Sunday, June 14, 2009

Reading the Unemployment Numbers

The Huffington Post carried a McClatchy article on projected employment numbers over the next few years.The numbers look pretty bad. Some areas of California, for example, won't return to "normal" prerecession employment levels until as late as 2014. Ouch. The article is based on a study done by IHS Global Insight. I don't know much about them but they label themselves as a comprehensive forecasting company covering economics, business, etc.

Now here's my problem. Which prerecession numbers is the McClatchy article referring to? Right now, the unemployment rate is about 9.4%. That's bad. Some would argue, however, that it undercounts the unemployed. That could mean the real unemployment rate is somewhere around 12%, give or take a couple of percentage points. In fact, there's been an argument that the unemployment rate has been underestimated for most of the last eight or nine years.

The current recession is said to have started in December 2007. That may be so but it was very clear by June and July of 2007 that the banking industry was in deep trouble. At that time, not only were layoffs already taking place in the mortgage sector but any number of mortgage firms were also permanently closing their doors. This was the famous uh-oh moment among the major banks a full year before the meltdown. Curiously, it took some eight months for the unemployment rate to significant move upward from 4.6% in June 2007 to around 5% in early 2008. Not bad numbers necessarily for an election year. But then the numbers kept getting worse. Of course, we've seen for some time now that unemployment supposedly follows the beginning of a recession by several months and recovery occurs well before employment returns to normal. Maybe so, but the pattern may be breaking down in ways no one is quite admitting yet.

Keep in mind that the unemployment numbers in the last four months of 2000 were as low as 3.9%. This was the last year Clinton was in office. And maybe the last year the United States had a real economy. What happened after that seems curious. Unemployment for the first few years of the Bush era kept floating up despite the tax cuts. There was 9/11 but the reality is that there should have been a dip in employment for no more than two or three months. Slowly, over the next few years, unemployment rose to an official rate of 6.30% in 2003 and fell slowly to about 4.4% in 2006 during the real estate boom. But average wages for most Americans during all that time were stagnant. And health costs were skyrocketing. The total cost of the oil the United States was importing kept rising. We had two wars that were draining the federal budget with little or no economic benefit for most Americans. So where exactly were these prerecessionary levels that economic experts are speaking of? In fact, where exactly were the good times?

Ah, but employment and the economy are no longer related to one another. My proof? Here's a USA Today article based on—surprise!—an analysis by IHS Global Insight:
The May update of the USA TODAY/IHS Global Insight Economic Outlook Index shows increasing evidence that the recession is likely to end in September, with a mild recovery starting in October.

Many areas of the country won't return to 'normal' employment until perhaps 2014. But the current recession will be over in September of this year? That's, uh, three months from now. How does that square with the unemployment rate? How do we explain the 4-5 year gap? I mean, who's recession are we talking about?! Simple. If you're rich, the recession will be over and you can start investing in the next bubble. That's who our economy is currently designed for. That kind of thinking can longer be sustained or justified. In the meantime, if you're not rich, tough luck.

I can't say it often enough: something is very wrong in our nation, and we need to change.

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Hybrids, Plug-Ins and Electric Cars: The Need for a New Experimental Age

My great-grandfather didn't know it but he participated in a great experimental age at the beginning of the 20th century when he bought a Stanley Steamer. His first locomobile generated steam using a kerosene burner (other fuels could be used as well, including ethanol). Of course we know cars powered by internal combustion won out but just the idea that there were choices back then and little certainty where things would go invited considerable innovation.

I hope the big car companies that survive the economic meltdown can return to an era of experimentation. I suspect, however, a lot of smaller companies may do the real innovating (and in those smaller companies at least a few of the folks in the business suite will be familiar with the technical details). Right now, we don't know what will win out for the next ten to thirty years. I suppose in twenty or thirty years, hydrogen could very well win out but the manufacturing, transporting and storing of hydrogen still remain huge problems. Hydrogen, after all, is not a true alternative energy source since it currently takes so much energy just to squeeze it out of water (well actually, you can also get it from fossil fuels but that doesn't solve anything). The only two real advantages of hydrogen is that it burns clean and there's plenty of it.

If the purpose of new innovations in cars is to cut down on the use of fossil fuels, hybrids have a major advantage: it's possible to build them with current technology while at the same time very little has to be added in terms of current infrastructure. The long-term disadvantage is that they still use gasoline or diesel. Gasoline has five obvious disadvantages: run-of-the-mill non-controversial pollution, high prices, diminishing oil supplies, all that money we're sending to foreign governments and what-ought-not-to-be-controversial global warming.

But hybrids arguably are a good choice for now simply because they can cut down on the use of fossil fuels today rather than some hypothetical tomorrow. They're already available and ready to go (okay, with hybrids like the Toyota Prius you may need to get in line depending on local supplies). Now I'm still learning about hybrids. A question that sent me googling today is how many hybrids are currently on the market for consumers? Eartheasy has a page that lists ten current models of hybrids.

