders. Franklin's joyous, amply reciprocated love of women would evoke their limitless rage. Jefferson's paternities with his slave mistress Sally Hemings, Paine's attacks on the priesthood, Hamilton's bastardly philandering, the grassroots scorn for organized religion---all would draw howls of righteous right-wing rage.
Which may be why theocratic fundamentalists are so desperate to sanitize and fictionalize what's real about our history.
God forbid our children should know of American Christians who embraced the Sermon on the Mount and renounced the Book of Revelations…or natives who established democracy on American soil long before they saw the first European…or actual Founders who got drunk, high and laid on their way to writing the Constitution.
Faith-based tyranny is anti-American. So are dishonest textbooks. It's time to fight them both.
HARVEY WASSERMAN'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES is at www.harveywasserman.com, along with PASSIONS OF THE POTSMOKING PATRIOTS by "Thomas Paine." This article is written in honor of the spirit of Howard Zinn.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Photos from Winter Olympics sites last week.
"After unusually warm conditions in January 2010, snow remained scarce on Cypress Mountain. The Los Angeles Times reported that snow was being trucked to Cypress Mountain from higher elevations, and Vancouver Now reported that organizers had placed tubes filled with dry ice on courses to keep surrounding snow from breaking down. A surprise snowstorm struck on February 10, just two days before the games opened, boosting the snowpack. The snowstorm did not, however, change the short-term forecast for rain."
The fact is, the universe has chosen you as the vehicle through which to experience the uncanny thrill of cutting up cabbage for dinner, the wonder that is inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, the fabulous spectacle of watching your clothes dry at a coin-op laundromat where the radio is stuck on an E-Z listening station and an old lady keeps staring at you for no discernible reason. The universe has demanded that you be you. Ain't no avoidin' it.
My boat and I...enter the lake,
turn as night falls toward the west
where I watch the south star over the mountain,
and the rising mist, hovering over the water,
and the low moon slanting through the trees:
And there I choose to forget every worldly matter
and be only an old man out fishing.
The wind drops, but the flowers still fall;
A bird sings, and the mountain is more full of mystery.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday nights on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers. This is his op-ed piece for Truthout yesterday. The comments that follow on the link provide an excellent debate of the climate change issue~~~
There's a vintage Bob and Ray radio sketch in which Bob plays "Mr. Science," a parody of TV's "Mr. Wizard." He's trying to explain to his young protégé Sandy "the miracle of gas refrigeration."
"Doesn't it seem paradoxical to you that a refrigerator is made cold by a flame?" Mr. Science asks.
Sandy exclaims, "Holy cats! Wait 'til I tell the gang at school that! I thought it was made cold by the ice cubes, Mr. Science!"
Sandy's slippery grasp of physics and Mr. Science's increasingly convoluted explanations characterize the debate over climate change that was taking place in Washington and the media this week. As the capital and much of the Eastern seaboard were digging themselves out from two big snow events, climate change deniers were pointing to the frozen tundra on the Potomac as evidence that global warming is a fraud.
Virginia's Republican Party used the blizzards to put out a snarky ad attacking two of the state's Democratic congressmen who voted for the cap-and-trade bill last year: "Tell them how much global warming you get this weekend," the spot chortled. "Maybe they'll come help you shovel."
Right-wing Sen. Jim DeMint sent out a Twitter tweet: "It's going to keep snowing until Al Gore cries 'Uncle!'" And the daughter and grandkids of Republican Sen. James Inhofe built a six-foot igloo on Capitol Hill with signs announcing "Al Gore's New Home" and "Honk if you [heart] Global Warming." Once again, the GOP mines comedy gold.
Granted, debating global warming while stuck in a snowdrift can seem a little counterintuitive, especially if you tend to willfully deny scientific evidence and prefer to limit your knowledge of the cold to such things as sticking your tongue on the schoolyard flagpole and enjoying the occasional Sno-Cone. And scientists didn't do themselves any favors when the phrase "global warming" was coined. Compared to "climate change," it's much too easy to misinterpret, intentionally or not. (As some have suggested, "global weirding" might be more accurate and helpful.)
