Wednesday, December 30, 2009
By John F. Wasik
There are several scenes in the spectacular new James Cameron film Avatar in which characters connect to animals and plants directly in a sort of bionic fiber-optic networking.
The connections are subtle, yet illuminate a much larger point that was missed by most commentators in reviewing the major events of the passing decade.
There was a universal trend at play in nearly every culture that drove the major trends of the decade: Network ecology. This is the knowledge that powerful networks are playing a growing role in social, natural, economic and political systems.
Let’s drop that silly euphemism extolling the decade of the “aughts,” a bland and fairly meaningless term. Instead, let’s focus on the rise of networks.
Networks are often tribal connections. Witness the insurgencies still continuing in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia and other places where tribalism is being disrupted. This affiliation with the known and hatred of “the other” is in our genome and further enhanced through cellphones and the Internet. Al Qaeda is a stateless network that seeks to disrupt and destroy our culture, which is underpinned by a market economy. Some networks, like those of terrorists, are predicated on pure hatred and motivated by evil. Others are more benign.
Social Networks are Anti-Tribal. While guided by the inner clan in all of us, facebook friends and twitterers are often motivated by connecting with complete strangers. It no longer matters if people are in the same community or continent. We can seek affiliations through these networks to expand the message of our humanity. We still want to be linked to groups that represent who we are and what we believe.
Political Networks are More Powerful Than Ever. How is it that a not-quite one-term senator with no other federal legislative experience gets elected president of the United States? The most devastating financial crisis since 1929 certainly helped, as did disgust with eight years of ruinous governance. Yet President Obama is truly the first 21st-century candidate to have fully leveraged the power of networks. Getting his followers to email, facebook, text and call during the campaign (and beyond) was organized on a massive scale. Even his opponents have used these techniques to divert and dilute useful social legislation. Lobbies are even more powerful because they have the money and troops to build effective networks. We need global financial reform now.
Economic Networks are Not Fully Transparent. Do we really know if the financial system is safe from another collapse? No, because we don’t know who’s connected to all of the nodes of the derivatives buyers and sellers. It’s a $60 trillion unregulated market — even as I write this. This system of networks is still the most potent threat to civilization as we know it as we lunge into the second decade of the 21st century. Banks need to be separated from the buying and selling of securities (bring back Glass-Steagall). All derivatives need to be regulated and placed on exchanges. We need effective “systemic” watchdogs over the banking, bond, mortgage securities and insurance industries. These items are non-negotiable. Since every exchange and market on every continent is now linked, the next market debacle will not be like the Titanic. It will be like supertankers running aground and shutting down every major port and financial center.
We Need to Rework the Energy Network. After financial network failures, this is the most dysfunctional part of our modern life. Currently our energy network runs on fossil fuels that harm our health and hurt the planet. Oil is transported from unstable, hostile places to countries that use it as if it had no consequences. The cheapest fuel-commodity on the planet — coal — is among the most toxic, pouring mercury and carbon dioxide into our air and water every single minute of every single day. For example, one of the oldest nodes in this network — the Fisk coal-generation plan in Chicago — has been running since 1903 (and is one of the biggest sources of mercury in the Midwest). We need to tax and phase out dirty power and re-align our power network with clean energy (geothermal, solar, biomass, wind). To do this will take trillions to rebuild the electrical grid and infrastructure (see my books Audacity of Help and Merchant of Power) to channel green energy to major cities or solar power from outer space. It can be done with a carbon or consumption taxes and political and economic incentives to do it over time. Doing so as a long-term national project, it will also create millions of jobs.
Our Homes Need Bigger/More Useful Network-Connections. Anyone who has computers or other electronic devices networked at home or in the office already knows this, but we can go beyond that. Homes should be cyber-networked into the power grid to tell us where we can obtain the cheapest, greenest power and tap into it without us having to flip a switch. We should have customized information regularly uploaded to us that will help us live better lives through nutrition, social action and community involvement. Being connected to the Internet or facebook is not enough. How do we transform our homes into comprehensive network information tools (they are no longer investments)? How do we put all of that information to use? How do we take the next step and transform network ecology into a positive social and personal ecology?
