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June 23, 2012

Old Dogs

Younger people think us baby-boomers had it made but this was not really true. Older baby-boomers, who became adults in the 1960s, enjoyed a great economy. Younger ones, who became adults in the 1970s, faced high unemployment and stagflation, economic times more challenging than we face today, at least for youth. One reason we are well educated is that we stayed in school because we couldn’t find good steady work. 

I noticed an interesting story in the WSJ talking about how older workers are being affected more acutely then even younger workers by current doldrums. Take a look at this chart and count backwards. Younger baby-boomers were young during the rotten times of the 1970s and are now the old of the rotten times today.  

But let's share a deeper fear. As a 57-year old, I am afraid that my skills are becoming - have become - obsolete. Experience means much less in a world that is rapidly changing and in some cases old skills may actually become a liability. Thirty years of experience in one line of work may be of no value looking for a job in another.  There is also the assumption that young people know the tricks of technology that old dogs cannot learn.  

I think this is why older workers fear losing their jobs so much. Once we fall out, our chances of getting back in are limited. Those with the means may simply choose early retirement; others will just be poor and this period of unemployment may well affect their life prospects for the next thirty years or until they shuffle off this mortal coil, poorer, sadder but perhaps not wiser. 

Random chance plays a big role in our lives. Those who are successful are less often the smartest or the quickest than those who keep trying.  As you get older, you have fewer roles of the dice left and often fewer places to throw them. I don't have a solution to this problem, which more or less reflects the human condition. But I do point it out to those who might think that unemployment among older people is a situation that doesn't matter so much since they can retire.

June 12, 2012

Learning a Little More about how Brazil Works

 Brazilian Congress 

I spoke to a senior analyst at the Camara dos Deputados Office of Legislative Counsel. He is a former IVLP and subsequently did graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, so he knows something both about Brazil and the U.S. His organization is much like a CRS, but maybe a bit more hand on in helping with the drafting of legislation. It does general studies of important subjects, as well as supports the legislators with specific research. We talked about the Brazilian government and how it is similar and different from ours.


The many similarities to the U.S. system is not an accident. The new Brazilian republic used the U.S. as a model. Rui Barbosa, the chief architect of the Constitution of 1891 (Brazil’s first republican constitution), looked toward the U.S., specifically rejecting French style constitutional thinking then lingering in South America. Brazil was once called the United States of Brazil. We see many familiar forms. Brazil has a President elected to a four year term by popular vote. There is nothing like our Electoral College. There is a Senate (Brazilian senators are elected to eight year terms with three from each of the 26 states and three from the Federal District for a total of 81), a House of Representatives (513 deputies, who are elected by proportional representation to serve four-year terms) and a Supreme Court (eleven members appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate). Like the U.S., Brazil is a federation of states, although the states do not have all the same sovereign rights as those in the U.S. An important difference in origin is that in the U.S. the states created the Federal government while in Brazil the Federal government created the states.

Ministries in Brasilia 

The Brazilian system gives more power to the president than ours does. The executive originates the budget. The congress authorizes spending, but in practice does not resist presidential initiatives. The president also has significant power to issue what we would call executive orders. These have the power of law unless the congress negates them within two months. More and more laws are being promulgated in this way. The president also has significant power to move resources. This makes congress more dependent on presidential favor.

Fire near Lake Paranoa in Brasilia 

You can tell where power concentrates by the number of deputies and senators who leave the congress to run for local office. Rather than working up toward the Federal level, many politicians look at the job in congress as a stepping stone to becoming a mayor or governor in their home states. I don’t recall this happening often in the U.S.


Osmar also told me that the courts are moving in the unexpected direction of essentially making law by means of their decisions. This happens in the U.S., but it is more surprising in Brazil, which is a primarily a code law country w/o our strong common law traditions of precedents.

Window view of Brasilia 

Of course, Brazil and the U.S. are different in many ways, given the differences in our history and cultures, but having in common being very large countries with lots of diversity tends to pull us in many of the same directions. Both the U.S. and Brazil are countries of aspiration, i.e. people can a long way away and still remain in the same country. This means that they can aspire to better their lives by moving to follow opportunities. We talked about changes in the last twenty-five years with migration of people from Rio Grande do Sul and Parana as a kind of case study. These people followed the agricultural frontier, trading relatively small holdings in their home states for much bigger places in states like Mato Grosso, Rondonia or Pará. Cities such as Santarém in Pará are heavily Gaucho and the prospering farms in western Bahia are often owned by former residents of the South. They brought their skills and habits with them, but also quickly blended in with Brazilians already there. In our country you might see this kind of pattern with Californians moving to other states of the west. I remember people in eastern Washington State complaining that they were being “Californicated.” I would not want to take the parallel too far, but it does exist.

