Friday, January 09, 2009

The Era of Big Irresponsibility is Over

"Throughout America's history, there have been some years that simply rolled into the next without much notice or fanfare, and then there are the years that come along once in a generation, the kind that mark a clean break from a troubled past and set a new course for our nation. This is one of those years.
We start 2009 in the midst of a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime, a crisis that has only deepened over the last few weeks..."
"This crisis did not happen solely by some accident of history or normal turn of the business cycle, and we won't get out of it by simply waiting for a better day to come or relying on the worn-out dogmas of the past. We arrived at this point due to an era of profound irresponsibility that stretched from corporate boardrooms to the halls of power in Washington, D.C."
"Now, the very fact that this crisis is largely of our own making means that it's not beyond our ability to solve. Our problems are rooted in past mistakes, not our capacity for future greatness. It will take time, perhaps many years, but we can rebuild that lost trust and confidence. We can restore opportunity and prosperity."---Barack Obama, January 8. For specifics from the speech, see post below.

The Era of Big Responsibility Has Begun

In his speech (transcript here) at George Mason U. in Washington on Thursday, President Elect Barack Obama outlined his American Recovery and Reinvestment plan. Here are more excerpts, beginning with a brief summary of where we are now.

"Now, I don't believe it's too late to change course, but it will be if we don't take dramatic action as soon as possible. If nothing is done, this recession could linger for years. The unemployment rate could reach double digits. Our economy could fall $1 trillion short of its full capacity, which translates into more than $12,000 in lost income for a family of four. We could lose a generation of potential and promise, as more young Americans are forced to forgo dreams of college or the chance to train for the jobs of the future. And our nation could lose the competitive edge that has served as a foundation for our strength and our standing in the world. In short, a bad situation could become dramatically worse...

That's why we need to act boldly and act now to reverse these cycles. That's why we need to put money in the pockets of the American people, create new jobs, and invest in our future. That's why we need to restart the flow of credit and restore the rules of the road that will ensure a crisis like this never happens again."

Some of the programs and goals he outlined:

"To finally spark the creation of a clean-energy economy, we will double the production of alternative energy in the next three years. We will modernize more than 75 percent of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of 2 million American homes, saving consumers and taxpayers billions on our energy bills. In the process, we will put Americans to work in new jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced -- jobs building solar panels and wind turbines, constructing fuel-efficient cars and buildings, and developing the new energy technologies that will lead to even more jobs, more savings, and a cleaner, safer planet in the bargain. "

"To improve the quality of our health care while lowering its cost, we will make the immediate investments necessary to ensure that within five years all of America's medical records are computerized. This will cut waste, eliminate red tape, and reduce the need to repeat expensive medical tests. But it just won't save billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, it will save lives by reducing the deadly but preventable medical errors that pervade our health care system.

To give our children the chance to live out their dreams in a world that's never been more competitive, we will equip tens of thousands of schools, community colleges and public universities with 21st-century classrooms, labs and libraries... "

"To build an economy that can lead this future, we will begin to rebuild America. Yes, we'll put people to work repairing crumbling roads, bridges and schools by eliminating the backlog of well-planned, worthy and needed infrastructure projects, but we'll also do more to retrofit America for a global economy. That means updating the way we get our electricity by starting to build a new smart grid that will save us money, protect our power sources from blackout or attack, and deliver clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation. It means expanding broadband lines across America so that a small business in a rural town can connect and compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world. And it means investing in the science, research and technology that will lead to new medical breakthroughs, new discoveries, and entire new industries.

And finally, this recovery and reinvestment plan will provide immediate relief to states, workers and families who are bearing the brunt of this recession. To get people spending again, 95 percent of working families will receive a thousand-dollar tax cut, the first stage of a middle-class tax cut that I promised during the campaign and will include in our next budget. To help Americans who have lost their jobs and can't find new ones, we'll continue the bipartisan extension of unemployment insurance and health-care coverage to help them through this crisis. Government at every level will have to tighten its belt, but we'll help struggling states avoid harmful budget cuts, as long as they take responsibility and use the money to maintain essential services like police, fire, education and health care... "

"The true test of the policies we'll pursue won't be whether they're Democratic or Republican ideas, whether they're conservative or liberal ideas, but whether they create jobs, grow our economy, and put the American Dream within reach of the American people.

Instead of politicians doling out money behind a veil of secrecy, decisions about where we invest will be made transparently, and informed by independent experts wherever possible. Every American will be able to hold Washington accountable for these decisions by going online to see how and where their taxpayer dollars are being spent. And as I announced yesterday, we will launch an unprecedented effort to eliminate unwise and unnecessary spending that has never been more unaffordable for our nation and our children's future than it is right now."

