The Power Behind a Clean Energy Future
Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
This week on Truthdig Radio in collaboration with KPFK: Why a battery breakthrough is the key to clean energy; how boosting the minimum wage could lift the economy; we check in with immigration; and Robert Scheer talks about the sinful love between the tea party and Goldman Sachs. Also: On the ground in Gaza.
Reese Erlich reports from Gaza:
Sylvia Allegreto on minimum wage:
Marshal Fitz on immigration:
Full discussion with Seth Fletcher on the holy grail of batteries (a shorter version aired with the show):
Robert Scheer discusses his column on Goldman Sachs and the tea party:
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio in collaboration with KPFK. I’m Truthdig.com managing editor Peter Scheer. Today we drill beneath the headlines to find out why a battery breakthrough is the key to our clean energy future, how boosting the minimum wage could lift the economy, what’s happening with immigration, and a little bit later we’ll be speaking with Robert Scheer about the sinful love between the Tea Party and Goldman Sachs.
But first, an update from Gaza: Last week hundreds of activists boarded a flotilla of ships to bring much-needed aid to the Palestinian territories. Israel, with the backing of the U.S., has imposed an economic embargo on Gaza for five years. Foreign correspondent Reese Erlich got inside Gaza to report on the political and economic conditions there.
Reese Erlich: Farmer Ahmad Shafi walks through his fields located just a half-mile from the Israeli border. Militants occasionally fire rockets into Israel from nearby fields and Israeli artillery shrapnel has hit Shafi’s home. Shafi said by imposing a blockade on Gaza, Israel is collectively punishing all Palestinians, not just those who attack Israel. The 74-year-old grizzled patriarch says he can’t export strawberries or other crops like he used to. As head of an agricultural co-op, he periodically eats with Israeli officials. He describes one conversation he had with them:
Ahmad Shafi: They said we punish Hamas, not you, and I said no, you punish all of us, not only Hamas.
Reese Erlich: Now, you didn’t vote for Hamas, right?
Ahmad Shafi: Yes, right.
Reese Erlich: Israel began its economic blockade of Gaza in 2006 with the cooperation of Hosni Mubarak’s government in Egypt, but then in late May of this year a new Egyptian government changed policies, and permanently opened the border at Rafah Gate. Shafi had hoped the opening would soften the effects of the Israeli blockade, but he was disappointed because only people, not commercial trade, crossed the border.
Ahmad Shafi: We think for sure it will help the Palestinians in Gaza in general because it will be the gate to the outside world. But not economically, there’s not that much. But for other aspects of life it will be very useful for us.
Reese Erlich: Gaza Economy Minister Ala al-Rafati says Palestinians have been unable to export most products or get raw materials for their factories.
Al-Rafati says even before the siege, Israel imposed many restrictions on our export. “We always had to work through specific Israeli exporting companies, which controlled everything including prices. Before the siege, we had $250 million in exports of flowers and strawberries; now all of our exports total less than $2 million per year.”
As a result, according to U.N. statistics, Gaza unemployment stands at 45 percent. Israeli officials argue that opening the Egyptian border to normal trade would facilitate arms smuggling. So far they have succeeded in pressuring the Egyptian government to prohibit such commerce.
Back at his farm near the Israeli border, Ahmad Shafi wants a normal life for his extended family of 25 people. Regular trade with Israel and Egypt, he says, would help everyone. Shafi says both Israelis and Palestinians would have to recognize the right of the other to exist as an independent nation.
Ahmad Shafi: We are neighbors and we are in the same land; we have the right to live, you and us, yeah.
Reese Erlich: Shafi says ending the economic sanctions on Gaza would be a good first step towards peace. But Israel shows no signs of lifting the blockade, and it appears likely the trade will be banned at Rafah Gate at least until a new Egyptian government takes power after parliamentary elections this September.
For Truthdig, I’m Reese Erlich, Gaza City.
Peter Scheer: The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting provided travel support for Reese Erlich’s reporting from Gaza.
This is Truthdig Radio — Peter and Josh Scheer. We’re speaking with Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UC Berkeley, and she also does a lot of work with the Economic Policy Institute. Welcome.
Sylvia Allegretto: Hello, it’s good to be here.
Peter Scheer:So first thing, I want to ask you about, you know, obviously endless, endless trees have been cut down to make sense of the economic meltdown since 2008, but in terms of employment and wages, those [employment and wages] have been suffering — well, not necessarily employment [over the decades], but wages have been going down for a long time … is that true?
Sylvia Allegretto: Yes, wages have been really going down for typical and low-wage workers; this is kind of surprising for some folks. It’s really been a 30-year trek that wages have been stagnant or declining. So what’s happening now when we see wages aren’t really going anywhere, that’s not surprising because we’re still kind of in the grips of the aftermath of the deepest recession we’ve had since the Great Depression. But again, I think it comes as more of a surprise that considering how much the economy has grown over the last two or three decades, and how much productivity has increased over the last two or three decades. Those gains and the economy and productivity are not kind of filtering down to typical and low-wage workers.
Josh Scheer: And really quickly, I want get to a panel you were on, on June 7th, in Washington, I think the Center for American Progress put it on, and you were talking about how raising the minimum wage actually would be beneficial for jobs and job creation, and in doing so you also mentioned wage increases during the recession of the ’90s and the 2000s as kind of an example. Can you go into that a little deeper?
