Saturday, June 14, 2008

Environmentalism the enemy of industry?

An old friend of mine has recently forwarded some newsletters from the company he works for. This successful industrial company has devoted significant portions of the newsletter to dispelling "myths" about the environment. What I found most interesting was how much the company seems to fear that environmental regulation will devastate us economically. This seems to be a common theme among those who oppose environmental regulations, but I have a hard time understanding what they base it on.

It's not hard to find a list of the world's countries ranked by GDP per capita. While not perfect, it's a pretty good indicator of the overall wealth and economic productivity of nations. Here's a wikipedia entry that lists nations according to IMF, CIA, and World Bank numbers separately:

The US is not at the top of the list according to any of the three institutions. And when looking at the nations that rank higher than the US in per capita GDP, nearly all of them have significantly more stringent environmental regulations. What's even more interesting is to consider that as little as a decade ago, the US was clearly ahead of all these nations. In the past decade, during a period when many of these tough environmental laws were passed, these nations have actually moved ahead of the US in terms of per capita economic productivity.

Now, of course, I realize that there's far more going on than just environmental regulation. Monetary policy, tax code changes, and countless other forces are always at work on an economy. However, it seems clear that strict environmental regulation is not going to bring down our economy or standard of living in any significant way.

In fact, given the currently skyrocketing costs of energy on the global scene, the countries with strict efficiency standards have gained an incredible competitive advantage over those without. American car companies have long fought regulations to increase fuel efficiency...and now they find themselves playing catch-up to European and Asian companies that made fuel efficiency a priority long ago. American airlines seem to be on the verge of death, while European carriers, who operate far more efficient fleets, are weathering the crunch more comfortably. In business, adversity and challenges often reveal stunning new ways of doing things. The challenge of operating in a more environmentally-sensitive way has been embraced by some businesses--particularly in countries where they had no choice--and many of those companies are currently thriving as a result of their willingness to embrace change. However, some companies will find themselves unable to adapt, but that's just the nature of business.

When companies blame environmental policy for their troubles, it's clear they're simply looking for excuses. As an investor, I would steer well clear of such companies.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What America needs

With all the discussion about Presidential candidates, one thing that's mentioned a lot is Obama's "cult of personality". Sometimes it's mentioned negatively, as in that's all he has, and sometimes positively in the context of how he will inspire change.

Well here's my take on it: I'm of the opinion that America desparately needs a cult of personality right now. Kennedy's cult of personality inspired America to build a space-program that has been unmatched since by any nation or company. (And for those who question the practical value of the space-program, satellites have become a pretty essential tool in modern communications networks, and they're a product of the space program.) Reagan's cult of personality was probably more important than any of his policies in getting American past the economic doldrums of the '70's and early '80's. Outside of a few speeches immediately after 911, Bush seems incapable of inspiring a drowning man to swim. When asked what ordinary Americans could do to help the nation a few months after 911, the response was to travel and go shopping. Hardly the kind of spirit that defeated the Nazi threat, that's for sure.

We have the attitude of a defeated country right now. Never was this more clear to me than on my recent trip to eastern Europe. People expect things to work there. Trains run on time. As soon as I got back to the States, the abundance of things that were "out of order" was staggering. My connecting flight to KC was delayed over an hour while they tried to get the luggage count right. People on the plane just shrugged our shoulders and said, well, that's typical. In Kansas City, we can't figure out how to keep the sewage systems functional. Don't get me started on the suburbs, where the solution to EVERYTHING is: well, I guess we'll just have to move again.

What our country needs more than anything, in my opinion, more than tax breaks, more than universal health care, more than stimulus packages, is to simply believe we can do big things again. I doubt Obama can make that happen, but his cult of personality is the best shot we've got in my opinion.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Idiocracy: documentary of our future

I just read this article about the intellectualism, or lack thereof, among today's young people. I'm not one of those who buys into all those "kids today!" and "well back in my day..." cliches, but the article did discuss the broader anti-intellectualism of American culture. It brought to mind the movie Idiocracy, a comedy about America several hundred years in the future as a result of the dumbest members of each generation out-breeding the smartest. The movie was equal parts amusing and horrifying. Everything I've seen points to the conclusion that dumber people are, in fact, having more kids on average than smart people. But my real concern is the antagonism toward intelligence in our culture.

