We Lost A Shared Reality

By Paolo von Schirach–

WASHINGTON – May be this was never true; but for a very long time many in America could argue that, whatever our political or ideological differences, we all shared the same facts based reality. We may have differed on what to do about issues and problems; but at least in a broad sense we were basing our judgments, opinions and counsel on the same facts.

Maybe it is a myth

As I said, may be deep down this was never true. Indeed, we have ample evidence that different segments of the American society for the longest time lived in different universes, with their own set of facts and related explanations.

Just to cite the most egregious example, leaders in the American South, even after the end of the Civil War that formally ended slavery, for almost a century embraced the fantasy that racial segregation was a fair and just legal and social arrangement, wisely created for the benefit of all, Whites and Blacks. They claimed that the facts on the ground demonstrated that segregation worked just fine for all parties. Nobody seemed to notice, let alone acknowledge, any conflicts between the US constitutional principle of equal justice for all and statutes that clearly and openly contradicted this core principle, denying African Americans their civil and voting rights, opportunity, education, jobs, and a lot more. And this is just one example, albeit gigantic.

A shared reality

Still, despite this and other discrepancies, the American cultural and political elites seemed to base their opinions on the reassuring assumption that they were drawn from a reality we all shared and agreed with.

For many years, the media reinforced this assumption. Every evening, when the news came into millions of American homes from the three big networks, not many viewers would challenge the truthfulness of “the facts” that were presented to them by the News Anchors, (all of them serious looking, middle aged, white males), and all the other correspondents. If it was on the evening news, well, it was factual. It was the truth. Revered CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite famously signed off his daily broadcast with “And that’s the way it is” which could be interpreted as “This is the final word on this. We have told you the entire story”.

Again, may be what was presented on TV every night was not the entire truth. May be there was subtle or not so subtle editing and therefore willful manipulation in the way the events of the day were covered. But, even if this was happening, even if millions of viewers were in facts duped and fed lies, not many Americans openly doubted the truthfulness of what they watched every evening.

Customized media for true believers

Well, if we fast forward to today, we realize that we are in an entirely different world. Today we do not even pretend to have a shared reality. We have different realities, and we openly and consciously follow the one that suits us the most. When it comes to “news”, we choose to watch, read and listen to those who speak to our biases and prejudices. In the public affairs shows there is not even a pretense to be “objective”. Facts are presented selectively, with an obvious intent to spin in order to make a prepackaged point. Likewise, no effort to separate news and opinions. It is all a big stew. Worse yet, millions of people see nothing wrong with this approach to “news coverage”. The fact that the opinions we love to listen to in many if not most cases our grounded on fantasies, or at the very least serious distortion of “the facts”, is not even contemplated.

A nation of cult followers

Is this unprecedented? Well, not entirely. If we look at our past, of course here in America we always had some extreme political movements, strange cults, and weird sects that proclaimed outlandish things, often basing them on non existent “facts”. And these groups attracted some followers. But the point is that these were and usually remained fringe phenomena, with a modest following.

Now, very large sections of our society have voluntarily chosen to become the modern equivalent of cult followers who embrace a set of fantasyland theories with the absolute, unflinching certainty that they are based on “true facts”. The added corollary is usually that all those who disagree with the believers of a particular “truth” are deemed to be either stupid or evil. In many cases, they are portrayed as archenemies to be fought and neutralized.

A political view of Covid -19

An interesting example of this immersion in fantasyland is in the different way in which Americans, depending on their political orientations, look today at the still unfolding coronavirus pandemic.

What? Are there political views on the nature of the virus that caused this unprecedented health crisis? Yes, there are. And they are not confined to issues on which there can be legitimate policy disagreements; such as: how much money should be spent on testing, on emergency care, or on the development of a vaccine, who should be in charge of this and that, and the like. No, the disagreement is much more profound. it is about the nature of the disease, ans therefore on how dangerous it is, and what sorts of precautions individuals should take.