In truth, and to get way too basic, warmer air holds more moisture, and when temperatures get colder it falls from the sky as a lot of snow. Not to mention that short-term weather phenomena, like blizzards, don't necessarily reflect overall climate trends, which are measured over decades and more.
And by the way, as the progressive Web site Media Matters reports, if we can momentarily shift our East Coast-centric eyes from our own icy weather, note that they're having trouble getting enough snow at the Olympics in Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro is wilting from its worst heat wave in half a century.
One big fact that convinces me of the reality of climate change is the seriousness with which America's defense and intelligence agencies are taking it as a worldwide threat. The American Security Project, a Washington think tank, reported last month that the Central Intelligence Agency has relaunched a program "to share surveillance and other data with scientists monitoring climate change," including satellite photos. And in September, the CIA announced it was creating a Center on Climate Change and National Security that will study "the effect environmental factors can have on political, economic, and social stability overseas."
The Chief of Naval Operations has established "Task Force Climate Change" to "assess the Navy's preparedness to respond to emerging requirements, and to develop a science-based timeline for future Navy actions regarding climate change." Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has set the year 2020 as a deadline for the Navy cutting its use of fossil fuels by half.
On February 1, the Pentagon issued its Quadrennial Defense Review, which establishes defense strategy and priorities and evaluates potential international risks. It cites intelligence assessments that "climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.
"While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world," the review added.
Among its other findings, the review cites a 2008 National Intelligence Council report that more than 30 US military installations were "already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels. DoD's operational readiness hinges on continued access to land, air, and sea training and test space. Consequently, the department must complete a comprehensive assessment of all installations to assess the potential impacts of climate change on its missions and adapt as required."
Consider yourself warned and, one hopes, suitably chastened. As Sandy tells Mr. Science, "I'm never going to throw an ice cube from a moving car again. Boy, Smokey the Bear's got enough trouble as it is!"
Monday, February 08, 2010
Paul Krugman receiving his Prize from His Majesty King Karl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall, December 10, 2008
Photo by Hans Mehlin for The Nobel Foundation
The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.
---Arthur Conan Doyle
People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of their minds.
To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.
I don't mean economic depression. Let the scholars argue about the difference between recession and depression. Do there have to be bread lines and dustbowl photos before we all get grim? The title is about emotional depression. Sarah may smile at her Tea Party and Saints fans may shout in New Orleans streets, but that doesn't mean something still isn't eating away at them.
Dr. Harriet Fraad is a practicing psychotherapist-hypnotherapist in Manhattan. Currently an article she published last month in Tikkun is being cross-posted all over the Internet. It's called American Depressions and can be read here http://www.tikkun.org/article.php?story=jan10_depressions . If it impresses or moves you, it may be of interest that you can talk or just listen to Dr. Fraad about her article in a phone forum this very evening, January 8, 2010. At 6 pm Pacific time, 9 pm Eastern time, call 1 888 346 3950 and ENTER CODE 11978#. There is no phone charge to you, but someone will ask you to subscribe or contribute.
So what does all this have to do with the picture of Paul Krugman up there? Just prior to being notified he was being presented with a Nobel in economics, Princeton Professor Krugman had agreed to write an open letter to Barack Obama for Rolling Stone. As the deadline was drawing near, the editors called Krugman to remind him...and that's when they found out he was sorry but he had to fly to Stockholm. He ended up writing most of it on the plane during the flight. The open letter appeared in Issue 1070 a little over a year ago, pretty much as Bush was leaving and Obama was inaugurated. Midst all the excitement, do you suppose Obama ever read it?
A year later, Barack Obama would be flying to Stockholm too. It would have been nice if he had spent the flight time writing a reply to Paul Krugman, listing the advice he had taken and what he hadn't and why. But instead he had to polish a controversial acceptance address for his Peace Prize. Too bad. Some of us get depressed when the elected representatives of this republic don't do what they promised they would and don't listen to our views.
I agree America is emotionally depressed. I think the reasons Dr. Fraad describes are correct. Many therapists believe the way to get over it, short of electroshock, is to pave a highway into the future and move forward. I'm more from the school of understanding the past so I don't repeat it. As a result I invite you to read Paul Krugman's letter to President Obama and see if it helps. Sometimes a cure involves pain, but it's probably worth it.