The Star allows people to post responses on-line, and at the time I read the article, about half the responses had been attacks on "them", be they people of a certain age group or political affiliation. The abundance of name-calling and finger-pointing instead of rational discussion is a perfect example of the dumbing down of our country. And while it might be true we never have been that smart to begin with, it's also pretty clear we are pretty much an embarrassment on the global level. By American standards, I'm very informed about history, politics, and most global issues. But when I've talked to people in Europe (or Japan through my wife who speaks Japanese), I have trouble just holding my own in discussing AMERICAN politics, let alone other global issues where they're usually way more knowledgeable than I am.

I'm not trying to point fingers here, but it really does start at the top. I'm not trying to bash Bush, but it's absurd that Bush has cultivated his bogus cowboy accent and has to constantly pretend to be an idiot (well, I hope he's usually pretending, anyway) in order to get elected President. The problem isn't with Bush per se, but the people who elected him. As a whole, we are so against intelligence and knowledge that it's frightening. Blaming politicians, the school system, political parties, etc. are all just ways to shirk responsibility. If you think the "dumbing down" of our country is a problem, consider these questions: Which do you visit more often, libraries or sporting events? If you have kids, do you spend more time reading with them and helping with homework, or watching TV and playing video games? Do you spend more time talking about celebrities, or leading authors and academic figures with great ideas?

As Rome declined, the masses flocked to the Coliseum. I can't help but see parallels with our modern entertainment-obsessed culture.


Sunday, June 08, 2008

Time to drill more domestically?

So for all those who wish we'd been drilling all over Alaska and off all the coasts years ago, here's a question. If you could have sold your home a decade ago for $100k, and now it's worth $500k, would you regret not selling it a decade ago? I mean essentially what you're saying is you wish America had started selling one of its most valuable natural resources when it was cheap, rather than waiting until we can get a premium price for that resource. That doesn't seem like sound policy to me.

I've long opposed additional drilling in the US, for both environmental reasons and because I think we should simply be focusing on other energy sources and weaning ourselves from oil. But now I'm rethinking things. Let's say that by drilling ANWR and a few major coastal areas, we can generate at least 20 billion barrels over the next couple decades. If America chooses to sell that oil to the oil companies at a rate of no less than $80-90/barrel, and presumably the average rate over the next couple decades would be well over $100/barrel, then we're looking at generating over $2 Trillion over the next couple decades.

If, and only if, we were committed to using that $2 Trillion to aggressively pursue alternative energy and a more energy-efficient economy, then more domestic drilling might finally be a good idea. Over two decades, such a figure would work out to around $100 billion a year at least. I'd say we split that three ways.

One, provide grants for cities to make necessary upgrades to the infrastructure to support denser population patterns. (i.e. KC could apply for a few billion to finally fix the sewer lines as well as improve our mass-transit system. Over 20 years, every major city would get at least $5 billion or so.) One of the major ways we waste energy in our country is our sprawling population patterns. I realize this will be a tough sell because psychologically Americans are still pretty sold on the American dream of a big lawn in a quiet neighborhood. But really, is it all that great to have to spend 2-4 hours in your car every day? Wouldn't it be nice to have more time to spend with your family or friends? Is it really so terrible to live close enough to your neighbors that they could hear your cries for help in an emergency? If large numbers of people "sacrifice" two hours of commuting every day, that alone would make a tremendous impact on our national energy needs. But it will be expensive and take time to rebuild our cities to be more integrated and actually enjoyable to get around on foot or bike. Of course, the end result will not only save us tons in energy expenditures, but also health care costs as well. Not only would obesity rates and rates of heart disease and other expensive conditions improve, but there would almost certainly be a drop in rates of depression and certain other non-genetic mental illnesses as a result of people being "forced" to be less isolated from each other.