Now, this recovery plan alone will not solve all the problems that led us into this crisis. We must also work with the same sense of urgency to stabilize and repair the financial system we all depend on. That means using our full arsenal of tools to get credit flowing again to families and business, while restoring confidence in our markets. It means launching a sweeping effort to address the foreclosure crisis so that we can keep responsible families in their homes. It means preventing the catastrophic failure of financial institutions whose collapse could endanger the entire economy, but only with maximum protections for taxpayers and a clear understanding that government support for any company is an extraordinary action that must come with significant restrictions on the firms that receive support. And it means reforming a weak and outdated regulatory system so that we can better withstand financial shocks and better protect consumers, investors and businesses from the reckless greed and risk- taking that must never endanger our prosperity again."

Some of these efforts have begun, even outside this plan, as Obama's economic team looks at the remaining $350 billion of the $700 billion already allocated (half of which has been spent with little visible effect--and little accounting-- by the Bushites) to determine what the Washington Post calls a "new approach that would expand the program's aid to municipalities, small businesses, homeowners and other consumers."

Though politicians are already quibbling, Obama's Recovery and Reinvestment plan, otherwise known as the stimulus package, is already very popular, especially the Green Deal investments in alternative energy and green retrofitting. America knows: This is our moment, this is our time. Let's get busy.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Any Day Now

Barack Obama announces his economic plan today, and his presidency unofficially begins. But the official part comes in less than two weeks, and the excitement is building. This is the official Inaugural poster! I strayed to the Huffpost's Style page the other day, and almost everything was about the Obamas and the Inauguration. But for all the glitter, what's really exciting is that it's the people's Inaugural--and Washington especially is taking it to heart. The people of Washington, that is, who voted for Obama by a margin of 93%: “For D.C., this inauguration is less like hosting a visiting official and more like throwing a homecoming party for a family member,” said Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. Dr. Walters added that normally the inauguration was an exclusive black-tie affair. “This time,” he said, “it feels like the city has taken ownership of what is becoming a people’s party.”
The Times story recalls the parts of the city that were burned during the 1968 riots following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. I worked in one of those sections nearly a decade later, when it had still not recovered.
But things are different now. “What happened here along U Street on election night when Obama won was the exact inverse of those race riots,” said Mr. Ali, recounting how on Nov. 4 the streets filled with racially diverse crowds who were initially kept out of traffic by a large and somewhat jittery police force. Eventually, he said, the police opted to close down the area and let the partyers celebrate freely.
Across the Anacostia River, in one of the city’s poorest sections, Thomas Thorton, 82, sat waiting for a bus. “For us, for this side of the river, the inauguration is personal,” Mr. Thorton said, standing in front of the hilltop Washington View Apartments, not far from the former home of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.... “This city considers Obama as one of our own,” Ms. Mukabane said, “and I think that will show on inauguration."

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Reaching for the Moon


ken ytuarte forwarded this and similar photos, which seem to have been making the rounds, though without attribution, on the theme of playing with the moon. Some of them looked photoshopped to me, but I like the feeling in this one.

The Survival Value of Hope

Do you believe in meaningful coincidence?

In my regular reading, watching, listening, I don't run across the word "tyranny" very often. Yet one recent cafe afternoon I read a sentence ending with that word, and looked up from the book to see someone wearing a t-shirt with that word on it (something like "Anti-Tyranny Squad.")

I don't know what that means exactly. But yesterday, through my waking-up thoughts came the name of John Brockman, who I met many years ago. And last night while writing the post below on the Climate Crisis, I followed a link to an online article I'd bookmarked, which sent me to the site I referenced, the Edge, run by the same John Brockman.

I don't know what that means exactly either. Then later, as I was doing email business, I followed a link sent to me to one of the proposals on change.org, where second round voting would determine which 10 ideas will be presented to the Obama administration. It sent me to the idea on "bridging the empathy gap." I'm happy to vote for one of what I've been calling skills of peace. But while I was at the site...

I looked at other ideas, and followed the green energy one to the "Stop Global Warming" blog. The top post happened to focus on comments by Bruce Sterling. It had been only minutes since I'd written here that I tended to see the Climate Crisis future sort of the way Bruce Sterling does. (As you probably know, he's a noted science fiction writer who also writes nonfiction on the web and elsewhere, about the future, design, etc.)

That blog post linked me to his latest (and ongoing) comments at the granddaddy of all community blogs, San Francisco's The Well. This time, I know what this coincidence means. It means I have the latest Bruce Sterling comments to quote: (with my paragraphing and emphases.)

" Last, and slowest, and worst, there's the climate. The planet's entire atmosphere is polluted. Practically everything we do in our civilization is directly predicated on setting fire to dead stuff. Climate change is a major evil.

It's vast in scope and it's everywhere. The climate crisis would be a major issue even for a technically with-it bright-green secular Utopia, where every single citizen was an MIT grad. Of course our world looks nothing like that. Nor will it.

The people fighting climate change -- they look like Voltaire combatting Kings and Popes. They're still eighty percent witty comments. They have a foul, hot wind at their backs, but they don't yet have the battalions. Communism, capitalism, socialism, whatever: we've never yet had any economic system that recognizes that we have to live on a living planet.

Plankton and jungles make the air we breathe, but they have no place at our counting-house. National regulations do nothing much for that situation. New global regulations seem about as plausible as a new global religion.

