Swarms at the trough

The once-in-a-generation opportunity to repair and rebuild infrastructure across the country is also a once-in-a-not-soon-enough siren call to private equity to interrupt, disrupt and corrupt:

Legislation with the size and scope of the $4 trillion “Build Back Better” agenda is like a Bat-Signal for lobbyists, urging them to swarm Capitol Hill without delay. Literally thousands of companies, organizations, and trade groups have lobbied on one or more of the bills in this package. But one industry’s representatives keep showing up over and over again, whether in formal lobbying sessions in Congress or more informal meetings: private equity.

“At every point, private equity lines up at the trough,” said one observer close to the discussions. “There’s just somebody in every fucking meeting.”

Private equity lobbyists have multiple interests in the bills being discussed. They obviously want to keep any tax increases away from their industries, and successfully fought to keep tax hikes out of the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is slated for a House vote on September 27. Those tax hikes got shifted to the reconciliation package known in Washington as the Build Back Better Act, and private equity has kept up the pressure there.

But the industry has another reason to be involved in the reconciliation bill. The blueprint includes hundreds of billions of dollars in investments to expand home and community-based services for elderly and disabled people under Medicaid (initially set at $400 billion over ten years), and to provide subsidies for high-quality child care programs (set at $225 billion). Private equity happens to be deeply invested in both of these industries, with dozens of home care and child care companies in their portfolios.

So, people should just be aware. Like accounting gimmicks from the political opposition and in the media that will make $3.5T over ten years sound like too much in an +$20T per year country (narrator: it’s Not), also be advised about all the beaks dipping toward the puddle as it gets sliced and diced. Let’s not get distracted about who is doing what – or why they might be whining about it.

Like we say, a country that can drop a small SUV on Mars from a helicopter and watch it drive around in real time can afford to fix any problem – except where stupidity and corruption won’t allow it.

Brown ocean effect

What maps would look like if they showed only solid land. The light blue indicates swamps, marshes, and wetlands.

Hurricane Ida grew quickly powerful after just a couple of days before roaring ashore and inundating people who have seen it before and likely will again:

By the time Hurricane Ida made landfall in Port Fourchon, La., on Sunday, it was the poster child for a climate change-driven disaster. The fast-growing, ferocious storm brought 150-mile-per-hour wind, torrential rain and seven feet of storm surge to the most vulnerable part of the U.S. coast. It rivals the most powerful storm ever to strike the state.

“This is exactly the kind of thing we’re going to have to get used to as the planet warms,” said Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the physics of hurricanes and their connection to the climate.

And the recent UN Climate report aside, scientists have been talking about this for years:

previous NASA-funded research by Theresa Andersen and J. Marshall Shepherd making the case that a “brown ocean effect” — evaporation from moist warm soils — can energize tropical systems.

A NASA news release on the 2013 research explained:

Before making landfall, tropical storms gather power from the warm waters of the ocean. Storms in the newly defined category derive their energy instead from the evaporation of abundant soil moisture – a phenomenon that Andersen and Shepherd call the “brown ocean.”

“The land essentially mimics the moisture-rich environment of the ocean, where the storm originated,” Andersen said.

The map above says it all, and when we look at the photos from Sunday-Monday, listen to what we tell ourselves about what we see.

Image via the New Yorker

The Arrogance of Power

With apologies to the accusers working hard to hold their abusers to account, the impacts of human activity on global warming are taking center stage this week:

The world’s leading climate scientists on Monday delivered their starkest warning yet about the deepening climate emergency, with some of the changes already set in motion thought to be “irreversible” for centuries to come.

A highly anticipated report by the U.N.’s climate panel warns that limiting global warming to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels “will be beyond reach” in the next two decades without immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

To be sure, the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold is a crucial global target because beyond this level, so-called tipping points become more likely. Tipping points refer to an irreversible change in the climate system, locking in further global heating.
At 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, the report says heat extremes would often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.

U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres described the report as “a code red for humanity.”

“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” Guterres said.

