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Something to Take Your Mind off COVID-19

As we watch the COVID-19 death curve continue its relentless climb every day, it's understandably difficult to have room in our brains to worry about anything else. Tuesday night's televised White House briefing offered the most chilling news yet, a stark prediction that 100,000 to 240,000 American deaths is our best-case scenario. Even the President finally seemed to be tuning in to the gravity of the situation. What one talking head had nicknamed the Six-o'clock Follies suddenly became a solemn Requiem for business-as-usual in our nation and our carefree way of life.


But worry we should. While the President was parading his newfound empathy and gravitas, as well as his recently discovered respect for science, his Environmental Protection Agency (sic) was announcing that it had rolled back the Obama-era Clean Car Standards that had successfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved fuel efficiency for the last decade.


The replacement is the risibly named Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles Rule, or SAFE. The government's own models predict that SAFE will increase greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.5 billion metric tons through 2040, and cost consumers $244 billion more for gasoline. It's also likely to increase traffic deaths as it adds to the assault on our climate.


But if the threat of climate change, which is likely to be far more deadly than the current virus, seems too far removed to worry about, worry about this: the President's approval ratings have never been higher.


Sure, Gallup reports that it only stands at 49%, but the increase has been driven by Independent voters, who generally swing every election. With Trump's discovery that empathy sells, and with Biden gasping for airtime, and dialing for dimes to replenish his meager campaign fund, who's to say that the Orange Carnival Barking Clown—miss you, Mike Bloomberg—won't finally breach the 50% barrier and threaten to take the popular vote as well as the electoral college?


So stay healthy, hunker down, and don't lose sight of the fact that there'll be plenty more to worry about—and do something about—once we defeat this current scourge.

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Something Lighter for a Change!

"Flippy" at the fry station!

Every once in a while, I think I'm entitled to pat myself on the back. Way back in 2017 I published a novel that highlighted the danger to the jobs of low-wage workers posed by the coming Artificial Intelligence revolution—The Piketty Problem, or The Robots Are Coming, The Robots Are Coming. I chose fast food as the example of an industry that was poised to go robotic, and McDonald's as the company to lead it.


The novel got great (paid) professional and reader reviews but mediocre sales—no "discovery" is the downside of self-publishing. It also produced a few raised eyebrows. Who was going to believe that the beloved American hamburger was going to the robots?


Fast-forward to 2020, and Miso Robotics, the start-up that developed "Flippy" and inspired my thinking, is ready to emerge as a real competitor to low-wage workers. By selling its robots on a subscription basis, $2,000 a month, it can bring the "wage" down to about $3 an hour. Who's going to beat that? And considering that Flippy doesn't call in sick or complain about being splattered with hot oil, the choice should become a no-brainer.


McDonald's hasn't yet bought in, but they're actively engaged in bringing AI into their outlets, initially through ordering terminals. Nor has any other major chain—yet. Fast food is an industry that sells friendly service, so there's a real PR problem with putting robots in the kitchen, even if they don't interface with customers. And there's a real human problem, with putting a lot of underappreciated and underpaid workers out of work. (I explored both issues in The Piketty Problem.) But it's going to happen sooner rather than later, because it's not only friendly service that sells, but low-cost burgers.


Only Andrew Yang raised the issue of AI in any meaningful way during the Democratic primary campaign, and it got overshadowed in the media by his proposal to give every American a Universal Basic Income of $1,000 a month. What the media forgot to add is the reason for his proposal—to offset the inevitable job losses from automation. The solution may be radical, but the problem is getting more real every year, so who's looking to the future—you, Bernie and Joe?


Oops, sorry, I promised to keep this light!

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"Get off my lawn!"

I try my best in these posts to focus on the existential threat to our planet and our way of life—climate change. I want to write about how 2020 is shaping up to be one of the ten hottest years ever. Or on a lighter, but equally telling note, how French ski resorts are using helicopters to import snow for the slopes.


But during these past few weeks I haven't been able to escape the feeling that the presidential race is the real story about climate change, especially in light of the results of the Nevada Democratic primary, and the sad unmasking of the fallibility of the wizard-behind-the-curtain in the Las Vegas debate.


Four more years of Trump and his know-nothing climate policies will put the planet in a hole that we may never be able to dig ourselves out of. And the Democrats, who to a person claim to be the planet's guardians, seem hell-bent on enabling Trump to get those four more years with their overweening vanity, their purity tests, and their antiquated attitude that they can overcome the power of Trump's mythmaking expertise with issues.


