Wednesday, December 14, 2011

UN Climate Summit: Part 1

Why the Climate Change Summits Have Failed

K. Edward Renner, PhD

Greenhouse gas emissions are the principal cause of climate change.

For the past 1000 years the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has remained relatively constant at 280 ppm, but starting with the industrial revolution it has been increasing at an accelerating rate to 390 ppm, well above the upper safety limit of 350 ppm.

In December 2009 and 2010 the UN held Climate Change Summits to attempt to set world policy standards for limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The United States and China were the principle players as the two top green-house-gas-producing countries. Both Summits ended without a comprehensive agreement.

It is important to understand the reasons for these failures if the Summit this December in Durban in South Africa is to avoid a similar fate.

The United States has proposed that all countries should agree to absolute levels of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. China has proposed that limits be set in terms of a proportion of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). These are both self-serving proposals that neither can realistically expect the other to agree with.

Why do these proposals both represent bad faith negotiations?

The US is rapidly losing its industrial base. From 1990 to the present the US lost 3 % of its share of the world Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and it is projected to lose even more by 2020. Because CO2 emissions closely track GDP, the projected decrease in the US share of world GDP will proportionally reduce its amount of CO2 emissions.

The position is self-serving because the US goal would largely be achieved without any change in current practices, and from new technologies already or in place or planned. On the other hand, this standard would severely impact China’s fast growing economy. As a world standard, it is an empty offer.

Source: International Energy Agency and Wall Street Journal

In contrast, from 1990 to the present China’s percentage share of the world’s GDP grew from 4% to its present level and is projected to increase to 18% by 2020. China’s position to set limits on the “intensity” of CO2 emissions as a percentage of GDP does not reduce emissions, but rather the rate at which emissions grow.

China’s proposal is also self-serving because without any change from “business as usual,” China’s projected intensity will naturally decline as a result of its increasingly larger share of the world’s GDP. (A constant excess of 10 units of CO2 is a smaller ratio of 18 units than it is of 11 units of GDP.)  The remaining intensity reduction is already built into China’s development plan for fixing its own unhealthy quality of air. On the other hand, China’s proposal would seriously impact a US economy that has already achieved a lower level of intensity than China’s projected goal. As a world standard, it too, was an empty offer.

The position of both countries has not changed over the past year. To compound the difficulty, the world economic crisis makes it even more difficult for either country to agree to any policy that will make its economic recovery more difficult.

The challenge will be two-fold, first to find an alternative standard that is equally fair, and second to acknowledge that any immediate pain will be far less than what we will have to bear in the future if an agreement cannot be found.

In both the US and Europe we are already seeing that spending now and delaying payment until the future cannot continue indefinitely. The same holds true for greenhouse gas emissions. But the political capacity to act on that lesson is difficult, even though the necessity is obvious.

The challenge is to define an alternative world standard that is equally fair to both countries.

Professor Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. This material is based on his podcast series at:

UN Climate Summit: Part 2

An Alternative Standard for the Climate Change Summit
That Is Equally Fair

K. Edward Renner, PhD

The goal of the UN Climate Summits is to reach an agreement on a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. The previous summits have failed because the US and China, as the two major players, have each made proposals that would be largely achieved through “business as usual” for themselves, but which would severely impact the other.

As such, neither can realistically expect the other to agree.

Both focused on only two factors -- the absolute levels of GDP and CO2 emissions – which are only a small part of the relevant knowledge necessary for finding a solution. The resolution of the impasse requires creating an alternative standard that is equally fair by taking into account three additional concepts from the environment sciences: “Ecological Footprint,” “bio-capacity” and “overshoot.”

Source: National Footprint Accounts Data from Global Footprint Network

The Ecological Footprint is a measure of humanity’s demand on nature. It measures how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its wastes. Bio-capacity is measured by calculating the amount of biologically productive land and sea area available to provide the resources a population consumes and to absorb its wastes. Overshoot is when a country has a larger Ecological Footprint than their bio-capacity. Both the United States and China are in “overshoot” situations, but in very different ways.