According to the website The Bulwark, here is the summary of views on the pandemic held by many (albeit not all) Republicans:

  • Less than half of Republicans believe that COVID-19 is a major threat to public health.
  • 63 percent of Republicans say that the extent of the coronavirus is exaggerated.
  • A quarter of the public thinks that the pandemic is the result of a planned conspiracy.
  • 40 percent of Republicans say COVID-19 is no more deadly than the flu.
  • 50 percent of Republicans say the COVID-19 death toll is an exaggeration.
  • 23 percent of Republicans say masks should be worn “rarely” or “never.”

Just to pick one item from this list of truly bizarre beliefs, I do not believe that many in the medical profession would seriously argue today that Covid-19 is more or less as dangerous as the flu. Sure enough, in many cases it looks like the flu. Its symptoms are similar, and the affected patients may experience only some temporary discomfort. But we also know that the mortality of Covid-19 is much, much higher than the flu, 52 times higher according to some calculations. Besides, as of now there is no Covid-19 vaccine; whereas flu vaccines that can prevent or at least mitigate the flu symptoms do exist. Hence the covid-induced lockdowns, and the various public health measures aimed at preventing, or at least minimizing, coronavirus contagion.

So, here we go. Medical experts say something based on empirical evidence. But a segment of the population prefers to believe others who provide an entirely different analysis. The medical experts wonder how is it possible that so many Americans would hold views that are contradicted by the known facts. But they do it anyway.

Green America within reach in no time

On the other side of the political divide, we have some segments within the Democratic Party who talk about their plans to make America Green in just 15 years as a perfectly reasonable, practical and cost effective plan. They honestly believe that it is possible to transform the entire power generation and distribution system and most industries in America, the largest economy on Earth, within a relatively short period of time, with no downside and no meaningful discomfort for a nation of more than 330 million people.

And yet recent developments, such as the California blackouts caused by significant supply problems caused by deployed, and as yet imperfect, renewable electricity prove that going green, itself a worthwhile goal, will require significantly improved technologies that as of now are not available on any scale. And yet the believers dismiss this “fact”. They see no problem in implementing this fantasy based on the “fact” that we already have what it takes to engineer this most dramatic transformation. The only people who see problems –so argue the believers– are those who want to derail the green agenda, because they represent the vested interests of the fossil fuels industry and their lobbyists. So, even here the opponents of “the truth” are essentially enemies.

Private universes

Well, here we are. It is a fact that large segments of our society now live in their own self-sufficient, private universes that have no interest in engaging others holding different views. They are completely impervious to fact based evidence that may contradict their beliefs. They believe what they want to believe, and proclaim that to be the facts-based truth.

There are still some pragmatists, for now

The only positive element in all this is that there still are some Americans who try to understand what the facts related to any issue or problem are. They genuinely seek to find common sense-based agreement on feasible solutions for real issues. And these people try to build coalitions and partnerships in order to advance real world practical solutions. And this is good. But it looks that the armies of the sectarian believers are growing. If this phenomenon does not stop, if the sectarians end up dominating the political and policy environment, we may face a real national crisis relatively soon.

This American Republic is founded on the (fantasy?) assumption that most citizens are generally reasonable people who will naturally seek common ground with others in order to address real life issues that affect the broader society. If this is no longer true, if we are just a bunch of warring sects proclaiming mutually exclusive “truths”, it is hard to understand how our system of government based on compromise and reaching out to others can survive.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.




Tesla Batteries and Climate Change

By Paolo von Schirach —

WASHINGTON – Notwithstanding solemn pledges issued by many governments, no country that really matters is taking the fight against climate change seriously. Headline grabbing global agreements detailing ambitious emission reduction goals mean almost nothing, as they are purely voluntary, and therefore non verifiable, and certainly not enforceable.