What Obama Must Do
A Letter to the New President
Posted Jan 14, 2009 12:17 PM
Dear Mr. President:
Like FDR three-quarters of a century ago, you're taking charge at a moment when all the old certainties have vanished, all the conventional wisdom been proved wrong. We're not living in a world you or anyone else expected to see. Many presidents have to deal with crises, but very few have been forced to deal from Day One with a crisis on the scale America now faces.
So, what should you do?
In this letter I won't try to offer advice about everything. For the most part I'll stick to economics, or matters that bear on economics. I'll also focus on things I think you can or should achieve in your first year in office. The extent to which your administration succeeds or fails will depend, to a large extent, on what happens in the first year — and above all, on whether you manage to get a grip on the current economic crisis.
The Economic Crisis
How bad is the economic outlook? Worse than almost anyone imagined.
The economic growth of the Bush years, such as it was, was fueled by an explosion of private debt; now credit markets are in disarray, businesses and consumers are pulling back and the economy is in free-fall. What we're facing, in essence, is a yawning job gap. The U.S. economy needs to add more than a million jobs a year just to keep up with a growing population. Even before the crisis, job growth under Bush averaged only 800,000 a year — and over the past year, instead of gaining a million-plus jobs, we lost 2 million. Today we're continuing to lose jobs at the rate of a half million a month.
There's nothing in either the data or the underlying situation to suggest that the plunge in employment will slow anytime soon, which means that by late this year we could be 10 million or more jobs short of where we should be. This, in turn, would mean an unemployment rate of more than nine percent. Add in those who aren't counted in the standard rate because they've given up looking for work, plus those forced to take part-time jobs when they want to work full-time, and we're probably looking at a real-world unemployment rate of around 15 percent — more than 20 million Americans frustrated in their efforts to find work.
The human cost of a slump that severe would be enormous. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research group that analyzes government programs, recently estimated the effects of a rise in the unemployment rate to nine percent — a worst-case scenario that now seems all too likely. So what will happen if unemployment rises to nine percent or more? As many as 10 million middle-class Americans would be pushed into poverty, and another 6 million would be pushed into "deep poverty," the severe deprivation that happens when your income is less than half the poverty level. Many of the Americans losing their jobs would lose their health insurance too, worsening the already grim state of U.S. health care and crowding emergency rooms with those who have nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, millions more Americans would lose their homes. State and local governments, deprived of much of their revenue, would have to cut back on even the most essential services.
If things continue on their current trajectory, Mr. President, we will soon be facing a great national catastrophe. And it's your job — a job no other president has had to do since World War II — to head off that catastrophe.
Wait a second, you may say. Didn't other presidents also face troubled economies? Yes, they did — but when it came to economic policy, your predecessors weren't actually running the show. For the past half century the Federal Reserve — a more or less independent institution, run by technocrats and deliberately designed to be independent of whoever happens to occupy the White House — has been taking care of day-to-day, and even year-to-year, economic management. Your fellow presidents were just along for the ride.
Remember the economic boom of 1984, which let Ronald Reagan run on the slogan "It's morning again in America"? Well, Reagan had absolutely nothing to do with that boom. It was, instead, the work of Paul Volcker, whom Jimmy Carter appointed as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in 1979 (and who's now the head of your economic advisory panel). First Volcker broke the back of inflation, at the cost of a recession that probably doomed Carter's re-election chances in 1980. Then Volcker engineered an economic bounce-back. In effect, Reagan dressed up in a flight suit and pretended to be a hotshot economic pilot, but Volcker was the guy who actually flew the plane and landed it safely.
You, on the other hand, have to pull this plane out of its nose dive yourself, because the Fed has lost its mojo.
