Category: Politics

US gas-fired electricity generation overtakes coal + Obama’s new EPA regs

Generation by fuel

The war on coal” might have just witnessed another battle in April as the latest “Electric Power Monthly” data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show total natural gas-fired electric generation in April surpassed coal-fired power generation for the first time in history.

And here is the link to President Obama’s plan to fight climate change.

Overdue.

TPP talks crash and burn — not every nation willing to rollover for Obama

Pacific Rim trade ministers have failed to clinch a deal to free up trade between a dozen nations after a dispute flared between Japan and North America over cars, New Zealand dug in over dairy trade and no agreement was reached on monopoly periods for next-generation drugs.

Trade ministers from the 12 nations negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would stretch from Japan to Chile and cover 40 percent of the world economy, fell just short of a deal on Friday at talks on the Hawaiian island of Maui…

The result frustrated negotiators who had toiled to cross off outstanding issues and made significant progress on many controversial issues.

Three sources involved in the talks told the Reuters news agency that a last-minute breakthrough had been viewed as unlikely due to issues with dairy and auto trade and a standoff over biologic drugs made from living cells.

Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb said the problem lay with the “big four” economies of the United States, Canada, Japan, and Mexico. “The sad thing is, 98 percent is concluded,” he said.

Failure to seal the agreement is a setback for US President Barack Obama, given the trade pact’s stance as the economic arm of the administration’s pivot to Asia and an opportunity to balance out China’s influence in the region…

Obama promised oil income to Canada and Mexico, agricultural income to Canada and Mexico, monopoly power to US Pharmaceutical giants and American Tech firms. Japan as our pet stalking horse on the Asian side of negotiations was promised continued niche protections which would help keep Abe’s political party in power. Everyone else was supposed to line up in tidy little rows and nod their bobbleheads. Especially those nations like Australia with Conservatives holding power.

Didn’t happen.

If this doesn’t happen before the end of the year, the TPP is probably dead. An election year in the United States guarantees no legislative approvals more radical than Congress voting for baseball, motherhood and apple pie.

Prepare for five months of carrots, sticks, butt-kissing and bribes.

Germany, not Greece, should exit the Euro


Click to enlarge

The latest round of wrangling between Greece and its European creditors has demonstrated yet again that countries with such disparate economies should never have entered a currency union. It would be better for all involved, though, if Germany rather than Greece were the first to exit.

After months of grueling negotiations, recriminations and reversals, it’s hard to see any winners. The deal Greece reached with its creditors — if it lasts — pursues the same economic strategy that has failed repeatedly to heal the country. Greeks will get more of the brutal belt-tightening that they voted against. The creditors will probably see even less of their money than they would with a package of reduced austerity and immediate debt relief.

That said, the lead creditor, Germany, has done Europe a service: By proposing the Greece exit the euro, it has broken a political taboo. For decades, politicians have peddled the common currency as a symbol of European unity…

Now that the idea of exit is in the air, though, it’s worth thinking beyond the current political reality and considering who should go. Were Greece to leave, possibly followed by Portugal and Italy in the subsequent years, the countries’ new currencies would fall sharply in value. This would leave them unable to pay debts in euros, triggering cascading defaults. Although the currency depreciation would eventually make them more competitive, the economic pain would be prolonged and would inevitably extend beyond their borders.

If, however, Germany left the euro area…there really would be no losers.

A German return to the deutsche mark would cause the value of the euro to fall immediately, giving countries in Europe’s periphery a much-needed boost in competitiveness. Italy and Portugal have about the same gross domestic product today as when the euro was introduced, and the Greek economy, having briefly soared, is now in danger of falling below its starting point. A weaker euro would give them a chance to jump-start growth…

The disruption from a German exit would be minor. Because a deutsche mark would buy more goods and services in Europe (and in the rest of the world) than does a euro today, the Germans would become richer in one stroke. Germany’s assets abroad would be worth less in terms of the pricier deutsche marks, but German debts would be easier to repay…

Perhaps the greatest gain would be political. Germany relishes the role of a hegemon in Europe, but it has proven unwilling to bear the cost. By playing the role of bully with a moral veneer, it is doing the region a disservice. Rather than building “an ever closer union” in Europe, the Germans are endangering its delicate fabric. To stay close, Europe’s nations may need to loosen the ties that bind them so tightly.

