Saturday, January 16, 2016

Good News #19: solar jobs outpace oil/gas jobs

"A new report on the state of the solar industry out Tuesday from the nonprofit Solar Foundation shows that the number of jobs in the United States in the solar industry outpaced those in the oil and gas industries for the first time ever," according to an article by Shane Ferro on Huffington Business.

In part, this is due to the bottom falling out of the barrel of oil prices, sliding from $100 in spring 2014 to $30 a barrel in recent weeks, causing layoffs.  But it also represents rapid growth in the solar industry as the technology becomes cheaper and number of home installations are rapidly rising.

While this transition to renewable energy is great for the environment, we're not quite there yet in being better for the overall economy.  For example, renewable energy jobs overall pay less than oil/gas industry jobs.  But it's getting close enough to show that we will get there, and maybe soon.


Friday, January 15, 2016

So . . . there was another Republican debate

I'll make this brief.  I disagreed with about 90% of what was said on substance.  I thought the moderators and the questions, with a few big exceptions, stuck to real issues with a minimum of silly questions.   For the most part, these seven candidates have sharpened their arguments -- and their attacks on their main rivals on stage -- and on the Democrats.

But it was hard to watch over two hours of Obama-bashing and Clinton-bashing -- distorting the facts shamelessly -- but I guess that's inevitable in this hotly contested race.


Davod Brooks: "The Brutalism of Ted Cruz"

This story from David Brooks' New York Times column on January 12th deserves to be part of the discussion about Ted Cruz's character qualifications to be president of the United States.

"In 1997, Michael Wayne Haley was arrested after stealing a calculator from Walmart. This was a crime that merited a maximum two-year prison term. But prosecutors incorrectly applied a habitual offender law. Neither the judge nor the defense lawyer caught the error and Haley was sentenced to 16 years.

"Eventually, the mistake came to light . . . . Ted Cruz was solicitor general of Texas at the time. Instead of just letting Haley go for time served, Cruz took the case to the Supreme Court to keep Haley in prison for the full 16 years

"Some justices were skeptical. 'Is there some rule that you can’t confess error in your state?'  Justice Anthony Kennedy asked. The court system did finally let Haley out of prison, after six years. 

"The case reveals something interesting about Cruz’s character. Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters . . . . But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace.   Cruz’s behavior in the Haley case . . . violates the spirit of the law, as well as fairness and mercy. . . . 

"Cruz’s speeches are marked by what you might call pagan brutalism. There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy. Instead, his speeches are marked by a long list of enemies, and vows to crush, shred, destroy, bomb them. When he is speaking in a church the contrast between the setting and the emotional tone he sets is jarring.

"Cruz lays down an atmosphere of apocalyptic fear. . . .  [and] of menace in which there is no room for compassion, for moderation, for anything but dismantling and counterattack. And that is what he offers. . . .  to destroy things: destroy the I.R.S., crush the 'jackals' of the E.P.A., end funding for Planned Parenthood, reverse Obama’s executive orders, make the desert glow in Syria, destroy the Iran nuclear accord. . . . 

"Cruz exploits and exaggerates that fear. . . .  He sows bitterness, influences his followers to lose all sense of proportion and teaches them to answer hate with hate. . . .

"Evangelicals and other conservatives have had their best influence on American politics when they have proceeded in a spirit of personalism . . . .  Ted Cruz’s brutal, fear-driven, apocalypse-based approach is the antithesis of that."

*     *     *     *     *
David Brooks is a conservative, although a few years ago he announced that he was no longer identifying himself as a Republican but as an Independent.

I think we're going to see more and more speeches like Nikki Haley's and this essay from David Brooks as the establishmenat and moderate Republicans try to save their party from this politics of fear and hate.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

GOP response to Obama's State of the Union speech: Nikki Haley takes moderate position

Nikki Haley
The Republican National Committee chose South Carolina governor Nikki Haley to give the official Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union message.   In two different measures of her response, she clearly signaled her position as part of the establishment, moderate wing of the Republican Party.

First, she made the requisite criticisms of President Obama on policy issues;  but she was respectful and civil.   Nor did she focus on issues that inflame the right-wing base.   She stood firmly in a center-right, moderate Republican spot.

