Targeting Inflation

Today, the LA Times does its best to help out the Fed by increasing inflation expectations, splashing this across its front page:

Rumblings of inflation grow louder

On Tuesday prices of many raw materials continued to surge, with gold, cotton and sugar reaching record highs. A closely watched index of 19 major commodities closed at a two-year high, despite a late-day sell-off in gold and oil. The effects are rippling from financial trading floors to local stores, forcing consumers to shell out more for everyday basics — a cup of coffee, a box of cereal, a gallon of gasoline.

....Take breakfast. This year alone, raw coffee prices on commodity exchanges are up 60%. Corn and soybeans, the basic feed for hogs and cattle, have risen 39% and 26%, respectively. Wheat, a dietary staple for many cultures, is up 33%, and sugar is up 23%.

Sounds grim. Of course, down in the 13th paragraph we get this from the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service:

The agency forecasts that overall inflation for food prices, projected at 0.5% to 1.5% this year, in 2011 will range from 2% to 3%....Raw material costs often represent only a small portion of the final retail price of a product, compared with labor, marketing and transportation.

Huh. So food will be up maybe 1% this year and 2-3% next year. That's pretty mild, and almost entirely a good thing. More inflation, please.

Chart of the Day: Peak Oil

Stuart Staniford passes along a fascinating little finding:

If you go to the executive summary of the 2009 International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook, and search for "peak oil", your browser will come up empty. The whole subject was so beneath the dignity of a serious energy agency that they didn't even bother mentioning it.

However, yesterday, the 2010 IEA World Energy Outlook became available. And if you repeat the exercise in that executive summary, you will come upon a section titled:

Will peak oil be a guest or the spectre at the feast?

Followed by an explicit discussion of the whole question. The IEA's position is summarized in the graph above — conventional crude oil production has already peaked in 2006! Suddenly, the subject of impending peak has gone from not worthy of discussion to in the past already!

So there you have it. Peak (conventional) oil has come and gone — though the IEA does still implausibly think that conventional production will basically plateau for the next 25 years. This is a remarkable coincidence, but I guess it's progress of a sort. At least peak oil is no longer just a mad conspiracy theory.

Afghanistan Now Officially a Forever War

Last May, after reading about Gen. David Petraeus's ironclad promise that we could begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by next year, I said, "Promise or not, I'll bet that next year, when the drawdown is supposed to start, Petraeus tells us we need to stay." A month later, after reading Gen. Stanley McChrystal's comments on problems with the Kandahar offensive, I said, "It sure sounds to me as if McChrystal is starting the PR campaign for this now."

But those were just guesses. Today, McClatchy's Nancy Youssef says it's a done deal:

The Obama administration has decided to begin publicly walking away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the war in Afghanistan in an effort to de-emphasize President Barack Obama's pledge that he'd begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011, administration and military officials have told McClatchy.

....What a year ago had been touted as an extensive December review of the strategy now also will be less expansive and will offer no major changes in strategy, the officials told McClatchy. So far, the U.S. Central Command, the military division that oversees Afghanistan operations, hasn't submitted any kind of withdrawal order for forces for the July deadline, two of those officials told McClatchy.

....Last week's midterm elections also have eased pressure on the Obama administration to begin an early withdrawal. Earlier this year, some Democrats in Congress pressed to cut off funding for Afghanistan operations. With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives beginning in January, however, there'll be less push for a drawdown. The incoming House Armed Services chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., told Reuters last week that he opposed setting the date.

Roger that. Apparently Pentagon officials now consider 2014 to be the new 2011. I'm sure that will change sometime around 2013 though.

The GOP's A-List

National Journal unveiled its "Presidential Power Rankings" today, billed as a look at which candidates are in the strongest position to win the Republican nomination in 2012. What struck me about it is how thin the field is. Basically, their top three A-List candidates seemed plausible: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and John Thune. Then they rounded out their A-List with Haley Barbour, which speaks volumes about the GOP's A-List.

After that we get to Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and then a bunch of even less credible candidates. So to summarize: we've got Romney, who's the obvious frontrunner but also a transparent panderer who has some serious problems with the Republican base (RomneyCare, he's Mormon); a couple of decent but faceless midwesterners; a smart tactician who unfortunately resembles Boss Hogg far too much to be electable; and three bomb throwing social conservatives. I guess somebody has to win the nomination, but it's sure hard to see it being any of these folks (though I know plenty of people disagree with me about Palin's electability).

This is a pretty hard race to handicap. But campaigns being what they are these days, the first half of next year is hat-in-the-ring time. So I guess we'll find out soon just who thinks they're the one to pick out a new carpet for the Oval Office.
 

