An unlikely transformative genius

If you watched “60 Minutes” on CBS last night, you may have seen the interview with Lesley Stahl and a game changing self-made scientist named Marshall Medoff. This 81 year-old, eccentric inventor has researched and created a breakthrough idea that will help move the dial on biomass energy, plastics and even sugar. What you might ask?

Medoff has succeeded in the release of cellulose that is ingrained in all plant products in an elegant fashion. Where MIT and others have failed to cost effectively do so, he has developed the concept of using an electron beam accelerator to blast the cellulose out of the plant materials. This is fascinating enough, but this man is a self-taught scientist. And, to add to the story even more, he came to the idea at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, where he lives nearby. What a great place to think of how to unleash the power of plants.

Yet, Medoff’s invention is beyond the idea stage. Investors are so enthralled, they have invested in his company called Xyleco and there is a facility in Moss Lake, WA in production. This place employs trained and educated chemical scientists and engineers. He also has a testing facility in Massachusetts near where he lives, employing many scientists from MIT and elsewhere.

On his Board of Directors are Bob Armstrong, the former head of MIT’s chemistry department and Steven Chu, the former Director of Energy under President Obama, and several other known advisors, including John Jennings, the former CEO of Shell. They all claim this man is an Edison-like genius, who is a tad eccentric. And, as Armstrong pointed out MIT and others have failed to do what he has done.

These Board members echo his enthusiasm to make a 30% or so dent in the energy business with a 77% more efficient biomass fuel than ethanol. Also, with petroleum-based plastic a huge issue on the environment, one of his scientists demonstrated a plant-based plastic that can have a planned disintegration at the end of its usefulness.  And, if that were not enough, a sugar byproduct called xylose, or wood sugar, is less in calories and has a smaller impact on teeth.

If it were April Fool’s Day, this would seem like a great story to fool people with. The exciting part is Medoff is legitimate. A key side bar is fifteen years ago, he decided to work on this problem to fight climate change. So, he read everything on the subject. And, then started putting together ideas and patents. One of his Board members said this eccentric old man had the confidence that he could do this. That can-do attitude is part of a genius’ make-up.

https://www.localbuzzot.com/2019/01/07/marshall-medoff-the-unlikely-eccentric-inventor-turning-inedible-plant-life-into-fuel-60-minutes/

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A new word for an old problem

Wages in the US for the common worker have been stagnant for going on forty years. This disenfranchisement did not happen over just the last ten years. It is the culmination of various events and actions and not due solely to one or two causes or solvable by bumper sticker solutions. Yet, we have a new word for a major cause courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute – monopsony.

In essence, monopsony is the sister of monopoly. It is an employer who has so much clout in a region or area, it can suppress wages to its workforce. It can also move jobs away more readily be it through off-shoring, outsourcing, downsizing or relocation. This movement of jobs adds to an employer’s ability to manage wage increases. In essence, the word monopsony highlights the goal and ability of employers to chase cheap labor.

Per the EPI, much of the wage stagnation after 1970 has occurred at the low-end of the wage spectrum. An economist noted on a talk show to get an idea of what has happened, stand up and put both arms out in front of you parallel to the ground. The left one represents the bottom 90% and the right one the top 10%. Move the left one up at an angle by one inch, then move the right one up by twenty inches. That disparity illustrates what has transpired over these forty years in wage differential.

I have written before the efforts by the current President to create fear of immigration and trade deficits as the reasons for disenfranchisement in various areas over look the main two drivers – chasing cheap labor and technology improvements. Immigration is actually accretive to the economy, even illegal immigration as there are many jobs that Americans have said they don’t want.

But, if the President wants to solve an illegal immigration problem, he should begin with punishing employers who hire these workers. I have noted before about a textile company who went bankrupt and closed its doors. When career counseling people said in an auditorium full of workers that you had to have a Social Security Number to get access to benefits, 1/3 of the audience got up and left. The construction, agricultural and restaurant industries would have severe issues if these immigration wells dried up.

Yet, the two main drivers of wage stagnation and good paying jobs do not get talked about – chasing cheap labor and technology gains. An unnamed CFO said in the book “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” an employer would get by with no employees if it could. So, robotic machinery has been displacing workers for many years. And, now it is becoming even more efficient and affordable. We do much more manufacturing in the US today than in 1980, but with much fewer workers.

Yet, with these tools and possible actions available to an employer who has a monopsony in an area, good paying jobs are fewer in number. Mind you, high-tech manufacturing and similar jobs exist, but they are not in the same number with so much competition for wages. I make this last point as the disenfranchisement is real and not made up. To his credit, Trump went out and visited these areas. But, what they did not realize, he was selling on fear, over-simplifying the causes and highlighting the wrong major ones.