Compare the situation right now with the one back in the 1980s, when Volcker turned the economy around. All the Fed had to do back then was print a bunch of dollars (OK, it actually credited the money to the accounts of private banks, but it amounts to the same thing) and then use those dollars to buy up U.S. government debt. This drove interest rates down: When Volcker decided that the economy needed a pick-me-up, he was quickly able to drive the interest rate on Treasury bills from 13 percent down to eight percent. Lower interest rates on government debt, in turn, quickly drove down rates on mortgages and business borrowing. People started spending again, and within a few months the economy had gone from slump to boom. Economists call this process — from the Fed's decision to print more money to the resulting pickup in spending, jobs and incomes — the "monetary transmission mechanism." And in the 1980s that mechanism worked just fine.
This time, however, the transmission mechanism is broken.
First of all, while the Fed can still print money, it can't drive interest rates down. Why? Because those interest rates are already about as low as they can go. As I write this letter, the interest rate on Treasury bills is 0.005 percent — that is, zero. And you can't push rates lower than that. Now, you might think that zero interest rates would lead to an orgy of borrowing. But while the U.S. government can borrow money for free, the rest of us can't. Fear rules the financial markets, so over the past year and a half, as the interest rates on government debt have plunged, the interest rates that Main Street has to pay have mostly gone up. In particular, many businesses are paying much higher interest rates now than they were a year and a half ago, before the Fed started cutting. And they're lucky compared to the many businesses that can't get credit at all.
Besides, even if more people could borrow, would they really want to spend? There's a glut of unsold homes on the market, so there's very little incentive to build more houses, no matter how low mortgage rates go. The same goes for business investment: With office buildings standing empty, shopping malls begging for tenants and factories sitting idle, who wants to spend on new capacity? And with workers everywhere worried about job security, people trying to save a few dollars may stampede into stores that offer deep discounts, but not many people want to buy the big-ticket items, like cars, that normally fuel an economic recovery.
So as I said, the Fed has lost its mojo. Ben Bernanke and his colleagues are trying everything they can think of to unfreeze the credit markets — the alphabet soup of new "lending facilities," with acronyms nobody can remember, is growing by the hour. Any day now, the joke goes, everyone will have a Visa card bearing the Fed logo. But at best, all this activity only serves to limit the damage. There's no realistic prospect that the Fed can pull the economy out of its nose dive.
So it's up to you.
Rescuing The Economy
The last president to face a similar mess was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and you can learn a lot from his example. That doesn't mean, however, that you should do everything FDR did. On the contrary, you have to take care to emulate his successes, but avoid repeating his mistakes.
About those successes: The way FDR dealt with his own era's financial mess offers a very good model. Then, as now, the government had to deploy taxpayer money in order to rescue the financial system. In particular, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation initially played a role similar to that of the Bush administration's Troubled Assets Relief Program (the $700 billion program everyone knows about). Like the TARP, the RFC bulked up the cash position of troubled banks by using public funds to buy up stock in those banks.
There was, however, a big difference between FDR's approach to taxpayer-subsidized financial rescue and that of the Bush administration: Namely, FDR wasn't shy about demanding that the public's money be used to serve the public good. By 1935 the U.S. government owned about a third of the banking system, and the Roosevelt administration used that ownership stake to insist that banks actually help the economy, pressuring them to lend out the money they were getting from Washington. Beyond that, the New Deal went out and lent a lot of money directly to businesses, to home buyers and to people who already owned homes, helping them restructure their mortgages so they could stay in their houses.
Can you do anything like that today? Yes, you can. The Bush administration may have refused to attach any strings to the aid it has provided to financial firms, but you can change all that. If banks need federal funds to survive, provide them — but demand that the banks do their part by lending those funds out to the rest of the economy. Provide more help to homeowners. Use Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the home-lending agencies, to pass the government's low borrowing costs on to qualified home buyers. (Fannie and Freddie were seized by federal regulators in September, but the Bush administration, bizarrely, has kept their borrowing costs high by refusing to declare that their bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the taxpayer.)
Conservatives will accuse you of nationalizing the financial system, and some will call you a Marxist. (It happens to me all the time.) And the truth is that you will, in a way, be engaging in temporary nationalization. But that's OK: In the long run we don't want the government running financial institutions, but for now we need to do whatever it takes to get credit flowing again.
All of this will help — but not enough. By all means you should try to fix the problems of banks and other financial institutions. But to pull the economy out of its slide, you need to go beyond funneling money to banks and other financial institutions. You need to give the real economy of work and wages a boost. In other words, you have to get job creation right — which FDR never did.
