Saturday, April 18, 2009

April is the New May

In 1965 the U.S. Department of Agriculture planted lilacs in some 70 locations in the northeast, and noted when they first bloomed. Figuring that the onset of spring was signalled by the lilacs blooming, the USDA was trying to help determine the best time for planting crops, like corn. But what they now have is a record of when lilacs bloomed in the past 44 years. And they are blooming as much as two weeks earlier now than in 1965.
Other evidence of early spring (and summer) onset is discussed in new books by Amy Seidl (Early Spring) and Stephan Farris (Forecast) but almost anyone in agriculture or forestry, etc. from wineries in California to corn growers in Iowa to maple sugar producers in New England can tell you this has been happening, and it's starting to have an impact. Sugar maples in New England (above right), for example, are dying and may soon be virtually extinct. The rippling effect of climate change--from northern species dying out to disease-carrying insects moving north--is just beginning. For now, some of it is pleasant, as April becomes the new May. But it's already starting to change lives and livelihoods, and a sane society would have noticed that by now.

Pillar of the Future: Fiscal Discipline

The final pillar of the future in President Obama's speech at Georgetown was restoring fiscal discipline in the federal budget. The topic of government spending and taxes inevitably comes up at tax time, pumped up this year by some big Republican lobbying firms and FOX news, owned by the biggest media company in the world, in the guise of a grassroots revolt.

Apart from very troubling matters of tone (which I'm writing about elsewhere), the tax-and-spend portion of this revolt is revoltingly incoherent and exploitive. In a month when 95% of American families are starting to receive the tax cuts that President Obama made a key part of his recovery package, Republicans ignore this inconvenient fact to complain about taxes--which their administration did nothing to lower, except for the very rich. And after eight years turning a surplus into huge deficits and debt, the Republicans complain about deficits and government spending.

To show how little sense they make requires nothing more than quoting President Obama in this speech. First of all, he talks about successful efforts to cut spending in the budget by eliminating unneeded programs and budget items. "Already, we have identified two trillion dollars in deficit-reductions over the next decade...Altogether, this budget will reduce discretionary spending for domestic programs as share of the economy by more than 10% over the next decade to the lowest level since we began keeping records nearly half a century ago. And as we continue to go through the federal budget line by line, we will be announcing additional savings, secured by eliminating and consolidating programs we don't need so that we can make room for the things we do need."

Before talking about entitlement reform he adds these common sense points:

"First, as I said earlier, the worst thing that we could do in a recession this severe is to try to cut government spending at the same time as families and businesses around the world are cutting back on their spending. So as serious as our deficit and debt problems are – and they are very serious – major efforts to deal with them have to focus on the medium and long-term budget picture.

Second, in tackling the deficit issue, we simply cannot sacrifice the long-term investments that we so desperately need to generate long-term prosperity. Just as a cash-strapped family may cut back on luxuries but will insist on spending money to get their children through college, so we as a country have to make current choices with an eye on the future. If we don't invest now in renewable energy or a skilled workforce or a more affordable health care system, this economy simply won't grow at the pace it needs to in two or five or ten years down the road. If we don't lay this new foundation, it won't be long before we are right back where we are today. And I can assure you that chronically slow growth will not help our long-term budget situation."

He then talks about the need for all parties to come together to fashion serious reforms of Medicare and Social Security, because only this will really deal with long-term federal deficits.

"But let's not kid ourselves and suggest that we can do it by trimming a few earmarks or cutting the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts," he said.

But of course, that's exactly what Republicans and these anti-tax rebels talk about. They aren't serious. They're trying to score political points. They aren't trying to solve big problems, or any problems at all, except how to win elections and serve the interests of their rich backers. They'll use anyone and anything to keep doing that. They aren't interested in governing, and they aren't interested in the well-being and the future of America.

President Obama ended his speech with his vision of the future, once these pillars and this foundation is in place: "There is no doubt that times are still tough. By no means are we out of the woods just yet. But from where we stand, for the very first time, we are beginning to see glimmers of hope.

And beyond that, way off in the distance, we can see a vision of an America's future that is far different than our troubled economic past. It's an America teeming with new industry and commerce; humming with new energy and discoveries that light the world once more. A place where anyone from anywhere with a good idea or the will to work can live the dream they've heard so much about.

