Thursday, December 24, 2015


They say nowadays that the year-end holidays are among the most stressful times we experience. If that is so, how far have we strayed from where Christmas is supposed to guide us!

We are doing it to ourselves. We spend all of our time on decorating the home, the office, the yard with ‘made in China’ lights and ornaments, which we then, in a few weeks with a hangover induced remorse, will have to dismantle again and put away in the attic. We spend precious hours on stuffing the mail with gaudy greeting cards conveying the best sentiments from Hallmark or American Greetings and on taking advantage of incredible shopping deals for stuff that nobody really needs, with the result that we are exhausted before the party begins. In the process we run out of time to observe the birth of Christ the way it used to be celebrated, by candle light, in church or outside, caroling, volunteering or just enjoying the company of those who are most dear to us.

If we are so proud of our values and culture why have we, in only a few generations, so massively succumbed to consumerism?

Our stress is also elevated by the need to be politically correct all the time. In our Christmas get-togethers we are not supposed to talk politics, but how can we avoid it when our cable TV channels and the most outspoken candidates are working day and night to polarize us? In the midst of a messy and discouraging election campaign, we yearn for Jesus-like leadership, and wonder where it may be coming from.

But here is the good news: Christmas still comes around every December 25, inviting us to have our dreams and aspirations reborn. There is still that Silent night, Holy night whether we open our eyes to it or not. Everything else is not really part of Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all and may the shining star guide you to where you want to go in 2016.

Saturday, December 5, 2015


In my previous two segments on climate change I put the spotlight on Bill Gates and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition that he put together and on Ben Sasse (R), the junior Senator from Nebraska, because I think that what these two prominent Americans have been saying is key to getting the American political establishment engaged in the battle of climate change.
Bill Gates, because by his words and actions (committing $2 billion of his own money) he is challenging the political establishment to take the threat of climate change serious and come up with a strategy (and the funding of that strategy) to fend off disaster for the living earth that could result from continuing human contributions to global warming.
Ben Sasse, because he had the courage to call his colleagues in the Senate to task for not seriously tackling the great national problems that worry most Americans.

For America to play a lead role in reducing, if not eliminating, the human contributions to the current phase of global warming two things will be required:
1.       Money to surface and develop transformative technologies that have the potential to supply clean renewable energy at a cost below the cost of fossil fuels (Gates’ point).
2.       A national strategy for climate change (Sasse’s point).

It is no longer disputable that greenhouse gases released by human intervention are contributing to the warming of the atmosphere that our generation is experiencing. The question is still largely open if the human activity is the main driver, a major contributor or a minor contributor to the release of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, but either way I believe that we owe it to future generations to do everything we can to reduce our emissions and mitigate the negative effects of global warming. It is called good stewardship.

Money is required for basic R&D in the field of clean renewable energy, because the existing technologies like wind, solar and nuclear are in their present form not cheap enough to bring about a wholesale, worldwide, replacement of fossil fuels. Moreover, there are significant negatives associated with large scale deployment of each of these technologies and these will have to be worked out before a change-over becomes feasible. Also, R&D needs to be extended into exploration of other forms of clean renewable energy that currently may only exist in our imagination or in the test labs of scientists. Only governments, and particularly the governments of the developed countries, have the money that it will take to surface the needed technologies and have the capacity to absorb the financial risks that inevitably come with a trial and error based discovery process. America can play a lead role in this with its world class university based research institutes and its superior national wealth. Business will be reluctant to step in to finance new products and technologies if it does not see the government doing its share by funding basic R&D and adopting a national strategy for climate change.

Political will is required to: 1) Acknowledge the challenge presented by climate change. 2) Accept the responsibility to curb it and protect the people from the negative effects. 3) Budget appropriately for the funding of whatever will be required of the government. Of course there will be formidable hurdles to overcome before Congress will muster the will to get serious about doing these things. For one thing there are powerful special interests lined up against any government mandated change in energy generation and consumption in the USA. Not surprisingly this has resulted in ideology on the right side of the aisle that wants to deny that any government action is required. But there is a slim chance—Bill Gates seems to think a good chance—that forward thinking politicians would see the light and the promise that American discovery and development of transformative technologies in the energy field would generate huge new employment opportunities, export opportunities and renewed prestige for American ingenuity. So, we should not give up on developing a national strategy for climate change.