Historically, the US has been the leading producer of greenhouse gases. But, as a result of their recent industrial growth, China has now surpassed the US. However, because of their large population, their per-person Footprint is still nearly five times smaller than the United States. It is for these reasons that a per capita index, as well as the absolute amounts, must figure into any alternative world standard. High levels of consumption by a small number of people in the US, and large economic growth spread over a large population in China, are two very different circumstances responsible for similar absolute levels of emissions.

The deficits created by these two types of overshoot have been made up by seriously depleting the resources of Least Developed countries, such as Columbia and the Congo, to dangerously low levels. Thus, as bio-capacity creditors, these nations must be included as principal players in the global economy. It is essential to restore and then to maintain their bio-capacity for any of us to have a sustainable life on the planet.

The simple arithmetic is that neither China nor the US can continue to destroy the bio-capacity of the earth without crashing the planet.

Source: National Footprint Accounts Data from Global Footprint Network

In practical terms this means both the US and China must start to reduce and then eliminate their own overshoot, and to invest real resources in the creditor nations to help them restore and maintain their bio-capacity. However, the way the US (and other Developed countries) and China (and the other Developing countries) are able to do this is very different due to the two very different types of overshoot.

Developed countries, such as the United States must “pay backwards.” Because the US has a declining share of the world’s GDP and a huge long-standing ecological debit, the US only has the capacity to pay back its debit by redirecting some of its excessive consumption toward reducing its overshoot and toward helping to restore the bio-capacity of the Least Developed countries.

Whereas, the Developing countries, such as China, only have the capacity to “paying forward” by redirecting some of their future growth toward reducing their overshoot and toward helping to restore the bio-capacity of the Least Developed countries.

Internally, for both countries, it means making heavy investment in alternative energy and creating a green-based rather than a growth-based consumption economy. Externally, it means sharing technology with the Least Developed nations and adjusting their policies to support sustainable living – such as for the US to stop making it more profitable to grow plants for ethanol than for food.

To be fair, the amount of “paying backwards” by the US should match the amount of “paying forward” by China. This is a mathematical equivalence that can be calculated.

But, fairness alone is not a sufficient condition. In addition to being feasible, the solution must also be politically acceptable with in each nation. Therein is the cause of the stalemate and the challenge to be overcome.

Professor Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. This material is based on his podcast at:

UN Climate Summit: Part 3

The High Stakes Negotiations of Climate Change

K. Edward Renner, PhD

The goal of the UN Climate Summits is to reach an agreement on a standard for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. The previous summits have failed because the US and China, as the two major players, have each made proposals that were largely self-serving, but which would severely impact the other.

The failure is not being unable to define a "fair" standard. The environmental sciences have already given us all of the information we need.

The Developed Nations, such as the US, must reduce consumption to significantly smaller amount. The Developing Nations, such as China, cannot continue their rapid economic industrial growth at the cost of destroying the bio-capacity of the planet. As essential partners, the Least Developed Nations -- the lungs of the earth – need to be compensated for the restoration of the damage already done to their bio-capacity.

Toward this end, the UN has established a Green Climate Fund to enable the Least Developed Nations to participate in the global economy as essential partners by restore their bio-capacity. The high emission countries, however, have not yet provided any of the required funding.

Clearly, fairness alone is not sufficient. Any solution must also be politically acceptable. This is the difficult problem.

National governments hold political power by protecting their sovereign national interests against the claims of other nations. For this reason, both the United States and China have made largely self-serving proposals.

For the United States, setting a fair emission standard would require reducing its consumption and transferring those resources to, for example, the United Nations Green Climate Fund. Consumer goods -- such as gasoline -- would become much more expensive. People with low levels of income would require higher pay and better social services in order to survive. This, in turn, would require a significant redistribution of wealth and income.

For China, this would require compromising their drive to become the primary economic power in the world, and ending rural poverty, by transferring these resources to the United Nations Green Climate Fund.