Second, she decried the partisan split that has divided the political process and told fellow Republicans that they needed to "look in the mirror" because they bear some of the responsibility for the problem.    She also called for calm in the anti-immigrant rhetoric:
"During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country."
The responses from fellow Republicans have been just as widely split as the partisan divide itself.   Paul Ryan and the head of the RNC both praised her glowingly.   The right-wing response has been denunciation.  The point is that, in choosing her and no doubt having prior approval of her speech, the GOP establishment has signaled its intent to pull the primary process back from the fringe.

In fact, the speech could also be seen as a rebuttal to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, as much as anything else.   And, in doing so, she echoed much of the tone and reach of the president's State of the Union speech -- which also took a lot of swipes at the Trump and Cruz rhetoric.

Following Haley's admirable leadership last year in removing the confederate flag from flying over the state capitol, Haley was already on people's minds as a possible vice presidential nominee.   This speech should guarantee her a position on the short list.

Look at the demographics:   a woman governor of a southern state who took down the confederate flag;  the daughter of immigrant parents from India.   If the GOP nominates Bush or Kasich or Rubio, she'd fit right in.   If they nominate Trump or Cruz, she would provide a small measure of balance.

The problem is that those demographics address two of the big gaps in the Republican party -- but they still remain gaps.   They need to change their anti-woman, anti-immigrant policies, not just put a woman immigrant on the stage -- or the 2016 ticket.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

President Obama's valedictory SOTU speech

President Obama gave his final State of the Union speech Tuesday night, and I am writing this just moments after it ended.    I was very moved and filled with admiration for him and what he has accomplished, despite the most determined opposition any modern president has ever faced from congress.

He departed from the usual format of a laundry list of proposals, instead offering a quick valedictory summation of successes -- and, yes, failures.   But he devoted most his time to a visionary statement -- the other bookend, if you will, to his visionary acceptance speech in November 2008.    It was his vision, not just for the coming year, but "for the next five years, ten years, and beyond" -- about renewing who we are as Americans, calling us to be our better selves as citizens and as a self-governed people.

In the cynicism of this political season, he called us to return to the ideals that have made this country great.   But it wasn't just lofty rhetoric;  he spoke in practical terms and plain truths about how we need to change our political system.  He countered the false picture we're hearing from some of the presidential candidates by offering facts to counter the picture of America as weak and failing in world leadership, in the economy, in military strength, and in progress here at home.

In style, it was more conversational than oratorical.  It was an honest speech that didn't shy from pointedly calling out problems and, without naming names, rebutting those who play politics with truth and who deny reality.   Here was one of my favorites:
Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You'll be pretty lonely, because you'll be debating our military, most of America's business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it's a problem and intend to solve it.
Rather than try to summarize or even pick out other choice quotes, which I may do later, what I will suggest to anyone who did not hear the speech is to go to a transcript and read it for yourself or, better, find a video link and watch.    Here is the transcript link:


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

An expert explains the Saudi-Iran conflict: "Struggle for political dominence of Middle East

This struck me as a very lucid explanation of what's going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran and how it's affecting the whole Middle East.   Thanks to Nick Robins-Early for the World Post: 

"Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with New York University Professor Mohamad Bazzi about the Saudi-Iran rift. 

"On the second day of 2016, Saudi Arabia killed 47 prisoners in a series of executions across the kingdom. Prominent Shiite cleric and dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was among those executed, and after news broke of his death, a group of demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in Iran's capital in protest.

"Saudi Arabia responded this week by cutting off diplomatic ties with Iran, worsening already hostile relations between the two powers.  The escalating rift between predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and mostly Shiite Iran now threatens to increase sectarian tensions, as well as make conflicts in the region even more convoluted and intractable. 

"The WorldPost spoke with New York University Professor Mohamad Bazzi, who is currently working on a book about Iranian-Saudi relations. . . .  

"Why do you think Saudi Arabia decided to initiate this latest escalation with the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr? 
"Well there’s several layers to this, beginning with domestic factors and then extending to the Saudi-Iran rivalry.  Many of the people who were executed had been in Saudi prisons for years, and the core group of people were associated with al Qaeda and had been responsible for a series of attacks in 2003 and 2004.

"That was 43 of the 47 people?
"Yes, the breakdown was 43 Sunnis and 4 Shiites, which interestingly corresponds to the proportion of Shiites in the Saudi population. The message that the Saudis wanted to send was that dissent won’t be tolerated, whether it’s Sunnis or Shiites. 