Say “Amen!”

The US Is an “oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” says former president

Former president Jimmy Carter said Tuesday on the nationally syndicated radio show the Thom Hartmann Program that the United States is now an “oligarchy” in which “unlimited political bribery” has created “a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors.” Both Democrats and Republicans, Carter said, “look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves.”

Carter was responding to a question from Hartmann about recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign financing like Citizens United.

HARTMANN: Our Supreme Court has now said, “unlimited money in politics.” It seems like a violation of principles of democracy. … Your thoughts on that?

CARTER: It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over. … The incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody’s who’s already in Congress has a lot more to sell to an avid contributor than somebody who’s just a challenger.

Just in case you feel good about the snow job we get on a daily basis from the leaders of the two old parties in the White House and Congress. They fill the air with blather and bluster about our constitutional tradition, free speech in action, the benefits we enjoy as a free people.

It has as much legitimate content as the average infomercial on network TV sold as filler in between fictional cop shows, comedies about fools and so-called reality TV. If you believe any of it – you are the fool.

Jimmy Carter continues to get my vote as the leading ex-president over the last century. He has the courage to tell the truth about everything from our phony foreign policy to criminal behavior in Congress.

In defense of Yanis Varoufakis


Click for video — With flair and style, Yanis Varoufakis resigns as Greece’ Finance Minister

Mohamed A. El-Erian, Chief Economic Adviser at Allianz and a member of its International Executive Committee, is Chairman of US President Barack Obama’s Global Development Council. He previously served as CEO and co-Chief Investment Officer of PIMCO. He was named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.

From blaming him for the renewed collapse of the Greek economy to accusing him of illegally plotting Greece’s exit from the eurozone, it has become fashionable to disparage Yanis Varoufakis, the country’s former finance minister. While I have never met or spoken to him, I believe that he is getting a bad rap (and increasingly so). In the process, attention is being diverted away from the issues that are central to Greece’s ability to recover and prosper – whether it stays in the eurozone or decides to leave.

That is why it is important to take note of the ideas that Varoufakis continues to espouse. Greeks and others may fault him for pursuing his agenda with too little politesse while in office. But the essence of that agenda was – and remains – largely correct.

…Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, appointed Varoufakis to lead the delicate negotiations with the country’s creditors. His mandate was to recast the relationship in two important ways: render its terms more amenable to economic growth and job creation; and restore balance and dignity to the treatment of Greece by its European partners and the International Monetary Fund.

These objectives reflected Greece’s frustrating and disappointing experience under two previous bailout packages administered by “the institutions” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF). In pursuing them, Varoufakis felt empowered by the scale of Syriza’s electoral win and compelled by economic logic to press three issues that many economists believe must be addressed if sustained growth is to be restored: less and more intelligent austerity; structural reforms that better meet social objectives; and debt reduction.

These issues remain as relevant today, with Varoufakis out of government, as they were when he was tirelessly advocating for them during visits to European capitals and in tense late-night negotiations in Brussels.

RTFA to understand the reasoning behind Dr. El-Erian’s defense of Varoufakis. I feel he’s absolutely correct.

The case for fetal-cell research

We first acquired the stem cells from the red receptacles of a local hospital’s labor and delivery ward, delivered to our lab at the University of Southern California. I would reach into the large medical waste containers and pull out the tree-like branches of the placenta, discarded after a baby had been born. Squeezing the umbilical cord that had so recently been attached to new life, the blood, laden with stem cells, would come dripping out.

