Category Archives: Uncategorized

SXSW Austin, TX

Ballroom at the Four Seasons in Austin.
Ballroom at the Four Seasons in Austin.

There must be hundreds of bands here this week. A local charity features about 16 of them in breakfast concerts at the Four Seasons Hotel. It’s a neat way to get an overview in a couple of hours.  Here is a sample from the University of Texas radio station KUTX:

 

(Note: This link was valid on 3/19/16, but may be taken down by KUTX at any time.) For more music here is a playlist of what KUTX has up for streaming on their website.  To play it with your computer, change the “.txt” file extension to “.m3u” after downloading it.

The Next “Big Short”

As I left the Tropic Cinema yesterday (1/24/16) after being spellbound by The Big Short I was awash in mixed emotions.  The Big Short Posteroverall feeling was a profound sense of hopelessness. But mixed with it was a sense of vindication because my own assessment of how the real estate bubble happened was confirmed by the film.

I can’t honestly say that I saw it coming, at least not on my own.  I happened to read an article about a couple of MIT guys who were predicting the crash and how their predictions were being dismissed by the real estate professionals. What those guys said made sense to me and squared with my own experience of booms and busts in commercial real estate.

My morose mood came from the sense that the collective self-deception and willful blindness that created the 2007-8 economic crisis was not cured by the ensuing bust.  People continue to game the system. Eight years later the perpetrators are sharing a bonus pool that exceeds by a factor of two the total earnings of all those who work at or below the minimum wage. While the prosecution of drug dealers and petty thieves occupies most of the workload of prosecutors across the nation, the guys who erased about 6 trillion dollars of private assets haven’t missed a beat, or a meal, it would seem.

I see another one coming.  Not housing this time but fossil energy. I earnestly hope that in eight more years I am not feeling angry about “The Big Short 2” describing how the energy industry savaged the land, water, and air before needing to be bailed out by the very taxpayers they steam-rolled.

Drilling companies are going bankrupt at an alarming rate. Twenty-six went belly up in 2015, up from five and six in the Energy Bankruptciespreceding two years. Even mammoth Exxon’s drilling business is losing money. Why?  Because the supply of fossil energy far exceeds the demand. The price of oil dropped below $30 a barrel. The price of natural gas will stay low for the foreseeable future.  While we like the prospect of gasoline being under $2 a gallon, we know that global warming not only happening but it’s happening at an alarming rate.  There won’t be a big resurgence of demand for fossil fuels without disastrous consequences.

But the energy industry doesn’t see it coming. The agencies that rate their stocks and bonds don’t seem to see it coming either. The great juggernaut lumbers on.  Pennsylvania’s state government, has been working overtime to expedite the development of 30,000 miles of pipeline infrastructure to collect shale gas and deliver it to Philadelphia for processing into liquid natural gas (LNG).  There are 9,000 fracked shale gas wells of which less than half are connected to collector pipelines. There are 16,000 more approved permits awaiting drilling.

Everybody in this voracious industry wants to make a killing before the music stops, and there are unwary banks and investors who will put up the money.  As “The Big Short” so cleverly depicted with the housing boom, the various players will use guile and craft to shift the ultimate risk to others until the bubble bursts.

What then?  Ordinary people (Donald Trump’s ‘losers’) will be left with farms and forests scarred by well pads, collector right of ways, pipelines, compressor stations, LNG refineries, all fallen into disrepair and abandonment because their owners are bankrupt or missing in action. They’ll be taxed to fund the sealing of leaking and dangerous orphaned wells. They’ll be experiencing first-hand the recently documented health impacts of methane and dozens of toxins brought to the aquifer and the air by the reckless large-scale perforation of the Earth’s surface.

As we see in The Big Short, there will be some guys and gals, a lot smarter than me, who also see it coming.  They will short fossil energy at the right moment and become wealthy overnight.

For my part I have spoken at hearings of the PA Governor’s Task Force and the Delaware River Basin Commission. In the two minutes they allotted me I do little more that say “heads up” and point to the danger. Perhaps this is what each of us must do — just what little we can do — the next right thing. And pray that with Divine Assistance that little bit along with many others’ small but earnest efforts will eventually suffice. God Save America.

