Missing context

It is not uncommon to see simplistic solutions or rationales skirt passed needed context. The other day, I read an op-ed that more of the blame on education problems should be laid at the feet of parents than teachers.

Actually, the problem has multiple factors, parents being one of them. But, the missing context is the high percentage of single parents and parents living in poverty. It is quite difficult for single parents to juggle a job (or two) and children and be able to attend all parent/ teacher meetings and help kids with their homework. And, kids in poverty have heard far fewer words in the home and start and remain behind as reported by David Brooks in “30 million fewer words.”

It is not unusual to read a letter to the editor say the problem with poverty is too many single parent families. Again, that is one of multiple causes, but why? There is a high correlation between poverty and large families. So, better funded family planning efforts have shown they can address both issues. Holistic sex education, better access to birth control, and straight shooting answers to questions can help young women and men with these issues.

Healthcare access is another concern that impacts people in poverty. The US is a leader in western world countries in a bad area – maternal death rates in delivery. We still have fifteen states who did not expand Medicaid. Rural hospitals have closed without needed funding. As a result, we have fewer doctors and nurses in these underserved communities. And, this does not reflect food deserts and their impact on community health.

Poverty, poor education, and poor healthcare issues go part and parcel with large family size, more single parents, and lack of opportunity in the community. There are multiple factors that drive these issues, but not doing enough to support families and children, whether it is better and safer after-school programs, whether it is more active community policing to address crime that comes with fewer opportunities, whether it is job retraining where companies and community colleges can address shortages, whether it is asset based community development to restore old buildings to something inviting and/ or commerce related, are all contributors in their absence.

I have worked with a number of homeless working families in an organization I was involved with. These folks were not in poverty due to lack of piety. Some of the most pious people I have ever met are homeless mothers. Poverty is simply the lack of money. Many had multiple jobs. They simply lost their home due to a healthcare crisis, due to childcare issue, due to the loss of car or one of the jobs, or their spouse or boyfriend beat them and they had to get out.

When we discuss the reasons why things happen, we need to think of the larger context. Otherwise, we will solve the wrong problem. A community developer from New York noted his chagrin when a community tore down a school (or left it empty). A community needs an asset like this not just for children, but for community activities for adults and children. This is the premise of asset based community development – repair or repurpose buildings.

Let’s think holistically. Let’s dig into the real causes. Let’s think of those who are in need and how we can help them climb the ladder. We cannot push them up the ladder, but we can make sure the rungs are well built and help them make the first few steps. A social worker I worked with used the phrase that she walked side by side with her clients. I like that. Let’s do more of that.

China bets on wind and solar power in Brazil

With the US government overly concerned with protecting non-renewable fossil fuels, other countries continue to move forward. An article called “China bets on wind and solar power in Brazil” by Manuela Andreoni in Dialogo Chino last August showed how China is filling the void.

From the article:

“It took just two months and a few billion dollars for China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) to become one of the largest providers of clean energy in Brazil. Between May and July, the company acquired two solar power plants – including the second largest in the country – and six wind farms.

Chinese companies were already a powerhouse in Brazil’s energy sector, owning about 10% of the country’s capacity, mostly because of big acquisitions in recent years by State Grid and China Three Gorges; not to mention the thousands of kilometers of transmission lines being built.

But the new move by CGN solidified China’s presence in Brazil’s flourishing new energy market. According to a Diálogo Chino analysis of public records, the new investments mean Chinese companies now own 16% of Brazil’s wind power capacity and 21% of its solar capacity, or 2,822 megawatts in total.”

American companies, states and cities are moving forward on renewable energy. Their efforts would be so more impacful if leveraged by the federal government.

Our planet needs more leadership on this issue than America is showing. Countries like Germany and China are filling that void.

Being candid on obvious concerns

Last night, “60 Minutes” did a piece on the continuing forest fires in Australia. The risk has heightened due to climate change on this very hot and dry continent.

One of those whose home has been destroyed is incredulous by the lack of planning and execution by the prime minister and government. She said our country is on fire and the risk will continue and they cannot focus on that? Another person joined others and refused to shake the prime minister’s hand saying “you’re an idiot, mate.”

Not to be outdone, former conservative PM Malcolm Turnbull noted climate change is making the Australian forest fires worse. He referred to climate change naysayers in his own party as “idiotic.”