The disenfranchisement in the western world has a visual called the “elephant curve,” with a side view of an elephant with his trunk raised. The body of elephant is wage growth for the emerging and burgeoning international markets. The raised trunk reveals the rapid wage growth for the top 10% in the western world. The trough between the raised trunk and body, reveals the stagnation in wages in the western world.

So, immigration and global trade have an impact, but the key drivers are chasing cheap labor and technology. And, the last one will grow even faster than before. Yet, chasing cheap labor will continue to be a driver as well. It is the culmination of pounding on unions to weaken their voice. It is the active fight to keep minimum wages down over time. It is making tax changes dating back to the 1980s (and last December) that are more advantageous to the top 10%, giving them a chance to invest in technology and places to house cheaper labor. It is threatening to move jobs to gain wage limits.

Since the housing recession in 2008 and early 2009, we have seen unemployment decline and stay down. Wages have gone up some, but not near enough to track other increases in costs. We need to be discussing retraining impacted workers building off some success stories around the country. We need to renovate and repurpose deteriorated assets to create new jobs. We need to invest more in our infrastructure and jobs of the future. We need to stabilize the ability for employees, whose hours are limited, to get affordable healthcare, since employers hire more part-time and contractual employees to restrict them from joining their healthcare plans.

The disenfranchised employees and areas need a real voice who will speak to real causes, not over-stated ones. Monopsony is a hard word to say and is a hard word on these people. They deserve better than what they have been hearing.

 

 

Environmental Punishment Agency

In spite of all of the damage being done to the United States and its relationships with allies, I have feared from the outset the damage the US President would do to the environment and our planet.

The word “Protection” no longer applies to defining the mission of the EPA. The “P” has been replaced by “Punishment.” Between the President and two industry favoring EPA directors (not to mention a transition plan climate change denier), the environment is becoming a bigger pool to pee in.

It started out with the attack on scientists who study and developed world-class data and reports on climate change. Access to these reports were removed from the government webpages and many scientists were reassigned to non-science positions which they had to take or were fired. Why? If your position is so grounded, why must you remove the other side’s arguments?

On top of rolling back numerous regulations that governed industry, several major changes also occurred:

– the compliance with the Clean Power Plan has been eliminated.

– the US is one of three countries to not support the Paris Climate Change Accord.

– the Clean Waters Act was greatly changed from a regulatory standpoint, unwinding changes made by Obama and both Bushes.

– And, this week, coal companies have greater license to let mercury and other pollutants escape (after they already made changes to comply with the 2011 requirement). The reason is the value of lives and dollar savings due to just the mercury change were less than the cost (yet that is subterfuge as the savings of lives and dollars due to other pollutants dwarfs the cost). I won’t even dignify the comment of the value of life being lost.

The legacy of this President will haunt our country and planet for a long time. Good actions are being taken in spite of this President’s efforts, but so much more could be done. I would encourage all voters, but especially young ones, to challenge all politicians about their environmental stance. This must be the issue of 2019 or we will lose momentum. To me, this is beyond horrible stewardship. It is malfeasance.

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Note to Readers: Check out Gronda’s post on the influence of ALEC on the US effort to deregulate the EPA.

Dark Monies From ALEC Associated Corporations Is Root Cause Of De-Regulation Of EPA Rules

 

Kudos to Scotland

Last weekend on PBS Newshour, a two-part series called “Scotland is betting on tidal energy” was presented. Per the series, Scotland “is nearly 70% powered by renewable sources already, with the goal of reaching 100% by 2020, 10 years ahead of schedule.” Let that quote sink in a little – by 2020. Their focus has been on offshore wind energy, but the true wave of the future is tidal energy.

A project in the Pentland Firth is called MeyGen which includes three tidal wave turbines each with three thirty foot blades, the apparatus weighing 150 tons. The turbines provide a very predictable amount of energy powering over 1,000 homes each. “As the tide ebbs and flows, the turbines spin between 7 and 15 times a minute generating power to a wind turbine.”

Tim Cornelius, the CEO of SIMEC Atlantis said the tidal turbines have been expensive at first and have required half the cost to be subsidized by the Scottish government. But, he said the costs are coming down and after one year the cost of production is 50% of the year before. The turbines also build off existing technology used in the oil and gas energy, with cranes, ships and equipment to position a new turbine.

Scotland has been the leading edge implementer of these tidal turbines and others are taking notice. Cornelius says SIMEC plans to deploy 250 additional tidal turbines in the next several years. Other coastal countries are taking notice and creating their own pilots. The US is behind others, but will be investing in a testing facility off the Oregon coast.