Neither the United States nor China has the political will or capacity to make these choices, even though the failure to make them will result in even more severe outcomes. There is an “ideal” and an “extreme” solution.

The “ideal” solution is for greater public awareness so that, in the United States, elected officials would lose their political power if they did not make such an agreement, rather than lose power for dong so. The exact opposite is our current reality. Given the current worldwide economic crisis political arguments are being made to delay or rescind environmental regulations because they imped our economic recovery. The paradox is that to not do so might cost us our lives, or at best leave our children with a much lower quality of life than we currently have.

The “extreme” solution is to view the collapse of the planet as equivalent to the Armageddon of atomic warfare. All that needs to be agreed upon at Durban is the simple standard “that the quality of life is a production cost.” In practical terms this means there can be no deferred environmental costs to either consumption or growth.

The implementation would be for the United States to start to unilaterally impose import duties on consumer goods equal to their deferred environmental costs if China itself did not redirect an equivalent proportion of its GDP to the UN Green Climate Fund.

The reciprocal implementation would be for China to unilaterally impose a proportional cut off of financial support for our cumulative debt if the United States did not itself reduce its large footprint by redirecting an equivalent proportion of its national excess to the UN Green Development Fund.

The two major polluters can force each other to do what neither would be able to do on their own. This is an economic version of the Cold War as a necessary prelude to avoiding environmental collapse as the new unthinkable.

The extreme solution is not a pretty picture, but it may be what is required in order to create a wake-up call to achieve the public awareness necessary to support the ideal solution. Simply put, we must pay for what we have when we get it -- which is what a green economy is all about.

Clearly, solving the “acceptable,” not the “fair” part of the solution is the difficult, perhaps impossible, task. However the first step is to talk about the issues in plain truthful language. These are the issues we face, either as rational problem-solving now or as a harsh reality later.

If democracy is to work, straight talk is required by responsible people, including above all else elected government officials. Surely, we can risk the public trust if we believe in our own civic process; we have nothing more to lose, and everything to gain.

Professor Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. This maerial is based on his podcast at:

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In Quality of LIfe US Trails Peers

This essay may be reproduced and reprinted. 
Reprinted in the St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 30, 2011, 11A.

Who Is Fairest of Them All?
Edward Renner, PhD

If we compared the United States with the other rich, developed, market democracies of the world -- such as France, Germany, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark etc. -- where would we stand?

Would the United States be in the upper or lower half of these nations on indexes that measure the quality of life of their citizens? Mark each of the following statements as true or false.

The United States is among the top half of these developed nations:
1.       With the lowest incidence of mental illness.
2.       With the lowest incidence of drug use.
3.       With the lowest infant mortality rate.
4.       With the lowest rates of obesity.
5.       With the lowest rates of teenage pregnancies.
6.       With the lowest rates of homicide.
7.        With the lowest rates of people incarcerated in prison.
8.       With the highest level of social mobility (the opportunity for children to do better economically than their parents).
9.       With the highest rate of national income spent on foreign aid.
10.   With the highest UNICEF Index on the well-being of children.
11.   With the highest level of life expectancy.
12.   With the highest levels of math and literacy scores of 15 year olds.

Not only is the correct answer to each of the questions "false," but even more sobering is the fact that on the first eight questions the United States dead last. On the combined index of the number of social and health problems the United States is clearly last. The common factor accounting for the quality of life in these countries is the disparity of wealth and income within the nation.

Of all the nations, the United States, by far, has the largest degree of income inequality between the rich and the poor. As the Occupy Wall Street movement has publicized, 1% of the people have 90% of the wealth and the top 400 have as much as the 159 million people at the bottom.
The Gini coefficient is recognized worldwide as the standard measure of income of inequality. In the US, the coefficient is reported annually by Bureau of Census and is published in the Statistical Abstracts of the US, as are the other national statistics used for the comparison with the other countries.