Two, implement a decent national rail network. Amtrak is a joke because it's century-old technology. Modern rail technology moves people at over 200mph, meaning trips of about 1000 miles or less are actually faster by rail than plane when you factor in the shorter loading and unloading time for trains. The airlines that are currently collapsing like dominoes with $100+/barrel oil are a testament to the fact the planes are hugely energy inefficient. They'll always have a place, but they shouldn't be our nation's primary form of long-distance travel, it's just too expensive.

Finally, major investments in renewable energy must be made. The most important technologies of the last 50 years would not have been possible without massive government investment. Microprocessors, satellites, and the Internet are what I'm referring to specifically. They all took massive government spending to reach the point of commercial viability. Renewable energy will be no different. In fact, it will require more government investment because it ultimately has to replace an existing, entrenched technology. But the payoffs will be even bigger than the three technologies mentioned above. Ultimately (and, yes, it may possibly-though unlikely-be over 100 years off, but it's still inevitable), the world will run out of easily accessible oil. We can either be prepared when we reach that point, or civilization will be wiped out and most of the human population will die and many generations will pass before a technological civilization emerges again, if it ever does. Seems like the choice here should be pretty obvious, but a lot of people are trying to make it a lot harder than it needs to be.

As an environmentalist, it's hard for me to consider that additional oil drilling in beautiful, natural areas of our nation is what's needed. But I usually find that I'm a pragmatist and a realist first. And realistically, this seems like the best way for our nation to fund the changes that we absolutely must make to remain a strong nation and help keep advanced civilization around on planet Earth.


The Robotic Economy

One of the things I'm always dealing with in my life is when I'm finally going to "grow up and get a real job."

A little background: Ever since graduating with honors from the University of Missouri-Rolla, I've bounced around all over the country in a variety of jobs in a variety of fields. I attribute this to two major factors. First, I went through a really religious phase while in college that kept me from taking my classes all that seriously. I did well enough to graduate with honors, but I never really got absorbed in my class-work and developed the solid skill set that employers seek. And as I left college, I didn't immediately enter the work-force because I wanted to spend some time in urban ministry. Of course, about that time I began to really question my faith, and I wound up dropping out of the ministry I was involved with because I couldn't make myself fully believe it anymore, and I didn't want to live a lie. I'd missed the big round of hiring of new grads for that year, and the dot-com collapse was beginning to occur, so I didn't have great immediate job prospects. I chose to travel for awhile, taking whatever jobs I needed to get by, and sort out what I believed in. After a few years, I realized my degree was no longer valid since the computer field changes so quickly and I had no recent experience. But there's another major factor, and that is that while in school I regularly received what has turned out to be really awful career advice, and I followed it. Basically, the advice was to be well-rounded. Professors and other people who spoke to us about preparing for the work force always told us that having the degree meant we could program, but employers wanted more than somebody who could just sit in a corner and program. To stand out, we should cultivate talents that involved leadership and teamwork. I did that in spades. I founded a chapter of Habitat for Humanity and built two homes. I led the International Student Club for awhile, organizing events with people from dozens of nations. After college, my various jobs had me working with all kinds of people and required excellent interpersonal skills. But when I tried to enter the industry again, I realized that employers don't want well-rounded people at all. They want people with a very specific skill set that they can plug in to a specific location in the machine.

And that's what keeps bothering me as I try to get a "real job." Respectable, high-paying jobs don't involve thinking anymore, at least not in any broad sense. Based on every interview I've had, employers are looking for the person who is the best at performing one specific, narrowly-defined function. If an employer needs somebody to administer databases of employee information on SQL Server, then the candidate who has the most experience administering databases of employee information on SQL Server will get the job. Nevermind the fact that the business world is constantly changing and this person might have to adapt to Oracle within a year of being hired. No, businesses don't seem interested in people with broad skills and abilities who can quickly adapt to new environments.

Our economy seems to view people as robots that perform a specific function, and only a specific function. This makes sense when running an assembly line that does the same thing over and over. But it seems like we've converted all businesses and virtually all jobs to the assembly line model where everybody just does the same action over and over again.

I can't imagine anything I would want to do over and over again, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for years on end. I used to really enjoy teaching. But then I did it 5 days a week for an entire school year. And now I hate it. I enjoy following the stock market and examining companies' balance sheets and finances. But I have a feeling if that's all I did all day every working day, I'd get very bored with it very quickly. Everybody's advice for finding a good job is to learn a marketable skill. Well I can't think of anything I'd want to learn how to do if learning it meant I'd have to do it every working day for many years.