This may sound like a strange thing to say. After all, what we remember from the 1930s is the Works Progress Administration, which at its peak employed millions of Americans building roads, schools and dams. But the New Deal's job-creation programs, while they certainly helped, were neither big enough nor sustained enough to end the Great Depression. When the economy is deeply depressed, you have to put normal concerns about budget deficits aside; FDR never managed to do that. As a result, he was too cautious: The boost he gave the economy between 1933 and 1936 was enough to get unemployment down, but not back to pre-Depression levels. And in 1937 he let the deficit worriers get to him: Even though the economy was still weak, he let himself be talked into slashing spending while raising taxes. This led to a severe recession that undid much of the progress the economy had made to that point. It took the giant public works project known as World War II — a project that finally silenced the penny pinchers — to bring the Depression to an end.
The lesson from FDR's limited success on the employment front, then, is that you have to be really bold in your job-creation plans. Basically, businesses and consumers are cutting way back on spending, leaving the economy with a huge shortfall in demand, which will lead to a huge fall in employment — unless you stop it. To stop it, however, you have to spend enough to fill the hole left by the private sector's retrenchment.
How much spending are we talking about? You might want to be seated before you read this. OK, here goes: "Full employment" means a jobless rate of five percent at most, and probably less. Meanwhile, we're currently on a trajectory that will push the unemployment rate to nine percent or more. Even the most optimistic estimates suggest that it takes at least $200 billion a year in government spending to cut the unemployment rate by one percentage point. Do the math: You probably have to spend $800 billion a year to achieve a full economic recovery. Anything less than $500 billion a year will be much too little to produce an economic turnaround.
Spending on that scale, at a time when the weakening economy is driving down tax collection, will produce some really scary deficit numbers. But the consequences of too much caution — of a failure on your part to do enough to stop the economy's nose dive — will be even scarier than the coming ocean of red ink.
In fact, the biggest problem you're going to face as you try to rescue the economy will be finding enough job-creation projects that can be started quickly. Traditional WPA-type programs — spending on roads, government buildings, ports and other infrastructure — are a very effective tool for creating employment. But America probably has less than $150 billion worth of such projects that are "shovel-ready" right now, projects that can be started in six months or less. So you'll have to be creative: You'll have to find lots of other ways to push funds into the economy.
As much as possible, you should spend on things of lasting value, things that, like roads and bridges, will make us a richer nation. Upgrade the infrastructure behind the Internet; upgrade the electrical grid; improve information technology in the health care sector, a crucial part of any health care reform. Provide aid to state and local governments, to prevent them from cutting investment spending at precisely the wrong moment. And remember, as you do this, that all this spending does double duty: It serves the future, but it also helps in the present, by providing jobs and income to offset the slump.
You can also do well by doing good. The Americans hit hardest by the slump — the long-term unemployed, families without health insurance — are also the Americans most likely to spend any aid they receive, and thereby help sustain the economy as a whole. So aid to the distressed — enhanced unemployment insurance, food stamps, health-insurance subsidies — is both the fair thing to do and a desirable part of your short-term economic plan.
Even if you do all this, however, it won't be enough to offset the awesome slump in private spending. So yes, it also makes sense to cut taxes on a temporary basis. The tax cuts should go primarily to lower- and middle-income Americans — again, both because that's the fair thing to do, and because they're more likely to spend their windfall than the affluent. The tax break for working families you outlined in your campaign plan looks like a reasonable vehicle.
But let's be clear: Tax cuts are not the tool of choice for fighting an economic slump. For one thing, they deliver less bang for the buck than infrastructure spending, because there's no guarantee that consumers will spend their tax cuts or rebates. As a result, it probably takes more than $300 billion of tax cuts, compared with $200 billion of public works, to shave a point off the unemployment rate. Furthermore, in the long run you're going to need more tax revenue, not less, to pay for health care reform. So tax cuts shouldn't be the core of your economic recovery program. They should, instead, be a way to "bulk up" your job-creation program, which otherwise won't be big enough.