We Need to Rebuild the Jobs Network. We started out the decade at roughly 4 percent unemployment. In many inner cities, it’s 20 percent to 30 percent (10 percent is a woefully understated average now). I am saddened and sickened reading stories about some person (mostly school age) shot at random on the streets of Chicago and elsewhere. People should be working instead of devolving into murderous tribal gangs. President Obama has the right idea in his “Green Deal” to bring jobs to every depressed area through the use of green technology. This is the best social ecology project we can imagine. Employ people to create useful and productive livelihoods that help the environment and their communities. They, in turn, pay taxes, buy homes, build communities and live decent lives. Let’s fund a massive jobs program. The free market won’t don this on its own. Market economics isn’t an ideology or a religion. It’s a description of chaos.
Let’s Better Organize Information Networks. While the decade was clearly dominated by Google and Facebook, we still don’t have a handle on sorting out truly useful information from noise. There’s too much of it. What’s meaningful and what’s rubbish? We need efficient tools that will give us relevant local news, health information, decent money-management advice and a host of other nuggets that are tailored to how we live and how we want to live. Look at the bestsellers of the past decade: the Harry Potter books, Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, the Twilight vampire series. These books would not have been possible without effective social networks. Teens and pre-teens are still interested in the semi-mortality of vampire networks (a sneaky metaphor for adolescence), a concept that goes back perhaps thousands of years. We still love wizard stories because we have a need for miracles and magic (even with all of this technology) and want to succeed in the cutthroat global/corporate world. Traditional ways of making things like autos, newspapers and books are being thrown out the door. We want our stories — and vocations — delivered with pertinence and a savvy understanding of what we truly need. Look for the completely customized news-mail-site. Look for the novel that’s written based on our life stories. Look for the diet book (and medication) that’s designed specifically for your health history and genome.
Let’s Understand and Heal the Natural Network. I know this will be heresy to many, but in a larger sense it doesn’t matter if global warming is caused by humanity. We are still dumping tons of poisons into our air, water and soil that have nothing to do with carbon dioxide production. Making electricity by burning fossil fuels creates acid rain and fouls waterways and poisons marine life. Mining metals dumps untold toxins into watersheds and the air. We are clearly disrupting natural systems in tens of thousands of ways. There’s only so much potable water on the planet and arable soil. If we’re looking at a population of 10 billion people in the next 30 years, we will need to make everything we do renewable and less toxic. By better understanding natural ecology, we will gain insights into cancer, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and a host of other health maladies. We are all networked to what we eat, breath and drink. We have to stop poisoning ourselves.
What will the face of the new networked age look like? I heartily disagree that there is any one or group of symbols that are the emblems of the past decade. A Humvee, McMansion and Wall Street bonus don’t even come close to the complexity and vast power of networks. I would choose an ecosystem like a rainforest or prairie. It’s the sum of its parts and all interconnected.
Without being a spoiler, the success of the natives in Avatar relies not only on their access to their planet network, but their ability to organize each other. Let’s put down our iPhones, iPods, X Boxes, smartphones and charge cards long enough to do something useful in our communities.
You can sit in front of a computer all day long or read a book on your smartphone or ebook device and still not be better connected to the world around you. Really productive change occurs when you leverage that network.
Enter the decade of the dyrnamic Econet, a system of networks that changes things for the better on a large scale.
John F. Wasik is activist and speaker and the author of The Audacity of Help: Obama’s Economic Plan and the Remaking of America (www.audacityofhelp.net) and The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream (www.culdesacsyndrome.com).
Monday, December 14, 2009
Dorgan, McConnell, Lieberman and the Money Behind the Politics
By John F. Wasik
I know what the future of America holds if health-reform isn't passed.
More people will be uninsured. Premiums will rise. More employers will either drop coverage or raise out-of-pocket costs. Self-employed folks like me will either lose coverage or pay exorbitant premiums because of chronic conditions or expensive diseases like cancer (our situation now). More people will be bankrupted. More will die because they can't afford life-saving care.
This is not the forecast of a health-care economist, a politician or even Ralph Nader. It is a guaranteed fact because of the current health-insurance business model, the aging of America and the way politics is financed.
Money, politics and health-care lobbies are in a dysfunctional marriage. It's an unholy union that isn't good for most people.