Sylvia Allegretto: Yeah, I think the first thing is that because workers have no bargaining power, they certainly don’t have any now, we have such high unemployment, we’ve had relatively high unemployment again for the last 20 or 30 years except for that period in the late 1990s when we had unemployment around 4 percent. In today’s climate atmosphere for workers, given that unions have been declining, given that union strength has been declining, workers do not have any bargaining power except when there’s really tight labor markets, so looking at the late 1990s, it’s really interesting because that’s when we see that we did have real wage gains for everybody at all stages of the wage distribution: low, medium and high. So that was really good because the workers were coming to the party as the economy was expanding. They were gaining in those shares. But so that was an outlier, we haven’t really had that. That was the only period in recent history where we had such a thing, and certainly now with the unemployment rates that we have, workers have no bargaining power. So the idea of increasing the minimum wage is kind of twofold. One is just to keep the minimum wage up to where it has been, so for instance the minimum wage today, the federal level at $7.25, is actually lower in real terms when you take into account inflation, than it was in the 1970s. So a lot of the minimum wage increases only make up for lost ground. Secondly, in today’s economy, we have a problem here in this very weak recovery. This month marks the second year of economy recovery. A lot of people are very surprised at that because things still seem so bad on the ground, especially on Main Street, and so the idea, the increase in minimum wage now is to put money in the hands of people who would spend it because we actually have a problem of a decrease in demand. We don’t have enough demand in the economy to get the economy kind of revved up. So if you put money in the hands of our lowest-wage workers, they’ll spend it, just like unemployment benefits, right? We talk a lot about unemployment benefits over this recession, the 18-month recession, now the two-year weak recovery and we know there’s a huge multiplier on those moneys. You know, again, you put money in the hands of somebody who is unemployed, or somebody who is a low-wage worker, and they’ll spend it.
Josh Scheer: Now, I just want to get into this really quickly about raising the minimum wage because there is a lot of criticism of that idea. Opponents say companies move, that jobs will go away, and things like that, but then they don’t take into account the idea that it costs money to move for these companies; also there is the idea of the service economy, right? If you live in a tourist economy, you know, we’re in Los Angeles, there’s a huge tourist economy, people come here and things like that. There’s a bill that would allow employers to consider health benefits that they pay as part of the minimum wages and it gets to your point of sub-minimum wages and seasonal workers and tips, and it would make even more people under the poverty line, which I believe there’s like 44 million, and there is 4.4 [million] workers earning minimum wage or less. So could we get into that a little bit?
Sylvia Allegretto: Well, that’s right. I think one of the biggest debates going on right now certainly around the minimum wage, and this happens every summer, especially the last three summers because the economy has been so bad, is that teenage unemployment is so high because of the minimum wage. First of all, I’ve just written a paper that has been published by a top economic journal with my colleagues here at Berkeley, and one at UMASS, that we actually find that increasing the minimum wage. We looked over a 20-year period of every minimum wage change at the federal and state level over 20 years, and found that, for instance, teenage unemployment has not been hurt. Teenage unemployment does not increase when minimum wages increase. It used to be that they found these effects, these kind of fancy econometric models, statistic models that economists use, that they would find these negative disemployment effects with the increases in the minimum wage. So we show why those were erroneously found, and why they don’t materialize. So that’s one thing, is that the minimum wage basically is so low, to increase it a little bit is not going to hurt employment of low-wage workers.
Peter Scheer:You say you found why, but why is that?
Sylvia Allegretto: Because basically over this long period, you have employment trends, you know just like population shifts, you know how the population shifting from the Northwest down to the sunny areas of the country, down to the South, down to the Southwest, out to the West, so you have these population shifts which you can imagine, you know those are employment shifts also over a 20-year period, and then you have changes of minimum wages at federal and state levels. What we found is that those two were correlated but not causal. So just because you see that there’s a state does not increase the minimum wage, and they lose employment. For instance, in Michigan, they’re not losing employment because of the minimum wage; they’re losing employment because of the huge industrial population shift. So if you control these models for these types of factors, these types of trends, these long-term trends across states and over time, those employment effects do not materialize.
Peter Scheer: … It seems the No. 1 number that news organization use to track the economy and the economic recovery is unemployment, but you make the point that there are plenty of people who are employed, and may not earn enough to support themselves, and live in poverty. And you know, what’s a better register of our recovery, or lack thereof?
Sylvia Allegretto: Well, I think there’s three things thus far that are really important. One is jobs, and we know we have not had job creation in the area to the tune that we need. We’re creating some jobs but it’s way too slow to actually put a dent in what actually happened in this economy. Remember at the worst part of this downturn, we were down over 8 million jobs, and thus far we’ve only created a few million of those back. So job losses are still at around 7 million down from where we started before the recession began at the end of 2007. So this is a long time, you know, three, three and a half years we’re going on not creating the jobs that we need to put the people who are unemployed back to work, but remember we’re also not creating the jobs we need just to keep up with the growing labor force. So in essence, we’re down about 11 or 12 million jobs that we actually need to create to get back to a reasonable unemployment level of 4 or 5 percent. So we’re in a huge job crisis that almost no one is talking about. And the private sector has not been creating jobs again, not at the clip that they need to really get this economy to get going in the way it needs to get going, and then we have these huge cuts in the public sector at the state and local levels that are actually working against any type of recovery or expansion.