The first thing I noticed on Eartheasy's list is that the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid have the best mileage, with the Toyota Prius edging out the Honda. I'm not too surprised by the performance of the Prius. In a roughly three block area, about five of my neighbors have one. Curiously, although a number of neighbors buy conventional high-mileage cars simply because hybrids are still expensive, the other car that has shown up in my area recently is the MINI Cooper which has fairly decent mileage of 30-35 MPG (though not a hybrid, there's also a diesel version in Europe that gets better mileage than the Prius (65 MPG?!). Obviously hybrid technology needs to push MPG further).

One thing that puzzles me about the listed hybrids is the range per fill-up. For several vehicles, the range is considerable. I was impressed with the range of the Prius which is 547 miles (hmm, that exact?). But then I noticed the range of the Nissan Altima Hybrid: 840 miles in the city. Now I have no idea how real these numbers are. Or why it would be necessary to buy a car with such a range. But it does beg a question: could a smaller gas tank lead to significantly better mileage? Could the saved space be used for batteries or some other innovation that improves mileage?

Obviously the thinking for a long time has been that the more flexibility a car gives us, the better that car must be. But let's say a car is used for work and the commute is 20 miles round trip or 100 miles per week. That means the Altima would only have to be filled up once every 7-8 weeks. Is that an advantage anyone really needs?

Perhaps flexibility means something different these days. If you had a fully electric car with a range of 40 miles, you potentially could, with the right set-up, fill it up every day by plugging it in at night (if you're really lazy, you could ask your teenage son to plug it in if he wants a car to use on the weekend (okay, I know, this assumes a teenager with a reliability of 99%)). Designed properly, a plug-in electric car would take only a few seconds for you to hook-up. In fact, in the next generation, you might drive over a 3-inch high device on the driveway that would telescope a plug into position while you're locking the car.

Better yet, if the electric car had a range of say 18 miles, you could plug it in at home and plug it in at work. Admittedly this assumes your employer would be green enough to supply a socket! Of course, if you're really green, you would have solar panels on your roof to effectively supply the energy to charge your car (actually, you would be supplementing the grid during the day but that would pay for the juice you need at night). The real ticket would be the green employer who has solar panels overhanging the parking lot while feeding in juice to your battery. In Santa Rosa, CA, Agilent already has the solar panels:
San Jose-based Agilent (NYSE:A) and Santa Clara-based SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR) said the system features a three-acre parking lot canopy structure --the largest solar energy generator in Sonoma County -- with nearly 3,500 SunPower solar panels that provide power for Agilent's facility.

Now if they can just stretch their sense of innovation to include a row of electrical outlets for the first generation of electric cars! Alas, there's a problem: not many electric cars are available. And those that are available tend to have a jarring price tag. Obviously, if a company like Agilent is going to provide a row of electrical outlets, it's likely to begin in the first row for the executives who can afford an electric car. (Actually, those same executives are going to want go takes trips to places like Tahoe but, if we're assuming a new flexible attitude, all they have to do is rent a hybrid for a weekend jaunt.) Who knows how exactly it will all unfold? Weekend tinkerers, for example, might be another source of the first electric cars. There are already people trying to figure out how to set up a plug-in hybrid for themselves.

In the meantime, the hybrids are already here. And apparently other things are about to come. In the same Eartheasy article on hybrids, they list coming attractions (as well, alas, as cancelled hybrid models). The new generation of hybrids are coming in different sizes and format and no doubt there will be real hybrids and hybrid lites. I confess being skeptical of hybrid SUVs but at least Honda may be coming out with a lower priced hybrid. And there's the plug-in hybrid from Chevrolet which may or may not live up to the hype (at least it may live up to hype after home mechanics get hold of it).

Are things happening fast enough? I'm afraid the answer is no. Congress could help with more incentives and more research dollars. Right-wing Republicans could help by getting out of the way. American corporations could help by leading in innovation again instead of following other nations. High School auto-shop programs could help by turning out various versions of energy efficient cars (people with old small cars could help by donating to such programs). Actually, there should be high school and college competitions for high-MPG cars.

And of course there are still other alternatives such as light rail or buying a home within walking distance of stores. I even read an article a while back pointing out that the age of automobiles might last just a little longer if a lot of people put vegetable gardens in their backyards. And maybe a few greenhouses for fruit. That would be a lot less fuel that delivery trucks would burn.

But the key in the next dozen years are hybrids, plug-in hybrids, extended range hybrids and electric cars. Much of it will depend on how much Americans choose to sit on their hands complaining and how much they want to get moving again. But I see encouraging signs, largely because the best of what is America is now found elsewhere as well. I see innovation around the world that—to put it simply—feels American. And that in itself may inspire Americans once again to reinvent themselves.

NOTE: For more on hybrids check here and here. And check out this article on what the state of New York is doing. Also see the recent post on new battery technology.

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Friday, June 05, 2009

More on Pelosi and the Torture Briefings: An Ex-CIA Dog Refused to Bark

Cheney and his right-wing friends have lied so often about so much that it's astonishing that various news organizations still seem to take them seriously. How is this possible? Profits? Rating wars? The politics of owners? Who knows.