Full disclosure: I support virtually every policy and program that Bernie Sanders is advocating. Sanders is right on almost every issue except the most important one—he fails to see that the only priority in 2020 is to defeat Trump.


Sanders is blinded by his own self-righteousness, his messianic perception that he's about to fulfill his life-long destiny, and his total misreading of the American public as revolutionaries-in-waiting. Instead of being flexible and putting together a realistic program and timetable to achieve his goals, all he wants to do is wave his arms in the air and shout, metaphorically speaking, "Get off my lawn!"


Forget the polls that show Sanders beating Trump head-to-head. So did Hillary. Trump will make mincemeat of Bernie's proud socialism, and turn him into the second coming of McGovern. Irony of ironies, the would-be eviscerator of Obamacare will position himself as the guardian of American healthcare—"I won't let Crazy Bernie take away your health insurance." The surge of young voters to the polls in November is likely to prove to be a fable—there's been no sign of it in the caucuses to date. And for every Bernie Bro who shows up with a pitchfork and a torch, a stout burgher will be there to meet him and defeat him at the ballot box. As for coattails, it's more like a shirttail, and a frayed one at best. Democrats will be lucky to hold the House and not lose more Senate seats. And you can kiss off Florida. Bernie lost it last night defending Fidel Castro on a CNN town hall.


Moreover, in addition to losing the Presidency, the Senate, and maybe the House, a Sanders candidacy could set back the progressive cause for years. Nobody wants to be associated with a loser. Think of the conservative backlash in the wake of McGovern. The anti-war liberals were never a factor again in politics, even when they had Nixon to beat up. Reagan was the predictable outcome.


I'll be watching the debate tonight and the South Carolina primary on Saturday, hoping that the candidates and the electorate return to sanity, whatever and/or whoever that might be. But honestly, barring divine intervention or a Sanders electoral collapse or a cordinated effort by his opponents to narrow the field and speak with one voice, I think it's time to write off the presidency for the next four years and concentrate on holding the House and perhaps even taking the Senate. Perhaps a Democratic congress could put a check on Trump's worst instincts and energize the citizenry to defend the planet.

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What's Wrong With This Picture?

Climate change is the usual subject for my posts. I try not to focus on politics, although I often can't resist landing a glancing blow on the Republicans, most often for their denial of climate change. But this latest political news is so horrendous and dispiriting that I must make an exception.


President Trump's job approval rating has reached an all-time high—49%. That's up 10 percentage points since last October.


These figures come from the reputable Gallup organization, not the in-the-tank Rasmussen bunch. The poll was conducted between January 16-29, in the midst of the Senate impeachment trial (sic).


Trump's 94% job approval rating among Republicans has risen 6 percentage points while the impeachment hearings were underway.  His approval rating among Independents is up from 37% to 42% during the same time. Among Democrats, it fell from 10% to 7%.


Where is the outrage? How can an electorate countenance a president who attempted to use taxpayer money to bribe a foreign leader into digging up dirt on a likely political opponent, who lies as easily as he breathes, and who brings down the level of national discourse to the level of a schoolyard bully?


And don't tell me about the roaring economy. Go ask the seventy percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, who couldn't afford a sudden $400 hit to their budget, how roaring the economy is. Or go ask a friend you trust on Wall Street what's really happening in a stock market that is more overvalued than any previous time in history, including the crash of 1929? Is it really different this time?


What's different is that we have a president who can't identify the location of the home town of the Super Bowl winner, a major city in the country he likes to think he rules ("Congratulations to the great state of Kansas…"), and who pretends to conduct the band while the national anthem is being sung (Colin Kaepernick spent Super Bowl Sunday serving meals to the needy.)


What's different is we've lost our collective mind.

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Do Americans Believe in Climate Change?

How about a little good news for a change? True, 2019 marked the end of the hottest decade in recorded history, and the second-hottest year. But as a nation, we seem to be noticing. Americans do believe in climate change and every year we believe in it more.


Americans think climate change is a bigger problem than economic inequality, racism, illegal immigration, or terrorism. Think about that for a second. As a nation, we believe climate change is more of a problem than Mexican caravans, the late Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, and the sixty percent of struggling adults in our country who live paycheck to paycheck.


Let me take the risk of boring you with some statistics. Forty-eight percent of us believe climate change is "a very big problem." That's up from forty percent in 2016. Another twenty-four percent think climate change is "a moderately big problem," while only twenty-seven percent think it's "a small problem" or "not a problem at all."