These are the facts that describe our current reality. This is the information, not ideological beliefs, on which we must base our conclusions.  

When the Gini coefficient becomes too large a nation becomes less efficient. The very rich use their wealth to corrupt the political process by gaining undue advantage, in the US through lobbying and campaign contributions. The number of people living in poverty increases and government support for social programs is reduced. The result is a breakdown in the social structure; as the quality of schools, roads and services decline people become less satisfied, less healthy, less cooperative and less peaceful.  

It has not always been this way. For over 200 years we were the model of equality and prosperity. Now, we have become the exception to our own ideals. This is in direct contrast to how we see ourselves.  We have lost our perspective on the quality of life in our own country.

We can recover the historical standing we have had as the American ideal. The mechanisms responsible for smaller disparities of national income and wealth are well known. Countries with higher levels of health and happiness, and fewer social problems have:
1.       A steeper progressive tax system
2.       A higher maximum marginal tax rate.
3.       Government sponsored universal health care.
4.       A government sponsored social safety net.
5.       Government regulation which balances the competing forces of corporate power with the general welfare.
6.       A willingness to limit standing military capacity, and the use of armed force only as an intervention of last, rather than first, resort.

All six have been part of our own history. It is not that we do not know this, but rather, we have lost the will, and perhaps the capacity, to use them.
The Gini coefficient for the US has been steadily increasing above the upper limit for efficiency since 1980. This is when tax cuts for the wealthy, and corporate and financial deregulation, became fashionable as our political philosophy. In a market economy, the lower limit for efficiency is a coefficient around 26. At this ideal level, inequality is minimized, without yet triggering the disincentive loss of creativity and productivity associated with socialism.

The Occupy Movement is a wakeup call to our civic consciousness. We have become an exception to what we have always believed ourselves to be.

Will we hear the wakeup call, and take America back, or continue on in our 30 year snooze.
Professor Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. This blog is based on his podcast series “Forums for a Future” at

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Student Debt Crisis

This essay may be reproduced.
Reprinted in the St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 18, 2011, 13A.

For Sale: One Kidney. $30,000 plus all expenses. White, male, BS with dual major in physics and mathematics.

I personally know this student. He is serious, not crazy.

As an honors student, he worked part-time for 4 years. He has been entirely self-supporting and has graduated with a $30,000 student loan debt.

In his words: “I only need one kidney, and I want to start out even.”

In the US this past year, the total amount of outstanding student loan debt reached one trillion dollars. This exceeds the total amount of outstand credit card debt. The average college student in the class of 2010 at a public non-profit university will graduate with a student loan debt of $25,500. It is even higher for those attending for-profit educational institutions.

It did not always use to be this way.

Historically, the US made investments in education as the way to secure the future of the nation, and to provide the equality of opportunity that defined the “American Dream.” All of that started to change in 1980s with the political philosophy of reducing the size and the social responsibilities of government.

Since 1982 college fees and tuition have increased over four times the rate of the consumer price index and nearly twice the cost of medical care. After the financial crisis of 2008, every other form of debt has decreased as people made adjustments to harder times. The exception is student loans that have grown larger as college tuition and fees increased to compensate for loss of government support for education.

When too many students owe more than their degree is worth, or lose their ability to pay the debt, this financial bubble will burst -- as it surely will with suppressed wages and a 9.1% unemployment rate. Similar to the housing bubble, we will be asking all over again, how could this be?

The answer is the same for student loans as it was for mortgages.

The college loan industry is following the same path as the mortgage lenders by recruiting students who have small chance of success. They end up with debt and no degree. These loans are similar to the toxic mortgages. Other students take out loans on the promise that economic growth will make the loan affordable in the future. The grim reality is that this is no longer true, for student loans as well as mortgages. The illusion of economic growth by financing the present through debt is over, for individuals as well as for governments.

The student loan bubble is an even a more dangerous symptom of the failure of our national political process than was the mortgage bubble and the resulting financial crisis of 2008.

