On Blaming Black Leadership

This fine piece in In These Times  reminds us how instrumental Federal policies on homeownership and road construction were in killing Detroit, and gives the lie to those who want to blame the city’s bankruptcy on corrupt leadership-specifically, corrupt Black leadership.

Certainly there were, and are, Black leaders whose personal weaknesses interfere with the progress of the entities they seek to lead; but the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

Detroit is not struggling because its leaders, or its people, are Black.  Its troubles lie at the door of white legislators who made abandoning cities a winning proposition for white families, and white regulators who contributed to the same flight, and white car company executives who decided they owed nothing back to the city of their birth.

To claim otherwise is simply to blame the victim.



Sandy Claus was coming to town

The precautions against superstorm Sandy worked because the US government FEMA listened to a European computer forecast, not its own.

We need something seasonable to cheer us up, not contemplating Republicans in Congress, narcotics, guns, gun apologists, and - far the worst - the faces of small children. So let’s take a short trip down memory lane to your friendly ex-hurricane:

Tropical storm Sandy at midnight on 28 October

Source: NASA via The Telegraph, approximate scale bar added by me

Where is the silver lining? Two actually. The first is the fact that Sandy was about the smallest storm still large enough to shift public and élite opinion on the reality, now, of climate breakdown. If you pay attention to the plague of frogs, you just may escape the cull of the firstborn. The second is much less widely known outside the weather forecasting trade, and a reminder of just how important it is. Continue reading “Sandy Claus was coming to town”

Convergence of forces

John Boehner has committed the house majority to accept new revenues under the “right conditions”.  The California legislature has a 2/3 D majority in both houses, which means it can actually raise taxes, and the CA electorate that pulled the legs out from under its government a third of a century ago voted to increase taxes.  The presidential candidate who wants to raise taxes on the rich won. The American public evidently views those who take without giving back as morally culpable: when Romney blithely and wrongly tarred half the population with that brush, voters despised him for it.

The “conditions” are now right: I add to the foregoing the occurrence of a climate-change-mediated catastrophe unprecedented in US history, along with a basso continuo ostinato of drought, steady sea-level rise, melting of the arctic sea ice, glacier retreat and all the rest.  What did James Inhofe say about Sandy? This would be an excellent time to do as Bob Frank advises: tax bad things and not good things,  and one of the worst things is the takers who use up the finite capacity of the atmosphere to process CO2 without paying a dime for it.  Everything Romney wants to believe about retirees who paid their social security taxes all their lives (not to mention sales tax this very week) is wrong about them, but right about us: takers and free-riders.  More if you light your house with coal electricity and drive a big car when you don’t have to, less if you bike to work and happen to live where your power comes from a dam or a nuke, but takers, all of us.

Every economist wakes up in the morning with a little prayer that more things should be sold at their real marginal cost, but the survival of an inhabitable planet is being sold way below cost and we’re using up too much of it.  Economists are praying from the right missal here.  Many have a little too much faith in getting this particular price right: properly responding to global warming, even with a atmosphere user fee working its incentive magic throughout human affairs, still requires government to provide things like bike paths and trams.  But the moral case and the technical case for what I prefer to call a “carbon charge” - because that’s what it is, a user charge for services you consume and therefore deny to others - are perfectly aligned.  We’ve wasted two decades hoping for a magic bullet climate policy that requires no heavy lifting by anyone and maybe will make a fortune for an existing interest group: denial? cap and trade? clean coal? biofuels subsidies and mandates?  Understandable hope, but doomed like all magical thinking. If we don’t get the prices right, and we expect the whole economy to flout the law of demand…well, better think about selling that coastal property.

California has been out front with climate policies and would be an excellent place to pilot a carbon charge.  Twenty dollars a ton, increasing at 5% per year for a couple of decades would be not bad. And nationally: unless he can’t read election results, Boehner should find it easy to get a lot of his caucus behind a revenue measure that doesn’t have to be called a tax (my framing is not a quibble or a verbal trick).


No atheists in foxholes …

… and no anti-government conservatives in hurricanes.” - Alex Wagner

… and no anti-government conservatives in hurricanes.” - Alex Wagner

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Romney is not backing off on his earlier pledge to devolve FEMA to the states or outsource it to the private sector. But he’s also not standing by it. He’s just pretending not to hear questions.

Corrected to give the quote as stated, rather than the version I recalled, “no small-government conservatives in hurricanes.” I still like mine better; Churchill never said “blood, sweat, and tears.” But facts are facts.

I support Obamacare for the same reasons I support FEMA: We must take care of each other

Nytimes.com features dozens of fabulous pictures today. I especially like the one by Michael Kirby showing several police officers rescuing three-year-old Haley Rombi from dangerous flood waters. When natural disaster strikes, we need people to have our backs. As individuals, each of us is utterly vulnerable to many forces larger than ourselves. Acting together, we can protect each other against many of life’s scariest risks. Hurricane Sandy has battered the northeast. Watching the pictures, we glimpse the magnitude of destruction. Only we really can’t grasp it. One cubic meter of water weighs one metric ton, as much as my car. The energy contained within a storm surge raging towards us is literally unfathomable, out of human scale.

