Thursday, March 26, 2009

The WTBI trends upward

Today, in my efforts to singlehandedly salvage the economy, I have devised an indicator of our overall economic health. It's called the WTBI, the We're Totally Boned Indicator. It multiplies the seasonally adjusted GDP of the United States by the consumer confidence index, then divides by the percentage of Americans with health insurance (not including Blue Cross, because it's crap), then adds the expected number of years until either The Singularity or the Zombpocalypse renders the economy moot multiplied by the eighth root of the national debt, divided by the number of times Glenn Beck used the word "socialism" on his last show. The sum is then multiplied by the Krugman inconstant, which is whatever value it needs to be so that the overall answer is 7.3 (pretty boned).

The bonededness indicated by the WTBI could spring from a variety of sources. But I think it's reacting to early evidence that the government's "bad bank" plan will be a singularly high-bonosity event. Here's the deal: You know all that money we gave to Citibank and Bank of America, so that they would be able to survive despite despite having all those "troubled assets" on their balance sheets? So that they could keep lending out money, so that the economy wouldn't go down like a submarine piloted by rabid chihuahuas?

Well, they're not loaning out the money. We knew that already, both because it's been on the news and because I'm still unable to get financing for the Samuel T. Swartwout Memorial Water Slide and Killer Robot Thunderdome.* We already knew that they were instead using some of that money to buy out their smaller, more responsible competitors. What we've just learned is that they're also using the money to buy up more troubled assets!

Why does this make sense? Three reasons:

1) The banks are gambling with taxpayer money, so hey, why not?
2) When the government starts buying the assets -- correction, starts buying the risks associated with these assets, while letting our corporate masters buy up the rewards -- the troubled assets will be selling for quite a bit more than they can be sold for now.
3) Buying new junk inflates the prices currently being paid in the market, which makes the junk already piled in your backyard look more valuable.**

That fuzzy line between "saving vital parts of our financial infrastructure" and "raining taxpayer money down on the fine Americans who smashed the machine in the first place" just got a whole lot fuzzier.

When Russia collapsed, it was because the entire country was looted from the inside by corrupt oligarchs. Fortunately, we're not Russia. Unfortunately, the main difference is that they knew how to live on vodka and borscht, and were therefore more prepared for the decline. Barack, you promised hope and change? You see what's going on here? Change that!

I'm not hopeful.

* Opens Spring 2017. Closed by health department, Fall 2018.

** Thought experiment. Say that two guys, Bill and Phil, both have a pile of rusty carburetor parts in their backyard. They both have wives, who want the crap gone. They both put up some ads on Craigslist, they each sell the other $300 worth of parts, and then point to the ads and to the successful sales as evidence that the parts are nothing short of rusty gold.

Wait a minute. I think I've found the way to revive our economy. Timmy, get Geitner on the phone!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Arrogance, Irresponsibility, Greed. AIG.

Now that even the crappiest mortgages could be sold to conservative investors, the CDOs spurred a massive explosion of irresponsible and predatory lending. In fact, there was such a crush to underwrite CDOs that it became hard to find enough subprime mortgages — read: enough unemployed meth dealers willing to buy million-dollar homes for no money down — to fill them all.

-- Matt Taibbi, The Big Takeover

You mean, it wasn't poor, innocent banks being forced to hand out bad loans by an evil, socialist government? You, sir, have crossed the line.

If you want to know how we got into this mess, and which people don't deserve to be pulled out of it, read the article.

Recycling coal plants?

So I was doing some research concentrating solar power (read: wandering around Wikipedia), when I clicked on a link to a supposed solar project using a fresnel collector. Huh. Looks like a coal plant. Read read read... it is a coal plant.

Why is this coal plant on Wikipedia's list of solar thermal projects? It seems so obvious in retrospect. Coal fired plants burn coal, which heats water, which drives a turbine. Solar thermal arrays heat oil, which heats water, which drives a turbine. So the plant simply set up a solar collector next to the plant, hooked pipe A up to pipe B,* and turned it into a combined-cycle coal-solar plant with 35MW of solar capacity.

Very clever. I approve.

If we can find existing coal plants in the western states that are also in particularly sunny areas, this would be a fast, cheap way to ramp up our existing solar capacity. Concentrating solar is already cheap, but this would make it even cheaper, by eliminating the need to build the actual generators. The coal plant already has them. It also eliminates the (somewhat overhyped) argument that solar is too intermittent, because the plant can always burn more coal when the solar isn't producing.

True, solar contributes less than 2% of the Liddell plant's energy production. While that's going to double soon, it still seems like a pretty small gesture. Perhaps I should wait until I hear of a coal plant switching over to 50% solar before getting excited.

But it seems like a way forward.