Peter Scheer: But even if we create those jobs, and there are jobs that you know, the car wash …
Sylvia Allegretto: Right, and that’s the other point. The second point is that the jobs that we are creating are not very good jobs. Where the jobs that we’ve lost, construction and manufacturing, some higher-wage jobs, you know, the jobs that are being created now are jobs that are of less quality. So they are less likely to have benefits, the pay is more likely to be less, they are less likely to have retirement and that type of thing. And of course the third point is that the wages are much less.
Peter Scheer: Right, which in turn has a negative impact on the recovery, right?
Sylvia Allegretto: Oh absolutely, and people are not spending, people are still very shaky. Again, it’s your vantage point. If your vantage point is the economy from Wall Street, things have been pretty good for you, even with the most recent downturn from the last week or two. Things are very good for you, I mean Wall Street Dow was somewhere below 7,000 in the spring of 2009, and they’ve been above 12,000 consistently and actually approached 14,000 not too long ago. So it looks good to have, their bonuses are back, CEO pay is up, corporate profits are up, but for the average worker, the men and women on Main Street, things are still very shaky. There’s, you know, 14 million unemployed, and there’s double that underemployed. Your wages are going nowhere, the housing crisis continues, foreclosures continue, it’s still very much a serious wreck on Main Street.
Josh Scheer: I want to get into a paper that I read from earlier this year, basically about American’s wealth, and we’re talking about Main Street and Wall Street, and about foreclosures because, really quickly, because I can’t get into the whole paper, but about homeownership, and I know that our editor among others, you know you read any book here that you talk about homeownership as the most important form of wealth for the Main Street people, and now they’re losing that and because they bailed out the banks but they didn’t help us with foreclosure. Basically people are losing their wealth — can we get into that a little bit?
Sylvia Allegretto: Yeah, that’s exactly right, people are losing their wealth, their homes, many have lost their homes, many are upside down on their mortgages today, so foreclosures will continue and in the future and you know basically what’s happening is also credit. People are unable to get the credit that they used to get, so they’re waking up again. It goes back to their paycheck and they’re going wow, I mean is this how I’m supposed to live now, based on this paycheck because I’ve lost all the equity in my home. Again not due to anything they did, but because of the shenanigans that went on in Wall Street and the deregulation of investment and commercial banks and such, and so they’re saying wow this is crazy. I can’t live on this. Let alone if you’ve lost your home, and you’ve lost your job, you have a real economic hurt going on, and your point of the richer getting richer. I mean, the rich have taken almost all the gains in the economic expansion over the last decade or so, so as the economy, even when it’s going well, again the typical and low-wage worker are not being invited to the table when the increased economic pie is being divvied up. And so it is the case that the rich are getting richer at a faster pace now due to what happened in 2008 and 2009.
Peter Scheer: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.
Sylvia Allegretto: Yeah, this was great.
Peter Scheer: Sylvia Allegretto is a labor economist at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UC Berkeley.
Hi, this is Joshua Scheer, and this is Truthdig Radio. We’re here with Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. He directs the center’s research and analysis of economic, political, legal and social impacts of immigration policy in America, and develops policy recommendations designed to further American’s economic security interests. Marshall is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and served on the Virginia Law Review. Well, how’s it going?
Marshall Fitz: Doing well, thanks. How’re you doing?
Josh Scheer: I’m good, so we’re going to get into two pieces the center wrote recently called “Your State Can’t Afford It: The Fiscal Impacts of State Anti-Immigrant Legislation” and then “Keeping the Dream Alive.” Is that good for you?
Marshall Fitz: Sure.
Josh Scheer: All right, first question goes on the first page. The quote is “but as most states wrap up their legislative session for the year, only a handful, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina, actually passed anti-immigrant bills, while 26 others rejected them.” And then basically the question is, why haven’t we heard much of this? We really heard mostly about Arizona’s law; it raised a lot of anger and media coverage, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has kind of held it up, but these other laws have kind of largely gone unnoticed — why is that?
Marshall Fitz: So, there’s I think a variety of factors in play, and one is just the dominance of this issue over the last probably about five years. We’ve seen a surge in state-level activity around immigration. So, I do think there’s actually a little of fatigue both in the reporting on it and I can tell you from advocates on the ground, their perspective, it’s really difficult to kind of maintain the opposition to this drumbeat of anti-immigrant legislation that’s coming through, coming down the pipes in these states. Now, the thing that I think is most remarkable is that despite the prevalence, I mean we’re talking about thousands of anti-immigrant bills that have been filed in states legislatures over the last five years, literally thousands, that only a small handful have actually succeeded and I think that should tell us a couple things. One is that it’s being driven more by ideology and used as a kind of rhetorical ploy by immigrant restrictionists to try to divide and create a wedge within their own constituencies, and two, that once the kind of cooler heads prevail and they take a hard look at how it has worked, for one in Arizona, and how it’s starting to play out now in Georgia. States are stepping back and saying wow, we can’t afford to go down this path. This is a dangerous, dangerous path for us, especially at this time of incredible fiscal uncertainty.