It is that house upon the rock. Proud, sturdy, and unwavering in the face of the greatest storm. We will not finish it in one year or even many, but if we use this moment to lay that new foundation; if we come together and begin the hard work of rebuilding; if we persist and persevere against the disappointments and setbacks that will surely lie ahead, then I have no doubt that this house will stand and the dream of our founders will live on in our time. "

Pillar of the Future: Health Care

"The fourth pillar of the new foundation is a 21st century health care system where families, businesses, and government budgets aren't dragged down by skyrocketing insurance premiums" President Obama said in his Georgetown U. speech. "Fixing our health care system will certainly require resources, but in my budget, we've made a commitment to fully pay for reform without increasing the deficit, and we've identified specific savings that will make the health care system more efficient and reduce costs for us all."
Universal health care is necessary not just for individuals but for companies, large and small, swamped by the cost of health insurance. To help the budgets of individuals, families and businesses, health care will free money for other purposes in both the short and long terms, and therefore is a critical part of economic recovery and restructuring. But President Obama made one other point, that isn't usually noticed.
At first he seemed to be moving on from the pillar of health care to the pillar of reducing the federal deficit. But after explaining the need to deal with the long term government deficit and how his administration is attacking this problem (more on that in a post to follow), he spoke about the need to reform entitlements like Medicare and Social Security in order to forestall greater deficits, and to meet this goal, "Nothing will be more important to this goal than passing health care reform that brings down costs across the system, including in Medicare and Medicaid. Make no mistake: health care reform is entitlement reform. That's not just my opinion – that was the conclusion of a wide range of participants at the Fiscal Responsibility Summit we held at the White House in February, and that's one of the reasons why I firmly believe we need to get health care reform done this year."

Friday, April 17, 2009

Pillar of the Future: Energy

"The third pillar of this new foundation is to harness the renewable energy that can create millions of new jobs and new industries," said President Obama in his speech at Georgetown. This is crucial to our future for many reasons: to save scarce resources and reduce pollution, environmental destruction and waste; to end dependence on foreign oil and foreign wars for oil; to reduce global heating and head off a history-ending Climate Crisis. To name a few.

But at Georgetown, President Obama concentrated on American competitiveness in the world: renewable, sustainable and clean energy is the technology of today, the crucial need of the world's future, and therefore America's best opportunity to do what it has traditionally done best: invent, innovate and build new industries for customers around the world.

"We all know that the country that harnesses this energy will lead the 21st century," the President said. "Yet we have allowed other countries to outpace us on this race to the future. Well, I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders. It is time for America to lead again.

The investments we made in the Recovery Act will double this nation's supply of renewable energy in the next three years. And we are putting Americans to work making our homes and buildings more efficient so that we can save billions on our energy bills and grow our economy at the same time."

Science will invent, entrepreneurs will innovate and industries will spring up not only because there is a need, but because there is demand--and for demand to grow fast enough, the price of clean energy must be competitive. It's getting there now, but President Obama wants to give it a nudge--while reducing the greenhouse gases that are causing the growing Climate Crisis.

This is a simple formula, but it is daring to propose it. But for those who say fighting greenhouse gases pollution through carbon cap-and-trade should be left to another day when the economy is fixed, President Obama says doing it now is necessary to fixing the economy, both in terms of immediate economic activity and in his overall plan to build the foundation for a strong economy for the foreseeable future. Read what he said carefully:

"But the only way to truly spark this transformation is through a gradual, market-based cap on carbon pollution, so that clean energy is the profitable kind of energy. Some have argued that we shouldn't attempt such a transition until the economy recovers, and they are right that we have to take the costs of transition into account. But we can no longer delay putting a framework for a clean energy economy in place. If businesses and entrepreneurs know today that we are closing this carbon pollution loophole, they will start investing in clean energy now. And pretty soon, we'll see more companies constructing solar panels, and workers building wind turbines, and car companies manufacturing fuel-efficient cars. Investors will put some money into a new energy technology, and a small business will open to start selling it. That's how we can grow this economy, enhance our security, and protect our planet at the same time."

Other efforts along these lines are building a smart and secure electrical grid--another area where other countries are moving ahead--and Thursday's announcement of a plan for a new, smart high-speed rail network.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Go Ask Alice

Something to ponder in view of Wednesday GOP "tea parties" and the Rabid Right in general. For Alice's adventures at one, try companion blog American Dash here.