So it’s pretty damn inspiring to watch doctors, nurses, EMTs, police officers, fire fighters, utility workers, air traffic controllers, meteorologists, construction workers. members of the armed forces, electricians, plumbers, engineers, public health officials, politicians, and ordinary people helping each other when such a storm strikes.

I feel the same way about some other things. I remember when Vincent moved into our home. Bewildering forms began arriving at our house, many from hospitals sporting impressive dollar figures, alongside the notation: “this is not a bill.”  The totals quickly accumulated: tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of dollars.  As I’ve said many times before, our family would have been whiped out if it weren’t for Medicare and Medicaid. These programs had our back when we needed them. most.

Writing in this morning’s Times, David Brooks worried that a second Obama term would “be about reasonably small things.” The words “implementing Obamacare” were included within a list supposedly illustrating this point. That’s not a small thing. Quite the opposite. Until the Affordable Care Act is securely implemented, tens of millions of people will lack the protections our family received. So many people are one car accident, one serious illness away from medical bankruptcy. We finally have the opportunity to remedy this scandalous situation.

As Americans, we need to protect each other against these risks, too. One person loses her house to a tidal wave of rushing water. Another loses her houses to a tidal wave of daunting medical bills. Both people need help.  As our glorious first responders struggle to address the carnage of Sandy, today is a good day to remember this simple point.

The second most important graph in the world

Confirmation that solar grid parity has arrived in Germany, and what it means.

From a report (pdf, page 5) on the German solar PV market by a government trade promotion agency:

Sorry for the lousy screengrab of a brilliant original. The rising black line is the retail price of electricity; the falling green line is the installed cost per watt for systems up to 100kw.

What it shows is a discontinuity in history, an event of critical importance, [rant] a beam of hope through the black clouds of selfishness, lies and despair threatening the survival of our civilisation in a very Oilocaust [/rant]: the arrival of residential solar grid parity in one large, rich, and northerly country.

The German feed-in tariff (FIT) for solar electricity is already below the average retail rate of 25€c per kwh: 21.4€c deducting the cross-subsidy of 3.6€c for renewable energy, or 4.7$c. This high price by American standards does include a component for greater reliability and amenity; you rarely see an overhead cable in a German town.

The FIT is still well above the wholesale rate, but so what. The datum is crucial confirmation of the insiders’ prediction I trumpeted here that solar grid parity will now rapidly spread through most of the inhabited world, driven by technology and economies of scale alone, more or less regardless of policy (as long as it isn’t actively obstructive).

It will happen soon in the USA. How soon? Continue reading “The second most important graph in the world”

Federal Flood Insurance

Word today that President Obama has indicated his support for a Senate bill to reform and extend the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Here is WSJ coverage of the proposed changes, which would reduce subsidy for second homes, commercial property, and homes with a history of flooding, reducing the cost of the program by $4.7 Billion over the next 10 years.

I wrote the words below just as Hurricane Irene was bearing down on the North Carolina coast last August, that provide an overview of how the U.S. has done flood insurance for the past 45 years or so. Many fascinating issues about public v. private insurance, aggregate cost benefit analysis and distribution of the costs and the benefits, and the role of government in society. I also did a 5 part series comparing principles embedded in the NFIP to health care. I will write more about that later.


Flood insurance is provided in the United States by the federal government via the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), in two ways. First, the government directly provides coverage for some properties. Second, the government works in concert with around 90 private insurers who function as servicing contractors. In the second case, the profits from such flood insurance are private, but the losses are socialized as private insurance companies bear none of the underwriting risk associated with this insurance. How did this come to be the case?

As this American Academy of Actuaries monograph (July 2011) on the NFIP notes (p. 30):

Continue reading “Federal Flood Insurance”


This picture is a treasury of symbolism and metaphor.

Helpless on its side, with an enormous hole torn in its hull, this disaster has already killed more than a dozen people who only wanted to have fun for a few days, ruined the career of the captain and possibly headed him for time in the slam, dented the balance sheet of some insurance companies, and dinged confidence in the whole cruise industry.  The bleeding isn’t over. See the pathetic little line of boom strung out along the shore? The ship is liable at any moment to slide off its rock and go underwater, and it’s full of bunker oil ready to foul beaches for miles.

What does it stand for…better, what in today’s news doesn‘t it remind us of!  The world economy, run aground by expert leadership who just wanted to show off  how rich they could get?  The American political process, set up for disaster by the Supreme Court and mismanaged by ideologues who think the only reality is what they can see above the surface of things (charts? we don’t need no stinkin’ charts!), with more pain and damage looming?  The Perry campaign, vacuous glitter and rhinestone bling dead in the water?

This picture is a non-rival good, and serves any of those purposes, feel free. But my first association was with something that, if possible, is even more completely broken and more threatening than any of these: the economy of digital content.  The wonderful structure of copyright, distribution, royalties, law, conventions, and contracts that brought us stuff to read, see and listen to for so long has sailed right into the very well-charted rock of virtual embodiment.  Some pieces of it are still above the waterline, but they don’t work.  And everything - everything - we are contemplating to do about it has about as much hope of success as that pathetic boom.