 

Lobbying Congress: Civics 101

We usually would not want to be thought of as Lobbyists. The profession is not associated with strong ethics or high moral standards. Professional lobbyists are “hired guns” who sell their ability to gain access to those in power to the highest bidder. They are paid advocates, like lawyers, who seek to win the day for a client. Too often the question of what is best for our nation does not override the pursuit of billable time.
When 900 volunteers, all private citizens, invest their own time and money solely because they passionately care about the environment, it’s an entirely different sort of lobbying. None of us are registered lobbyists. We joined Citizen’s Climate Lobby (CCL) to protect our children and grandchildren from the disastrous effects of increasing the greenhouse gasses that blanket our atmosphere. It’s a problem that can only be addressed effectively by government. The purpose of Citizens’ Climate Lobby/Citizens’ Climate Education is two-fold: to create the political will for a livable world and to empower individuals to exercise their power as citizens.
The CCL conference was designed to train us on to meet with our legislators and their aides in an appreciative, clear, and focused manner and then to equip us with the supporting research for the proposed Carbon Fee and Dividend (CF&D) legislation. Armed with facts and “laser talks,” our teams of 5-6 citizen-lobbyists communicated with almost every Congressional representative and Senator.
Our teams generally included constituents, but not always. Because CCL members have earned the reputation of being respectful, non-partisan, and well informed we did gain access in all but a few cases. More about our experience in the meetings we attended later, but first a brief explanation of CF&D.

Carbon Fee and Dividend

We’ve all heard or read about “Carbon Tax” proposals that would levy a tax on any industrial product that contributes carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. The concept is not to unfairly tip the scales against fossil fuels but to put all energy sources on a level playing field, each paying the full costs of the energy it produces. Fossil fuels are “free riders” at present because prices do not include the collateral social and environmental and resource depletion costs. A carbon tax harnesses market forces to encourage investment and innovation in renewable energy technology, while reducing the use of fossil fuels year-by-year over a 20-year period.
The Carbon Fee we advocate would have this effect, but instead of the fee revenue going to grow government, it would be distributed directly to every American household on an equal basis. This dividend approach has many advantages over a tax:

• It offsets the incrementally rising price of fuel and other products that contain carbon for those who most need it. About two-thirds of US households, those in the middle and lower income brackets, would break even or be money ahead, receiving monthly checks of $288 for a family of four with 2 adults by 2025 and $396/monthly by 2035.
• It is not a “new tax” and thus is not repugnant to conservative Republicans.
• It allows market forces to accomplish the needed reduction of emissions, eliminating the cost and intrinsic unfairness of regulatory and enforcement action. (A $10/ton fee would cause CO2 emission to decline 33% after 10 years and 52% after 20 years.)
• It can be efficiently administered without adding layers of bureaucracy.
• It creates a net gain in jobs (2.1 million jobs in 10 years and 2.8 million jobs after 20 years)
• It stimulates the economy, increasing GDP by $70-$80 Billion from 2020 on, with a cumulative increase due to CF&D of $1.375 Trillion
• It saves lives (13,000 lives per year after 10 years due to the drop in CO2 and other greenhouse gasses)
• It allows businesses and investors to adapt to and plan for the new energy environment, allowing for incremental, systematic change by starting with a low fee ($15/ton) and increasing $10/ton each year for 10 years.

These legislative advantages appeal to both progressive and conservative values. Both sides of the political divide could and should get behind this approach. But how do we know it can deliver?

Econometric Modeling

Regional Economic Modeling Inc. (REMI) is a company that has developed a model for projecting the economic impact of policies and events. They work for businesses, nonprofits and governments and don’t skew their findings to please their customers. CCL commissioned them to simulate the effects of implementing a $10 per ton at-the-source fee on carbon adding yearly increases of $10 a ton. The model tabulates the changes from the baseline (doing nothing) so that we see what effect the carbon fee has on Gross Domestic Product, jobs, income, etc.
In addition to the national predictions mentioned above, the model projects the effects on smaller geographic areas so that a Congressional representative can see what the impact on his or her constituents would be.

Devilish Details

Over the past four years the Carbon Fee and Dividend idea has been thoroughly discussed and debated to identify objections and address them. We were impressed at the research that has been done to answer both obvious criticisms and narrower local concerns. The work is summarized in a series of briefing papers. By internalizing the content of these laser talks, we CCL volunteers were able to address objections with confidence, and if a question arose that we couldn’t answer, we were equally confident that it can be answered in a follow-up communication.
Though not all of us were fully conversant with all of the laser talk materials, someone on the team could usually respond to questions. This allowed us to pitch our idea convincingly, and make our request (the “ask”) in a powerful and professional way.