But sometimes a different package would arrive at our lab. Despite my distaste for wringing placentas, I felt more squeamish about what lay inside the unassuming white box. Packed in the ice was a crescent-shaped sliver of dark red tissue: a human liver. Just like the placentas that were discarded after birth, this tissue was originally destined for medical waste following an abortion.

Although their fates were similar, their origins couldn’t be more different. One source was the byproduct of celebration, the other a procedure often marked with stigma and shame. While under the bright focus of the microscope the cells we isolated were indistinguishable, in our minds there was a significant difference.

The reality is – there is no difference. I could swap the labels and neurotic hangups would switch just as easy.

Stem cell science is a big deal in California, thanks to the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a state agency that has allocated almost $2 billion in research grants since 2004 (federal funding is still highly restricted). To meet the demand for cells, researchers turned to a procedure protected by federal law: abortions. The discarded tissue from terminated pregnancies, performed up to 26 weeks in California, is a rich source of stem cells…

The use of fetal tissue in research is not new. Fetal cells extracted from the lungs of two aborted fetuses from Europe in the 1960s are still being propagated in cell culture. They’re so successful that today we still use them to produce vaccines for hepatitis A, rubella, chickenpox and shingles. From two terminated pregnancies, countless lives have been spared.

It isn’t just vaccines. Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, have injected neural stem cells into two patients to treat their spinal cord injuries. And progress is being made in the use of stem-cell therapies against cancer, blindness, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, H.I.V. and diabetes…

Perhaps this is why it was difficult to hear Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, discuss the organs of aborted fetuses so casually in surreptitiously recorded conversations with anti-abortion activists posing as fetal-tissue buyers. It’s understandable that politicians, angered by her callous tone, are investigating how fetal tissue is handled and how research is conducted, despite the strict institutional review that governs the use of anatomical tissue donated for research.

Politicians aren’t “angered by her callous tone” they’re excited by one more opportunity to turn up their patriarchal opposition to women making reproductive choices without their approval. Don’t confuse opportunism with judicious thought.

The choice I made is repeated every day, in labs all over the world. Researchers have no say in whether a fetus is aborted or develops into a human baby; those decisions are made by women and shaped by politicians. Yet their science, performed on discarded tissue, has the ability to save lives. It already has.

Choices surrounded by politicians, priests and superstition. The facts of life and science may be difficult for some folks to deal with; but, at least they’re grounded in reality. Making decisions based upon the greatest good for the greatest number ain’t a bad starting place.

Republicans pushing GE to ship $10 billion in work overseas

General Electric Co is taking steps to shift some U.S. manufacturing work overseas now that the U.S. Export-Import Bank will be shuttered at least until September…

GE Vice Chairman John Rice said the conglomerate is bidding on over $10 billion worth of projects that require support from an export credit agency (ECA) like Ex-Im.

With Ex-Im unable to extend new loans or guarantees thanks to an effort by congressional Republicans to shut it down, GE is arranging with ECAs in other countries to finance the deals involved, with much of the production going to GE plants in those foreign locations. The prospective government partners include Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Hungary, he said…

Ex-Im has been unable to consider any new financing requests since Congress allowed the bank’s charter to expire on June 30.

Rice’s comments come as the U.S. Congress starts a five-week summer recess with no clear path to revive Ex-Im in the months ahead. A group of conservative Republicans, who say the 81-year-old trade bank is a nest of “crony capitalism” that doles out government welfare to GE, Boeing Co and other wealthy corporations, want to keep it closed for good…

Rice, who is based in Hong Kong, said GE is not moving to shift work and jobs overseas “just to make a point” to Congress, but to win contracts that require export credit agency support. “We’re doing this because if we don’t, we can’t submit a valid tender,” he said.

In one such power-sector bid, for example, GE would do final assembly work on its aero-derivative gas turbine power generation units at GE plants in Hungary or China instead of a factory in Houston. It already has capacity in place, and export credit agencies willing to support the work, he said.

“Next year, if we win this bid, work that would have been in Houston will be someplace else,” Rice said.

In practice, shutting down the Ex-Im Bank handicaps small-biz as much or more than any other. Such questions devolve from commercial regulations and cause problems just like this one.

