Monday, November 22, 2010


In a post yesterday, I used the example of U.S. coal being shipped to China by an Australian company. Little did I know the depth of the story! An article in the NY Times today goes into detail about how China has changed from a coal exporter to a coal importer, and the magnitude of imports is growing rapidly. Environmentalists in the U.S., Australia and other countries are besides themselves over this turn of events, as well they should be. The moves away from producing electricity by burning coal in these countries, in order to reduce climate changing emissions, don't deal with exporting coal so someone else can burn it. By exporting coal we're exporting climate changing emissions to other countries. This is a serious turn of events.

Of course, nothing is black and white in the world, or, as we used to always say, everything has two sides. One reason China has changed from a coal exporter to a coal importer is that their coal is mostly high-sulphur, the wrong kind to burn if you want to reduce climate change and polluting emissions. So China is importing low-sulphur coal as part of their overall strategy to reduce the most harmful emissions.

At the same time that they are building coal-fired power plants at a fast pace, China has also accelerated the building of wind and nuclear energy generation facilities. They have overtaken the U.S. in wind energy production and will soon be the world's leader in nuclear energy production. But coal-fired generation remains the staple for generation of electricity in the rapidly expanding Chinese economy.

As the old Chinese saying goes: may you live in interesting times.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Ah yes, here I am, sitting in front of the fire (natural gas) checking FaceBook (FB), the site with which I have a like/hate relationship. I like the ability to connect with people around the world and from my past, and to get peeks into their lives - and they into mine, to the extent I let them. But I don't like the data collection and ad targeting FB does, and I often think that I should quit FB to regain a small bit of my privacy (probably too late for that).

What is "social networking" and is Facebook it? Here's how Wikipedia defines the term:

A social network is a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations) called "nodes", which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige.

(Interestingly, when I went to Wikipedia for this definition, there was a message from the site founder with this link to an appeal for donations to keep the site a community site with no ads.)

So yes, I guess FB is a social network because those of us who use it are there for friendship, common interest, or etc. But did each of us start using FB with the understanding that we would be targeted with ads based on the personal data the site collects about us? I kind of knew this, but not to the extent I understand it now. To be honest, FB often bothers me, in a creepy kind of way because I know that I'm the object of many clever people who are developing and refining ways to harvest information about me and my habits, likes and dislikes in order to make money from me directly or indirectly. This really isn't OK; this isn't really what I signed up for. I don't like being harvested.

I would rather belong to what I would consider a true social network that has nothing to do with a profit motive. I think it probably exists out there, but it's existence is hidden by the sheer dominance of Facebook. The online social network I want is a site that does not harvest any data, and does not have any ads. It asks the users to donate a small amount of money once a year to pay the expenses, like Wikipedia does, a donation I would happily make.

So I think I'll look around. Maybe one of you knows about my perfect social network and will clue me in.


We don't talk about the big elephant in the room - and no, I don't mean the G.O.P. We do talk a lot about the situation in America that has been vexing us for a few years now - the Great Recession. We talk about the lack of jobs, the poor condition of our educational system, expensive health care and insurance. We bitch and moan about the wealthy Wall Streeters whose greed has no bounds. We argue about taxing the rich, or not. And the revolution du jour is about BIG GOVERNMENT and the need to cut it down to size and limit spending. Oh brother!

This is all talk about the symptoms, not the causes. As long as we limit our discussions to the above topics, following the lead of the so-called news media like FOX, CNN and MSNBC, we'll continue to fight each other while our country spirals ever downward.

The USA is a post-developed nation. We're not Numero Uno any more, except as the world's largest arms dealer. We don't place anywhere near the top on lists of countries rated by hunger, health care, and education. We've become a debtor nation running way below empty economically.

And we're trapped in this death spiral. Here's how I see it: with the exception of the top 1 percent of American earners, American wages have declined over the past few decades. This has led to the Walmartization of America under which we shop where we can get the lowest price. these low prices are a result of importing consumer goods from countries where the costs of production, both direct and indirect costs, are much, much lower than they are here. Millions of American jobs have been shipped overseas by corporations in order to cut the costs of producing goods, thus increasing profits (for those 1-percenters, above). The result is fewer jobs and lower wages for American workers, thus continuing the spiral.

How about an example? General Motors (note: I'm not picking on GM, it's just a good example). GM sold more cars in China last year than in the U.S., and most of those were made in China by GM-Chinese joint venture companies. Some Chinese-made GM cars are imported into the U.S., and those numbers are expected to grow unless American unions can fight them off. And the GM IPO last week? A major part of it was "co-managed" by two major Chinese banks (reportedly the first time foreign banks have had that position in an American company IPO), and GM's Chinese manufacturing partner bought $500 million of the offering. This isn't necessarily bad news, but it underscores the reality that GM, like so many other "U.S." companies, is really an international firm.

And American workers? A recent poll found that between June 2009 and June 2010, foreign-born workers in the U.S. gained 656,000 jobs while native-born Americans lost 1.2 billion jobs. However, these immigrant workers experienced a sharp decline in wages.

Are there other symptoms to look at? Sure. Last week here in Portland we read the news about an Australian company that wants to build a large exporting facility on the Columbia River, from which they intend to export U.S.-mined coal to China. Kinda sounds like a Third World country having it's natural resources exploited by the developed world.

Is there a way to reverse this downward spiral? I don't know, and I worry that the game is already over. We somehow have to create more jobs here that pay a living wage, jobs that once again produce many of the consumer goods we buy, and educate ourselves so we understand that it's OK to pay more for these goods because that keeps the jobs here and puts the money in our pockets that we spend on these goods. And yes - we need to tax the rich!

I hope Americans come to our collective senses very soon. We won't be saved by the Sarah Palins, Sharron Angles and Rand Pauls of the world; they are only doing the dirty work of the big money interests that bankroll them. They keep us at each other's throats while they sit back and add up their profits. Again, don't get me wrong, wealthy folk have an important role in this society, but that role has to benefit everyone, not just the few.

Come on America - we can do it!