What should such strategy look like? I see three major approaches:
1.       Eliminate carbon emissions that are controlled by human activity.
2.       Capture, recover or absorb carbon emissions.
3.       Protect people and property from the negative effects of climate change.

Investment in R&D and development/commercialization of the output of the R&D effort would be required in each of these three approaches. It stands to reason to expect that a successful strategy would have to incorporate elements of each of these three approaches.

In opposition it will surely be argued that we would be wasting readily available natural resources by a large scale move to renewable energy and that in the process we would be jeopardizing millions of jobs and the health of our economy. These are bogus arguments. In the first place because it will take decades before the proposed strategy could take full effect. Second because the strategy will only be successful if new sources of clean renewable energy can become available at a cost that is lower than the cost of fossil fuels. Third because we are not wasting anything by leaving fossil fuels in the ground as a kind of strategic reserve. Fourth because implementation of the proposed strategy will require highly qualified employment from a very large number of Americans. And fifth because other nations will beat us to the game if we don’t take the lead.

America misses a unique opportunity to reassert its global leadership in creating a better, cleaner and safer world for coming generations if it now does not follow through on the potential for combating the warming of our atmosphere.

Thursday, December 3, 2015


Freshman Senator Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska made a notable inaugural speech in the Senate on November 3, almost a year after he took office. It was the first time he took the floor in the Senate Chamber and it deserved a much larger audience than he got. He held out a mirror in front of the members of the Senate and told them that “the public is right that we as a Congress are not shepherding the country through the serious debates we must have about the future of this great nation.” And he added: “The Senate isn’t tackling the great national problems that worry those we work for.”

One of those great national problems (although not mentioned by name by Senator Sasso) is the issue of climate change that is now the subject of discussion at the United Nations conference in Paris, France.

Senator Sasse is right in putting his finger on the degeneration of the American political system that is at the root of the delinquency on the part of Congress. It is not just the Senate that is falling down on its job. The whole system has been corrupted by the money influence of the special interests and by the polarization in two irreconcilable camps. The resulting dysfunction risks making what once was the model of good governance into the laughing stock for the whole world to see.

What the country needs—in addition to a redress of how our political institutions work at the federal level—is a national strategy that defines the challenges the nation faces and sets priorities in dealing with each of them. For sure the climate challenge should appear somewhere in such prioritization. The debate should be not on whether it requires intervention by the governments of the major economic world powers but on how such intervention can best produce results.

In Part I of my Climate Thoughts, I referenced Bill Gates who addressed this question in an interview with The Atlantic and called for a tripling of government spending on energy R&D.  Gates stated that ‘We Need an Energy Miracle” and he is committing to invest $2 billion of his own money in clean energy start-ups that should come out of vastly increased government R&D spending. Gates points out that at $6 billion US government R&D in the energy sector pales in comparison with the $30 billion spent in medical research. The richest country on earth should be able to adequately fund basic research in several areas of need at the same time. To the predictable congressional push-back against such spending increase Gates retorts that the case for American innovation, American jobs and American leadership resulting from such R&D investment is just too compelling to fail in the end. Gates underscores his optimism by his willingness to put his own money at risk.

He may be too optimistic though on Washington DC’s readiness and willingness to expand the government’s reach into the energy field and pay for it. All the momentum is the other way, particularly on the Republican side that is currently in charge of Congress. Just listen to the GOP’s candidates for the 2016 presidential election.

I am largely sympathetic to the conservative point of view that we should not be spending money that we don’t have. We are already more than $18 trillion in debt and we have a slew of unmet needs, like the funding of our entitlement programs for the future, the upgrade of our infrastructure and the readying of the population for the rapidly changing job environment. I too am an advocate for a smaller, more nimble government, but one that has the courage to face the major challenges of our era and provide solutions, real results for the people who are footing the bill.

There are at least two things wrong with the current structure of the public sector. First it is large, bureaucratic and misdirected. It should be small, efficient, competent and focused on enabling the private sector to propel the country forward through innovation. Second it is permanently under- funded. This may solely be because it is spending on activities that should not be done at all or should not be done by the public sector. In principle, a smaller, more nimble government focused on enabling citizens (people, companies and organizations) to grow the economy and propel the nation forward should be able to function on less tax revenue than it currently collects. But chances are that under-funding will not be resolved without a complete reorganization of our public financing system. Our current tax code and the de facto blocking of revision and simplification of the IRS code in Congress are formidable impediments to progress. As it is we are not taxing the right entities, activities and sources of revenue. We should have a legitimate discussion about the merits of taxing consumption more than income. A shift from tax on income to a tax on consumption in itself should help the environment, particularly if consumption taxes take into consideration the burdens that specific consumptive activities place on the environment and the wellness of the population. But, as Senator Sasse points out in his maiden speech to his colleagues: “No one in this body thinks the Senate is laser-focused on the most pressing issues facing the nation.”