Every previous supposed estimate had been watered down to re-assure the consensus that all of this was far enough away in time not to worry about. A little tweak here or there was all that was needed, and no time soon. Well guess what? It’s no time – soon. What are we doing and how much more can we do must be the only questions. The Earth will change and re-establish some equilibrium, and humans may or may not be a part of that. We don’t seem to understand that last part, and we’re warning ourselves that we are running out of time.

Image: A couple rides a pedal boat as smoke from nearby forest fires hangs over the city of Yakutsk, in the republic of Sakha, Siberia, on July 27, 2021.
DIMITAR DILKOFF | AFP | Getty Images

Boring work of staggering effectiveness

Right along the lines of super unexciting infrastructure fixes to crucial bridges, railways, pipes and water mains is the capping of methane-spewing oil wells, of which we have a leaky and abundant surplus:

Curtis Shuck calls the well a “super emitter,” one of many in a wheat field not far from the Canadian border, a part of Montana known as the “golden triangle” for its bountiful crops. Aside from the scattered rusty pipes and junked oil tanks, the field is splendid and vast, its horizon interrupted intermittently by power lines and grain bins. On these plains, Shuck says, you can watch your dog run away for a week.

He is a former oil and gas executive who nowadays leads a small nonprofit — the result of a personal epiphany — and is tackling global warming one well at a time. That is the approach of his Well Done Foundation, plugging this and then other orphaned sites and trapping the methane underground. The effort started in Montana in 2019 but will expand to other states before the fall.

“When we’re done, it will be like this well was never here,” Shuck said, standing upwind as cement was pumped hundreds of feet down, through a series of pipes stuck in the 7½-inch-wide hole like a straw in a juice box.

30K to cap a well. Well done, Well Done. Plant trees, install solar farms, wind farms, stop dumping sewage, limit runoff, cut back on steaks (sorry! but do), refurbish the train lines, live close to work. Listen to ‘Trane while you walk. Live a little.

What’s it going to take? All of it, every last all of it. Everything.

Image: Abandoned oil storage tanks left behind in Montana. (Adrián Sanchez-Gonzalez for The Washington Post)

Price v. Tax

Interesting quibble over terminology, or linguistic obfuscation designed to soothe child-like sensibilities? Why not both?

Nordhaus: We have set the bar for our aspirations so high. Aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century is a very ambitious target.
In my own mind there is a twin set of policies. One is carbon pricing and one is strong support for low-carbon technologies. Both are necessary if we’re going to reach our goals. Carbon pricing by itself is not sufficient. By itself, it won’t bring forth the necessary technologies. Carbon pricing needs the helping hand of government support of new low-carbon technologies.
The analogue here is the covid vaccines. The private sector has incentives of the patent system to make vaccines profitable for pharmaceutical companies. But we went beyond that with the pre-purchase agreements to make sure a strong market was there and guaranteed in advance; this backstop would help these companies make back their investment. It is an unusual way to structure incentives, but it worked amazingly well.

So good so far, to acknowledge ambition alongside calculation, expediency, and urgency risks encouraging cynicism about solutions, aka bedtime stories in a land right here, right now. But great point about vaccines, and of course one of the tools is framing, whether we like having to tell ourselves certain fictions or not. See also, vaccines.

We can use this to think about climate change policies. We can use similar tools to improve our low-carbon technologies.
Mufson: And one of those tools is the carbon tax?
Nordhaus: I think we should use the word “price” rather than “tax.”
Mufson: That sounds better.
Nordhaus: This is not just a matter of rhetoric. It is fundamental. What we really want to do is raise the price of carbon emissions. If you can get it up to $100 a ton, you’re doing a good job. It doesn’t matter whether you do that through a tax or a cap-and-trade system. Canada has a carbon tax. Europe uses cap-and-trade. Others have mixed regimes. Different ones will work better in different environments.
I think it’s true that the U.S. is sort of stuck somewhere in the 18th century, maybe 19th century, on taxes. The rest of the world is moving ahead and we’re sitting here on an island of fiscal denial. One of these days people will wake up and say, “A carbon tax is a good way to reach our goal effectively.”
It is one of the most effective tools. It raises revenues, lowers carbon emissions and reduces mortality from air pollution. Hundreds of thousands of people a year die from the burning of fossil fuels. We’re just so blindered on this that we can’t see what is good for both public health and fiscal health.