To be honest, at this late date, Cheney, Limbaugh, Gingrich and others are simply an embarrassment to our nation and our history. But there are things worth noting.

First, Pelosi is probably telling the truth on not knowing about waterboarding in 2002. Former Senator Bob Graham seems to back up her version. Last month, S.W. Anderson of Oh!Pinion noticed a post by Greg Sargent and wrote:
The latest inconvenient truth undermining GOP attacks comes from Porter Goss, who headed the House Intelligence Committee in 2002, and who was present at the same Sept. 4, 2002, briefing Pelosi received without being told torture was being used — just as she tells it.

Goss refused to defend Pelosi but he also refused to deny her version. It's the case of the dog who didn't bark. If Pelosi were not telling the truth, Goss would have found a way to say so. (Goss became CIA Director in 2004 after George Tenet left. I'm speculating but Goss has his own legal problems because of the Duke Cunningham and Dusty Foggo connection; he came out clean but cannot afford to draw too much attention to himself).

It's been my contention that Dick Cheney could orchestrate exactly what Congress was told and that he was throwing enough of his weight around that any CIA report written would be a version convenient for his own purpose. We already know that during 2002-04 Cheney, Rumsfeld and others were playing political games in terms of what briefers from the executive branch were telling Congress. As one example, if I remember this right, the intelligence committee would be told one thing behind closed doors and when difficult questions were raised, the Pentagon, as an example, would say the issue was being discussed with the armed services committee and because of the sensitive nature of the discussions, they couldn't talk about it any further; later, they would pull the same trick behind closed doors with the armed services committee, claiming they could not discuss certain issues that has been discussed with the intelligence committee. Because members of each committee could not legally discuss such matters with members of another committee, no one could compare notes. Cute.

We now learn that Cheney was present at several briefings of Congress about the torture program in 2005, though it's not clear exactly who were at these meetings. Via the Los Angeles Times, here's the story from Paul Kane and Joby Warrick of The Washington Post:
Cheney's role in helping handle intelligence issues in the Bush administration has been well documented, particularly his advocacy for the use of aggressive methods and warrantless wiretapping against suspected terrorists. But his hands-on role in defending the interrogation program to lawmakers has not been previously publicized.

The CIA made no mention of the former vice president's role in documents delivered to Capitol Hill last month which listed every lawmaker who had been briefed on "enhanced interrogation techniques" since 2002. For meetings that were overseen by Cheney, the agency told the intelligence committees that information about who oversaw those briefings was "not available."


The CIA declined to comment on why Cheney's presence in meetings was left out of the records. One senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said identities of individual briefers are intentionally concealed in all cases -- names do not appear in any of the CIA documents that describe congressional briefings. In at least some cases, he added, the identity of the briefer was never recorded in the agency's internal records. For all but seven of the 40 meetings listed, however, the documents outlined which agency led the briefing and which provided support.

If things are left out of the records, they can just as easily be slipped into the record, particularly if vague language is used. Although the meetings Cheney oversaw were in 2005, we can assume that Cheney asked to see any report of those meetings and got any changes he asked for. He may have done the same in 2002 and other times as well whether he attended those meetings or not. Just the fact that critical information, such as Cheney's presence, are left out of the reports obviously makes these reports somewhat suspect. Even if it's acceptable procedure, it's a case of far too much deniability and far too much room for manipulation. Perfect conditions, I might add, for someone like Cheney. It's reasonable to wonder if Cheney, in 2002, had meetings with the briefers before the meetings with Congress as well.

In my mind, George W. Bush is the most failed president in American history. But much of that failure can be traced to the behavior, stupidity and antics of people like Dick Cheney and his good buddy, Donald Rumsfeld. I have talked before about my gut reaction when in 2004 Rumsfeld was expressing his regrets about what happened in Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld wasn't unhappy that the Geneva conventions were thrown out the window; he was unhappy that pictures were taken.

Cheney and Rumsfeld were both a part of the culture of torture. What is astonishing is how able these two clowns were at pushing and pulling levers and how profoundly stupid they were at the same time. We're now five years later, and one would have to do some work to pull out the facts which I know are still there in the records, but Cheney and Rumsfeld were fools if they thought the torture could be kept secret. The secret in 2004 was already out and it was out in the wrong place: outside the walls of Abu Ghraib, Iraqis already knew. And that knowledge was doing enormous damage to us in Iraq, and as the word began reaching places outside Iraq, the knowledge was doing enormous damage to us in the broader Arab world and elsewhere.

No one can hide torture for long. In the end, Cheney and Rumsfeld, along with their enablers, Bush, Alberto Gonzales and Condi Rice, were fools with little understanding of the damage they were doing to the United States. Keep in mind that George W. Bush gave flowery speeches on democracy in Iraq at the same time he already knew what was going on in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

In normal times, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush would have been impeached for violating the laws of the United States. The primary reason they were not impeached were right-wing Republicans in Congress and elsewhere who saw no crime and did their utmost to defend the president and vice president. The same right-wing Republicans are still around and still taken far too seriously by far too many people.