Claims are losses, in insurance lingo. As people get older and sicker they have more health issues. A vast swath of the population is overweight, underexercised and eating poorly. There's a heap of hurt coming to those who have to pay future bills, which is everyone.
As a progressive -- someone interested in a shared prosperity -- it mystifies me why the concept of a fair and affordable national health program is imperiled. We all need it. To me and many others it should be a basic human right and part of our constitution.
Yet as I explore the ecology between political financing, lobbyists and political agendas, the mystery is solved. Let's follow the money.
When Senator Byron Dorgan's (D-North Dakota) amendment finally surfaced last week to import drugs from Canada, the Senate debate melted down. Who could possibly be against allowing Americans to afford life-saving medication?
Dorgan's fellow Democrats Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg from New Jersey had a big problem with Dorgan. It didn't surprise anyone that they would object: New Jersey is home to more than 50 pharmaceutical companies and tens of thousands of jobs in that industry.
You could argue that the Garden State senators were protecting constituents; drug companies certainly contributed to their campaigns. An obvious connection.
There's no reason to let the Jersey solons off the hook, though. Lautenberg has a proposal to allow Canadian imports if the Department of Health and Human Services can certify every drug imported is safe. That's the equivalent of asking the Postal Service to inspect every piece of mail. Big Pharma speaks in many harsh voices.
Contributions from Big Pharma didn't appear on a list of top-20 industry donations for Dorgan, however, according to opensecrets.org, which monitors campaign financing. Lawyers, electric utilities and Wall Street, certainly, but drugmakers spread their money around elsewhere.
In rare act of political bravery, Dorgan held up the entire Senate health-care debate until he gets a vote on his amendment.
The White House would like to see Dorgan's modest proposal evaporate because it had cut some still undisclosed deal with Big Pharma earlier this year. Nearly every Republican would like the Dorgan amendment disappear to avoid going on record saying that they don't want Americans to be gouged by U.S.-based drugmakers.
Here's another case where big-money politics is completely at odds with the needs of the American people.
I know Canadian (or anywhere outside the US for that matter with national health programs) prices are cheaper because I've priced my wife's chemo-anti-nausea medicines and can save more than half on what they charge at my local pharmacy. It's the same medicine at lower, much more affordable prices. What a concept!
Let's look at a senator from a state with relatively little Big Pharma presence: Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. There are five major pharmaceutical facilities in the Bluegrass State, representing a fraction of the workers that New Jersey employs.
Horse breeding is likely a much bigger industry in the Senate Minority Leader's Commonwealth. Yet drug company PACs were the single-largest contributor to McConnell in the current cycle -- some $262,785 out of a total $416,285.
Ironically, McConnell has a good reason to refuse drug company money. In 2003, the Kentucky Attorney General sued the nation's five largest drugmakers for allegedly boosting prices on drugs for that state's Medicare and Medicaid programs, overcharging them an estimated $100 million.
But McConnell's loyalty to the idea of keeping drug prices high was worth less than a half million dollars. What a bargain for Big Pharma!
What's more important to politicians than getting industry money for a campaign? Not getting it. A half-million dollars is still a lot of money in Kentucky. And it still takes tens of millions to run a successful Senate campaign, even if you're an incumbent.
Notice I haven't said a word about the even-bigger behind-the-scenes player in the health-care debate: the insurance industry. They know whatever happens, they will win big. The current House and Senate plans leave most of the private industry in place.
Insurers -- exempt from federal anti-trust laws -- will likely get even bigger with 30 to 40 million more policies to write if health-reform passes. A handful of companies dominate most states.
While Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), are seeking to repeal the antitrust exemption, it's largely a side issue at this point that hasn't been seriously discussed.
The House's recently passed financial reform bill does nothing to aggressively regulate insurance companies, which are monitored by much weaker state agencies.
As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said in a recent blog:
"From the start, opponents of the public option have wanted to portray it as big government preying upon the market and private insurers as the embodiment of the market. But it's just the reverse. Private insurers are exempt from competition. As a result, they are becoming ever more powerful. And it's not just their economic power that's worrying. It's their political power, as we've learned over the last 10 months."