Josh Scheer: Yeah, and one of those things is adding “independent agencies” to basically handle the immigration issue. And the question is, are these “independent agencies” working with the government to handle immigrants and when they’re arrested? And are they influencing the passing of these laws? How much do those “independent agencies,” a guesstimate, how much do they cost?
Marshall Fitz: I don’t think we can answer that question with a kind of categorical sweeping statement, but I think what we can say is that there are enormous hidden costs in this process. Partly from the agencies that will have to be added to the kind of state bureaucracy, some that are coming through the independent. For example, the most obvious and the one that I think has probably been garnering the most attention around the country is the prison industry. You know, private prison industries have blossomed alongside the blossoming of the immigrant detention dynamic that we’ve seen. We now detain 30-35,000 immigrants a year, simply for civil immigration violations, and that of course is a cost, and the prison industry had done a good job of really influencing I think the state legislatures into passing more draconian anti-immigrant legislation in order to house them in the jails that they’re building in those states. So it’s a vicious circle that has I think contributed unfortunately but dramatically to the spread of this type of legislation. Josh Scheer: And then another question here is that you know obviously through tax revenue and other ways, immigrants bring in billions of dollars to our economy and also obviously businesses use them because they’re cheap labor. Business has obviously a big lobbying pull, and what is their influence, you know, where is their influence been on immigration laws? Why have they not been supportive, or more supportive, of comprehensive reform?
Marshall Fitz: It’s very interesting. I think for the most part, the businesses at the more local level have traditionally checked out of this debate. They understood that it’s an emotional subject; they haven’t wanted to kind of inflame their own constituencies and their own clients, frankly. So they’ve not wanted to engage as directly as we would have liked them to because we understand how much it’s in their self-interest to get this immigration policy right. At the national level, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and … other kinds of national associations have been very involved in the past but they haven’t necessarily put their money where their mouth is. They’ve lobbied on these issues but they haven’t really gone all out and all in either, even though to some of the industries, getting immigration policy right and for the future is of critical importance. What we see, though, and this is pretty interesting and a really new and recent development, is that as these state initiatives have started to spread as businesses have started to understand more concretely what the costs are going to be to them, they have weighed in and weighed in forcefully in opposition to these state initiatives. I can’t think of really any business organizations or association that has supported these state-based initiatives. Arizona, which of course was the first and you know, what has now become a series of states that have passed these types of measures, they tried to pass an even more restrictive legislation this year, and frankly, it was the fact that 60 CEOs in the state of Arizona signed a letter to the Senate president, Russell Pearce, who’s the architect of the anti-immigrant legislation there, and said look, enough’s enough. We, our companies and our employees have already suffered enough from the anti-immigrant legislation that was passed last year; it’s time for us to move forward and think about what makes smart fiscal sense for our state and for our businesses.
Josh Scheer: We’re speaking with Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy for the Center for American Progress. Yeah, it’s interesting because also you see a lot of Republicans in Republican states kind of push this immigration you know, we gotta get rid of them, we gotta get rid of tem, we gotta get rid of them, but at the same time business always comes first, so it’s an interesting kind of dynamic. You want to get rid of immigrants, but businesses, of course, they like immigrants because it’s cheaper labor, in a globalized world, the perfect globalized world, you’d want immigrants coming in and sharing their ideas and working for cheap wages so it’s an interesting dynamic.
Marshall Fitz: Absolutely.
Josh Scheer: The question now is obviously about jobs because the myth that they take our jobs is always out there. You know, they’re picking vegetables, they’re in sweatshops and things like that. Many anti-immigrant people argue that basically there are residents who are willing to take on any kind of these jobs and basically, what are these jobs that they claim that we’re going to take? And then, why are they unfulfilled?
Marshall Fitz: I think that the lie has been put to that argument by what’s happened in Georgia. The Georgia governor, who I think was, even though he’s been no fan to the immigrant rights movement over the years during this, Nathan Deal, during his time in Congress, and now as governor, I think he was a little bit concerned about signing the legislation to pass there because there was such strong opposition from the agro-business industry and many of the growers really understood the kind of core bottom line perspective: What this is going to mean. But he went ahead and signed the legislation and lo and behold, what we’ve seen is that just about every agricultural subset in this state is suffering labor shortages right now. Mostly it’s because in the general migration pattern of a lot of these farmworkers, they’re not coming into the state now because they think it’s a toxic place to be and they’re concerned for their well-being and their safety, and understandable so. The downside though, for the state, is that they’ve already lost hundreds of millions of dollars in crops that are not going to get picked, that are not going to be addressed. The agricultural demands are not going to be met with the necessary supply of labor in the state of Georgia. The governor actually tried to send a lot of probationers who had recently been on release from prison and were looking for employment, into the Georgia fields, and you know there’s been a lot of reporting on how few of them lasted. Many of them last just a few hours and said oh my God, I’m not taking this job, this is incredibly hard work. So we’ve seen it play out at the ground level in Georgia that this argument that, oh Americans want these jobs, Americans will take these jobs … is just not true.