Policy-makers will not act

Do not expect more on this front. The truth is that all policy-makers live under the constraints and pressures of urgent matters that require immediate attention. Catastrophic climate change scenarios regarding what will materialize in our world years or even decades from now do not motivate anybody in a position of responsibility to engage –today– in serious and very costly policy changes.

Innovation will deliver results

That said, there is hope when it comes to drastically reducing dangerous emissions. And hope rests on coming up with cost-effective technological innovation. Man made global warming leading to climate change is largely due to the continuing use of dirty emission producing technologies and industrial processes, most of them developed quite a long time ago. The reason why we keep using them, with only some improvements here and there, is because any currently available alternatives would be far too expensive. However, innovation may change all this. Human ingenuity should not be discounted.

Tesla leading on new battery technologies

Take Tesla, for example. Under Elon Musk, its controversial founder, Tesla dared to think of commercially viable electric vehicles (EVs) many, many years ago, when nobody –literally nobody– in the automotive business believed that this might be possible.

Well, fast forward to today and we see how tiny Tesla has become an EVs sector leader. True, the jury is still out on Tesla’s long term commercial viability. However, a relentless effort to improve its battery technology and therefore reduce cost structure and increase both vehicle performance and company profitability may indicate that this maverick EV company may not just survive but actually lead a boom in EVs production.

We know that the main obstacle on the way to mass produced, affordable electric cars is relatively unsophisticated battery technology. While there has been progress, the batteries used to power most EVs are still expensive, very heavy, and not very efficient compared to the traditional internal combustion engines running on oil derived gasoline.

A game changer

Tesla, however, (and many others innovators around the world working on the same or similar issues), seem to have made very significant progress in improving battery performance on all fronts: life of the battery, cost and weight of the battery, amount of energy stored in the battery, and therefore distance that can be covered with a single charge, and shorter recharging time. Many of these battery technology breakthroughs have just been announced by Tesla, and it remains to be seen how the actual vehicles sold to real customers will perform. Still, assuming that most of what Tesla announced is true or close to becoming true, then we are getting to, or very close to a tipping point when it comes to the mass adoption of electric vehicles.

Cheap, high performance electric vehicles will generate mass markets

It is no secret that so far electric vehicles have had only limited appeal. They are still regarded by most consumers as too expensive. They are fancy gadgets for the rich who can afford to pay extra money for a high-tech car, so that they can brag about being green and cool.

Most budget conscious people considering buying a new car look at the price and then the operating cost of the car (mostly fuel) over the time in which they will use it. For these reasons, an expensive EV coming with the additional problems of limited range, limited numbers of charging stations and a long recharging time does not look appealing.

But a new generation of Tesla vehicles powered by a super efficient, low cost, lower weight, high performance battery that will essentially last for ever, would be a true game changer. It would signal a new era for EVs: from experimentation and tinkering to mass production based on proven superior technology and lower prices.

End of gasoline

When this happens, high performance and cheaper EVs will inevitably displace gasoline powered traditional cars. Assuming that these battery technology breakthroughs will work as expected, we can reasonably conclude that EVs will begin to dominate the global auto industry in just a few years. This will be the beginning of the end for traditional cars. And this will also be the end for many refiners currently producing the rivers of gasoline necessary to power hundreds of millions of traditional cars. Further upstream, the virtual end of gasoline will also mean significantly lower demand for crude oil.

Oil will survive, at least for a while

Of course, we do know that even if it all happens as planned regarding a new generation of batteries, with Tesla and many others inundating the global automotive market with affordable, state of the art, super efficient EVs, it will take years before the world automotive fleet will become totally electric. In the meantime, there will be still demand for gasoline and therefore oil.

The oil industry will survive. Let’s not forget that beyond gasoline oil is also used to make diesel fuel for trucks and other heavy vehicles, and powering ships’ engines, not to mention jet fuel, heating oil, and plastics, and what not. Therefore we can expect that there will still be an oil industry ten or even twenty years from now, (unless other technological disruptions will introduce alternatives to other oil-derived products). However, it will be a smaller, streamlined oil industry; and it will be dominated by the low cost producers, (think Saudi Arabia). In a world market characterized by lower and declining demand for oil, only those who can be and stay profitable with oil at $ 10 per barrel or less will be able to survive.