I expect Tea Party idjits will ignore the result they cause as often as ever. And if we’re really lucky, Luddites who panic over commerce taking place in a real world which now stretches well beyond the boundaries of the industrial landscape pre-World War 2 will join their peers on the Right.

After more than a half-century of political activism on behalf of the working class I was born into I’m still frustrated by sectarians who can turn an ordinary question of guaranteeing a loan – into religious fears over the purity of their bodily fluids.

Military contractor wants court help extorting money from sick vets

Private military contractor Kellogg Brown and Root is suing 12 National Guard veterans for $850,000 in legal fees that the company has incurred through defending a suit brought by the 12 for damages related to service on behalf of the company while in Iraq.

Early in 2003, the Department of Defense ordered members of the Oregon National Guard to protect supply convoys and repair facilities operated by KBR. The DoD had hired KBR to restore the flow of Iraqi oil to pipelines supplying the West and Europe. At the Qarmat Ali water treatment facility, severely damaged by American attacks and fleeing Iraqis, members of the Guard were exposed to hexavalent chromium, a cancer agent.

After developing health problems consistent with hexavalent chromium exposure, the veterans sued KBR for negligence in Federal Court in Portland. After a month long trial, the jury awarded the veterans $85 Million in 2012. KBR appealed, and sought $30 Million in legal fees and damages from the veterans for initiating the lawsuit.

The soldiers, residents of Oregon and under orders from the Department of Defense, placed on loan to a private entity contracted by the DoD, sued in their home state in federal court, not state court. They argued that a chemical used at the Qarmat Ali treatment facility had, to the knowledge of KBR, contaminated the site. Remaining at the site without being informed of the presence of the cancer agent by DoD or KBR constituted negligence. The Oregon jury agreed.

In May of this year, however, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling. The Court, persuaded by KBR lawyers, determined that an Oregon court, even if a federal circuit court, was not the proper jurisdiction for the case. Rocky Bixby, Ronald Bjerklund, Charles Ellis, Matthew Hadley, Colt Campredon, Vito Pacheco, Brian Hedin, Charles Seamon, Aaron St. Clair, Byron Greer, Jason Arnold and Larry Roberta must now take their case to Houston, Texas, where KBR is located.

A magnanimous KBR was pleased that the 9th Circuit ruled that the Oregon court did not have “personal jurisdiction” over the Texas based company. KBR executive vice president and general counsel Eileen Akerson said, “This ruling is another major step in resolving the few remaining legacy tort claims related to KBR’s work supporting the U.S. military in Iraq. We look forward to bringing closure to all of those matters.” Closure for KBR includes hiding behind its military contractor indemnification clause, and suing the Oregon soldiers for fees and damages incurred through the long course of this trial.

Creeps who should have been indicted as co-conspirators in the lawsuits should have included all the Republicans who profited from the war – starting with Dick Cheney with his ties to Halliburton. Yes, KBR was a subsidiary of Halliburton while Cheney’s firm was getting all those juicy no-bid contracts from the War Department.

Then, we get to confront our less-than-equal rights before American courts. Of course, we must move the retrial into KBR’s backyard. Makes it easier for lawyers, judges and politicians to discuss the case over cocktails.

Meanwhile, the Oregon soldiers contemplate zero compensation for their abuse and ill health in the Bush-Cheney War.

Climate study is scary as ever – but, James Hansen still has hope


Click to enlarge — Hurricane Isaac storm surge greater than Hurricane Katrina — Lt. Conrad H. Franz

When James Hansen speaks, climate hawks listen. Hansen was legendary during his long career as NASA’s chief climatologist for being ahead of the curve on seeing the threat of catastrophic climate change. Now he teaches at Columbia University, and he has more bad news to deliver. According to a study conducted by Hansen and 16 coauthors, being published this week in the European Geophysical Union’s open-access journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, the effects of even moderate warming on sea-level rise are worse than previously believed.