Anyway, I despair of really getting to know Brazil.  It is way too big and complex and by the time I learn something, it is likely to have changed.  When I talk to Brazilians about comparisons of my country with theirs, I often realize how much about my own country I just don’t know. I suppose I should just enjoy the quest of trying to find out.

June 10, 2012

Who Wants to Live Forever?

I was figuring out the rotation on 107 acres of twenty-eight year-old loblolly pine we just got. We will clear cut in five years, let it idle for a year or two, maybe put a few goats on it, and then apply biosolids and replant. You have to plan ahead. As I was thinking about it, however, I realized that my chances of seeing this cycle through are small and if I am still around, I probably will be unable to take part in the operation. I will be compost before this next generation of trees matures on that tract.

The funny thing is that older guys plant the most trees. Of course that might just be because only older guys can buy or inherit forest land. I got the land from a guy in his eighties. He planted (actually directed they be planted) the trees when he was about my age. He gave me a good deal on the land and it seems to me that one reason is that he wanted to give the land to someone who would take care of it. His kids evidently are not much interested in forestry. Sometimes people ask why I plant trees when I am reasonably certain that I will not see them mature. I am not sure. It is just what I do, a kind of habit. Some people say that you plant trees for the next generation. I don't know if it's all that true. The little trees are a joy for today too. How does the song go? "A promise for the future and a blessing for today."

Forestry can be a good investment, provided you have the time. In the long run, reasonably managed pine forestry produces bigger returns than the average stock portfolio. But you have to love it too.  I imagine that land management could be an unpleasant chore for some people.

One of the things I like best about forestry is the "diplomacy." I get to work with local farmers, hunters, foresters, loggers and paper and pulp firms. I find that a lot of people want to use my land and many are willing to help. Local hunters have been very helpful in establishing quail habitat and native warm season grasses. Our interests coincide. They want a healthy wildlife habitat to produce animals they can hunt. I am happy to have my land kept in a healthy state. A guy from a local paper mill helped me get locally grown longleaf pine and bald cypress. We have established an area of "Virginia heritage forest." Of course this is another forest I will never see mature, but I can picture it in my mind.

Forestry is a good example of cooperation between individuals, government, business and NGOs. The State of Virginia sent a wildlife biologist who gave us advice on which types of vegetation to establish to encourage wildlife and protect soil and water resources. The state gives us training in things like fire management and we  get advice on forest health from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

Virginia Tech holds all sorts of seminars on things like timber management and biosolids. We get advice from the Tree Farm System, America’s oldest sustainable forestry NGO. Dominion Power paid us to manage our land that lies under their power lines. We keep the land in grass and forbs. Wildlife loves it and it doesn't bother their transmission lines. A local paper mill helped me write a management plan for one of my tracts. We are thinning to different densities. They want to show clients how different management regimes produce different results. The Boy Scouts came down to cut trails and build bridges.  The local hunt club maintains the roads and shoots the local varmints. Their presence discourages vandalism and dumping. It is a pretty good system, an integrated social web.

I try to take the kids along when I go to visit the farms. They comment about how happy and friendly everybody seems. That has also been my experience. I don't really know why that is, but I have a theory, actually it is two-fold. I think forestry generally attracts people with a long term perspective and forestry teaches a long term perspective. It has a calming effect that brings joy in many things. You know your place and can be both active and passive. Forestry is subject to natural laws that cannot be rushed, but if you think ahead, understand the limits and work with the natural systems you can have remarkable achievements. Trying to rush the process produces no good and often a lot of bad, but a little leverage properly informed and a lot of time can make produce big results.

You just won't live to see most of them. In the long run we are all dead. Once you understand that, you are free to be happy with the life you have.

 

June 07, 2012

U.S. New World Leader in Reducing CO2 Emissions

The U.S. has been criticized for not ratifying the Kyoto Treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Yet according to the latest International Energy Agency (IEA) report CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 92 Mt, or 1.7% … US emissions have now fallen by 430 Mt (7.7%) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions.

