Monday, May 20, 2013

The Only Priority -- Climate Change

Why are we all on earth any different from the Titanic?

We are all together headed toward a common fate, albeit with different levels of comfort along the way.  In fact, we on Earth are even more isolated than they were on the Titanic.  We are as confident as they were in the indestructibility of our world, in our case because we have always been safe so why would it change?  They were assured they were safe, despite iceberg sightings, because the Titanic was unsinkable.

From that perspective, as we go about out daily lives with concerns for winding down wars, instituting a new health care system, fixing economics, we are rearranging the deck chairs, because just as the Titanic was sailing toward an iceberg and discounting the danger because they were unsinkable, we are sailing toward climate change, aka global warming, aka a disaster that will disrupt severely the world as we know it.

Why don’t we pay more attention?  Why is it number 17 or something on the concerns of Americans?  Are we the proverbial frogs in the gradually heating water which will be boiled slowly?

Jared Diamond observed in Collapse that humans arriving on a previously uninhabited island will kill and make extinct all the large animals and some of the small ones, and cut down all the trees, and thus establish their own demise or devolution into abject poverty.  Why are more modern humans on the island named Earth any different?  In contrast to the islanders, we have modern science which can foretell our demise or devolution.  But the bulk of mankind does not listen.  The ignorant and the selfish – the 90% -- generally just deny.  The science is bad, they think, or the doomsayers discount the power of innovation.  Well, the science isn’t bad, it’s good.  Innovation can’t come fast enough because of the lag in changing greenhouse gases; there is no vacuum cleaner for carbon dioxide, and there will not likely be one anytime soon, especially as population continues to increase and deforestation continues. 

The United States needs to take responsibility.  The advanced countries made the mess and we should clean it up.  But we won’t.  Nor will the aggressive behemoth called China.  It is a sad day when such ignorance and selfishness triumphs.  But there it is. 

I don’t know what I can do individually, certainly nothing significant, and I make my negative contribution as I fly here and there in airplanes.  But what would the difference be if I stopped?  I’m not a saint, but probably we should try to go solar, turn off some appliances in the Hawaii house while we’re not there.  “Raise awareness.”

Obama is smart, although not scientific and certainly not much of a leader of a country let alone the world.  But where the hell is he?  At the very least he could “raise awareness,” do his executive actions, and make the case for the long term – and it’s not even so long term at this point.

Jennifer Granholm has a great and innovative plan, not that it would save us, but it’s something – do a Race to the Top for states to innovate in clean energy, using corporate profit repatriation as a source of funding:  She presented it to a group of us the other night, but it was not going to politically popular with Republicans.  And when she presented it to the Obama Administration she was pooh-poohed, it seems.

I just read yesterday in Tom Friedman’s column about the size of Syrian families – 16 children is not unusual.  In the 70’s and 80’s health care improved but the practice of having large families so that some survived has not yet relented.  (I learned about this ironic phenomenon of health improvement leading to more population and subsequent increased impoverishment in medical school, in our public health club – it wasn’t important enough to present to the general class, I guess.)  Adjustment takes time, and there are thus many more souls on our small planet to run out of water, food, and probably firewood – although not coal perhaps.  Nothing makes people more desperate and angry and violent than hunger.

The dystopian future continues to beckon.

Budd Shenkin

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Obama - View to the Future

Many of us have felt that Obama is a rather ineffectual President, not able to take the offensive and rally the troops.  President Bystander.  Maurine Dowd is an outstanding avatar of this view.  (See also today’s post from Not Running a Hospital on leadership and Obama --  My own view has been that, aside from his inherent elitism and probable introversion and inability to meet and have fun with other people he doesn’t know well, he reached high office too soon.  He hadn’t met enough people to know whom to appoint where, and he hadn’t found out yet how the game works in Washington.  An anti-LBJ.

On the other hand, my friend Michael Nacht says there is nothing he can do.  In the first term it was crystal clear that the Republican game plan was to oppose everything strenuously, even what were previous Republican positions.  Michael thinks that this mindset continues, that it’s all politics and nothing but.  The failure of the Democratic leadership to reform the Senate rules to make a filibuster be a real filibuster as of old – thanks Carl Levin! – simply nailed the coffin further shut, as has the failure of Democratic leadership to arise more broadly.  Maybe this view is right, I don’t know.