What's more, Americans believe that climate is manmade. Fifty-two percent agree that Earth is "getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels." That's up from 45 percent three years ago.

Those responses come from the Pew Research Center, a highly respected "nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world." The survey was conducted in September 2019, with a national probability sample of 2,004 adults 18+.


What makes the growing belief in climate change more heartening is that in 2019, the United States experienced less of an increase in temperature than the rest of the planet. Look at the heat map and notice how the color code of the US compares to Central Europe or Antarctica. The Great Plains states were one of the few parts of the world that were actually cooler in 2019.


Of course, there's bad news, as well. We're as divided about climate change as we are about all the other major issues the nation is facing. Seventy-three percent of Democrats and Independents who "lean Democrat" believe climate change is "a very big problem." Only 17 percent of Republicans and Independent "leaners" agree.


It's sad, but we didn't need the Pew study to tell us that science is being sacrificed on the altar of politics. And that it will take politics to bring science back to the forefront. I'm looking forward to a very noisy election year.


Next post, I'll dig deeper into the underlying reasons for the increasing belief in climate change. But here's a hint: "It's the weather, stupid."

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The Limits of Optimism

As we usher in 2020, this eponymous year for perfect vision, I find it very difficult to see a rosy future for the planet. Flaming neon orange seems to be winning out.


An entire continent is burning in the southern hemisphere, while the prime minister vacations in Hawaii and panders to the coal industry for more donations. The "police are now working on the premise arson is to blame," while the deputy prime minister floats the idea that the real culprit is "horse manure, self-combusting." The only explanation for this mad climate-change denial is that when the temperature regularly soars to 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, it tends to fry the brain.


In Washington the Trump administration continues its war on science, ignoring, distorting, or marginalizing any and all scientific data, first and foremost but not exclusively, any data that relates to climate change. As the evisceration of the Environmental Protection Agency and other watchdog organizations continues unabated, and rules and regulations meant to protect the health and well-being of ordinary citizens are consigned to the trash bin, the White House trumpets "Businesses are finally being freed of Washington's overreach and the American economy is flourishing as a result."


Meanwhile, the Greenland ice sheet continues to melt seven times faster than in the 1990s, the UN climate change conference in Madrid ends in disarray, and half a billion animals are likely to perish in the living Hell down under. The Green New Deal remains a third-rail issue, and according to a Vegas sports book, reflecting how people are betting in real time, Trumps' odds of winning reelection after ordering the assassination of an Iranian general are at an all time high.


David Brooks, the New York Times' cuddly conservative columnist, thinks the prediction of a Trump victory is wishful thinking. In his own version of same, a column entitled, "A Ridiculously Optimistic History of the Next Decade," he foresees a landslide for the Dems, including winning both houses of Congress. As he segued from politics into his prognosis for cultural and social issues, I was relishing his wisdom and prescience until I reached the last line and realized that not once in this "ridiculously optimistic" assessment, had he made his forecast known about the fight against climate change. In fact, climate change is never mentioned. What does that say about the limits of optimism?


Happy 20/20.

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Happy New Year to All!

"Article II gives me the power to do anything I want!"

As I said in my previous post, it's not easy to keep politics out of a discussion of climate change. Particularly as I sit in my office and watch and hear a typical New York metro-area December thunderstorm roll by.


So Happy New Year to all, and let's cheer on Greta and Nancy and a practical version of the Green New Deal!...Garth

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David vs. Goliath

It's not easy to keep politics out of a discussion of climate change. It's particularly difficult as I write this post while watching the historic impeachment proceedings against a president who is the point man for climate change deniers. So I will not try.


Immediately after President Trump lost out to climate activist Greta Thunberg as Time magazine's Person of the Year, he mockingly tweeted, "So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!"


To further assuage his perceived humiliation, @TrumpWarRoom released this mock-up of what the Time magazine cover should look like, along with the message, "When it comes to keeping his promises, there's only one Person Of The Year." According to the release, those promises he's already kept include "America First Trade Deals" and "Building the Wall."


As a reminder, Greta is a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. At the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September, she criticized world leaders for slow walking the fight against climate change, saying, "you are failing us, but the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you, and if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you."


President Trump is the 73-year-old president of the United States. After his last annual physical in February, his personal physician declared him to be in "very good health." Nonetheless, he displays all the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which according to the Mayo Clinic is "a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others." He is also the husband of Melania Trump, who has launched an anti-cyberbullying initiative, "Be Best."