The end of shale?

This being the case, the future of the recently reborn US oil industry appears very uncertain at best. The economic sustainability of the US shale revolution, itself the fruit of American technological ingenuity, was and is predicated on fairly high oil prices. While the cost of fracking operations has come down significantly in the last few years, fracking is still a fairly expensive activity. It is hard to believe that companies struggling in 2019 to stay alive, let alone do well, with oil at around $ 50 per barrel or less, will be able to survive when crude will go down to $15 or less, on account of soft global demand.

Innovation spill over

Improved battery technologies will also transfer to other applications, such as efficient storage for electricity produced by renewable sources such as wind and solar, something that will most likely increase their appeal and marketability vis-a-vis traditional fossil fuel based electric power generation. Overtime, expect fewer (if any) coal fired power plants, and eventually fewer natural gas power plants that are now necessary given intermittent generation from renewables.

You see where we are going here. We are looking at the real possibility of cascading positive effects, affecting different sectors, all born out of technological innovation spurred by the goal of getting a better battery for Tesla’s EVs. And this is the magic of innovation. It spreads. Tesla was not born out of the need to address a well defined market need. True enough, American drivers were routinely complaining about the high cost of gasoline. But all they wanted was cheaper gas. They had not articulated this complaint into a demand for an alternative to the traditional car powered by an internal combustion engine.

And here is the beauty of innovative minds. Elon Musk launched into an industrial adventure that most analysts dismissed as silly, and therefore destined to failure. But now Tesla, the company he created, despite all its challenges, may be on the verge of deploying another generation of technological innovation that is likely to transform the EV sector, and consequently the entire automotive industry in the US and worldwide.

We need more than new batteries

Back to global warming, it is clear that even radical transformations in the automotive sector leading to sharply lower demand for gasoline and therefore crude oil will not be enough to cause dramatic emissions reductions. More innovation will be needed to radically transform industrial processes, from cement production to petrochemical plants and more, that currently produce harmful emissions.

Green and profitable can go together

However, the Tesla relentless quest for better and more efficient car batteries is a good illustration that it is possible to pursue at the same time profits, a more efficient propulsion technology, and drastically reduced greenhouse emissions. It is not true that trying to be green is a luxury that is simply not practical nor affordable for most industries.

Tesla’s innovation efforts may be driven in part by the desire to produce a perfectly green car. But we should keep in mind that Tesla is a business, not a charity. Ultimately Tesla has to serve its shareholders. They want to see a return on their investments. And this means more cars sold at a profit. By pursuing better batteries that will increase performance while reducing cost, the company is strengthening its competitiveness vis-a-vis conventional vehicles, with the hope that millions of consumers will prefer affordable EVs, not because they are green, but because they are better value for money.

By the same token, assuming that some new industrial technologies will be able to eliminate emissions and increase productivity and profits at the same time, you will have classic win-win propositions in which being green is also good for business.

A long shot, but the only one we have

While this innovation driven approach may be a long shot, this is the only practical way to cut down emissions, stay profitable, and avoid the dire effects of global warming. International agreements that cannot be enforced produce short-lived feel good moments, and not much else. Innovation will be the game changer.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.




Trump Takes U.S. Out of Paris Accord on Climate

WASHINGTON – U.S. coal miners and out of work factory workers: this is for you! President Donald Trump publicly announced that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord that his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, promoted and warmly endorsed. Trump’s argument against the Paris deal is that it will penalize the American coal mining industry, and the overall American economy in the short term, with only vague hopes of somewhat lower world temperatures, way down the line.