None of this a counsel of despair. Seriously. We dare not despair because in any real crisis, the pessimists die fast. This is a frank recognition of the stakes. It's aimed at the adults in the room.

Let me put it this way. People don't have to solve every problem in the world in order to be happy. People will always have problems. People ARE problems. People become happy when they have something coherent to be enthusiastic about.

People need to LOOK AND FEEL they're solving some of mankind's many problems. People can't stumble around in public like blacked-out alcoholics, then have some jerk like Phil Gramm tell them to buck up. When you can't imagine how things are going to change, that doesn't mean that nothing will change. It means that things will change in ways that are unimaginable. "

Which all ties in with the idea I keep trying to get across: hope isn't some vacant emotion. It's motivation, it's living, it's activity, a way of life. Hope for the future is enacted in the present. The only future that exists now are the futures we envision and work to create or prevent. For us, that future is present. In our living moments, it's the only future that's real.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

No Pause in the Climate Crisis

We've got big economic challenges, and a massive amount of Bushite damage to fix. We need universal health care, state governments are going broke, schools are crashing. Everything is a priority.

So the Climate Crisis, which isn't obviously affecting a lot of people (though in fact it is winnowing away at the life support of all of us) and which doesn't do its apparent worst for decades, doesn't seem like it should be high on the To Do list.

But the Climate Crisis doesn't pause for holidays, ceremonies or even an entire list of other crises. In fact, what's happening in the Arctic and Antarctic is really scaring scientists. Most indications are that global heating is happening faster and is likely to end up being worse sooner than the scientific consensus just a year or two ago.

Fortunately, the Obama administration is aware of this, and there is pent-up public interest and support for paying attention to the Climate Crisis, as well as a lot of scientific and public policy ideas and organizations out there ready to go.

That also means that the meaningful debates are just beginning. What are the best policies, and at what level are they best applied? Do we concentrate on carbon--what about methane? Cap and trade, or some kind of carbon tax? And so on.

It gets technical, and the technicalities are important. It's going to take individuals and families and communities doing relatively small stuff, along with bigger regional, national and global efforts. It's going to take simple conservation measures, and startling innovations. Some of it is going to sound harder than it will turn out to be, and vice versa.

We can expect some positive action soon. There will probably be money in Obama's economic recovery package to jump-start green energy and energy conservation measures. An end to official Climate Crisis denial will unleash scientific and diplomatic efforts to confront the issues. I believe moves to a clean energy economy will be popular--so much so that it will surprise a lot of people. But reasonable proposals like the kind of carbon tax James Hansen supports probably won't get anywhere for at least a few years.

So in the near future, we're probably going to move in the right direction along a number of promising paths at varying speeds. The Climate Crisis will be taken seriously. The question remains how soon its effects in the present will be large enough to require attention, and whether we will acknowledge these phenomena (floods, droughts, epidemics, etc.) as effects of global heating. Then we will face the need to distinguish between cause and effects, acknowledge both and resist the (political) urge to choose action on one and not the other.

It's a good thing that the Climate Crisis will soon become part of the normal mix of public concerns. Because in future decades, it's pretty inevitable that the Climate Crisis will become the major public concern.

Worldchanging has a story on the 2009 Edge Question of the Year: "What Will Change Everything?" And, more specifically, "What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?" (The Edge is an online forum run by the not-so-late John Brockman. (That's an almost private joke.)) A couple of participants said it was the Climate Crisis. I'm not sure I agree with that their reasons are definitive: I'm more of the Bruce Sterling school, who thinks it simply will dominate what people will be doing and coping with, and what science will be grappling with--what, in fact, everyone will be grappling with, when coastal cities face flooding, all kinds of public emergencies and public infrastructure are constant issues, and climate has made life more difficult and even unlivable in some places. And all of that will inevitably affect how we feel and see the world, personally and culturally. It will affect everything, including philosophy, the arts and religion.

In other words, I think getting overwrought about problems like genetic engineering of human beings, etc. is wasted energy (although they are interesting to think about.) Most of the world's economy is more likely to be devoted to dealing with the Climate Crisis, and there's not going to be a lot in the way of excesses resources even for the very privileged.

I don't expect I'll be around to see much of this (although you never know), but some folks now alive probably will. Because the Climate Crisis is not waiting for us to fix it. We know that it's inevitably going to get worse--we just don't know precisely how and when. Our task is to not make it even worse than that, and prevent if we can the truly catastrophic, civilization-ending effects in the farther future, with even more life species lost forever. Our task will also be to recognize and deal with its effects, without giving into the temptation to let up on attacking its causes.

Starting now.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Better Late Than Never

Well, it's the last day of the second and last holiday weekend of the...holidays. So maybe your tree is still up; ours is. Anyway, I meant to post this in a more timely manner--it's called the Christmas Tree Cluster. That's the Cone Nebula towards the bottom. Photo from the European Southern Observatory: Click photo to dramatically enlarge. Hope your holidays were good ones.