Category Archives: Essays

Burning Down The House

Woke up in a much scarier world this morning. Europe now descends on a backward trajectory toward its pre-WWII form of division, rivalry and xenophobia, with Britain and Germany facing off and France stuck in the middle. First Brexit, next America? Divisive rightists, people like Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, Hofer in Austria and Donald Trump, with their poisonous nativist rhetoric, just got a big blast of wind in their sails. There is a reason why democracy was feared as mob rule for 2000 years! This clip from Frankenstein captures the spirit of the age quite nicely…

Hegel wrote: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” It’s looking more and more these days like the dusk will come too late….

And yes, that is David Cameron being tossed over the ledge…serves him right!

Hey Waiter– There’s a Silicon Chip In My Soup!

Robot waiterOver the past forty years or so America’s industrial job base has been slowly eroding, and along with it the middle class. A major theme in this year’s presidential election, from both Left and Right, is the claim that this outcome is primarily the result of self-interested politicians making trade deals on behalf of the elites who have bought them, all at the expense of the American worker. There is a kernel of truth there, and yes trade deals were an accelerant, but this description fails to acknowledge the larger causes of decline in manufacturing in America. In truth, the primary driver in this process has been the fusion of automation and globalization over many decades. We’re now being told by folks who know better that all we need to do to bring those jobs back, to resurrect a future we can believe in, or make America great again, is to elect the outsider politician who is not beholden to elite interests like banks, CEOs and politicians. Unfortunately, that horse has left the barn, those jobs are gone for good, they were disappearing long before NAFTA. The Japanese, with their emphasis on automation, were already beginning to dominate the automobile industry by the 1980s for example.

In fact, the real topic that must be addressed immediately is not how to reclaim those lost manufacturing jobs, but instead, what are we going to do in the face of the rapidly advancing automation now facing us in the service and knowledge industries? We are already buying increasing percentages of our goods online, which are then picked from shelves and shipped robotically. How much longer will humans be needed to serve us food at the restaurant, or grow it? Will machines like IBM’s Watson easily advise us on financial matters, or teach our kids at school? Self-driving cars, trucks and trains will cost millions of jobs. These are just a few examples. Some predictions have us replacing close to fifty percent of remaining American jobs with machines within the next thirty years! This won’t be stopped, and maybe it shouldn’t be? But how do we survive economically, as individuals, families and communities, in this environment?

Yet who is talking about this on the campaign trail? To be sure some people around the world are very worried about it. Some economists, and even some governments, have already presented solutions but those primarily involve some form of state-based fixes like a universal basic income to all. But what tax base does that money come from when machines are the main producers? What does that leave the individual to sell if not his/her labor or specialized knowledge? To whom does the corporation sell its product, machines? Sure there will likely be some niche work that machines can’t do, sports come to mind, and yes there will be some work in keeping the machines primed and operational, although some scenarios even have the machines servicing themselves.

Fortunately there is still a need to power the machines and that might hold the key. Solar and storage batteries might be at least part of the answer…

Here’s an idea, call it utopian if you will, but progress is rarely made by thinking small, right? It goes like this– at a micro-level families could pull down solar energy individually to personally owned batteries and use only what they need, store what’s left, and sell a percentage of the overage back to a grid. Power would be harnessed first at the personal level then sold to the local level, maybe to a neighborhood, or town-based collective, then sold on up the line to a national grid, powering machines, cars, planes and trains all along the way. So instead of utilities generating power with coal and oil and selling it to us, we generate the power, keep what we need, and sell it to them to run the machines. Thus a market for grass-roots, bottom-up, produced power, which never runs out, could arise. This by the way would be a nice model for bringing communities together to manage their shared resource. Then the owners of the machines would sell their machine-generated products back to the collectors of the energy that fuels them. Thus a nice circular market. We could then stop burning coal and oil to produce power.

So what’s to keep a city or corporation from collecting and storing its own power, thus cutting the individual out? What might keep the grass-roots aspect of this going could be the limit on the storage capacities and physical size of larger batteries. These limiting factors could make it more cost effective to decentralize, much like the computer programs that harness the processing power of thousands of computers linked together to do giant calculations quickly, or like bit torrent uses the storage of thousands of linked computers for example. Of course somehow the ramp-up stage whereby family households could acquire their solar panels and batteries would be needed. Maybe that would be what is subsidized by the government? But that is a more realistic possibility than to think that the Government could sustain a universal basic income to all.