Josh Scheer: Yeah, and obviously not a lot of Americans want to work in a sweatshop even if they just make minimum wage, but now we can obviously get into E-Verify for, you know, an hour here, and I know your group has written extensively on it but just briefly, basically the Public Policy Institute of California did a report on Arizona’s experiences under E-Verify and found that it basically shifted unauthorized immigrants from Arizona from the formal economy, where they pay taxes into the system, to the informal economy, where they do not.
Marshall Fitz: That’s exactly right.
Josh Scheer: And they also suffer many other forms of abuse. So this E-Verify is very costly too. Can you explain that briefly?
Marshall Fitz: Sure, so E-Verify is the electronic verification program that some members of Congress are promoting a piece of legislation on that would require every single employer to run every single new hire through a federal database before they were authorized to work. Now that’s basically asking the federal government whether or not they can employ someone; that is what you would call a massive new regulation at a time where, interestingly enough, many of the same people who are pushing this legislation are calling for massive deregulation of the federal government. So it seems that the anti-immigrant sentiment has trumped in this particular instance. But what would happen, as you said, it’s not going to drive undocumented immigrants from the country, despite the incredible great recession that we’re still kind of experiencing. What we’ve found is that immigrants are not going home. Some may leave a state deemed sufficiently hostile like Arizona, but they’re just going to another state and they are working there, and it’s to the loss of a state like Arizona. What we found is that if you actually legalized the workers, the undocumented workforce in Arizona, rather than try to drive them underground or out of the state, you would realize literally one and a half trillion dollars and then an increase in America’s gross domestic product. But in Arizona, specifically, you would see an increase in thousands of jobs, you would also see an increase in millions and millions of dollars of tax revenue, so the cost to the state of implementing these initiatives, these E-Verify initiatives and driving the workers out of the state, is massive and the benefit of driving them out, which the authors of these initiatives hold up as reduced fiscal burden from education and health care for these workers and their families, is really de minimis, and so if state legislators [were] looking at the ledger and doing the cost-benefit calculus that we would expect of our elected officials, they would understand with that question that these initiatives are far too costly and that there is a better way.
Josh Scheer: The DREAM Act, I want to get to it quickly, I know there is a lot more that goes into it. It failed the Senate by a few votes that year. The bill by Dick Durbin and Orrin Hatch, this is, basically, if you do some kind of military service, children who have come here complete some college or military service will become on their path to citizenship. It failed by a few votes. … Now the big question to this, and this is the one that I, the real problem that I think with the way DREAM Act is now, because a lot of states have adopted this thing where they get tuition and so people are getting educated through GMAC, but is then you have all these undocumented students. They get a college degree, but then they cannot get a job. So now you have perfectly educated, capable people doing jobs like waitressing, dishwashing or working under the table, earning less than they’re supposed to, and then being taken advantage of. And sometimes it seems like it’s kind of a waste. You have all these educated students, they can’t become citizens, they can’t be even on the path to citizenship, and yet they’re being taken advantage of by the system. What is the future of the DREAM Act? Is it something that we will see in our lifetime? I mean the Senate only failed by a few votes.
Marshall Fitz: It’s utterly counterproductive, the types of initiatives we have vis-à-vis these kids in this country. States are doing what they are doing, what they can, in terms of providing in state tuition and really trying to tell and urge the federal government to step up and pass the DREAM Act so that these kids are productive and able to realize their full potential. The DREAM Act has a lot of support in the Senate; it passed the House in December. I think that the real problem is that in this House of Representatives with Lamar Smith, with Holman, with the Republican leadership that seems to kowtow to anti-immigrant wing of its party. It’s virtually impossible to see how it would pass in this Congress. We’re very hopeful that in the near future, though, there will be enough momentum to force the legislatures and their colleagues to step up instead of step back and to deliver for these kids.
Josh Scheer: Well, thank you, Marshall, for joining us on Truthdig Radio, and again keep up the good work and I know this won’t be the last time we speak about immigration because this is an issue that is not going away tomorrow or the next day. So keep up the good work and thanks for joining us.
Marshall Fitz: Thanks so much for having me.
Josh Scheer: Have a great day.
This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer and my guest is Seth Fletcher, a senior editor at Popular Science and the author of “Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy.” Let me start by asking you, you know, batteries in general are technology that the general public doesn’t really pay much attention to. They seem to notice that their computers get faster and do so at a great pace, and their lives get more convenient with other technologies, like suddenly we’re video-chatting with each other, but people don’t really think about one of the central technologies that powers all of that. And your book is all about how essential to our future that technology is. Can you just comment on that?
Seth Fletcher: Sure, one of the things that I often say is that we pretty much only think about batteries or talk about them when we complain about them. Sort of an invisible force in our lives that we really do just complain about them, we don’t really often stop to think about how far the technology has actually come, and that’s in part because it progresses more slowly than computer technology, it’s a chemical system, so it’s an incredibly complicated problem, and progress in battery science does not obey Moore’s Law. You get about a 7 percent improvement every year, and that’s held true for decades. But we are now at the point where we have minuscule batteries that can power things like our iPhones or iPads for hours at a time, and now they’re good enough that we’re starting to see some really market-ready electric cars that can hold four or five passengers, get 100 miles on a charge, or in the case of something like the Chevy Volt you have a smaller battery that gets 40 or 50 miles on a charge, and then you have the backup gasoline engine. So they’re an invisible … not invisible … they’re a sort of …
Peter Scheer: Unsexy, unnoticed.