Unfortunately, Congressional debate and action is caught up in the two year election cycle, which makes planning over a long term time horizon nearly impossible and translates talk of new taxes by politicians into virtual suicide. Politicians may be devious or dumb in our eyes, but they are not that dumb that they shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to advancing their careers.

In a final segment of this three part column I will present some thoughts on what the US government should and should not do to address the climate change challenge.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015


The last Chapter of my book ‘NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism’ is titled “Technology is the Answer”. In it I provide a blue print for how America can benefit from establishing a national strategy that takes on the challenges presented by climate change. I wrote:

“We are burdening the earth with many more people—and all they bring to bear—than ever before. Nature’s way of dealing with that burden is to produce cataclysmic events, wars, plagues, meteorite impacts, floods, earthquakes, and you name it, to rebalance the situation. That’s not how we like to solve our problems in this day and age. Our challenge is to create conditions under which the earth can accept the burden and people can go on with their lives. Technology will have to be the answer.

Any technology that the United States can develop, that will serve to address the following challenges, will have great global commercial value and enhance both the prestige and the world ranking of the United States:
·         World shortage of accessible fresh and clean water and its global distribution
·         Nuclear waste processing
·         Risks associated with the recovery of fossil fuels and gas
·         Alternative energy development
·         Environmental impact of any other kind of human activity

Herein lays the key. We should embrace the challenge presented by the current wave of global warming rather than arguing if it is even happening. We should embrace the challenge to find ways to sequester CO2 from our emissions, even if we are only half-certain that these emissions are causing the apparent climate change. And we should embrace the challenge to find economically feasible alternatives for fossil fuels. Which nation is better equipped than the USA to find solutions for these problems? If we don’t find them some other nation will, and we lose the opportunity to maintain our leadership of nations. Conversely, if we do find technological solutions for the challenges presented by climate change and the need for greater human productivity, these solutions will be very marketable all over the world and enhance not only our economic prospects but also our prestige in the world.

Why would the United States government not consider to issue worldwide challenges to find answers to some of the unresolved questions that stand in the way of further and more rapid progress? In 1714, England’s Parliament offered a king’s ransom of 20,000 pounds sterling to anyone whose method of measuring longitude at sea could be proven successful. In an age of exploration, precious time, cargo, and life was lost at sea because ships, on their voyages, were able to determine latitude by the length of the day or by the height of the sun or known stars above the horizon, but not longitude. It took an English clockmaker, John Harrison, fifty-nine years and five prototypes before he collected the prize with a chronometer that worked. Given all the money the government spends futilely, what would be wrong by paying another king’s ransom (which would have to be a little more than 20,000 pound sterling) for finding answers to the most pressing issues of our time, like clean affordable energy, suppression of drug addiction, or boosting individuals’ propensity towards positive attitudes?

Today, I find myself in good company. Bill Gates and Bill Nye both, individually and separately, make the case for doubling or tripling government spending on R&D in the field of clean renewable energy (including nuclear) and Bill Gates puts his money where his mouth is by pledging $2 billion to invest in clean energy projects and business. Bill Gates channels his financial contributions through an international coalition, the ‘Breakthrough Energy Coalition’, in which he cooperates with 27 other tycoons. And governments are not far behind. A loose coalition of 20 nations announced in Paris the ‘Mission Innovation’ initiative aimed at accelerating the clean energy revolution. See ‘’ In it the 20 countries, including the USA, China and India (but not Russia), commit to seeking a doubling of governmental investment in clean energy R&D over five years. Bill Gates says, in an interview with The Atlantic on November 15, that we need an ‘energy miracle’, but he is optimistic and adds: “in science, miracles happen all the time.”

Where governments and business cooperate with a clearly articulated goal in mind, miracles are indeed achievable. Let’s get to work. If it produces results, it will be a classic case of creative destruction leading to a breakthrough solution of a global problem. The worst that can happen is that, in the process, we will leave the remaining oil and gas in the ground as a kind of strategic reserve for when environmental conditions change again. Either way, applying technology is the best response to the climate challenge we are facing.