That being said, one has to acknowledge, as was brought forward pre-election, that the list of Obama accomplishments is more impressive than immediately comes to mind.  Can’t list them now, because they don’t immediately come to mind, but repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was one of them.  (Transparency in government, honor to whistle blowers, and freedom of the press are not among them – Eric Holder sucks.  I saw a comparison to Alberto Gonzalez today, as someone who holds on to his job because he retains the “confidence of the President” … that’s a “wow” moment.)

Other people say that Obama is actually meeting his goal, which was to exceed the record of the two previous Presidents, to get us out of instead of into wars, and not to have a sex scandal.  Low the bar might be, but passivity actually helps him meet these goals.  Who knows what thoughts lurk in the mind of the President?  The Shadow?

Nonetheless, say that Obama’s domestic accomplishments will be low in this term.  Say that his foreign accomplishments will be low profile and subtle.  What should Obama do to make his positive impression on the history books? 

I have what would have to be a very unpopular suggestion – form commissions and make plans for the future!  Set the future agenda!  That’s right, you heard it first here.  What could be more unpopular than commissions?  Those traditional means of doing nothing?  Those producers of paper to sit on the shelves.  Yuuuch.

But, on the other hand, Keynes said: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

I’m not asking for something so deep as that, philosophy.  But what about producing very official documents that might influence the future, the Obama Project.  The most prominent problem has had a commission, the Simpson-Bowles Commission on fiscal responsibility.  I don’t agree with it, actually, and I would get a successor, Simpson-Bowles II, and have it headed by Krugman and joined by Bernanke after he leaves office and Stiglitz maybe.  And add George Schultz for balance.

The most important problem we face, as opposed to the seemingly most urgent, is climate change.  Get an official commission and plot out a way that developing economies can develop, China and India can get enough energy to continue rapid growth specifically, new technologies can develop rapidly, what can be done internationally, etc.  There are lots of plans around, but get something ex cathedra.  Best and the Brightest, however discredited that may be, but policy informed, not self-inflated like the guys who got us into Vietnam.

You can think of four or five other commissions on other issues pretty easily, I bet.  And then, a commission on commissions – what are the priorities?  I go after climate change first, but maybe that’s not right.  Maybe you would want to attack lower hanging fruit first, though I doubt it.  The C on C would figure out how to orchestrate the accomplishment of the goals of the commissions.

Yes, this is the piest in the skiest proposal one could think of, ridicule-beset even as I write this.  But it wouldn’t have to be a centerpiece of the Administration.  It could just be a series of commissions that would be billed as an experiment in governance.  At least the vision would be lifted from shoe tops to horizon.  Call me a wonk, call me pointy headed.  Hey, that’s not so bad!  At least I’m thinking.

Budd Shenkin

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Genetic inheritance

The growth of genetic analysis is a wonder to behold.  My father observed that he had personally witnessed and participated in the most profound change of technological culture the world had ever seen.  He was born in 1915, when the major means of transportation in Philadelphia was still the horse.  He died in 2007, 38 years after man reached the moon, not to mention the much-noted invention of Saran Wrap.

I graduated from med school in 1967.  We did know about DNA and genetics in general, very general.  We knew very little about immunology, maybe up to chapter 2 of a now 50 chapter book, I'd guess.  Pharmacology was still utterly empirical; no one thought through genetic makeup; no one figured out which molecules would glom onto which receptors on a cell wall, I think.  It was still so totally hit or miss.

The story of anthropology was also aborning in that time.  Africa had been identified as the origin of man, but from pure fossil evidence from the Olduvai Gorge, not genetics.   The path of migration hadn't been identified; that would have to await genetics.  Now we know that Africa holds the greatest genetic heterogenicity in the world, which is evidence for being the place of our origin.  We can also pinpoint the female inheritance side, the male inheritance side, and trace the migration of groups.

And now, totally amazingly, for less than $200, or in my case totally free since I got it as a Christmas present, you can take a little sample of your inner cheek and send it to the Genographic Project and receive back the story of your heritage.  To summarize my story, my genetic makeup is 58% Mediterranean (surprise!), 21% Southwestern Asian, 18% Northern European, and 2% Northeast Asian.  My hominid ancestry is 2.2% Neanderthal, and 2.5% Denisovan!!!  My closest matches are Iranian and Sardinian (?).  Probably should visit those two places as a "homecoming."

Go to and look around.  It's a new world in finding out about the old world.

Budd Shenkin