Cleaning Up Coal

I'm trying to make sense out of "Dirty Coal, Clean Future," James Fallows' latest piece in the Atlantic, but I'm not having much luck. In one sense it's simple. Fallows makes two points:

  • Like it or not, the world is going to be using a lot of coal for a very long time.
  • China and America are collaborating very nicely on development of clean coal technology.

But collaborating on what? Here's where it gets confusing. Primarily, there's the fact that China is just building lots and lots of coal plants, which provides a lot of scope for experimentation:

In the search for “progress on coal,” like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday — the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well. “They are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me.

....“You can think of China as a huge laboratory for deploying technology,” the official added. “The energy demand is going like this” — his hand mimicked an airplane taking off — “and they need to build new capacity all the time. They can go from concept to deployment in half the time we can, sometimes a third. We have some advanced ideas. They have the capability to deploy it very quickly. That is where the partnership works.”

But this type of progress, Fallows says, is strictly incremental. The Chinese are building new plants that are a bit more efficient or a bit cheaper or a bit cleaner, but even decades of this will only amount to modest improvements. When it comes to really getting the carbon out of coal, there's still only one way to do it: via sequestration. That is, capture the CO2 somehow and pump it underground where it will (hopefully) stay put forever. As Fallows notes, the U.S., Europe, and Australia have been building experimental sequestration facilities for many years now, and so far nothing has gotten beyond the small-scale stage. But:

America’s FutureGen was proposed early, and China’s GreenGen was proposed late. Now — surprise! — GreenGen is closest to being completed, with its scheduled opening moved up from 2015 to 2013, and FutureGen has only recently begun to move beyond the congressional-wrangling stage.

No question about it: FutureGen has been plagued with difficulties. But what about GreenGen? Will it work? Are they using any innovative tech? Is it cost effective? Is it really any better than any of the world's other sequestration demonstration projects?

It's a mystery. There's nothing further in the piece about GreenGen, and it's the only piece of the puzzle that provides any hope of seriously reducing the carbon emissions of coal plants. So I'm not sure what to think. All the collaboration sounds wonderful, and even a 20% or 30% improvement in coal technology would be welcome. But that said, sequestration is the holy grail and I still don't know if the Chinese are doing anything more on that front than the rest of us. Maybe that'll be in the sequel.

Tweet of the Day: More Goldbuggery

Nouriel Roubini on the prospects for gold:

Spam is a better hedge against inflation than gold: you can eat it and it lasts 1000 years. Gold is, as Keynes aptly said, a barbarous relic

I don't know for sure about 1000 years, but I can attest to 15 at least. True story: in 1995 I was best man at a friend's wedding and gave him a can of Spam as a gift. (Don't ask.) Anyway, the idea was to eat it on his 25th anniversary, but he ended up getting divorced this year, a decade before S-Day. So on the day the divorce was finalized he broke open the Spam and some cocktail toothpicks, cooked it up for a bunch of friends, and dug in. His verdict: not only was it edible, it was better than fresh Spam. The aging had actually improved the flavor. This suggests a possible market opportunity to me. Perhaps someday 60-year old Spam will sell for the same price as a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue?

Democrats and the Tax Bill

Steve Benen is tired of Republicans acting as if they're in the majority already. In particular, they're refusing to consider a permanent extension of middle-class tax cuts along with a temporary extension of tax cuts for the wealthy:

Cantor and other Republicans are barking orders, declaring proposals dead, as if they were in the majority. So perhaps now would be a good time to point a minor detail: Bush-era tax rates expire at the end of the year, and between now and then, there's a large Democratic majority in both chambers.

....It seems to me Democrats can get out of their defensive crouch and tell the GOP what's going to happen — there will be a vote on a tax-cut package, and it will feature a permanent cut in middle-class tax rates, and a temporary extension of rates for the wealthy. They can either vote for it or against it. If Senate Republicans refuse to allow the chamber to consider the package, they will have killed the only opportunity available to keep Bush-era tax rates alive, and will be responsible for bringing back Clinton-era rates for everyone.

Well, yes, Democrats could do this. If they weren't idiots, anyway. But they were idiots before the election, and as near as I can tell they're still idiots now. Plus, they still don't have 60 votes in the Senate, and Republicans can still chew up several weeks of calendar time obstructing a tax bill and cackling into their beers while Democrats scurry around haplessly pleading for a vote or two. And they will.