Seth Fletcher: Unsung, unsexy driver of modernity.
Peter Scheer: Let me ask you this before we get into sort of the future of batteries. OK, I drive a Prius, which is powered by a nickel metal hydride battery, unless I’m mistaken, and that’s a slightly older battery technology in terms of like cellphones and laptops. They all run on lithium ion batteries, which are just better, right? They can hold a charge, they don’t get that memory [battery memory effect], and you don’t have to charge them a certain way. And the knock on the Prius is that … well, first of all let me just say since we’re on lithium ion versus nickel metal hydride, so the batteries in my Prius aren’t as volatile as the batteries in my laptop? Is that true? You hear these stories about exploding laptops and that kind of thing with lithium ion batteries.
Seth Fletcher: Yeah, I mean that is true, I believe. But there are various sub-chemistries in lithium ion. What’s in our laptops and cellphones are called lithium cobalt oxide, and it just refers to the compound that’s used in the positive electrode. And that has the advantage of storing a lot of energy, but the safety is not as great as you get with some other chemistries. So because of that reason, the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, for example, use a strain of lithium ion called lithium manganese oxide, and again, that’s just the active ingredient in the positive electrode. It’s a little less energy dense than the chemistries used in our laptop batteries, but it’s safer. And it also has the benefit of not containing cobalt, which is expensive and toxic and comes largely from the Congo. So within the family of lithium ion batteries, and then even more broadly within the category of rechargeable lithium batteries, there are a lot of different sub-chemistries. But the interesting thing is that nickel metal hydride came out about a year before lithium ion batteries were first commercialized in 1991, and lithium ion caught on very quickly in consumer electronics just because it does have better energy density. But car markers have been kind of slow to move to it in part because of memories of things like exploding laptops.
Peter Scheer: Which are, we should say, you know, given how many laptops are out there, it’s sort of one of those local news stories that freaks people out, but …
Seth Fletcher: Right, during the big Sony episode in 2006, there were I think probably fewer than 10 incidents and nobody was killed, and I’m not even sure that anybody was seriously injured.
Peter Scheer: Out of millions of batteries.
Seth Fletcher: Yeah, billions really. Well, actually, I’m not sure if that’s true it’s billions in that set for Sony, so I should be careful there. But billions of these batteries are manufactured and distributed every year and we carry them around all the time, but understandably carmakers have to be cautious about what they’re going to put in a moving vehicle, and there’s a big difference between a three-ounce lithium battery and a 600-pound lithium ion battery. There’s a lot more energy in that space.
Peter Scheer: So getting back to the cars, one of the knocks on the Prius by Prius haters, and I just use Prius in the sense of hybrid of electric cars, has been, oh you think you’re doing such a great deed for the environment, but these batteries are really a dirty technology. You write also that even if these batteries were filled or produced by a coal plant, they’d still be better than gasoline. So I guess there are two questions here: One is how are the batteries made? What goes into shipping them around the world? That kind of a thing? And, also, how they’re powered, because they’re powered at some point by dirtier, dirty technologies, right?
Seth Fletcher: Right, those are two issues that you have to separate, but they’re worth keeping in mind. I mean, it’s important to, of course, keep in mind everything that goes into a car, and you have to balance the whole equation and not just look at what comes out of the tailpipe. In a case of the Prius with nickel metal hydride batteries, nickel metal hydride batteries contain some lanthanum in them, which is a rare earth metal and, I believe, I could be wrong about this, but I believe the electric motor in the Prius also contains rare earth metals and those are mined almost exclusively in China right now. The mining and refining production dredges up thorium, uranium, so they are radioactive tailings. Rare earth mining is a pretty nasty process and there has been a big push to come up with batteries in select motors that don’t use rare earth metals at all, ideally.
Peter Scheer: But it’s getting cleaner?
Seth Fletcher: Yeah, so the raw materials that go into it are cleaner at the mine site. So lithium is actually very environmentally benign the way it’s mined; it’s basically just sucked up from water that’s absorbed into these salt flats in South America, and it’s left to bake in the sun until it gets concentrated and they process it into a chemical powder. There is an industrial process for manufacturing the electrode power that happens almost entirely in China, Japan and Korea. But the raw materials that go into a lithium ion battery, well, there are no rare earth metals that go into them and there are no toxic metals, there’s no mercury, lead, cadmium, cobalt …
Peter Scheer: And that’s what’s in the Volt and the Leaf.
Seth Fletcher: And that’s in the Volt and the Leaf, of course. There is cobalt in the batteries that we use in all of our portable electronics.
Peter Scheer: So what about powering these devices? Where does that power come from, and why is that cleaner going into a battery than anything else?