As discovered with solar and onshore and offshore wind energy, the production costs decline over time so as to be more on par with fossils fuel production costs. But, in my view, when all costs are factored in – maintenance, litigation, environmental degradation, transportation, water loss and health – renewables are far cheaper than fossil fuel. For example, maintaining coal ash is a cost that never goes away.

While good things are happening with renewables in the US, we can all learn from countries like Scotland. We have a few cities like Burlington, VT, Georgetown, TX and Greensburg, KS which are 100% renewable energy powered. And, while California is a solar power and Texas a wind power champion, we have far more ways to go.

So, kudos to Scotland!

 

Saving ourselves from the whimsy of a mercurial man

I don’t agree with some of what conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru writes about, but I found myself in agreement with his latest editorial, “Keeping the US Economy safe from Trump’s feelings.” The key theme is the President’s whimsical tweets and statements regarding various policy statements can be harmful to the economy. In my view, it goes even further than the economy factoring into global relationships, climate change inaction, civil rights abuses, etc., but let’s start there.

Ponnuru notes that the President cannot say he was not forewarned by GM about the impact of his tariffs, as the company said in June the tariffs “could lead to fewer jobs, lower wages for our employees” and risked “undermining GM’s competitiveness against foreign auto producers.” He notes the reasons for the downsizings are more than just the tariffs, as demand for sedans is much lower than anticipated and interest rates are picking up. But, GM is not the only company to forewarn the President about his tariffs.

Yet, he notes the President is trying to convince GM to keep plants open using power he does not have. He cannot take away subsidies for electric cars, only Congress can do that. He cannot keep plants open as promised during the campaign, as market forces dictate that and publicly traded companies must respond to shareholders. Plus, he should not be commenting on the actions of any specific company, nor threatening one who do something that he does not like.

It should be noted that the two Senators in Ohio noted in the spring that the government should find ways to help GM retool and update their plants to do SUVs and electric cars rather than gas-powered sedans. This request for action before things got worse was not heeded. That would have been the time to step up to help. Now, his comments are just staging.

Ponnuru used a phrase that is on point to define the President’s actions. He said, “Trump tends to make policy decisions spasmodically.” He further notes the“President keeps adding to his reputation for making idle threats, and even self-canceling ones.”  The White House staff and various departments have been trying to manage the mercurial President’s whimsy. The resulting turnover has been pronounced. Decisions either have no substance because they are beyond the purview of the Presidency or they are unwound because of the next whimsical decision. Or, the staff may hope he forgets one of his inane pronouncements.

The best example of this is from Bob Woodward’s book “Fear: Trump in the White House.” On a totally different subject related to Trump’s attempted ban of transgenders in the military, he was set to meet with more than a dozen members of his staff including his Joint Chiefs of Staff on the subject. Great pains were taken to develop four ideas, noting how constitutional each was, and other pros and cons for the President’s consideration. As they waited that morning for the President, he noted he would join them soon. In the interim, the President sent out two tweets making his decision, noting that everyone was in agreement, which was not a true statement. He also picked the least constitutional action and a court has held up the change.

The key point of this story is not the subject matter. It is the lack of good-faith dealings with others. He said your opinion does not matter and then lied about them being in agreement. The other key is this type of decision-making is not an isolated occurrence. Using Ponnuru’s term it is “spasmodic.” Another conservative writer, David Brooks’ refers to the White House as “equal measures of chaos and incompetence.” I would add that it shows a lack of respect for his subordinates and is not the actions a true leader would take.

As we have painfully learned, the mercurial man is not prone to change. Saving ourselves is another story. Fortunately, the courts help as more than a few things Trump does are not constitutional. The other is to pressure Congress to remember their oaths. The Senate is quite concerned by the President’s blowing off the human rights issues surrounding the MSB’s knowledge of the murder of a journalist and Saudi Arabia’s atrocities on the Yemeni people. Another is to read and watch better news outlets. The media is not the enemy of the people, but many so-called news organizations are not unbiased.

We should also pay heed to conservative voices who have been critical and disowned by Trump’s followers. Ponnuru is not alone, but is less critical of the President than other conservative voices – Brooks, Gerson, Erickson, Will, Douthat, to name a few. These voices are important to echo as the President has done a tremendous sales job on his followers noting it is the media and Democrats who just don’t like him. When I am accused of this, I reiterate my independent status, but when that fails, I say what I dislike is people lying to me and then making decisions off the lies.

It is time to govern

Now that the elections are over, it is time to put away the rhetoric and focus on governance. This used to be how it was done, until we segmented the news into various markets. The past twenty years or so, we seem to govern off the campaign rhetoric rather than facts and collaboration has become a dirty word.