Hansen and his colleagues combined analysis of the historical record with modeling and current observation and found that the rate of oceanic ice melting in Greenland and Antarctica may exceed our expectations. As InsideClimate News explains, the scientists “analyzed how an influx of cold freshwater from the planet’s melting ice sheets will disrupt the ocean’s circulation … They concluded the influx of freshwater from melting ice sheets in modern times would essentially shut down the ocean’s circulation, causing cool water to stay in the Earth’s polar regions and equatorial water to warm up even faster.”

“The cooling mechanism is cut off, so it’s melting ice shelves,” Hansen explained in an interview with Grist. “It’s a really dangerous situation where you get melting that causes more melting.”…

The bottom line, as Slate’s Eric Holthaus writes, is that “glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous consensus estimates, resulting in sea-level rise of at least 10 feet in as little as 50 years.” A sea-level rise of 10 feet would inundate parts of major cities from New York to Shanghai…

Hansen, despite his reputation for doomsaying, remains hopeful about the prospects for fending off the worst of climate change. The biggest emitting nations are not pledging to cut emissions enough to even keep warming below 2C, but Hansen says a gradually rising global carbon fee could change that. It could force emissions to drop several percentage points per year and hold us down to 1.5C in warming. To get this outcome from the messy global climate treaty process would be fantastic, but it is highly unlikely. Hansen sort of admits this, but holds out hope nonetheless.

“I don’t think it’s impossible that you could get key players to agree to the concept of an international carbon fee,” he says. “It’s not going to happen with 190 countries sitting around a table. It’s going to happen with key players negotiating directly either at Paris or in the years ahead.” Specifically, Hansen imagines that the world’s two biggest economies and biggest carbon emitters, the U.S. and China, would negotiate a carbon fee bilaterally and then use their global buying power to force all of their trading partners to join.

People who actually read and study agree. At least economists who earn a living in the world of business and finance – as well as academia. I happened to see Peter Orszag on Bloomberg Surveillance, the other morning, and he was working at advancing the Hansen solution as practical and possible. Hoping against hope that reasonable leaders of industrial nations might engage in bilateral negotiations and treaties to force the reduction in atmospheric carbon.

No, he didn’t hold out any hope for the United States offering world leadership unless anti-science conservatives were absent from both houses of Congress and the White House. Poisonally, I don’t think Americans are well-enough informed or yet free enough of medieval hobgoblins to bring about that quality of change.

Ignore conservative whiners – Medicare improves your health

In a 15-year study of older Medicare patients, Yale School of Medicine researchers saw an estimated 20% drop in mortality, about 30% fewer hospitalizations, and 40% reduction in deaths after hospitalization…

Published in the July 28 JAMA theme issue on Medicare and Medicaid at 50, the study took a comprehensive look at national trends in mortality, hospitalizations, outcomes, and expenditures from all causes from 1999 to 2013. The team, from the Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation at Yale-New Haven Hospital, analyzed data on 68,374,904 Medicare recipients 65 years of age or older from key demographic groups and geographic areas.

“We are in the midst of a remarkable era of improvements in health and health care in America,” said lead author Harlan M. Krumholz, M.D….co-director of the Clinical Scholars Program. “This decline represents millions of hospitalizations averted and hundreds of thousands of deaths delayed.”

“The news should give us reassurance about our current efforts, but not make us complacent. We should seek to continue our advances in technology, health behaviors and policies, and quality of care — and seek to continue this remarkable trend,” Krumholz added.

Krumholz and his team also found that the total number of hospitalizations for major surgery decreased over the course of the study. The average length of time spent in the hospital declined from 5 to 4 days, and the average inpatient costs per Medicare fee-for-service recipient declined from $3,290 to $2,801. The findings were consistent across geographic and demographic groups.

Now, imagine how much better this good news might be – if we kicked whiners and ideologues out of Congress and concentrated on solid science, best administrative practices and took as the single goal improving health and healthcare for all Americans.

That would really be good news.