Our Personal Experience

What’s it like to be a citizen-lobbyist? Individually most of us couldn’t have pulled it off, but in our teams, it was exhilarating, eye-opening, deeply satisfying—and surprisingly inspiring. CCL had recommended we asked fellow constituents who couldn’t come to Washington to make a phone call the day before we lobbied saying, “I support action on climate change, and I want to see Congress do something about it,” and, if they agreed, to also mention their support for the proposed Carbon Fee & Dividend legislation.
Each member of our team had an assigned role so that we stayed focused and used the time we were allotted effectively. The staffers (mostly talented, smart, politically savvy people in their 20’s-40’s) received us respectfully, asked good questions, took notes, and represented their understanding of their elected officials’ position which could range from “climate deniers” to “enthusiastic change agent.” If they couldn’t (yet) support CF&D, we came prepared to make a secondary ask that would allow them to consider a smaller step.
Our timing was the best. The Pope released his long-awaited Encyclical on Climate Change the week before we arrived in Washington. We also had a book of “faith-based” statements on Climate Change that represented the spectrum of reasons that different religions had for supporting action on climate change: “care for creation” to “seeking environmental justice” to “threat of global warming/climate change” from all branches of Christianity, Hindus, Islam, Judaism, Native Americans, and ecumenical and inter-faith groups. There were also massive thunder, lightning and hail storms the day we arrived and the day we departed.
Now we’re home, tired but gratified by the experience, armed with plans to follow-up when our members of Congress return to their home districts on break, while we citizen-lobbyists return to our homes, our children, our jobs, our lives.
We know our work isn’t over until Carbon Fee & Dividend becomes the law of the land. But the experience of walking the halls of Congress and meeting with the people who make our laws gave us renewed faith in our capacity as citizens to influence government. It was, for us, the lab course for Civics 101.

The Defense Monitor

Much of what we read in the media about defense is politicized, and can even be laced with deliberate dis-information.  The Center for Defense Information has been around for nearly 40 years and was founded by retired military.

Center for Defense Information, Project on Governmant Oversight
The Defense Monitor by CDI/POGO

I have been a long-time supporter of CDI – at least 20 years. Under Adm. Gene LaRoque and Adm. Eugene Carroll it was a reliable source of fact and sober analysis. I became disappointed in the direction it took a few years ago with Bruce Blair as Director because it became more opinion and case-building advocacy – just another shrill voice among many.   Recent issues seem more objective and balanced so I ‘m once again a reader.

Military spending is far and away the most burdensome part of our federal budget for taxpayers. The amount of waste is astonishing and it defies all efforts at reform.  CDI is one place to go for objective, fact-based reporting and analysis.

“I’m from the IRS …”

The caller says she’s from the IRS and demands that you call back. It sounds menacing, but it’s just another telephone scam.  I recorded the one I received on May 1st, and you can listen here:

Here’s what you can do.

  1. Take notes of what’s said. You’ll need them to report the scam.

  2. Give no information about yourself.

  3. If you have caller ID, enter the phone number into the search window of your web browser.  There are several websites that provide reports on phone numbers that originate scams. I like Report The Call and 800Notes.

  4. Report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission.  Here’s the website: FTC Complaint Assistant

If it’s a phony IRS call also report it here: www.tigta.gov.

What if you think it’s a legitimate call but aren’t sure?

Take down the caller’s name an phone number and offer to call back later.  Go to the official website of the company or government agency and get the public phone number there so you are sure you are not calling an impostor.  Call and ask for person who called you or explain that your are trying to validate a call you received.

People working these scams will generally cut you off and hang up when they know you are suspicious. Legitimate callers don’t mind that you are being cautious.

Effortlessly Organize Your eMail

I have a lot of subscriptions (NY Times, WP, etc.), and various vendors send me flyers. All of it used to swamp my one email inbox.Even though I used MS Outlook to sorted it by setting up complicated sorting rules, each new sender required a new rule and I soon fell behind.

Then I got smart. I had a disused email account (rbshreve2@hotmail.com) and I began using that when I subscribed to anything and also whenever I ordered stuff online. It was easy to automatically route everything from that secondary mailbox to a new special folder. When bulk mail arrived at my primary correspondence box, I’d unsubscribe; or when I actually wanted it, I’d change the preferences settings on my account at the sender.

Before long just about all the bulk stuff was arriving in the Hotmail account folder where I could deal with it as my time permitted. Now I don’t have the clutter of 20 to 30 low priority subscription items amongst the important stuff; yet everything is still there when I wish to read an item. I ask my friends to use the Hotmail address when they cc me.

Many email programs have a filter that allows you to screen emails addressed to more than one recipient. Use that filter to move the mail that’s broadcast to many people to a bulk mail folder.

Oh yes, another tip, Hotmail has a filter that checks to see if the sender is in your Hotmail address book. Use that to separate the mail sent by those you know from those you don’t — the stuff from strangers is held in the spam folder.

With tricks like these you can tame the flood with ease and avoid most of the mailbox housekeeping chores.

Don’t have two email accounts? — open a free one at gmail.com or yahoo.com.