To kill time, I started looking for coal plants in Utah that might be suited for such an upgrade. Most of Utah's coal plants are located in Central Utah, which may limit their utility in the winter, but it's still interesting to contemplate. Thanks to the ever-helpful Sourcewatch, I found The Intermountain Power Station, a plant in Delta. Just going by the Google Maps satellite picture, it looks promising. It's in a flat area, and surrounded by empty space.

Best of all, the plant is owned by the City of Los Angeles, so it may be unusually responsive to political pressures. I think a lot of Los Angelinos would be surprised to find out that their city even owned a coal plant.

But as I said, it's a little outside the sunbelt. Arizona would probably be a more likely target.

* I believe I may be oversimplifying here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Clay Shirky's cognitive surplus

Clay Shirky's Gin, Television, and Social Surplus was written back in the dark ages of the Internet (early 2008), but I still get a kick out of it. Like me, Shirky is fascinated by online collaboration, and how it's remaking society from the ground up. Unlike me, people listen to him.

Highlights: Wikipedia was built with fewer man-hours than America collectively squanders on watching commercials on a given weekend. As infrastructure develops for capturing societal knowledge in useful ways, this sort of useful, consciously creative activity will supplant much of our TV watching time, and the results will make for a much more intricate and interesting society.

Right now, Shirky says most of the examples we're seeing are special cases: a Wikipedia here, a Facebook there. But we'll develop more general-purpose systems that can capture more of our thinking in useful forms.

Also, four year olds demand that their TVs have mice, and even Warcraft is more fulfilling than trying to decide whether Ginger or Maryann is cuter.

Afterword: Writing this, I've just realized that I'm in phase three of the road to personal technological obsolescence*. I believe the road was first described by Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy). It goes, roughly:

1) Age 0-15: this is just the way the world works. It would be unnatural for it to be any other way.
2) Age 16-22: This thing I'm doing is nifty.
3) Age 23-35: This thing other people are doing is nifty, and I think we can make use of it.
4) Age 36-100000: Bah! Why can't kids these days just do it the old way?

* Note: This is a very hard word to spell.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

So, who's been president this last week?

Thanks to Stephen Colbert for first asking the question.

The stock market is way up this week, on news that Obama is canceling his original agenda in favor of an "all tax cuts, all the time" program. He's dumped health care reform, kicked carbon dioxide caps to the curb, and brought Grover Norquist in as a special adviser.

In the right's wildest dreams. In fact, the only thing true about that paragraph is that the market is way up.

The Republicans have been piling on since Obama took office, saying that every new slip of the Dow was a vote of no confidence by the economy and -- by extension -- the American people. Forget that it started sliding nearly eighteen months before Obama took office. Forget that we're still uncovering new ways in which our financial institutions screwed us this last decade. Forget that it took Reagan -- the Right's exemplar of how to run an economy -- two years to get the Dow back up to where it was when he took office. No, Obama must immediately turn back the landslide, or be branded a failure.

Hell, that guy who wrote Dow 36,000 at the absolute peak of the tech bubble was even shoveling it out, calling Obama a "Manchurian candidate" sent to assassinate the economy. In the author bio after the article, it touts the fact that that John McCain was taking economic advice from him during the 2008 campaign. That explains a lot.

But I ask you, now that the stock market is rising, in the absence of any indication of a presidential rightward turn, will they start singing the praises of Barack Obama, Economic Wizard? Will they even admit that it might have been simplistic to link the fortunes of the Dow too closely to every presidential utterance?

I doubt it. I think that, for the duration of the Dow's recovery, those arguments will be quietly put into storage, in the hopes of keeping them sharp and free of rust for the next downturn. In the meantime, expect Sean Hannity to take to the airwaves and explain that the market isn't recovering, it's "crashing upwards."


Dow 36,000 guy made some interesting -- and by "interesting", I mean the opposite -- claims about how Obama's agenda would destroy entrepreneurship and innovation. He seem especially disturbed about the idea that some people might start getting free health care. I'll cut and paste my response from Dan Gillmor over at boingboing:

America's health-care system makes it all but impossible for an older worker to try something new.

Even younger startup owners who are relatively healthy and have insurance are just a half-step from disaster. The insurance industry is in the business of not paying claims whenever possible, after all, and health insurers are working hardest to find ways not to cover people who might get sick even as they deny as many claims as possible from people who've been paying premiums.

The day we have national health care is the day that we unleash a wave of entrepreneurship the likes of which we've never seen before. That's one of the best reasons for moving toward such a system.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

wherein I point out that Rush Limbaugh is Fat

I'm always the last to the party, but here's my take on the Obama/Limbaugh kerfuffle, with some asides on why Oprah exceeds Rush.

Also from Salon:

On Monday, at 8:30 a.m., I turned on CNBC and started watching the business channel for the first time in my life. Twelve hours later, a long stare through the peacock-colored looking glass had shaken me. I was huddled in the corner of my living room couch, arms hugging my knees, wondering why the angry faces on-screen were yelling at me. [src]

Monday, March 2, 2009