Blowing leaves, blowing $1.5 trillion with a lousy tax plan

A rich guy blowing leaves turns out to be an apt metaphor for a lousy tax-reform plan.

I was driving the carpool home down east Sixth Avenue in Denver yesterday. This is million-dollar territory, grand old houses, big lawns. Huge trees with lots of leaves, both on the properties themselves and in the boulevard’s grassy medium, which is a solid 30 yards wide and a joggers’- and dog-walkers’ favorite. A guy stood at the edge of a lawn, probably in his early sixties, clearly a homeowner and not a landscape company employee. He had a leaf blower. And he was blowing the leaves from his lawn into the street.

I’m like, what the hell are you doing?

I apparently said this out loud. My younger daughter, 12, in the passenger seat, looks up from her phone. “What?”

“Oh,” I said. “That guy’s blowing leaves from his lawn into the street.”

She turned to me. “So?”

“It clogs the sewers,” I said. The light turned green and we rolled forward again. “And think about it. What if everybody did that? Just blew their leaves into the street. What if the guys who deal with the median did that? We’d be neck deep in leaves right now.”

We were witnessing a thoughtless, selfish act, if a trivial one. It struck me that it was exactly the sort of thing that the Republicans in U.S. Congress are doing at the moment, on an extreme scale. For their own good and that of their wealthy donors, they’re blowing $1.5 trillion dollars in borrowed green into the street for masses of less-fortunate travelers to sweep up at some point in the future.

Paul Ryan and colleagues are lying when they say they’re looking out for us with this tax reform plan (“us” in this case being the people they nominally — though not actually — represent). This tax cut benefits the wealthy. Yes, there are some middle-class breaks, maybe, for some short period of time. But cutting the corporate tax rate to 20 percent without closing loopholes (much less introducing new ones that could be even more costly) that many corporations use to bring their real tax rate well below 20 percent anyway – thereby increasing profits and raising stock prices… who do you suppose wins there?

The people who own the companies.

Who owns the companies? Shareholders.

But lots of people own stock, right?

Yes. But only about half of Americans. Guess which half? (Hint: it’s not the poorer half.)

The argument for tax cuts as economic stimulus, which Paul Ryan keeps parroting, is as laughable as the Laffer Curve. It failed under Reagan in the 1980s. It failed worse in Kansas in the 2010s. It won’t work now. Ryan knows this, of course. He just doesn’t care, because the people who gain are the people who pay his bills. Nor do most of his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate, apparently, never mind the White House itself.

Among the reasons trickle-down economics doesn’t work: the rich are piling troves of cash offshore, where it not only avoids taxes, but it also keeps  massive hoards from fueling any sort of useful economic activity, besides paying tax-haven lawyers at the likes of Mossack Fonseca, Appleby and so many others. Economist Gabriel Zucman told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the global elite have parked an estimated $9.1 trillion in offshore tax havens, the USA Today reports. (That the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers stories appear to have no legs in Washington D.C. is a testament to the role of money in American politics. But when one percent of the human population controls 51 percent of the world’s resources, I suppose these things happen.)

In addition, the plan now is to wipe out the estate tax, which touches only the very richest families in the country (the tax doesn’t apply to estates worth less than about $5.5 million, so only about one tenth of one percent of estates are subject to it). It double taxation? No question. A “Death Tax?” Sure, whatever you want to call it. But can these families afford it? Is the perpetuation of a dynastic elite built on the toil and smarts of the dead a good thing? Does the Death Tax motivate the very-rich to give to causes beyond the gates of their communities before they die, rather than have the federal government do with it what the federal government will?

The great irony here is that the Republican leadership is willing to go $1.5 trillion further into debt to pay for it all, which will disproportionately burden future generations of the non-rich masses. If they could drag us further into debt to enrich their wealth puppet masters without requiring a single Democratic vote to do so, they no doubt would have.

Dems are derided as tax-and-spend. This is at least rational. Republicans, supposedly the fiscal hawks, now seem happy to spend without the tax part – spending money we don’t have, to benefit people who don’t need it, at the expense of the children of those who do. This is an upside-down, twisted world, where facts no longer seem to matter, just so long as you stay on message. The fact that it actually works – that we elect and reelect the sorts of people capable of such behavior and the policy monstrosities that emerge from it – is our own fault.

Meanwhile, the Republicans we as a body politic were foolish enough to put in high office blast their leaves into the streets, hoping nobody notices.

U.S. renewable energy forecasters got it *slightly* wrong, turns out

Solar panel installation

Our (or technically Sunrun’s) solar panels during installation on July 13, 2010. The U.S. Energy Information Administration did not predict this.

The future didn’t look much like we thought it would.

I’m not talking about flying cars or colonies on Mars – although those two are looking promising at the moment.

In 2006, the U.S. Energy Information Administration laid out its predictions for renewable energy installations a decade hence. Its prognosticators extrapolated out the curves of past performance and divined 0.8 gigawatts of U.S. solar capacity by 2016. With wind, they were a bit more bullish, predicting 17 gigawatts of turbines spinning away. (A gigawatt is roughly what a big coal-fired power plant can produce, capacity factors aside.)

They were off by just a touch.