In the land of truthfully dispiriting summations, the one-eyed optimist takes a peek. Saddled with the most resources and the least wisdom in using them, the price of dawdling IS the widely-feared tax. See also, vaccines.

Image: … forest… trees.

World world

A theme park, opening soon along the gulf coast of Arkansas, promises visitors – and investors – more than just memories and a fun time with family.

Luring adventurers to the Land of All Time-themed playground, guests enjoy lily pad accommodations floating throughout the 38-square-mile park, on water and undulating, recycled “terrain.”

“It all started here – everything is from the closed loop, after all. So we just call it all natural,” said Stan Brimmingway, mastermind of the park and keeper of its honorary specimens. Modestly dressed in a smart Tyvex onesie, Stan pets a miniature bull before shepherding the creature back to its keeper. “Back when land was still bought and sold, people were fine with trading money for all of this,” he said and gestured broadly. “So we were glad to just get as much as we could – people thought they were losing land, but look at that view. The water is so much more alluring when its closer to the mountains anyway.”

And it’s unmistakable. A kind of Mediterranean vista, nestled in the Ozark foothills. Whether technology saved this landscape or invented it, it has definitely changed. “And that’s not new – and kinda the point,” Brimmingway said with a glint of enthusiasm not entirely absent of P.T. Barnum. “What is fitness after all other than the result of the effort it takes you to do normal things – otherwise it can be really hard to see this.”

Impossible, he means. Living in a moment most often means being defined by it. Unless you can imagine the Land of All Time, seeing today in context can be simply too much work. But that’s where the park comes in.

“It’s true that we brought ourselves to this place – totally our fault,” he said. “But imagine a glacier sitting on New York, or the invention of writing 3,500 years ago.” His voice trails off, galloping after his ow, quite visible sense of wonder.

“The thing about this is, it’s not only possible. It all happened. Check it out.”

Asset Class not in Session

Exotic financial instruments. Linking ‘investors’ and funding to projects to weave profits out of insurance or management strategies designed to ease or hasten climate adaptation… doesn’t actually work:

That’s because of the nature of the underlying “asset.” Sure, in theory, you could securitize the construction of a seawall and capture returns via fees from wealthy coastal dwellers or local councils. But seawalls are not widgets. Each has to be uniquely designed for a specific location and its conditions. There are few economies of scale.

There’s also no established norm about how the costs of climate adaptation projects should be shared among those who are being protected. Will enough residents willingly pay for our theoretical seawall, either directly or via their taxes? Who’s being protected, and at whose expense? Structures that protect one stretch of beach can often create problems further along the coastline.

Adaptation doesn’t fall into a neat category. It can mean investing in infrastructure or designing programs to protect nature. It can involve constructing big sea walls, but it can also be about retaining trees on city streets, or ensuring access to clean drinking water. Right now these measures are too small to interest big pension funds and asset managers. A report by UNEP and others found only about two dozen projects larger than $25 million over the last few years.

Important to separate the reality that climate measures are necessary, and will necessarily save money down the road, from the notion that they represent just another opportunity to build a new revenue stream. The article wisely links climate to justice, and as much as it pains many Americans, there is no way around that. It has been true for even longer than it’s been evident – and it’s been evident for a very long time: people cannot live without justice. Racial. Climate. Economic. These are non-negotiable bonds, in the common parlance. We will do it for its own sake, because it benefits people. THAT’s the return. Clean up the rentier class soiling the revenue stream, the water will run clearly.