So what have we learned from these sparse facts, other than, arguably, our president has more mental health issues than Greta? He has a skinnier neck than Adam Schiff, he would look better if he lost sixty or seventy pounds, and he and Mrs. Trump don't talk.


What no one had to tell us is that David defeated Goliath. Or that President Trump is a bully, he is prone to exaggeration or outright lies, and he sullies the dignity of his office and the reputation of our nation.


Go Greta! Go Nancy!

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Life on the "Barbie"

Sydney Harbor

No, not the doll. The backyard grill.


Used to be that Australians were best known for that iconic Tourism Commission commercial where Crocodile Dundee promised Americans to "slip a shrimp on the barbie." Today, it's the Australian people themselves who are getting broiled.


Bushfires, as they're referred to Down Under, have been raging across the country for months, fed by a severe, ongoing drought, high winds, and summer temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As many as 140 fires have been blazing in the past few days. Six lives and more than 700 homes have been lost. A megafire north of Sydney—"it's too big to put out"—that has been burning since early November, has transformed the "Emerald City" sky into an unhealthy and depressing palette of orange and gray and ocher.


This unfolding disaster is happening in a country whose government is in the same state of denial about climate change as the Trump administration. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has suggested that some types of climate change demonstrations should be outlawed, and has refused to meet with firefighters who are desperate for more resources to battle the flames.


As reservoirs run dry in Australia, and tough water restrictions are imposed, we can be thankful that according to our president, we have nothing to worry about over here, other than our need to "flush the toilet 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once."


Taking a short break from hurling invective about the impeachment inquiry, the noted germophobe-in-chief elaborated on his concerns by saying, "You go into a new building or a new house or a new home and they have standards, only you don't get water. You can't wash your hands practically, there's so little water comes out of the faucet. And the end result is you leave the faucet on and it takes you much longer to wash your hands…They end up using more water. So (the) EPA is looking at that very strongly at my suggestion."


Presumably our president's suggestion is to roll back regulations on low-flush toilets and controlled-flow faucets. Sadly, arguing for our use of more water on an increasingly water-starved planet, doesn't reach the standard of a high crime or misdemeanor. It's merely inane and shortsighted, but what else is new?


            Breaking NewsTime has named Greta Thunberg as their "Person of the Year." More on that next week.

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In Case You're Missing It...

Our Man in Appalachia

The media's attention is focused on Washington, where the impeachment hearings are entering a new phase, and on London, where the 70th anniversary of the NATO alliance is being celebrated, affording the president yet another opportunity to hobnob with the queen, as well as to be ridiculed by our European allies and depart in a huff. (There was no hobnobbing with Boris Johnson, at his request, or with Prince Andrew, a man the president seemingly "doesn't know.")


Lost in the shuffle is the far less entertaining current meeting in Madrid. More than 50 world leaders—our president not among them—are gathering for the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, running from December 2 to December 19. The conference comes on the heels of the latest annual UN climate change assessment, which states, "The summary findings are bleak."


According to the report, global greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 1.5 percent per year over the past decade. The report warned that to avoid the worst effects of climate change by 2050, such as more intense droughts, stronger storms, and widespread population migration and hunger, emissions must decline by 7.6 percent every year from 2020 onwards. This formidable challenge was summed up by the UN Secretary-General at the opening ceremony in Madrid—the planet is "close to a point of no return."


Much to the surprise and chagrin of the Republicans in Congress, the Democrats are finding time to tend to important business beyond the "star chamber" proceedings of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flew to Madrid to tell the world, "By coming here we want to say to everyone we are still in, the United States is still in," and that, "Our delegation is here to send a message that Congress's commitment to take action on the climate crisis is iron clad." Brave words, but Article Two of the Constitution is broad and contentious, and it's unlikely that the House, by itself, would have the power to override the dictates of a short-sighted Chief Executive.


Do you suppose it's merely a coincidence that our president took the formal step to remove the United States from the Paris climate accords, effective November 4, 2020. FYI, election day is November 3. Beware the possibility of the "first major accomplishment of the second Trump administration."


So there's a lot more at stake in the ongoing impeachment proceedings and the upcoming election—for the senate as well as the presidency—than whether the current sizable derriere will continue to hold court in the oval office. The results could potentially determine the fate of the planet.


                                        - For those of you who are wondering, we ate the last of 2019's tomatoes yesterday, December 3.                                            Not as good as warm off the vine, but far tastier than store-bought.

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