Now my honest opinion is that even with all this, you won't be able to prevent 2009 from being a very bad year. If you manage to keep the unemployment rate from going above eight percent, I'll consider that a major success. But by 2010 you should be able to have the economy on the road to recovery. What should you do to prepare for that recovery?
Beyond the Crisis
Crisis management is one thing, but America needs much more than that. FDR rebuilt America not just by getting us through depression and war, but by making us a more just and secure society. On one side, he created social-insurance programs, above all Social Security, that protect working Americans to this day. On the other, he oversaw the creation of a much more equal economy, creating a middle-class society that lasted for decades, until conservative economic policies ushered in the new age of inequality that prevails today. You have a chance to emulate FDR's achievements, and the ultimate judgment on your presidency will rest on whether you seize that chance.
The biggest, most important legacy you can leave to the nation will be to give us, finally, what every other advanced nation already has: guaranteed health care for all our citizens. The current crisis has given us an object lesson in the need for universal health care, in two ways. It has highlighted the vulnerability of Americans whose health insurance is tied to jobs that can so easily disappear. And it has made it clear that our current system is bad for business, too — the Big Three automakers wouldn't be in nearly as much trouble if they weren't trying to pay the medical bills of their former employees as well as their current workers. You have a mandate for change; the economic crisis has shown just how much the system needs change. So now is the time to pass legislation establishing a system that covers everyone.
What should this system look like? Some progressives insist that we should move immediately to a single-payer system — Medicare for all. Although this would be both the fairest and most efficient way to ensure that all Americans get the health care they need, let's be frank: Single-payer probably isn't politically achievable right now, simply because it would represent too great a change. At least at first, Americans who have good private health insurance will be reluctant to trade that insurance for a public program, even if that program will ultimately prove better.
So the thing to do in your first year in office is pass a compromise plan — one that establishes, for the first time, the principle of universal access to care. Your campaign proposals provide the blueprint. Let people keep their private insurance if they choose, subsidize insurance for lower-income families, require that all children be covered, and give everyone the option to buy into a public plan — one that will probably end up being cheaper and better than private insurance. Pass legislation doing all that, and we'll have universal health coverage up and running by the end of your first term. And that will be an achievement that, like FDR's creation of Social Security, will permanently change America for the better.
All this will cost money, mainly to pay for those insurance subsidies, and some people will tell you that the nation can't afford major health care reform given the costs of the economic recovery program. Let's talk about why you should ignore the naysayers.
First, let's put the costs of the economic-recovery program in perspective. It's possible that reviving the economy might cost as much as a trillion dollars over the course of your first term. But the Bush administration wasted at least twice that much on an unnecessary war and tax cuts for the wealthiest; the recovery plan will be intense but temporary, and won't place all that much burden on future budgets. Put it this way: With long-term federal debt paying the lowest interest rates in half a century, the interest costs on a trillion dollars in new debt will amount to only $30 billion a year, about 1.2 percent of the current federal budget.
Second, there's good reason to believe that health care reform will save money in the long run. Our system isn't just full of holes in coverage, it's also grossly inefficient, with huge bureaucratic costs — such as the immense resources that insurance companies devote to making sure they don't cover the people who need health care the most. And under a universal system it will be much easier to use our health care dollars wisely, to spend money only on medical procedures that work and not on those that don't. Since rising health care costs are the main source of the grim, long-run projections for the federal budget, the truth is that we can't afford not to move forward on health care reform.
And let's not ignore the long-term political effects. Back in 1993, when the Clintons tried and failed to create a universal health care system, Republican strategists like William Kristol (now my colleague at The New York Times) urged their party to oppose any reform on political grounds; they argued that a successful health care program, by conveying the message that government can actually serve the public interest, would fundamentally shift American politics in a progressive direction. They were right — and the same considerations that made conservatives so opposed to health care reform should make you determined to make it happen.
Universal health care, then, should be your biggest priority after rescuing the economy. Providing coverage for all Americans can be for your administration what Social Security was for the New Deal. But the New Deal achieved something else: It made America a middle-class society. Under FDR, America went through what labor historians call the Great Compression, a dramatic rise in wages for ordinary workers that greatly reduced income inequality. Before the Great Compression, America was a society of rich and poor; afterward it was a society in which most people, rightly, considered themselves middle class. It may be hard to match that achievement today, but you can, at least, move the country in the right direction.