Bad deal for America

As Trump sees it, this is a bad deal for America; and so the right thing is to get out of it. Sticking to the obligations created by the Accord would amount to enacting the equivalent of a huge energy tax on the US economy, because compliance with new, strict emission controls (in order to limit the amounts of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere) will be very expensive.

As a candidate, Trump promised that he would withdraw from this climate deal, and now that he is President he is doing it. We know that his close advisers are divided on this issue. His daughter Ivanka and son in law Jared Kushner, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recommended not withdrawing. Still, in the end Trump sides with the opponents.

What does this mean? 

That said, from a practical standpoint, America’s exit, at least in the short term, will not amount to any worsening of the global climate. Indeed, the Paris Accord, if all goes well, promises only modest progress on lowering the temperature of the world, and only after many years. And this will happen only if we assume that all the other participants will actually do what they promised to do in terms of enacting new policies aimed at lowering their consumption of fossil fuels, this way reducing greenhouse gases emissions. Do keep in mind that the Paris Accord has no enforcement mechanism. The commitments made by the signatories are purely voluntary. In the case of China, the world’s biggest polluter, Beijing is theoretically bound to implement new policies several years from now.

Political consequences 

Still, Trump’s decision on this rather emotional issue has had immediate political consequences. From the stand point of other nations, particularly the leaders of the G 7 Trump just met in Taormina, Italy, this amounts to America choosing to go it alone, openly dissenting from a global consensus on the global threats to the earth created by the unrestrained consumption of fossil fuels.

U.S. no longer leading 

In the short and medium term, this means that America is no longer leading the world on a critical policy issue,  As most world leaders see it, America has now retreated in its narrow universe characterized by a bizarre anti-science fixation pursued by a strange president who is “anti everything”.

Anti-everything Trump

Indeed, Trump is so anti-immigrant and xenophobic that he wants to build a wall along the entire border with Mexico.

Furthermore, according to the now widely accepted narrative, this is a president who is openly against free trade, against the EU, against NATO, and against Muslims, (sort of). Given all this, Trump being also against joint international efforts aimed at stopping and hopefully reversing climate change is disappointing; but not surprising. This new development fits the now accepted narrative.

America is no longer leading. Trump’s America has retreated behind a myopic worldview of narrow self-interest.

From the standpoint of old friends and allies, Trump’s announcement on exiting the Paris Accord is yet another (sad) sign that America is no longer the “Leader of the free World”.

In fact, even before this new development on the Paris Accord, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had already publicly argued that it is time for Europe to think of and plan for a future without close ties to the U.S., since Trump’s America is no longer a reliable friend.

Political symbolism 

Again, keep in mind that all this is mostly about political symbolism. It will take four years for America to fully extricate itself from the obligations contracted under the Paris Accord. This is fairly long time. And again, keep in mind that under the terms of this Paris deal, major polluters like China and India have modest obligations when it comes to reducing their own emissions that will kick in much later. Which is to say that you should not expect world temperatures to start rising tomorrow, simply because today President Trump announced that America will pull out in four years.

No gain 

However, as indicated above, this decision is not without political consequences. In the end, all this is will amount to an additional loss of international prestige for Trump’s America.

With all this in mind, whatever you may think about the intrinsic policy value of the Paris Accord, it would have been better for Washington to be part of it, as opposed to becoming now a big pariah in the eyes of the world.

Trump is talking to his base 

Well, then why did he do it? Very simple.

Trump’s narrow concern here is to reassure his domestic political base –the millions of Americans who voted for him last November. This base includes out of work coal miners and people displaced by the closure of old manufacturing plants.

Trump’s message to them is that his job is to revive the American economy. If this means heavy reliance on dirty energy, so be it. Out of work factory workers want money to pay their bills. They do not care about the fate of polar bears or about extreme weather phenomena in Africa. And they do not care about rising sea levels.

Finally, dire scenarios of New York City and Miami under water in just a few years (because of the rapid melting of the Polar Caps) are definitely a hoax –at least according to Trump and his supporters.