Are there any jobs that aren't simply repetitive behavior every day? If so, how does a person learn the "skills" to get hired at such a job?


Saturday, June 07, 2008


No deep thoughts here, just the sickest snowboarding video I've ever seen.


Overlooking the Obvious

Recently I read about a stunning discovery archaeologists made when they un-earthed a toy from a pre-Columbian American civilization. The toy was a simple wheel. This finding was shocking because despite the many accomplishments of the Mayans, they never seemed to have used the wheel. Apparently they did discover it, but never saw any potential for it other than a child's toy.

Today we have a mode of transportation that requires about 100 times less material to produce than a car, produces about 100 times less CO2 emissions than a car, requires over 10 times less road surface area and parking spaces than a car, burns no non-renewable fuel, and in urban areas often allows people to get from place to place faster than a car would allow. However, few people use this mode of transportation because most people view it simply as a child's toy. Of course, I'm talking about the bicycle.

In addition to the above benefits, bicycles are incredibly affordable and easy to maintain and repair when they break down. They are far safer than automobiles (ignoring, of course, the dangers posed to cyclists BY automobiles). They promote excellent fitness habits and would certainly reverse the rising rates of heart disease and obesity in the US if their use became widespread.

The Mayans have the excuse of living in hilly terrain that might have made wheels impractical. What's our excuse?


Friday, June 06, 2008

The dying American empire

My recent trip to Europe made very clear what I've known for some time: The US is a dying empire.

The eastern European nations I visited are on the rise and making tremendous gains. Travelling around Europe involved clean, comfortable, efficient trains that ran on time. Everywhere we went things were improving. European societies are seeing phenomenal economic growth while maintaining a reasonable social safety net to ensure prosperity for all. The cities are compact and easily navigable. Because of the urban density, the countrysides are still full of open space that is easily accessible to urban residents.

The day I left was a vivid example of the contrast. The day started in Hannover, Germany. My wife and I walked to the train station. As a rule, almost everybody in European cities lives close enough to the transit hub to reach it in 20 minutes or less by public transit or bike, ridding them of a dependency on oil-sucking autos. At the train station, Skye departed for Prague, taking a route that required a transfer with only an 8 minute before the second train departed. She easily made it, of course, as the trains almost always run right on time. I left for the Frankfurt airport, covering a couple hundred miles comfortably and in a little over two hours. The train pulled right into the airport and I was at my gate in no time. Everything in the airport was well laid-out and clearly signed. The airport was also the train station as well as a shopping center and banking complex.

After arriving in the States, everything changed. The entire customs and passport-control process was poorly laid out with minimal signage. Unlike in Europe, all the airport staff appeared to be monolingual and unable to help the visitors from other countries. The baggage collection area was chaotic...the signage conflicted with what agents were telling us. When the baggage was re-checked, nobody seemed able to tell us where to put our bags. I left the secure area to meet my dad, who lives in the area, during my long layover. Finding a simple place to eat required almost 45 minutes of driving around. I noticed multiple ATMs and electronic kiosks were out of order. Simply driving a few miles from the nearest restaurant back to the airport took over 20 minutes. The final leg of my journey began with a wait of well over an hour at the gate. First the subcontractors who loaded the luggage spent 45 minutes trying to figure out what to do with oversize luggage. Then another 30 minutes was spent trying to locate somebody authorized to drive the truck that pushes planes away from the gate. On the other end of the flight, we spent 30 minutes waiting for the luggage to get unloaded. Overall, the whole experience on the US side of the Atlantic reminded me of experiences I've had in Costa Rica and Jamaica.

Clearly the US is on the downside. We've had a good run, but it looks like our time as a global superpower is over.


$4 or 40,000 lives?

So now that gas has cleared $4/gallon, everybody seems to be talking about how horrible that is. For decades, cars have killed over 40,000 people per year, and nobody has been very concerned. 40,000+ people killed annually isn't a big deal, but $4/gallon for gas is an outrage?

Where are our priorities?