Education, science, health, roads and all of the other things that have made the American Dream possible, and made our country the envy of the world, are not commodities, they are public investments in the common welfare. My student’s kidney, and all that it symbolizes, is not, cannot and should not become a commodity.

Student loans are the only type of debt that cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy, except under rare and unusual circumstances. The financial industry that created the student load bubble has successfully lobbied for laws that exempt such loans from the capacity to be discharged. With accumulated late payment fees and interest charges they are a more toxic financial “product” then the mortgage crisis.

It is not an individual’s responsibility to have to choose between debt and one kidney, or between forgoing education to avoid debt. It is, however, the responsibility of government to be a buffer between the public good and predatory Wall Street practices of creating artificial financial “products” to make money at tax payer’s expense, or as cumulative debts to be paid for by our children.

Protecting the quality of public life is the primary responsibility of government. That is why we pay our taxes. We are not going to solve our social issues of public education, health and human welfare by reducing government. It is our government, and it is our civic responsibility to have it have it serve the end of human progress; this is the definition of a democracy.

It is not the primary function of government to further the accumulation of power and wealth by corporations, and the control of government by the wealthy; this is the definition of a plutocracy.

The choice between the two is ours to make. It will be the defining choice of our lifetime.

This is what the “Occupy” movements around the world are about.

Professor Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. This blog is based on his podcast series “Forums for a Future” at

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: The Way We Were and the Arab Spring

This essay may be reproduced and reprinted.

Occupy Wall Street:
 The Way We Were and the Arab Spring

Edward Renner, PhD

In 1960 the largest age group in the United States was under five years of age. The next largest groups were those 6 to 10 and 11 to 15. These were the Baby Boomers.

The smaller, immediately older 15 year age group of 16 to 29 matured in the wake of World War II, and the Cold, Korea and Vietnam wars. Many of these “children of war” were veterans attending college as mature learners; others faced military conscription through the Selective Service Draft.

Together, the two groups accounted for 51% of our National Population of 180 Million. The Median Age Was 29. Their motto was, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” They did not like the future they saw in front of them. They saw an "establishment" locked into dead ideas from previous eras.

They orchestrated and witnessed the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements. They marched, protested and created music which gave voice to an alternative optimistic vision of equality of opportunity in a Great Society. This "Greening of America" was an inspiration for the rest of the world.

We were what others hoped to become.

Now, 50 years later things have changed. The age distribution of the Arab Spring is structurally similar to that of the United States in 1960. Well over half of the populations of Egypt, Libya and Syria are under 25 years of age.

 The youth do not like the future they see in front of them. A small elite establishment exercises excessive authority and wealth in the face of limited opportunity and wide spread poverty.

It is 1960 all over again. Similar to the way we were, they do not trust anyone over 30.

Except this time it is the United States, and much of the Western world, where the New Establishment is the baby boomers and the children of war who are still the single largest age group.

The “American Spring” of 1960 has turned into the American Winter of 2010. As a nation we are locked into old ways of thinking. Now, the New Establishment does not trust anyone under 30 as having a clue of how to live a responsible (non-digital) life. Our youth, who are currently coming of age, do not have the same space in front of them as did their parents and grandparents in 1960.

Perhaps it is us in the United States, with a large majority of our population over 30 years of age, who are out of step with both our children and with the rest of the world. We are trying to hold on to a past that no longer exists. We are trying to protect the dead ideas of unfettered capitalism and individualism, and the large wealth and income disparities they have fostered, exceeded only by Brazil and Mexico.

We are no longer what others hope to become. We have become what the emerging countries of the world are protesting against.

Just maybe, it is us, two endless but unpaid for wars later, global warming, an unsustainable national debt, a broken civic process, and the Tea Party as our potential response, that is the problem.

After having made a mess of the open opportunity we were given fifty years ago, it may be time to start seeing our own future in the faces of the current millennial generation.