At this point, I think their best bet is to skip the tax bill entirely and focus on other things. Allow the Bush tax cuts to expire completely and let the 112th Congress deal with it. With no election in the offing and the Blue Dogs nearly wiped out, Democrats can be the obstructionists this time around. After all, tax cuts for the rich aren't very popular, gridlock isn't very popular, and Republicans aren't very popular. If nothing passes, they'll get the blame. So why make things easy for them?

Quote of the Day: Goldbuggery

gold coinsFlickr/tao_zhyn (Creative Commons).

From Megan McArdle, on the idea of gold as a hedge against economic apocalypse:

The only scenario I can think of in which it makes sense to stockpile a lot of gold is one where you and your household goods are unexpectedly teleported into the sixteenth century. If you worry a lot about this, then by all means, stockpile gold. But you should also probably take the precaution of stockpiling antibiotics and how-to books on dentistry.

I've never really understood the obsession that end-of-the-worlders have with gold. Canned goods, sure. Guns and ammo, sure. But gold? If the country collapses and my bomb shelter is full of food and medicine and electric generators, do you think I'm going to trade any of that stuff to you in return for a few Krugerrands? What kind of idiot do you think I am?

In any case, I wondered out loud a few months ago about the runup in gold prices, which doesn't make sense as a reaction to our recent financial collapse since the runup started around 2001. Nor does it make sense as an inflation hedge inspired by recent Fed actions, since the runup started in 2001. Nor does Glenn Beck's recent popularity explain it, since the runup started in 2001. Etc.

What does seem to explain it is that China deregulated gold in 2001, and apparently the Chinese are famous gold bugs. And there are a lot of Chinese. India — which I understand also has a large population — liberalized its gold market in the 1990s, and since then has become a gold sink as well: "In the January-March quarter this year, India was the strongest performing gold market in the world....Gold jewellery demand rose from 37.7 tonnes to 147.5 tonnes....With an estimated 10 million marriages a year taking place in India, wedding-related demand accounts for a substantial proportion of overall jewellery demand."

So take your pick. Gold prices are going up because of fears that the end times are near, gold prices are going up because of fears of nonexistent inflation, or gold prices are going up because two billion Chinese and Indian consumers are lapping the stuff up. The first two might be playing a role, but I'll put my money on Door #3. As for how long the runup lasts, don't ask me. I'd guess it depends mostly on gold demand in China and India, and even in my most expansive moments I wouldn't pretend to know anything about that. I'm willing to bet that most of the people who bloviate endlessly on the subject don't either.

Exit Poll Nonsense

Matea Gold and Jordan Steffen of the LA Times do yeoman work today trying to show that women were an outsize part of the Democratic loss last week:

"I think women just did not see an economic narrative that was meaningful to them," said pollster Celinda Lake. "It really has to speak to the kitchen table. It can't just speak to banks and Wall Street."

During a year when the economy was the dominant concern in the electorate, single women were likely to feel those pressures even more acutely. "Unmarried women are the most economically vulnerable group, particularly if they have children," said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. "While there has been a lot of discussion in this recession about men and manufacturing jobs, it still is the case that unmarried women are the poorest. If they feel their concerns aren't being addressed by Obama and the Democrats around the economy, it sort of makes some sense there was a decline."

This kind of thing pisses me off. One of the reasons I do a biannual review of the exit polls is precisely to head off this kind of nonsense. Not that Gold and Steffen had to read my post to figure out what was going on: their own chart shows that nothing special was happening among women. Overall, Republicans did about 7-8 points better than in 2006. Among women, they only did 6 points better. Among unmarried women, they only did 4 points better. Among married women, they only did 4 points better. In other words, women were more loyal than average to Democrats this cycle. They switched in lower numbers than most other groups. Far from feeling economic pressures "more acutely," they apparently felt them less acutely by a small margin.

But stories need narratives, whether they're correct or not. "Nothing special happening among women" might be accurate, but I guess it doesn't make a very good headline.

Liberals vs. Progressives

A conservative-ish friend was visiting me a couple of weeks ago and wanted to know what the word "progressive" meant. It's just someone who's really far to the left, isn't it? I said no, not really, it was basically a term born a few years ago when liberals decided that the word "liberal" was irreparably tarnished and we needed something new to call ourselves. But beyond that, honestly, I wasn't entirely sure.

Turns out I'm not alone. Chris Moody explores the etymology of the word here, and apparently no one else really knows for sure either. Enjoy. But there's one thing he misses: Glenn Beck has been spending a ton of time and energy demonizing the word "progressive" over the past couple of years, and I suspect my friend was reacting to the fallout from that. So trying to find a new word didn't work. No matter what we call ourselves, conservatives are going to do their best to make it unfit for polite company. Probably best not to worry too much about it.