No, I didn’t steal the picture; it’s a public domain Italian government satellite photo. But all the other pictures floating around the web are also non-rival goods, just like the songs and video files Megaupload is being taken down for circulating, and just like this blog post.  The right price to consumers for all this stuff is zero.  Most of it, especially with some attention from kids in Finland and Bulgaria and who knows where else, is also non-excludible in fact (I could have posted any of hundreds of copyrighted pictures of the Costa C. here and not been punished for it, nor you for looking at them).  That battle is over and the technological facts have won, though there’s plenty of pointless damage yet to be inflicted as the content industries try to make gravity point up.

The right price to creators and providers is not zero.  Pretty simple design constraints, right: give content to consumers at a price of zero, and pay musicians, writers, and the like an efficient and just non-zero price to make it for us.  Simple constraints don’t mean it will be simple to solve the problem, of course, but all the flailing about we’re doing with no good effect on this one is not a counsel of despair.  Very similar problems have been solved quite nicely already, like the sidewalk I’m allowed to walk on for free and the park, whose gardener is not enslaved, but actually earns a nice civil service union wage. And all the clean air I can breathe at will that was quite  expensive for the power plant and my car-driving neighbors to provide for me, and the complete absence of nasty foreign occupying armies provided by a military that pays its workers and ponies up for tanks and all the other gear.

One might think we would be figuring out how to sail our priceless, glorious social capital ship of art and knowledge safely past these technical rocks. But we aren’t; we spent two or three decades arguing in the wheelhouse about whether citizens who just want to get smart and hear some music are pirates, and whether the earth could be flat if we just shout “property” loud enough, and refusing to look at charts that might be useful, and now the ship is wrecked. It will probably be harder, not easier, to right and refloat the longer we wait, and while we yammer about property rights and assigning blame, a large ugly plume of yuck is going to keep spreading across our civic life, as the content that does get provided is bought for us by the people who can afford to put it out under our broken system.


Meanwhile, in the Horn of Africa….

…tens of thousands of children have died from the ongoing drought, and in fact, even though conditions have gotten worse, most of the international media has moved on to other things.  One who has not is the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman, whose report two days ago from the ground was horrifying.  And westerners appear to be suffering from compassion overload.  Although the death toll might exceed 750,000, dwarfing previous droughts,

support — meaning dollars — has been frustratingly scant. While many more lives are at stake in Somalia’s crisis, other recent disasters pulled in far more money. For instance, Save the Children U.S. has raised a little more than $5 million in private donations for the Horn of Africa crisis, which includes Somalia and the drought-inflicted areas of Kenya and Ethiopia. That contrasts with what Save the Children raised in 2004 for the Indonesian tsunami ($55.4 million) or the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 ($28.2 million) or even the earthquake in Japan earlier this year ($22.8 million) — and Japan is a rich country.

It’s not just hunger: pastoralist communities near the border of Somalia are especially affected, as many families’ animals—upon which they depended completely for their livelihoods—have died because of the drought. Men from the communities often leave their homes and go to the cities to look for work, and women and children are left to fend for themselves.

And what happens when women and children are left to fend for themselves?  They get assaulted and raped; the drought zone has not approached eastern Congo as the most dangerous place on earth for women, but it is doing its best, so to speak.

It doesn’t help that at

a time when Somalia is suffering from the worst drought in 60 years, a ruthless militant group called the Shabab, which is essentially a Qaeda franchise, is on such an anti-Western tirade that it has banned Western music, Western dress, soccer, bras and even Western food aid. The Shabab are a heavily armed complication that differentiates this crisis from previous famines in Somalia, Ethiopia or Sudan and from other recent natural disasters like the tsunami in Indonesia or Haiti’s earthquake, where aid groups were able to rush in and start saving lives within a matter of hours….

People told me the Shabab were trying to prevent anyone from leaving and that Shabab fighters had even set up special camps where thousands of exhausted, hungry and sick people were corralled at gunpoint, an ideal breeding ground for disease, especially because the Shabab have also banned immunizations. It’s the perfect storm to kill countless children. Measles, typhoid and cholera are already beginning to sweep through the camps. Epidemiologists predict that the fatalities will shoot up and thousands of people will perish when the heavy rains come in November and December, spreading waterborne diseases.

Ken Menkhaus, a political science professor at Davidson College who has been working as a consultant on Somalia since the early 1990s, said the Shabab had pushed Somalia to a tipping point.

“The worst-case scenario is a Khmer Rouge situation where a group with a twisted ideology presides over the mass death of its own people,” he said. “The numbers are going to be horrifying.”

My response is to give to the American Jewish World Service, which has a series of long-running contacts with indigenous organizations.  Even when the Shabab won’t let western groups in, AJWS can work with local partners.  AJWS has also focused on the thousands of Kenyans across the Somali border who has been overwhelmed by the refugee influx and mostly ignored by other organizations.  And since AJWS has specialized for years in capacity-building with local partners, supporting them will probably do some sort of preventative work for the future.  Here’s a link to give to them, but there are many reputable organizations.

In any event, it’s going to be very ugly.