As InsideClimateNews reported yesterday, the United States had an installed solar capacity of about 37 gigawatts last year, about 46 times higher than the EIA had guessed. This country installed 14 gigawatts of solar in 2016 alone.

Solar grew from a tiny base. Wind had a better foothold in 2006, so the projection wasn’t quite as far off: the 82 gigawatts of turbines in the United States was merely five times higher than the EIA had estimated.

The 45 percent plunge in coal-fired generation wasn’t on their radar, either.

This isn’t about assailing the EIA. Who could have predicted the fracking boom, which turned utilities off to coal and on to natural gas? Or the rise of Solar City, Sunrun and other solar-panel leasing programs. The EIA had no more clue than I did that I’d have Sunrun panels on my roof as of 2010, or that Chinese manufacturers would come to produce panels so cheaply.

Perhaps proposed tariffs on those panels with grind the progress to a halt. Or, perhaps, Tesla’s Nevada battery gigafactory and the proliferation of electrified, self-driving cars will put panels on many more rooftops (and high-voltage plugs in many more garages), and stoking the trend further beyond the imaginations of actuarial bureaucrats. With regime change in 2020, national politics could become a tailwind again. Elon Musk, in addition to vastly increasing the odds of a future with humans on Mars, is betting big on batteries, electric cars and, yes, solar panels – Solar City’s 2016 merger with Tesla wasn’t on the EIA radar, either. Of course, Tesla itself didn’t mass-produce a car until 2008.

The lesson isn’t that Elon Musk’s business hunches should necessarily supplant the products of EIA forecasters. It’s that long-term forecasting, especially when it comes to something as complex as energy markets, is fraught. So there’s reason for skepticism – and, as the last decade’s numbers show, for optimism, too.

Hurricane Irma forecasts for Florida in pictures


Denver’s a long way from Hurricane Irma, but like everybody else I’ve been following it. With events like this one, it’s fascinating to check out the detailed Weather Underground forecasts. With Hurricane Harvey, I’d look at daily rain forecasts of 24 inches, stated without hint of how out-of-whack such a number is. With Irma approaching, the rains can be nuts, too, but the barometric pressure and, in particular, the wind speed curves are the most otherworldly. Key West, above, tops out at 101 mph. Compare this with what I’ve got in Denver today. The wind curve looks more insane, really, until you note the scale at left.

Most striking about Hurricane Irma is its sheer scope. The New York Times-published spaghetti model shows where it’s probably headed…

But these hurricane-track graphs don’t capture the immense scale of this storm.

NOAA’s GOES satellite image from a few minutes ago shows Irma dwarfing Cuba (as Hurricane Jose approaches from the East). The Weather Underground forecasts show how that scale will play out on the ground.

In Miami, technically the opposite side of the peninsula from Irma’s projected path, we get 87 mph winds and close to nine inches of rain.

Not much better in Fort Lauderdale.

In Fort Myers, on the Gulf side at just a bit higher latitude than Fort Lauderdale, it’s nastier.

Sanibel Island, where my wife and daughters are booked for a seashell-hunting adventure in late October, may be largely wiped away. The forecast has the center of the storm passing right over this patch of sand.

Up the Gulf Coast in Tampa, not a whole lot better, though better than Saint Petersburg.

Perhaps most awe-inspiring about this storm is its projected impact on the Atlantic side, 140 miles of peninsula separated from the above targets. Here’s Fort Lauderdale:

And Daytona Beach:

And Jacksonville:

Seventy-eight mph is a lot less than what Sanibel will suffer, but hit 78 on a highway, stick your hand out the window and think about how your roof would fare.

Central Florida isn’t all that much better off, though storm surges at least aren’t a worry. Here’s Lakeland:

And Orlando, if you’re wondering why Disney and Universal have shut down their theme parks:

Even Tallahassee will see 50 mph winds.

Really the only semi-quiet spot in the state looks to be Pensacola, which is basically in Alabama.

Which is all to say: this is a monster event of unique scale. It’s going to take a very long time to rebuild and recover from it.

Lucy McRae is thinking ahead. Like 2,500 years ahead

A lot of us have a hard enough time deciding what to scrounge up for dinner. Lucy McRae is thinking about life in the year 4,600.

She’s not alone. Science fiction writers have spent plenty of time imagining the distant future. But McRae is not a science fiction writer. She’s a science-fiction artist. She makes short films involving lots of silvery Mylar, condensation-soaked plastic, and edible body parts, among other things. They are gorgeous, cryptic, slow-moving and strange. [more]

Ancient craft yields storage medium of the future

An example tablet from a commission by the Kunst Historiches Museum Wien. (Courtesy of Martin Kunze)

The preservation of our collective story — so much of which is told in electronic pulses and stored in bits and bytes — may well hinge on the oldest of materials: clay.

It’s not just any clay. It’s a specially designed stoneware (the stuff of bathroom tiles) formed into 20-by-20 centimeter ceramic tablets. Martin Kunze, an Austrian ceramist and researcher, invented them, and once printed with snippets of science, politics, art, culture and much more, he stores them in a cavern in a salt mine in Hallstatt, deep in the Austrian Alps. The cavern, accessible via an 80 centimeter-wide tunnel, will naturally close up over time. There, what Kunze calls “the greatest time capsule ever” will wait for someone, someday, to find it. [more]