It’s a fast and loose description and in need of some real meat on the bones, not to mention major advancements in battery storage technology, but food for thought. I’m not an economist. So go ahead and shoot me full of holes….

This just in>  World’s Largest Storage battery to Power LA

Remembering The Stand In The Schoolhouse Door

The milestone incident known as the stand in the schoolhouse door took place fifty-three years ago today, June 11, 1963, at the University of Alabama, when Alabama’s Governor George Wallace attempted to physically block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling in the university. It was one of the crucial moments in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and a shining example of graceful leadership under immense pressure. 

Previously, in his inaugural address as governor, Wallace had shouted segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He repeatedly assured his constituents that he would keep his promise and defy any and all federal court orders forcing integration in his state. So on that fateful day he was determined, and honor-bound, to stand his ground. Part savvy politician, part carnival barker, Wallace certainly had a flair for the dramatic and he had staged quite a show for his rabid fans. For his part, Kennedy had to find a way to enforce federal court orders without playing into Wallace’s hands by turning him into a high-profile martyr for the southern racist cause, let alone keep the peace on a campus swarming with white supremacists itching for a fight. The riots a year earlier between whites and national guard troops at Oxford Mississippi over James Meredith had to have been fresh in his mind. (Listen to Bob Dylan’s Oxford Town)

During the stand-off JFK and his brother Bobby were busy working the phones between Washington and their agent at Alabama, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. They were very hesitant to just “kick the governor out of the way.” Their primary dilemma: sending troops too soon might set off violence, but waiting too long might be seen as a retreat. Their solution: Malone and Hood waited out of site under a federal marshals’ protection while Katzenbach went forth to confront Wallace face-to-face on the steps of the admissions building. He calmly and respectfully served the court order and listened to the recalcitrant Wallace’s prepared statement. Kennedy then ordered Katzenbach to turn away, walk back to the students, and escort them to their dormitories. It worked! There was no riot, but also no retreat. Wallace was able to save face with his people and leave the scene. Malone and Hood quietly returned the next day and registered without incident.

Alabama was the last American state to desegregate its universities. Luckily, due to the Kennedy brothers’ resolve and quick thinking under pressure, the Tide went out with a whimper and not a bang. That night President Kennedy went on national television to give a groundbreaking speech. In the age of Trump it is important to hear his words again on this important anniversary…

Watch the great documentary on these days by Robert Drew. I read somewhere that this was the first movie that Obama screened when he entered the White House in January 2009? See it below:

Watch NBC News coverage of the standoff at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963

Read Wallace’s telegram to JFK from one month earlier condemning the use of federal troops in Birmingham

Bring ‘Em On Home Bernie

I am lucky to have great parents. One of the most important lessons they taught me, from the earliest age, is the notion of good sportsmanship and respect for the rules of the game. We Americans know that even if you compete within the rules, and do your best, you don’t always win. But the most important thing is how you play and how you carry yourself afterward, win or lose. Most of us believe that the winners should show respect for their less-fortunate opponents and that the losers should accept the outcome as fair and work harder to try to win next time. What we don’t like is the winner that rubs it in or the sore loser that claims the game was rigged, or who casts the blame on someone else.
Democracy is no game, to be sure, but these lessons carry over. It can be argued that the most important people in a democracy are not the winners, but instead it is the losers that hold the key, because if the losers don’t accept the verdict of the voters, fair and square, well, the democracy won’t stand for long. Recently the Republicans have played the role of the poor losers and in doing so they have practically ground the peoples’ business to a halt. That brings me to Bernie Sanders, for whom I voted. As the father figure of this unexpected and incredibly encouraging “revolution” Bernie now has a responsibility to his flock to lead by example, to take the high road and abide by the rules of the game and exhibit good sportsmanship. I sincerely hope that after last night’s strong statement by the voters Bernie will reconsider his plans to keep on fighting the wrong enemy and cause a scene at the convention. It’s time to face reality and join the legions of good people in the Democratic party in the true fight, the fight against the Right. Revolutions can happen overnight, but those types usually devolve into mob rule, bloodshed and ultimately some form of totalitarian blow-back. The ones that stick happen more slowly, taking years in the making. Some battles will be lost, but perseverance, unity of command and strength in numbers is the winning combination to win the war. It’s getting late in the day, time to come home. Together we will emerge from the darkness….