The TPP Free-Trade Charade

This was published just before the “resolution” of negotiations. What changed? Details of how we’re screwed.

As negotiators and ministers from the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries meet in Atlanta in an effort to finalize the details of the sweeping new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), some sober analysis is warranted. The biggest regional trade and investment agreement in history is not what it seems.

You will hear much about the importance of the TPP for “free trade.” The reality is that this is an agreement to manage its members’ trade and investment relations – and to do so on behalf of each country’s most powerful business lobbies. Make no mistake: It is evident from the main outstanding issues, over which negotiators are still haggling, that the TPP is not about “free” trade

For starters, consider what the agreement would do to expand intellectual property rights for big pharmaceutical companies, as we learned from leaked versions of the negotiating text. Economic research clearly shows the argument that such intellectual property rights promote research to be weak at best. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary: When the Supreme Court invalidated Myriad’s patent on the BRCA gene, it led to a burst of innovation that resulted in better tests at lower costs. Indeed, provisions in the TPP would restrain open competition and raise prices for consumers in the US and around the world – anathema to free trade…

Similarly, consider how the US hopes to use the TPP to manage trade for the tobacco industry. For decades, US-based tobacco companies have used foreign investor adjudication mechanisms created by agreements like the TPP to fight regulations intended to curb the public-health scourge of smoking. Under these investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) systems, foreign investors gain new rights to sue national governments in binding private arbitration for regulations they see as diminishing the expected profitability of their investments…

To be sure, investors – wherever they call home – deserve protection from expropriation or discriminatory regulations. But ISDS goes much further: The obligation to compensate investors for losses of expected profits can and has been applied even where rules are nondiscriminatory and profits are made from causing public harm…

Imagine what would have happened if these provisions had been in place when the lethal effects of asbestos were discovered. Rather than shutting down manufacturers and forcing them to compensate those who had been harmed, under ISDS, governments would have had to pay the manufacturers not to kill their citizens. Taxpayers would have been hit twice – first to pay for the health damage caused by asbestos, and then to compensate manufacturers for their lost profits when the government stepped in to regulate a dangerous product.

It should surprise no one that America’s international agreements produce managed rather than free trade. That is what happens when the policymaking process is closed to non-business stakeholders – not to mention the people’s elected representatives in Congress.

That presumes, of course, that our Congress is up to performing required due diligence on behalf of American workers and their families. Something I still need to be convinced of.

Ben Bernanke says – More should have gone to jail for causing Great Recession

This season, Ben Bernanke was able to sit through an entire Nationals game.

During the financial meltdown in 2008, the then-chairman of the Federal Reserve would buy a lemonade and head to his seats two rows back from the Washington Nationals dugout, a respite from crisis. But often he would find himself huddling in the quiet of the stadium’s first-aid station or an empty stairwell for consultations on his BlackBerry about whatever economic catastrophe was looming.

“I think there was a reasonably good chance that, barring stabilization of the financial system, that we could have gone into a 1930s-style depression,” he says now in an interview with USA TODAY. “The panic that hit us was enormous — I think the worst in U.S. history.”

With publication of his memoir, The Courage to Act, on Tuesday by W.W. Norton & Co., Bernanke has some thoughts about what went right and what went wrong. For one thing, he says that more corporate executives should have gone to jail for their misdeeds. The Justice Department and other law-enforcement agencies focused on indicting or threatening to indict financial firms, he notes, “but it would have been my preference to have more investigation of individual action, since obviously everything what went wrong or was illegal was done by some individual, not by an abstract firm.”

He also offers a detailed rebuttal to critics who argue the government could and should have done more to rescue Lehman Brothers from bankruptcy in the worst weekend of a tumultuous time. “We were very, very determined not to let it collapse,” he says. “But we were out of bullets at that point.”

I happen to think Bernanke did a lot of good things right – and a few useless and wrong. Hindsight is always thrilling.

Please RTFA, watch the interview. USAToday doesn’t run the most stable online presence in American news; so, I hope all these links continue to work correctly. And, yes, I have my own list of individual crooks who should have done time – starting with everyone at the top of Countrywide Mortgage.

Glider ready to fly higher than the U2 spy plane

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The Perlan Mission II glider, which is designed to fly higher than the U-2 spy plane and SR-71 Blackbird, has made its maiden flight. The aircraft separated from its towplane at an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,524 m) above Roberts Field at Redmond Municipal Airport in Oregon, but is expected to go much higher next year when it makes a world altitude record attempt to the edge of space.

Jim Payne and Morgan Sandercock piloted the aircraft on its first flight, gliding back to the ground on wings with a span of 84 ft and surface area of 263 sq ft. The 5,000-ft altitude of the maiden flight is a baby step for the aircraft, which is expected to reach 90,000 ft next year when it will attempt to soar to the edge of space over Argentina.

If successful, this will not only smash the current glider world record altitude of 50,727 ft set by Perlan II’s predecessor, Perlan Mission I, in 2006 with Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson at the controls, but it will also beat the SR-71’s current record-holding altitude of 85,069 ft. Although a number of aircraft have exceeded this altitude in zoom climbs, the SR-71 retains the “absolute altitude record” for sustained flight.