"The Saudi regime, at first, seemed like they were concerned with the domestic ramifications of the execution. They were worried that if they had only executed Sunnis, it might lead to protest and a backlash within the Sunni community in Saudi Arabia, which is their constituency. 

"The message that the Saudis wanted to send was that dissent won’t be tolerated, whether it’s Sunnis or Shiites. That seemed to be the initial Saudi calculation, to balance out the execution and to divert tension that they were executing so many al Qaeda prisoners. 

"It is also a projection of strength from the new king, Salman, because the death sentence against Sheikh Nimr was handed down under former King Abdullah, and the international expectation seemed to be that it wouldn’t be carried out.  Those are the domestic, internal calculations. In terms of international calculations, Saudi Arabia has been worried about Iran for quite a while, but especially since the nuclear deal over summer. 

"Did the perception that the U.S. is normalizing ties with Iran, or that Iran is going to have a larger influence in the region following the nuclear deal, play into the decision to execute Nimr?
"Well the Saudis have just been dismayed since the nuclear deal. The Saudis have been worried that this will open a path towards normalization between Iran and the West, especially the United States.

"The Saudi regime seems to believe that if the U.S. opens up to Iran, then somehow that would mean the U.S. abandoning Saudi Arabia and its traditional Sunni-Arab allies in the gulf. That’s because the Saudi-Iran rivalry has become a zero-sum game in so many ways.  The Saudis and the Iranians have begun to think that if one country gains in the region or makes inroads with Western powers, it has to come at the expense of the other.  So the Saudis have been trying to find a way to undermine the nuclear agreement, and to keep Iran from going down this path of normalization with the West. 

"In terms of the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, what impact will this recent deterioration between Iran and Saudi Arabia have?
"The wars in Syria and Yemen can’t be stopped without an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And now with those two powers refusing to speak to each other, the violence is likely to get worse.  We’ve seen that already with Yemen. As this crisis was unfolding, the Saudis announced that they were abandoning the ceasefire -- which hadn’t entirely taken hold anyway -- and on Tuesday there were reports that there was a much more intense bombardment of areas by the Saudis.

"In Syria, it’s a bit more complicated because the Saudis aren’t involved directly. But we do have the peace talks scheduled for January 25, and the already dim prospects for those are now much dimmer. 

"What do you think it would take for Saudi-Iran relations to improve?
"Some Saudi officials were asked a similar question a few days ago, and their response was that Iran has to stop meddling in the affairs of Arab countries, as they put it.  Of course, they never said that they would stop meddling in the affairs of Arab countries, they seem to see that as their right, seeing themselves as the leader of the Arab world and the Muslim world.  

"And [Iranian President] Rouhani made a similar statement about the Saudis not meddling in regional affairs as well.
"Right, and that’s not going to happen. Neither Saudi nor Iran are going to stop meddling in the affairs of the region, they’re not going to stop supporting proxies and allies in different countries, whether it’s Yemen, Syria, Lebanon.   So, that’s not going to happen, and it’s hard to see a way out of this in the short term. Unless there is a significant breakthrough on Syria, that could bring some confidence. That would entail really effective maneuvering by Russia and the United States. 

"In the short term, we’re also going to see the Saudis try more ways to isolate Iran again following the nuclear deal. 

"What’s something that you think gets missed in the media when it comes to Saudi-Iranian relations?
Often overlooked is that this conflict is partly rooted in the historical Sunni-Shiite schism, but for the most part it’s a struggle for political dominance of the Middle East.  Saudi Arabia and Iran both have a lot of experience using sectarianism to instigate people in the region, and to play different factions off one another, but most of the time it’s for political ends.

"It’s a classic struggle for influence, and it’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon of ancient hatreds between Sunni and Shiites. The history is there and the hatreds are there, but the sectarian sentiment is often deployed by these states a part of a power game.

*     *     *     *     *
So it seems that the Saudis miscalculated in thinking they needed to worry about Sunni backlash, when in fact they've gotten a Shi'ia backlash, because they executived a revered cleric.   If they had simply balanced the Sunni-Shi'ia population of Saudi Arabia in  numbers, but not included Sheik Nimr, it would have been a one-day news event.