Pillar of the Future: Education

In his Georgetown speech, President Obama's first pillar in the foundation of the future is to reform the outdated rules and regulations that allowed this crisis to happen in the first place. The fifth pillar is long-term deficit reduction, to be done not by wishful thinking or crazy proposals, but by getting together to confront the hard problems and craft solutions. But that is a task that virtually all responsible economists agree needs to wait until the government has dealt with the Great Recession we're in right now. Both of these sober and sensible approaches belie the kind of infantile analysis the Rabid Right is indulging in, as evidenced by the "tea-bag" protests on April 15.

The second pillar of the future is education. Republicans have talked a lot about education while pursuing policies that have driven it to the brink of disaster on all levels. And at all levels, the United States is falling behind.

President Obama recognizes that the American economic future depends on our citizens being smart and skilled enough to compete and innovate in a world where many countries have invested more heavily in education.

It's not only that Europe has done better. It's especially important because the U.S. is not going to out-compete on the basis of raw numbers with countries like India and China. There are more college honor students in India than there are total college students in the U.S.

Here's what President Obama said at Georgetown:

"The second pillar of this new foundation is an education system that finally prepares our workers for a 21st century economy. In the 20th century, the GI Bill sent a generation to college, and for decades, we led the world in education and economic growth. But in this new economy, we trail the world's leaders in graduation rates and achievement. That is why we have set a goal that will greatly enhance our ability to compete for the high-wage, high-tech jobs of the 21st century: by 2020, America will once more have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

To meet that goal, we have already dramatically expanded early childhood education. We are investing in innovative programs that have proven to help schools meet high standards and close achievement gaps. We are creating new rewards tied to teacher performance and new pathways for advancement. I have asked every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training, and we have provided tax credits to make a college education more affordable for every American."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Outline of the Future

On Tuesday at Georgetown University, President Obama described what his administration has done to fix the economy and why--and he outlined the future and what we need to do to get there. But you wouldn't know it from the pitiful media coverage. See more in the post below.

Foundation of A Sustainable Future

President Obama warned the faculty and students at Georgetown University on Tuesday that he was there to deliver prose, not poetry. But there's more poetry in concise description in a precisely organized structure, easy to understand because it is so clear, direct and grounded in the real world.

Towards the end of the speech, he mentioned the problem of "an attention span that has only grown shorter with the twenty-four hour news cycle, and insists on instant gratification in the form of immediate results or higher poll numbers. When a crisis hits, there's all too often a lurch from shock to trance, with everyone responding to the tempest of the moment until the furor has died away and the media coverage has moved on, instead of confronting the major challenges that will shape our future in a sustained and focused way."

Well, that's another game he's not playing. In this speech he did precisely that: confronted the major challenges that will shape our future in a sustained and focused way. The media mostly ignored it, mentioning at best his assessment that the economy shows "glimmers of hope", but there are still difficult times ahead.

The first half of the speech was a step by step analysis of the current economic crisis, the steps that were taken in the last months of Bush and the steps his administration has taken and why. For anyone who is confused or doubtful about any part of it, this speech makes it pretty clear. You can read the transcript here or in PDF format at C-Span here. The CSpan video is currently here.

The second half of the speech is about the future. President Obama began by referring to a parable. "There is a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was destroyed as soon as the storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when "…the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house…it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock."

We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity – a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad."

President Obama outlined five pillars of a better future.

"It's a foundation built upon five pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century: new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation; new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive; new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and industries; new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses; and new savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations. That is the new foundation we must build. That must be our future – and my Administration's policies are designed to achieve that future."

In the coming days, I will excerpt President Obama's remarks on several of these pillars, and his vision for a better future.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Happy Easter (and the Dog We Can Believe In)

Photos from the White House Easter Egg hunt plus one of Bo, the Dog We Can Believe In. These and more in Al Rodgers' latest photo blog at Kos. Check it out.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Aloha Bo

Meet Bo, the First Dog: a present to Sasha and Malia Obama from Senator Ted Kennedy. This is the official White House portrait.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sunday Morning

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
--from Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens
photo by Andrea Gerak, Budapest