Image: Photograph: Emory Kristof/National Geographic/Getty Images

Schooling ≠ Education

Surrounded by moral quandaries and crises, we look up from fast food containers unable to ponder greater questions beyond the value menu. Did these questions sneak up on us, or have they been there all along and we just eliminated the practice of engaging them? Cornel West and Jeremy Tate bring light and a bit of heat in the WAPO on the removal of classics at Howard University:

Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.
Sadly, in our culture’s conception, the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West. We must be vigilant and draw the distinction between Western civilization and philosophy on the one hand, and Western crimes on the other. The crimes spring from certain philosophies and certain aspects of the civilization, not all of them.
The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America and everywhere else in the world. We should never cancel voices in this conversation, whether that voice is Homer or students at Howard University. For this is no ordinary discussion.

Howard University is not removing its classics department in isolation. This is the result of a massive failure across the nation in “schooling,” which is now nothing more than the acquisition of skills, the acquisition of labels and the acquisition of jargon. Schooling is not education. Education draws out the uniqueness of people to be all that they can be in the light of their irreducible singularity. It is the maturation and cultivation of spiritually intact and morally equipped human beings.

So much of higher education has folded in the face of market pressures, political interference, and fraud that it finds itself all but unrecognizable to former guises. Not wanting to be recognized as what you are can leave you paralyzed when you’re unwilling to defend against impotent charges like teaching social justice. Such charges are softballs and should be parked deep in the cheap seats. But lack of engagement – reading, writing, arguing – makes us afraid of politics, and bullies. We abandon the classical education model at our peril, leaving everyone unable to navigation complexities and only further clearing the path to the bottom-line. Only 99 cents!

Trade school is not an admonition.

Image: Cardinal Sin by Banksy

The President Show

Look what you can do instead of hosting The President Show:

Second, the rescue bill has quietly become an infrastructure bill. It devotes $350 billion to supporting state and local governments. These funds, initially proposed to plug COVID-19-created holes in public budgets, in many cases now exceed those holes. So the Senate has allowed states, cities, and counties to spend that money on improving services such as water, sewage, and broadband. Because many water systems are vulnerable to climate change and must be adapted, this is de facto climate funding. The bill also contains $31 billion for tribal governments and Indigenous communities, including line items for new infrastructure, housing, and language preservation.

Downtown in our quaint little burg, one of the main streets in the central business district has been a mess for about three months, with sidewalks and the street alternately under massive excavation as sewers, power and water lines are replaced and updated. It’s a huge mess on a one way street in a tiny downtown and it’s not apparent when it will be completed. But that’s how badly needed it was, likely long overdue precisely because it’s such a hassle. Some of what is being replaced was likely original – whatever that might mean in this context. There’s a reason people/governments don’t want to do this. It’s hugely disruptive and expensive. But also absolutely necessary. There are likely 10,000 places this needs doing. So fix them, get started. And robots can’t do this work, btw. More boring accomplishments, please.

And then let’s dance to this music.

Don’t Look at This

Years ago, I worked construction. Mainly residential stuff but several projects were connected to renovations of a downtown business. The address had(has) a courtyard with large steel gates and several times we had to do some welding on said gates in proximity to pedestrians passing on the sidewalk. During these occasions, we would station one of the guitar players laborers next to the action with a sign telling curious passersby something like, ‘Welding, Don’t look!’ Invariably, said passers would look directly at the sparkling blinding arc.

Nutso Trumpers have spooked politicians in D.C. today, saying they were returning for Trump’s inauguration and return to power. Trump himself has still been saying he won the election and is the real Preznit. Meanwhile, the government has done not so much about anything that happened on 1/6. Dallying about legislative fixes, allowing elected hucksters to read fantasies into the record, hold-up nominations, water down bills and glad-hand insurrectionists.

They are traitors. They broke more than norms. Come out smoking. Grab Hawley by the scruff of his IV neck and let him know his Jeff Davis-abetting will not be tolerated starting last Tuesday. Push the new Voting Rights Act. Put Harriet Tubman on the 20. Make DC and PR states. Get. In. Their. Faces.
The whole shebang remains on the cliff edge. Don’t look.