Their candor is needed. In the US, Republican lawmakers are now pushing the planting of a million trees. This is a good start, especially after twenty years of varying degrees of climate change denial, but addresses only one side of the issue. We need to also stop putting so much carbon and methane into the atmosphere as well as taking carbon out of the air with more trees (and other measures).

I am not advocating the use of derogatory terms like idiot or idiotic, but in the case of the current Australian PM, Scott Morrison, many would not shake his hand after he took a planned vacation to Hawaii while the fires were raging back home. That was not the wisest of moves.

Planting trees is a good start

I read this week House Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy is pushing for a bill to require the planting of a million trees. Some members of the Republican party are now openly admitting climate change is a problem after over twenty years of varying degrees of denial.

The rationale is to two-fold. These members realize younger voters know climate change is a problem to deal with. These members also are pushing a carbon capture narrative to permit the unabated use of fossil fuel energy.

This is a good start for the Republican party, but a necessary strategy has two vital components:

1) take more carbon out of the atmosphere

2) put less carbon into the air

Focusing only on one or the other is half the battle. Fortunately, coal is on the demise in most places around the world. In the US, more coal-fired plants have been retired under Trump’s tenure than under the last three years of Obama’s. With all his bluster, Trump cannot stop the demise.

The key is to diminish natural gas, which has less carbon impact than coal, but creates a larger methane and water problem. While methane has a shorter life than carbon, it is more potent a problem.

We should embrace planting more trees. We should also increase mangrove areas near seashores which absorb a lot of carbon and protect against rising tides. And, as noted in the documentary “Ice on Fire,” there are a number of other carbon eating measures.

These with increasing solar, wind, and tidal energy sources and continued urban and agricultural climate efforts will help put less carbon in the air. The answer is all of the above and more.

Annual US Deficit projected to pass $1.5 trillion on 2028

One of two nonpartisan organizations that have been ringing alarm bells about US debt and deficits is The Concord Coalition (TCC). The other is the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. We should be listening to these folks and urging politicians to do the same.

In a press release, Bob Bixby of the TCC notes the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects the US deficit will pass $1 trillion this fiscal year ending 9/30/2020. In eight years, the CBO projects the deficit to pass $1.5 trillion. My guess is it will be sooner, given politicians being too infatuated with adding expenses and cutting taxes.

It should be noted we are now passed $23 trillion in US debt. Sans change we look to soar passed $35 trillion by the end of the decade. This means our annual interest cost will be a much larger chunk of our budgeted annual revenue which is around $3.65 trillion.

Two key points need to be made. With our pretty good economy going on 128 consecutive months of economic growth, we should be decreasing our deficit, not increasing it. Sadly, we were sold a tax break that helped a pretty good economy get a little better for a little while, but will add over $1.5 trillion to the debt.

The other key point needs to be said loudly. Our debt cannot be solved by only expense cuts or tax increases. The math will not work. It will need both. Do not let politicians tell you otherwise. It matters not how fervent or well they speak, the math will not work. We need politicians with thick skins and lots of courage.

A few climate change tidbits

There was good news, bad news and ludicrous news that occurred this week. Here is a Friday rundown.

On the good news front, The Charlotte Observer did an excellent editorial called “Federal disaster relief: Tossing cash in the ocean in NC.” The gist is the US Army Corps of Engineers is spending “$237 million to rebuild dunes and widen the beach on 10 miles of Topsail Island shoreline.” The sad part is the rebuild is occurring only a year after an earlier rebuild. Per Orrin Pilkey a Duke emeritus professor of geology and an expert on coastal erosion, “‘These projects can only be characterized as madness. The sea-level rise is clearly accelerating, increasing intense storms are expected as has happened in the last four years, and the amounts of money spent on these beaches will need to be expended again and again for years into the future.'” Per the Observer, “piling cash into the sand won’t stop that for long.” Ten years ago, the largest global pension trustees did a study that noted the cost of addressing climate change was in the multiple tens of trillions of US dollars.