One of the biggest reasons for the relative the drop is the widespread substitution of cleaner natural gas for coal and oil. I have written before about the vast reserves of American natural gas made available by new technologies, which is the biggest single positive energy development in my lifetime. The mild winter helped this year, but previous winters were cold. The economic downturn meant less consumption, but the downturn hit our European friends harder, and their emissions increased, evidently w/o regard for their signing of the protocols.

Actually the facts are a little worse than that and demonstrate the unexpected results of rules aimed at making things greener. Some of our European friends are resisting the use of natural gas widely available on the old continent because of the same fracking techniques that are revolutionizing energy in the Americas. With gas unavailable at the very low prices we are currently enjoying in America, when harder economic times come, people turn to coal, which is still cheaper.

Germany is also trying to phase out nuclear energy and shuttered eight of its 17 reactors after the Japanese disaster in 2011. These plants had total 12.3 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. Coal will step into this breach too. How much? To put this in perspective, the increased average annual emissions are the equivalent of 2.8 million U.S. cars. German use of coal will rise 13.5% in 2012 . Ironically, carbon "caps" have served as a floor rather than a ceiling. As the recession slowed energy demand, German industries and utilities were free to increase their use of dirtier fuels essentially to compensate for the decline.

Meanwhile rising energy costs are biting German consumers. These are all self-inflicted wounds and there are fears that electricity could become a luxury in Germany. But I digress.

The bottom line is that detailed rules never can anticipate all the circumstances that could make them obsolete and even counterproductive. I doubt anybody thought that measures meant to decrease carbon use could end up encouraging its use while driving up energy prices. Meanwhile who would have suspected that the U.S. would be the country that most reduced its CO2 emissions despite (because of?) its failure to sign onto Kyoto?

June 02, 2012

MD Anderson Cancer Center

MD Anderson Center in Houston 

Some building complexes in Houston are like little cities, self-contained and extensive.  One such is the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where we held our meetings of Latin American educators.  This is one of the best cancer research hospitals in the world.  They try to create a pleasant environment for people in such unpleasant circumstances and they largely succeed.  The complex includes a hotel run by Marriott for families and outpatients.  It looks like a luxury hotel but it has capacity to help people who need it. The restaurants and cafeterias can provide specialized diets with food that looks and tastes good.  It is helpful for people in stressful situations not to have stress added by things like food and surroundings.

Houston skyline from MD Anderson Center 

The multi-building complex is connected by a network of skyways.  They told me how many miles they covered, but I forgot.  It is a lot of space.  Patients can get their exercise just by walking around the buildings, w/o having to go outside.  Houston can be very hot and humid and outside exercise might be difficult for some patients.

Houston 

The slogan of MD Anderson is “Making Cancer History”, using both connotations of the word.  There has been a lot of progress in the fight against cancer.  Survival rates are rising and cancer rates have been falling since the the 1990s.  Most people are unaware of this good news. There is some concern that rising rates of obesity will stop or even reverse this positive trends and they told us that 60% of us will get some form of cancer in our lifetimes.  It is one of the ironies of curing other diseases that as we live longer and do not die of other things, cancer becomes more likely. 

live oaks in Houston 

Cancer is a difficult adversary because it is not a single disease and in some ways is not a disease at all.  It can be a kind of misfire of cell growth that could be good in other conditions.  I cannot say I know very much about it however.  As I listened to the talk and occasionally saw patients and their families wandering the building, I just felt sad and sort of stopped listening. 

Star Trek folks going to fair 

The very word cancer is anxiety provoking. It dragged up old memories of my mother’s cancer.  It is funny how some things stick in your memory. I recall my mother talking to my great aunt Margret. Margaret said something like “Cancer. How can you face the word?”  My mother replied, as close as I can recall, “It is what I have and it’s not the word that scares me.”  That happened more than forty years ago, but I can picture the event.  Of course, I wonder how good my memory is. I regret that I don’t remember more about my mother.  She died young from that cancer. I wonder if more modern therapies could have saved her long enough for me to get to know her as an adult.  

George R Brown statue in Houston 

My top picture shows the MD Anderson Center. Notice all the skyways. The next pictures are Houston in general.  Next shows live oaks. One of the things that is nice about Houston is that they plant trees. There are lots of live oaks and bald cypress along streets.  Bottom pictures are Trekies.  There was some kind of comic book convention at the George R Brown Center. You see a picture of George Brown just above.  George R Brown ran Brown and Root, one of America's great construction companies. He also was a philanthropist, which is I suppose why they named the center after him.


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