Seth Fletcher: The way that these things are compared if you look at emissions per mile driven, and you look at the amount of carbon dioxide that’s generated to power a mile down the road in a car like, let’s say, the Nissan Leaf, versus the CO2 admissions generated by a gas engine going the same mile. What you find is that if an electric car is powered exclusively by really dirty coal energy, it’s still a little better than gasoline; it’s not extraordinarily better, but if you look at the energy mix of the United States as a whole, because we use a lot of hydropower and natural gas, it’s definitely cleaner, and there are a lot of ways to tweak that equation. If you talk about, in the Pacific Northwest, for example, where there is a lot of hydropower, then it’s very, very low emissions and if we can ramp up the amount of renewable, solar and wind, in the grid, or even natural gas is much better than coal, and even more modern coal plants are better than some of the oldest, nastiest coal plants. So that’s a knock that I hear against electric cars often, and it is only legitimate to a certain degree. An electric car powered exclusively is not dramatically better than, say, a 40-mile, three-gallon car like the Fiesta, but that’s really the worst-case scenario. What we need to be doing of course is upgrading our energy infrastructure by moving to cleaner sources and transmitting them more intelligently. And then you add electric cars into that mix and then, you know, electric cars are a piece of the entire system that has to evolve.
Peter Scheer: My guest is Seth Fletcher, author of “Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy.” So tell me about the lithium air battery.
Seth Fletcher: So this is sort of the dream, the ultimate goal, and depending on the disposition of people you’re talking to, they’ll either laugh when you mention it or get really excited and say, I think we can do this. The reason it’s so attractive, and without getting too technical, it just operates on the reaction of lithium with oxygen. There are a bunch of different ways you can put that together, but this reaction offers, theoretically, really really high energy densities, up to 11,000 watt-hours per kilogram. Gasoline is 13,000 watt-hours per kilogram. Today’s lithium ion batteries are somewhere between 150 and 200 watt-hours per kilograms, and that makes the math sound really, really grim, but the thing to keep in mind, of course, is that cars that are powered by internal combustion engines only convert a fraction of the energy-containing gasoline to work. So if you want to match gasoline, you really need to get to about 2,000 watt-hours per kilogram, and lithium air seems to be the best hope for possibly achieving that. Now is it possible? I don’t know. There are a lot of really hard technical problems. Some people are skeptical to think it could be overcome, but it’s not impossible. No one has proven that it’s impossible; we don’t even know if there are showstoppers yet. In fact, I just heard last week that some of the people at IBM that I spoke to when I was working on the book are saying that they’ve made significant strides just in the past year and a half that they’ve figured out a way to recharge, which is one of the hardest problems with lithium air, and that they want within three years or so to be working on a demonstration battery of some sort to prove the concept. So there’s progress happening all the time, but it’s a hard technical program. But if it could be cracked with the lithium air, is the sort of “holy grail” battery, to use a worn cliché.
Peter Scheer: For an extended interview with Seth Fletcher, look for today’s show post on truthdig.com. Again he is a senior editor at Popular Science and author of “Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy.”
We’re joined now by Truthdig’s editor-in-chief and head honcho Robert Scheer, who wrote a column this week called “The Tea Party and Goldman Sachs: A Love Story.” Dad, welcome.
Robert Scheer: Hi, I’m sorry you had to bring me on — that was a really interesting show so far.
Peter Scheer: Well, if you want to hear the rest of it, go to Truthdig.com and we talk about how batteries are essential to the future of solar and wind energy.
So tell us about your column this week.
Robert Scheer: Well, my column is called “The Tea Party and Goldman Sachs: A Love Story,” and I want to cut through this garbage that the tea party somehow represents a populist force against the government. I think they’re a shill for the big corporations and particularly the big banks, and if you actually look at what the tea party Republicans are doing in Congress, they’re not attacking big government in any fundamental sense; what they’re doing is attacking the ability of both state and federal government to help out ordinary people. The big government is big precisely because it serves big corporations, that’s what the banking bailout was all about and we have to recognize in all this discussion about the debt that this debt increased by 50 percent not because of the normal workings of the economy, or we spend too much on education, or we have environmental standards, or we don’t teach well. No, [it] was because of the shenanigans of Wall Street, that’s why we have this debt crisis. What happened was that the banks and the big corporations were made whole, there have been record profits this year, their pay is incredible, the median pay for the top 200 corporate executives is over $10 million. They’re not hurting at all … they’re sitting on $2 trillion which they’re not spending. Most of the job creation is coming abroad where they have tax shelters. They’re not creating jobs at home, and so we have this absurd situation where a government is big precisely because it was a servant to Wall Street and their big corporations, carrying water for them, running up enormous debt, doing very little for ordinary people. Now the same Wall Street types have made an alliance with the tea party Republicans, they’ve turned their back on Obama, who bailed them out, and they have this unholy alliance between people who claim they want to cut government back, and the big corporations are precisely the force that make government big in the first place.
Peter Scheer: You were accused by, I forgot, was it Newsweek, or was it Time that said you had a conspiracy theory, you were a conspiracy theorist about Goldman Sachs, that you were fixated on them. And I wonder how you respond to that because you have another column criticizing Goldman Sachs.