On the ludicrous front, US Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin decided to follow his boss’ lead and pick on Greta Thunberg. In essence, Mnuchin said she needs to go back and get an economic degree and then explain why we should fight climate change. OK, Mr. Mnuchin, please tell me how spending cash to rebuild sand dunes over and over again makes financial sense? Help explain why the present value cost of renewable energy such as wind and solar, which includes the cost of acquisition, transportation, environmental degradation, production, maintenance of byproduct, and litigation is far cheaper than the present value cost of coal energy? And, while your at it, why did a Mayor, with an accounting background, in a Texas town choose a 100% renewable energy proposal over a fossil fuel one due to cost and guaranteed pricing for twenty-five years? What this shows to me is grown people are trying to denigrate a young girl as if they do, then climate change is not an issue.

On the bad news front, the courts threw out the climate change inaction case against the US by twenty-one children and now young adults. The case had merit and moved up to a district courts where it was dismissed by a 2 to 1 vote. The courts did agree with the plea to do more about climate change, but did not feel the case warranted further action. It has spawned other cases in other cities and helped fuel an advocacy to do something about climate change. What the plaintiffs will do next is uncertain at this point. It should be noted the suit against Exxon Mobil by three states is still pending. Using Exxon’s own data, the lead state New York Attorney General, is arguing that Exxon Mobil misled its shareholders and possible investors on the impact of climate change on its financials. That is securities fraud under the guise of the SEC.

The takeaways from the above are clear in my mind. Dealing with climate change is a “pay me now or pay me later” proposition. A key is we cannot put the climate back together again if we wait too long to act more aggressively. I have quoted Pilkey before, but one message bears repeating. People would be foolish to buy property on the shore and should think about selling what they have now. That cuts to the chase.

The other takeaway is the young people get it. The older people in positions of power either don’t get it or cannot say that they do, as they take so much funding from the fossil fuel industry. Coal is in the demise and more coal plants have been closed under this president than under his predecessors. That would be a good question for Messers. Mnuchin and Trump that Ms. Thunberg might want to ask. She might also want to ask why the Trump Organization petitioned, in writing, the Irish government to build a sea wall at a Trump golf course to hold back the rising ocean due to climate change. It does not take an economist to call BS on that one.

Saturday in the park (a muddy one to ponder muddy agreements)

The weather report for Saturday is better than our rainy Friday. Even if the sun emerges through the morning clouds, it may leave very muddy walking paths. So, as I take a muddy stroll, join me as I ponder a few muddy things.

Agreements between multiple parties are hard and take work. They are not perfect, but they provide opportunities to improve them. Leaving them when your co-signers ask you not to must be for very important reasons. Under the tutelage of the current US president, previous agreements are “disasters,” primarily because he did not work on them. Another key reason is multiple party agreements require give and take and focus on relationships.

Early on, the US pulled out of an agreement called the Trans Pacific Partnership with Asian countries, the US, Australia and Canada. It was an imperfect agreement, but was defined to better enable competition with China. What is still very underreported is the other ten or so countries went forward without the US and signed a refined agreement, which is now in effect.

Around the first of June, 2017, the US president decided to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Change Accord. We are one of a handful of countries who have decided not to be a part of this historic agreement. Remember the song, “You and me against the world?” That is the US. Ironically, the announcement was the day after Exxon Mobil shareholders voted to require management to share with them progress on addressing climate change (this followed two similar votes for energy companies in May).

Other agreements like NAFTA have been modified and rebranded, but the changes are not as material as the pomp and circumstance promoted. The agreement allowed for change and could have been repurposed a year earlier had the president not interjected last minute changes. This is a good example that agreements allow for parties to make changes at certain times. They need not be thrown out, especially when the throwing out is more optics than substance.

Finally, the Nuclear agreement with Iran and six countries, including the US, was also imperfect. But, it allowed for dialogue, auditing and commerce. Against the wishes of the six other countries and his key advisors in the Defense department, the president pulled out of the agreement. He also chastised the other five non-Iranian partners for not so doing and imposed more sanctions. So, rather than have a better, but tenuous relationship with Iran, we have escalating tensions with “no off ramp” per former Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullens.

Agreements require hard work, collaboration and respect for the relationships. By their nature, they are long term in scope. When they are viewed through a transactional lens, especially one bent on perception than reality, their imperfections can be highlighted. If you have concerns (and all parties have them), the answer is go to your partners and suggest to fix them. Devaluing the relationship is extremely shortsighted and can be dangerous. That last word is on many people’s minds today.