What caused the Great Compression? That's a complicated story, but one important factor was the rise of organized labor: Union membership tripled between 1935 and 1945. Unions not only negotiated better wages for their own members, they also enhanced the bargaining power of workers throughout the economy. At the time, conservatives warned that wage gains would have disastrous economic effects — that the rise of unions would cripple employment and economic growth. But in fact, the Great Compression was followed by the great postwar boom, which doubled American living standards over the course of a generation.
Unfortunately, the Great Compression was reversed starting in the 1970s, as American workers once again lost much of their bargaining power. This loss was partly due to changes in the world economy, as major U.S. manufacturing corporations started facing more international competition. But it also had a lot to do with politics, as first the Reagan administration, then the Bush administration, did all they could to undermine the ability of workers to organize.
You can make a start on reversing that process. Clearly, you won't be able to oversee a tripling of union membership anytime soon. But you can do a lot to enhance workers' rights. One is to start laying the groundwork to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it much harder for employers to intimidate workers who want to join a union. I know it probably won't happen in your first year, but if and when it does, the legislation will enable America to take a huge step toward recapturing the middle-class society we've lost.
Truth & Reconciliation
There are many other issues you'll need to deal with, of course. In particular, I haven't said a word about environmental policy, which is ultimately the most important issue of all. That's because I suspect that it won't be possible to pass a comprehensive plan for dealing with climate change in your first year. By all means, put as much environmentally friendly investment as possible — such as spending to enhance energy efficiency — into the initial recovery plan. But I'm guessing that 2009 won't be the year to introduce cap-and-trade measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If I'm wrong, that's great — but I'm not counting on big environmental policy moves right away.
I also haven't said anything about foreign policy. Your team is well aware of the need to wind down the war in Iraq — which is, by the way, costing about as much each year as the insurance subsidies we need to implement universal health care. You're also aware of the need to find the least bad solution for the mess in Afghanistan. And I don't even want to think about Pakistan — but you have to. Good luck.
There is, however, one area where I feel the need to break discipline. I'm an economist, but I'm also an American citizen — and like many citizens, I spent the past eight years watching in horror as the Bush administration betrayed the nation's ideals. And I don't believe we can put those terrible years behind us unless we have a full accounting of what really happened. I know that most of the inside-the-Beltway crowd is urging you to let bygones be bygones, just as they urged Bill Clinton to let the truth about scandals from the Reagan-Bush years, in particular the Iran-Contra affair, remain hidden. But we know how that turned out: The same people who abused power in the name of national security 20 years ago returned as part of the team that, under the second George Bush, did it all over again, on a much larger scale. It was an object lesson in the truth of George Santayana's dictum: Those who refuse to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.
That's why this time we need a full accounting. Not a witch hunt, maybe not even prosecutions, but something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that helped South Africa come to terms with what happened under apartheid. We need to know how America ended up fighting a war to eliminate nonexistent weapons, how torture became a routine instrument of U.S. policy, how the Justice Department became an instrument of political persecution, how brazen corruption flourished not only in Iraq, but throughout Congress and the administration. We know that these evils were not, whatever the apologists say, the result of honest error or a few bad apples: The White House created a climate in which abuse became commonplace, and in many cases probably took the lead in instigating these abuses. But it's not enough to leave this reality in the realm of things "everybody knows" — because soon enough they'll be denied or forgotten, and the cycle of abuse will begin again. The whole sordid tale needs to be brought out into the sunlight.
It's probably best if Congress takes the lead in investigations of the Bush years, but your administration can do its part, both by not using its influence to discourage the investigations and by bringing an end to the Bush administration's stonewalling. Let Congress have access to records and witnesses, and let the truth be told.
That said, the future is what matters most. This month we celebrate your arrival in the White House; at a time of great national crisis, you bring the hope of a better future. It's now up to you to deliver on that hope. By enacting a recovery plan even bolder and more comprehensive than the New Deal, you can not only turn the economy around — you can put America on a path toward greater equality for generations to come.