As an Independent voter, who has been a member of both parties, the governing off rhetoric and lack of collaboration need to stop. Neither side owns all the good ideas and both sides have some bad ones. And, we need to focus on the underlying truths and facts rather than tweets and who wins a public relations battle over an issue. Process matters – when politicians deviate from process, it is for political reasons.

In this spirit, here are the issues that this voter thinks we should focus on. Many voters have voiced agreement on some of these, but some issues just don’t get due attention.

– we should stabilize and shore up the ACA which most Americans favor: funding commitments to insurers will stabilize premiums, as will expanding Medicaid and considering the expansion of Medicare down to age 55, 60 or 62.

– we should ditch the harmful tariffs and work with our allies and the WTO to pressure China to stop the intellectual capital theft. Tariffs hurt consumers and producers, especially our farmers.

– we should address infrastructure needs which are many, doing so as we have done in the past with a blend of business, venture capital and federal, state and local government funding.

– we should recognize that the two biggest threats to our planet per the World Economic Forum are our water crisis and climate change, which exacerbates the first issue: strides have been made, but we need to reassume our global leadership role on climate change and focus on measures to address both.

– we should add more governance around gun control issues: Gun-owners and non-gun owners have voiced agreement on measures that would help. It should be noted most gun-owners do not belong to the NRA, so the NRA’s political activism against reasonable change should be noted, but not over-emphasized.

– The deficit and debt are building to a point of huge reckoning. It has been eight years since the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Resuction Committee report was shelved. It was shelved because it recommended $2 in expense cuts to every $1 in revenue increases. It was shelved because neither party had the political courage to roll up their sleeves and make tough decisions – we cannot get there with only expense cuts or revenue increases, needing both.

– We should stop the lack of civil discourse and beating up on the media. The media’s role is vital to our democracy. Pay attention to where your news comes from. Be wary of opinion disguised as news. Tweets are not long enough to show context or subtlety and are an easy way to misinform, as a result. To this end, it is vital for our democracy to return to appropriate Congressional oversight. We are not a kingdom.

If anything, we must have our politicians work together. The crime bill the President is pushing and that passed the House is not perfect, but is a bipartisan effort. It makes steps forward. Let’s make needed improvements and get something done. And, that is what Americans want most from our politicians – stop the grandstanding and get stuff done.

 

 

Two Americans win Nobel Economics prize on Climate Change work

Per an article this morning in Reuters, “Americans William Nordhaus and Paul Romer, pioneers in adapting economic theory to take better account of environmental issues and technological progress, shared the 2018 Nobel Economics Prize on Monday.”

Romer, with New York University, and Nordhaus, with Yale, developed models on the economic impact of dealing with climate change. Reuters cited the Nobel Academy in Stockholm, “‘Their findings have significantly broadened the scope of economic analysis by constructing models that explain how the market economy interacts with nature and knowledge.'”

This news is important as Americans still provide global leadership inspite of the dearth of leadership in the White House and EPA. America is moving forward on renewable energy, but our efforts are in spite of the absence and antagonistic actions of federal leadership. Arguably, more than any other issue, voters must ask their candidates where the stand on climate change actions and protecting the environment.

It is interesting that this came today as the headline article in The Charlotte Observer is “NC Leaders share concern about climate change.” These are 60 business, advocacy, former government and university leaders who have been brought together to speak to various problems. 45 of them responded to the question of climate change and, of the 45, only two naysayed climate change – one called it a hoax, while the other said it is real, but the jury is out on man’s influence. Think about that – 43 out of 45 define the problem and offer solutions.

Per these leaders, ideas include ceasing building on lands prone to flooding. NC has had two 500 year floods in two years, the same with Houston, Texas. Miami may be inescapably lost to continued flooding due to rising seas and porous limestone. The term we must understand as well is “sunny day flooding,” which happens more and more throughout the year.

These Nobel prize winners note we have to address the problem now while the costs are more manageable and can be sustained. The best teachers are the Dutch, as they have managed sea water encroachment for years. But, the impact also includes more and intense forest fires and the faster depletion of already dear water sources.

We have major problems occurring that Washington is not talking about and, in some cases, is making it worse. We must address climate change and invest more in  renewable energy, consider better coastal and flood plain building and consider a carbon tax. We must address fresh water loss that is hastened by climate change that is affecting farmers and other Americans. And, we must address pollution by companies and the growing mountain of plastic.

There are economic models that call to mind the old Fram oil filter commercial – you can pay me now or pay me later. Now, is far cheaper. Ask your politicians more questions and vote accordingly. If they do not admit there are problems, do not vote for them.