Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dirty Effing Hippies and the Petrochemical Industry

An interesting presentation from National Renewable Energy Laboratory gives the dope on converting what I will loosely call 'the organic chemistry industry' from petrochemical to cellulose-based feedstocks.  All the recent concern about peak oil is focused on alternative sources of energy; but there is a lot more at stake.  We depend upon petrochemicals for an enormous array of other products, including plastics, solvents, lubricants, and God knows what all else, that are so much a part of our modern industrial infrastructure that we take them altogether for granted.  Any crisis is petroleum is also a crisis in non-fuel petrochemicals.

The presentation from NREL is good stuff, but why have people waited so long?  Back in the late 1960's, troglodyte hippy chemistry majors were getting high and riffing about the end of the petroleum era, and the need to convert to cellulose as a feedstock.  (I know; I was there.)

By the way, we also had a curious little model for the second law of thermodynamics (increase of entropy.)  One was to imagine a huge projection screen, showing the entire earth.  The motions of all the atoms comprising the body of any individual in the room were imagined to be illuminated on an otherwise dark background, and to have their motions projected on the screen, with 500 years time -- centered on the year in which the chosen individual was born -- passing in about 30 seconds -- that is, a very accelerated view.  What would it look like? A confused mass of meandering dots suddenly coalescing into a bright blob, which would stay intact for a moment or two, before reverting to a confused mass of meandering dots.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Eleven Dimensional Chess We Can Believe In!

For starters, I tend to invoke Occam's razor when evaluating the plausibility of any particular morsel of journalistic political analysis; and a number of examples of supposedly brilliant strategizing by the current administration have failed that criterion, despite being hailed as examples of eleven dimensional chess -- incomprehensible to us mere mortals with dirt under our fingernails, but proof positive of the President's prescient brilliance.

However a a post up at Angry Bear (The 2% solution) proposes a sinister if complicated rationale for the Payroll tax holiday of 2010 which I find altogether plausible and frightening in the extreme, despite its possible failure of the Occam test.

In brief, the idea is that the payroll tax (despite fears to the contrary on the Left)  will  indeed be re-instituted in a year's time, but with the slick proviso that it is now destined to form the basis of a private retirement account (PRA) for each individual worker.  Therefore it is not (Ha Ha!)  a new tax increase, and a Republican House will willingly vote for it.  Brilliant, eh?

 Of course this goes against the whole premise of Social Security -- that  your current  payroll tax goes towards the maintenance of other people's retirements, not to direct savings for your own retirement, which will in fact  be paid by the payroll taxes of future workers, when you are yourself retired.

The idea that some portion of this revenue stream could be diverted into a private account disrupts the entire funding model which has functioned so well since its inception under FDR.  It also puts us on the path towards privatization of Social Security.  This may sound sinister to some ears; to me it is eleven dimensional chess I believe in.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Effing Morons!

Today's NYTimes has letters from a bunch of Obamabots mooning over the President's courage (!) and how much the lame duck Congress accomplished because of same.  Look, dammit! the Republicans wanted two things --Christmas gifts for the Plutocrats -- and they got them both: i) extension of the Bush era tax cuts for millionaires, and ii) the  payroll tax holiday, which is a knife pointed at the heart of Social Security.

All of the rest of the stuff is window-dressing.  Sure I'm for extended unemployment benefits, sure I'm for the repeal of DADT, sure I'm for the SALT treaty -- but not at the cost of bankrupting the country and dismantling the landmark social programs of the New Deal.  You say the Republicans had the President over a barrel on unemployment?  Don't buy that for a minute.  If he had taken to the road and barnstormed the issue, they would have caved.

Oh, and then I'm an alarmist about Social Security you say?  then good luck getting the new Congress to re-institute the payroll tax at its original level.  I'll return to that point in a subsequent post; but right now I'm still spitting mad about the whole thing.

Kleptocracy Update

The ever-brilliant yet diffident and understated Atrios has more on the Force-closure express.  It seems that the state of Virginia has greased the legal skids so that home-owners will receive two weeks (you read that right, two effing weeks!) notice that their homes are to be sold at auction.  Obviously this gives no time to legally contest, and the path most taken (as Atrios notes) is to run out the clock trying (bootlessly fruitlessly) to negotiate with the lender.  Gods protect us all!

Welcome to the Kleptocracy

Again from the NYTimes: agents operating on behalf of banks are breaking and entering homes, even those which have been wrongly foreclosed, nominally to change locks and secure the property, but also in fact to perform freelance burglaries.  According to the Times' story:

 "When Mimi Ash arrived at her mountain chalet here for a weekend ski trip, she discovered that someone had broken into the home and changed the locks....All her possessions were gone...The culprit, Ms Ash soon learned, was not a burglar, but her bank."
Ms Ash has since filed a federal lawsuit, alleging wrongful foreclosure.  Bankers tend to play innocent about this stuff, saying "mistakes happen."  Yeah right.  Somehow I grew up with this quaint notion that a man's home is his castle.  In 1763, William Pitt gave memorable expression to this principle, in a speech to the English Parliament.

"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the crown. It may be frail—its roof may shake—the wind may blow through it—the storm may enter, the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter—all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement." 

Admittedly one is dealing here with the power of entry (or not)  by a civil agent rather than a private; yet it seems to me that the violation of the sanctity of the threshhold ruptures (in either case) a septum not easily repaired.

More paranoid individuals (and I count myself among their number) may wish to hear Yves Smith on foreclosures, and how securitization makes foreclosure the most profitable option for mortgage servicers, and the extent to which some errors leading to foreclosure have likely been initiated as intentional frauds, to promote exactly that end.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The NYTimes and the Obama tax-cut deal.

An editorial in the Sunday NY Times (Dec. 19 2010) seeks to have it both ways on tax cuts.  Having earlier praised the deal, the Grey Lady now awakens its deficit-busting potentialities, noting that extension of the Bush era tax cuts through 2012 "...will account for roughly 40% of today's deficit."

Then continuing in the vein that the President must lie in his bed as he has made it, the Times adds: "When deficit reduction begins in earnest, tax increases and cuts in big-ticket programs — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense — will be the focus."  (My italics.)

OK, let me get this straight.  Tax cuts for high bracket individuals are deficit busters, and must be paid for by sacrificing the cornerstone programs of the New Deal and Great Society.

Am I missing something here?  Wouldn't it have been easier to let the Bush tax cuts expire?  Does anyone realize that top marginal rates are at historically low levels now, far lower than during the great era of post-WW II American prosperity?

Just askin'.