Finally we have Joe Lieberman, the erstwhile independent from Connecticut, home to many insurers. Over the weekend Lieberman said he wouldn't support the Senate proposal to allow people to buy into Medicare, the last gasp of introducing some competition into the mix.
It's rather anticlimactic to note that insurance money was the single-largest source of Lieberman's PAC funding. Since he's estranged from the Democrats -- although nominally part of the caucus -- he's going to hang onto every dollar coming his way.
Once again the corporate state has subverted democracy. Public-interest politics continues to be hijacked by billions in campaign dollars that flow like effluent. Everybody outside of the power circles of K Street and boardrooms suffer as a result. Can we have meaningful reform in anything without disconnecting the big bucks lobbies from campaign funding?
You can crow all you want about letting the free market create competition and keeping government out of health care. Yet when it comes to votes in the most exclusive club on earth -- the U.S. Senate -- big bucks lobbies have cornered the market.John F. Wasik is an investigative writer and author of The Audacity of Help: Obama's Economic Plan and the Remaking of America (www.audacityofhelp.net) and The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Yes, We Can Copenhagen!
“I love the smell of carbon dioxide in the morning. It smells like…victory.”
Have you wondered what’s going on in Copenhagen? Are the usual suspects hopelessly protesting and government officials pining for some global accord that will only protect the Maldives and Banglasesh? What’s it all about, Alfie?
It’s about capitalism. Oh, remember that nasty thing that supposedly was killed by the greed of investment bankers, real estate brokers, hedge fund managers and mortgage companies?
Yes, that thing. It’s still alive and kicking, infused with the vigor of climate change steroids. One argument is that climate change treaties and regulations will snuff economic growth wherever it’s implemented. The other side will tell you that no, climate change is good for business. Let’s start with the killjoy side.
Climate Change Will Depress Economic Growth. Well, yes, it will cost industry more to reduce carbon dioxide production. That’s bad news for coal-fired power plants, steel, cement and transportation, among many others. But it’s not a zero-sum game. More growth will be created in the Eco-Tech sector, that is, industries that clean up dirty enterprises like diesel engines or coke ovens. Ultimately, a clean-tech national policy creates jobs. For every job making solar panels, there are 8 to 10 jobs produced for workers who install them. So mandating clean energy is going to spin off capital investment and jobs on a scale we haven’t seen since the Internet boom (which is still going on by the way).
Climate Change Will Boost Economic Growth. I’m backing this horse. Once you create a market for something, capital flows to it like rain. The Obama Administration has committed$11 billion to modernize the US electrical grid. That will enable electrons generated by wind power in the Plains and solar energy from the Southwest to go to population centers. Another $8 billion in loan guarantess and tax credits are going into clean technologies. That could generate some $60 billion in investment, according the The New York Times. For every innovation in a solar cell or wind tower, jobs and opportunities are created.
Of course, the climate change agenda will be stuck on commitments to carbon reduction. Nobody really knows what is possible because we’ve never sat down at a table with everyone from China to Bolivia to hammer out such a massive agreement. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done; it should be broken down into pieces.
1) Carbon should be taxed directly. The proceeds should go into Eco-Tech trust funds to build up clean technology infrastructures. Part of that money should go into re-training grants for displaced workers and into elementary and secondary education. This isn’t just about reducing global warming. We have to warm up everyone’s brains to the possibilities and rewards of reducing all of the garbage going into the air, water and earth.
2) Every nation needs a national renewable energy portfolio standard. I think Al Gore’s US goal is 20% from renewable energy by 2020. It’s ambitious, but doable if all levels of government from the Department of Energy to local school boards are required to reduce carbon dioxide production.
3) Every country needs green buildings and transportation. Most of the carbon dioxide generated comes from these two sectors. Implement green national building and zoning codes. Stop building developments away from public transportation and creating “spurbs” or sprawling urban areas only reachable by highways. Revise zoing codes for mixed-use development and higher-density housing. Start a massive campaign to convert buses, trains, ships and trucks to non-diesel engines — or at least clean up the emissions from those engines.
Climate change is good for business! Once the major commercial powers realize this, global climate change reforms will be as simple as eating a Danish pastry. Well, maybe not, but at least it will be a sweeter business proposition.
For more ideas, see my book The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream (www.culdesacsyndrome.com)