Robert Scheer: Well, I didn’t invent Goldman Sachs. I mean the point is the power of Goldman Sachs is very obvious; you have the treasury secretary in the Bush administration and in the Clinton administration, both were top executives at Goldman Sachs. If you look at the Obama administration, Goldman Sachs veterans are all through the government. It’s not a question of conspiracy, but simply a matter of fact. In the literature it’s referred to as “government Sachs,” and it’s ironic that in the current situation where Goldman Sachs has the biggest lobbying force of Wall Street right now, and there’s an excellent Los Angeles Times story on that the other day that I referred to, that they are hooked up with the tea party basically trying to reverse the very limited regulatory reforms that the Obama administration got through last Congress, and they’re clawing back on it. And the irony here is that the main regulatory agency, a very small underfunded agency that should be controlling derivatives — there is a $600 trillion market in derivatives … it’s what’s destroying Greece, it’s destroying the world economy — is the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The guy who’s head of it, Gary Gensler, was a partner at Goldman Sachs. So it’s not conspiratorial, and that agency has held off on implementing these new regulations that Dodd-Frank require. We still haven’t gotten any new significant regulation of the banking industry, and so I think it would be difficult to exaggerate the power of Goldman Sachs. What I tried to call attention to in the column is that they are, and not just they but all the large banks and biggest corporations are in alliance with the tea party people, which represents a faux populism. People are hurting and instead of the finger pointing at the banks and corporations that caused all of this mischief with their shenanigans, we’re blaming, what, schoolteachers and their pension funds, or environmentalists who don’t want to have drilling and so forth. So it’s a typical demagogic trick, and the lobbyists for Goldman Sachs and the other banks know it well, they know how hypocritical it is, but they’re doing it.
Peter Scheer: You know E.J. Dionne has written in his columns that appear on Truthdig that the tea party isn’t a new thing, it’s just a rebranding of the white conservatives who’ve been around forever. Isn’t this just the same old thing of moneyed conservatives, or moneyed peoples playing on the anxieties and fears of less fortunate conservatives and, you know, that the Republican Party has used to its advantage for decades?
Robert Scheer: Yeah, but I think the sad thing is that there is a legitimate strain in the tea party view — I could see fear, libertarians who at least have a consistent position, let’s take a hard look at the Fed, let’s hold back big government, let’s see if the market could really work — but that’s not what the tea party is all about. The tea party now is clearly a pawn of Wall Street and the large corporations that are funding it, and groups like the Koch brothers and so forth. It’s a faux populism; they really aren’t going after whatever the sources of big government, you know? For instance, the defense industry, which is an incredible boondoggle; we don’t have a serious, sophisticated enemy anywhere in the world, and yet we’re spending high levels per capita, we spend more than the rest of the world combined on the military. Why? Because Boeing and Lockheed and all these people have tremendous lobbying force and they keep that military budget going. The same thing happened with the banking bailout—enormous amount of increase in debt as a result of not only bailing these people out, and it wasn’t just a direct TARP money, it was all of the interest money that the Fed made available to lending windows, allowing Goldman Sachs to become a bank and open for that, the whole [unintelligible] really of the economy and paying no attention to the mortgage crisis, that people are suffering. One of your earlier guests talked about the loss of wealth for most Americans, which was in their home, it was their retirement nest bag, it was the way they were going to maintain a decent life and so forth … that’s gone. The jobs that are coming back are not good jobs. So what you have is an enormously inflated, powerful government that serves big industry, and that’s just the reality of it, that’s not conspiratorial, that’s what the facts are. We have a recovery for Wall Street, and the largest corporations now, but not for the regular economy.
Peter Scheer: You hear a lot of people on radio and television and print talking about this debt ceiling logjam like it’s a potential for the end times, and yet I feel like regular people aren’t really paying that close attention to it. Why should people be concerned about that, or should they?
Robert Scheer: Well, they should, it’s a phony. First of all the power of the special interests is such — the big banks, the big corporations — they’re not going to allow this to happen. There’s too much at stake in having a stable dollar, a stable U.S … it’s a big business.
Peter Scheer: Well, what happens if they don’t extend the debt ceiling?
Robert Scheer: Well, they’ll stretch it out for months, they’ll find new sources, there will be compromise, there will be a short-term solution, the very thing that Obama rejected this week; he said no, we have to have, at least sustain it for two or three years. But I mean it’s not like just suddenly the clock rings and you’re broke: You find money in different pots, and that’s why they’ve been able to extend it actually for a few months past the deadline and there will be some temporary solution. I mean, clearly, if the Republicans block that they will be discredited way beyond what happened to [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich when he closed down the government [in the mid-1990s]. I mean, you’re finished, the Republican Party, for at least a decade if they really play that kind of hardball and prevent some kind of at least temporary solution; I mean if the U.S. economy is embarrassed in the eyes of the world, our commitments mean nothing, and our notes don’t stand for anything … that would be disastrous, but I don’t think vested interests in this country are going to allow that to happen.
Peter Scheer: Well, thanks so much, Dad, for enlightening us, and I hope to see you in the studio soon.
Robert Scheer: OK, bye.
Peter Scheer: OK, take care. That’s it for this week’s show. Find us next Wednesday at 2 p.m. on KPFK, or any time online at Truthdig.com, where you can hear an extended interview on batteries and clean energy. Thanks to our guests Sylvia Allegretto, Marshall Fitz and Seth Fletcher.
Thanks also to our board op Jee; engineer Stan Misraje and Alan Minsky. For Robert Scheer, Reese Erlich, Josh and Peter, thanks for listening.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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