Also, it seems that perhaps the U.S. has not done enough to reassure Saudi Arabia that the Iran nuclear deal does not mean we're abandoning the Saudis, although I don't know what was done and what more might have been done.   They would have opposed it, probably no matter what we did to placate them -- because, as Professor Bazze explained, this is about the struggle for power and control between the two dominate countries of the Middle East.

No matter how much we think it is not a zero sum game, the fact is that they do see it that way.


Monday, January 11, 2016

Texas open carry law, even in psychiatric hospitals

The new Texas open carry gun law went into effect on January 1st.   As a consequence, the Austin State Hospital -- a psychiatric facility -- had to take down its signs that said "no guns."

That's right.   Texas' new open carry law forbids state agencies from displaying "no guns" signs and imposes a fine on those that do.  This includes the 10 state-run psychiatric hospitals.   Some legislative supporters of the bill say that this is an oversight and simply an unintended consequence of a hastily written bill.

At least one of the bill's sponsors, however, says there's nothing wrong with the law, that it's up to the hospital to keep their patients away from "dangerous weapons."

I'm struck by the fact that, even this obvious gun enthusiast regards them as "dangerous weapons."


Isn't this just so much fun . . . ha, ha, HA !!

Photo by Associated Press of Speaker Paul Ryan and colleagues after he signed the bill repealing Obamacare.

Does this look like a group of people who have just triumphed in passing serious, significant legislation?   Or people laughing at a joke?  Frankly, to me, it looks like hilarious laughter at a joke.

Here's what's taking place.   For the first time in 62 attempts, both houses of congress passed a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and sent it to the president for his signature.   Paul Ryan has just signed the bill, and they were having a celebration.

OK.   I guess from their standpoint there is cause for celebration when you finally pass what you've tried 61 times -- and failed.  But it's not as if they actually did anything that really makes a difference, because they knew they lacked the votes to overturn a veto.   As of this writing, President Obama has already vetoed it.   So nothing has changed, except some dubious bragging rights about trying for the 62nd time (and failing) to take away people's health care.

Still, wouldn't you think there would be some solemnity to this occasion?    Were it not for the president's veto, they would have just passed a bill that would rob tens of millions of their constituents of the medical care they have obtained under the ACA -- without offering anything in its place.

Not exactly cause for the jubilation displayed in the photo above, if you ask me.   Let's hope the voters notice.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Renewed faith in the reading public

For several years, the book lovers among us worried that books were an endangered species -- losing out to digital devices and the short attention span of the new age.   It turns out that there was a bit of Chicken Little in that worry.

First, even though sales losses have driven multitudes of book stores out of business, including the giant Borders, this downturn may not be as bad as we first thought.   Partly it is that people are buying books online.   Or reading books on digital readers.

But the fact is that people are still reading.   Here's some anecdotal evidence from my own experience.  Some 15 years ago, I bought what became my favorite sweat shirt.   Here's what it says:

So many books
So little time

I loved wearing it, because it expressed what I have felt ever since I became an adult with other responsibilities and not enough time to read.    People would frequently stop me in public and ask where I had gotten the shirt -- or just to say they loved what it said.    

Clearly, large numbers of people felt the same.   I've almost never had strangers comment about a message on any other shirt I was wearing.   But this one -- I hardly ever wore it in public without either a spoken comment or a thumbs-up, knowing look.

Then, as the edges of the shirt began to fray a bit, I decided that I didn't want to ever wear out.   So I put it away and had not worn it for years.  Until last week, rummaging through my closet for clothes to give to Goodwill, I ran across it -- and knew I wasn't ready to part with it.

So I wore it again a few days ago when I met a friend for lunch.    As I was standing in line to pick up my order, a young woman passing by gave me a big smile and said "I love your shirt."

Then today, I was alone at lunch in a restaurant when a waitress, not the one assigned to my table, came from across the room.   She was 40-ish, Hispanic, and rather shyly commented that she liked the message on my shirt.    Seeing that I was not offended but friendly and receptive, she said that she used to read all the time.

"But not so much lately.   I was reading my book and cooking dinner (gesturing to show holding a book in one hand and stirring a pot with the other) -- and I burned the dinner.   So I had to stop reading while I cook."

We both chuckled at her story -- and then both agreed that maybe she should give up cooking instead of giving up reading.

The reading public is alive and . . . reading, or at least wanting to.   In two outings this week, wearing the shirt, I had two lovely comments about its message.