While the SR-71 achieved the record drawing power from two Pratt & Whitney J58 axial-flow turbo-jet engines, Perlan II will look to reach these dizzying heights by riding air currents over certain mountainous regions near the north and south poles that can reach into the stratosphere.

The Perlan team isn’t looking to go to the edge of space just because it is there, but to aid in research into high-altitude flight, climate change and space exploration. Since the aircraft is engineless, it will reach high altitudes without polluting the atmosphere it will study in an effort to shed more light on how the stratosphere impacts global weather, the health of the ozone layer, and to collect data to improve climate models for more accurate climate change predictions.


US deaths from gun violence vs. US deaths from terrorism

In his impassioned address in the wake of Thursday’s horrible shooting at an Oregon community college, President Obama issued a challenge to the media. “Have news organizations tally up the number of Americans who’ve been killed through terrorist attacks in the last decade and the number of Americans who’ve been killed by gun violence, and post those side by side on your news reports,” he asked.


Here’s what that looks like (at least, for 2001-2011, the period for which we could find the most reliable data quickly courtesy of the State Department, the Justice Department, and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko).

gun deaths chart

Any surprises? Think we have fair and balanced priorities?

Utility-scale solar costs diminished by half in the last five years



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Lawrence Berkeley National Labs has released a report on the state of utility-scale solar installations in the US. Just about everything in the report is remarkable for anyone who’s followed the solar market closely. Over the past five years, prices have dropped by half, while the capacity factors are approaching that of wind. As a result, the most recent installations are offering power at prices that are competitive with natural gas—not the cost of the plant and fuel, but the fuel alone…

One of the issues with utility-scale solar has been that some of the earlier plants were built outside the Southwest. This has meant less overall generation and a lower capacity factor, meaning that the panels are only producing power at a fraction of their maximal rate. Both of these raise the cost of the electricity generated. But installations in the Southwest have boomed to over 90 percent of the total installed hardware. This has capacity factors up and costs down. More recently, large projects have been getting more popular in the Southeast, which may change this dynamic in the future.

For now, the total capacity factor is about 27.5 percent of what the panels are rated for. But the best projects see capacity factors of 35 percent—similar to a typical windfarm in the US…

Regardless of the cause, the low costs have allowed power purchase agreements (PPAs) in the Southwest to reach unheard of levels: “Some of the most-recent PPAs in the Southwest have levelized PPA prices as low as (or even lower than) $40/MWh (in real 2014 dollars). At these low levels—which appear to be robust, given the strong response to recent utility solicitations—PV compares favorably to just the fuel costs (i.e., ignoring fixed capital costs) of natural gas-fired generation.”

For a technology that was recently one of the most expensive forms of electricity generation on the market, it’s a remarkable turnaround.

Two questions remain for consumers. (1) Who’s keeping an eye on the price-fiddling fixed in the DNA of most public utilities. Here in New Mexico, the crooks in charge of oversight and regulation – of fellow crooks – don’t provide much confidence in equitable pricing. (2) Rooftop solar will probably grow just as quickly as utility-scale solar. Or better. Those two classes of crooks mentioned in (1) will try to screw consumers with an added tax for the maintenance and infrastructure expansion they’ve previously taxed us for – over decades.

US military bombs Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan –


Seems like the old days doesn’t it? All we need is George W’s sad voice giving us the “oops” excuse. Oh well, President Obama learned how to do it pretty well. No doubt he remembers exactly the tone required.

A hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz was badly damaged early Saturday after being hit by what appears to have been an American airstrike. At least 19 people were killed, including 12 hospital staff members, and dozens wounded.

The United States military, in a statement, confirmed an airstrike at 2:15 a.m., saying that it had been targeting individuals “who were threatening the force” and that “there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”

The airstrike set off fires that were still burning hours later, and a nurse who managed to climb out of the debris described seeing colleagues so badly burned that they had died…

President Ashraf Ghani’s office released a statement Saturday evening saying that Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, had apologized for the strike. In a statement, however, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said blah, blah, blah

Airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties have caused tensions verging on hostility between the Afghan government and the United States for years. The former president, Hamid Karzai, was often in the uncomfortable position of explaining to his countrymen why Afghanistan’s biggest ally was killing innocent Afghans…

Accounts differed as to whether there had been fighting around the hospital that might have precipitated the strike. Two hospital employees, an aide who was wounded in the bombing and a nurse who emerged unscathed, said that there had been no active fighting nearby and no Taliban fighters in the hospital.

But a Kunduz police spokesman, Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, insisted that Taliban fighters had entered the hospital and were using it as a firing position.

Doctors Without Borders, which released the casualty numbers, said 37 people were wounded of whom 19 were hospital staff and 18 were patients or their caregivers, which means mostly family members. The organization described the facility as “very badly damaged.”

In a statement, the aid group accused the American military of continuing the bombing for 30 minutes after receiving phone calls telling military contacts that the hospital was being bombed.

“All parties to the conflict including in Kabul and Washington, were clearly informed of the precise location [GPS Coordinates] of the MSF facilities — hospital, guesthouse, office,” the statement said.

Who do I believe? I’ll take Doctors Without Borders over the Pentagon any day of the week.

RTFA for a long, detailed account of the deaths and destruction.