The Facebook fueled, “Occupy Wall Street,” movement may be the first sign of a new American Spring. Are we ready?
Professor Renner teaches in the Honors Program at the University of South Florida. This essay is based on his podcast series at:

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Millennial Challenge

The Millennial Challenge

K. Edward Renner

In 1988 the very last of “Baby Boomers” joined the labor force. As a generation they had an open path to the future.

The Establishment was receding into the background. There were relatively few dependent old people and a large number of dependent children.

It was the culmination of the Modern Era. The wave of Boomers exemplified living in the present tense: Anything was possible, now.  As a nation we lived as if there was no tomorrow.
Although we did not know it at time, the first of what would become the Millennial Generation was also born. They would be separated from the rest of the population, not just by age, but also by a digital divide. For them, the world as they know it has always been digital.

By 2008 the population of the United States had increased by 50 million people, and the first of the Millennials were ready to start claiming their future. They were in the same position as were the last of the Boomers 20 years earlier, except for one big difference: There is a demographic wall in front of the Millennials.

They do not have the open opportunity that the Boomers enjoyed.
The Millennials will inherit from the Boomers the legacies of their cumulative environmental impact and a large financial debt.

The stark reality is that the environmental and fiscal deficits that enabled the false prosperity of the Modern Era are not sustainable. If they are not reversed within the next several decades it will be too late to escape their toll.
However, the youth of today cannot secure their own future without the cooperation of the adults in front of them. Nor, can they wait until they are the ones in charge because of the limited timeframe available for creating a new sustainable way of life.

With a cap on future growth imposed by the limits of nature, eliminating the ecological deficits and reversing the financial debit can only be achieved by a reduction of past excesses through a decline in the Millennial’s standard of living. This is their price for surviving in the 21st Century.

The difficulty is the Boomers, and Generation Y waiting to take their place, have a vested interest in protecting the wealth and authority afforded by the very political, social, and economic practices that produced climate change and world financial instability.

The solution has to be a joint effort between the Millennials and the Boomers.

The task is no less than The Boomers and Millennials mutually rejecting the status quo, and fully engaging in a civic dialogue to fundamentally restructure our current political, social and economic institutions.
Yet, over the short life span of the Millennials, the nature of civic engagement and civil communication has changed more dramatically than at any time since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press over 500 years ago.

Bridging the generational digital communication gap is an urgent responsibility for all of us:

The Boomers need to understand they cannot take “America Back” ideologically. Today’s vision must be global, digital and evolving (not national, written and definite). Creating a new “American Dream” must be based on premises that reflect that vision.

Generation X needs to stop waiting in line behind the Boomers and go to the head of the emerging line of Millennials and start to lead the way. Their future is behind, not in front, of them.

The Millennials need to become audible to the others, not just digitally to each other. That is what their age cohorts in the rest of the world are doing.

This is the Millennial Challenge. It is for all of us. 
Professor Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. This essay is based on his podcast series at:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Big or Bad Government?

This essay may be reproduced.
Reprinted in St. Petersbug Times, Sept. 23, 2022, Page 15A

Big or Bad Government?
Edward Renner, PhD

The grid-lock in Washington over the role of government confuses two separate issues: the size and the function of government.
They are not same. 

The important distinction between them is the practical ways they affect our lives, today. It is not their rhetorical role as political ideologies.

We live in an increasingly complex globalized world. In the last 40 years the population of the US has increased by 50 million people. In that short time span there has been more change in communication and commerce than in the previous 400 years. 

We need government standards to assure airline safety, food purity and drug effectiveness. We need federal oversight to prevent financial institutions from taking speculative risks with our money. 
One measure of the total size and scope of our modern global reality is our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

By this measure our government is no larger now than when we were born. Government expense as a percentage of GDP has remained relatively constant for the past 60 years.

Contrary to what is often claimed, the huge annual budget deficit and accumulated federal debt is not evidence of "big" government. These are unpaid bills due to reduced levels of revenue and borrowed money to pay interest on borrowed money.

Throughout our entire history, with two exceptions, revenue has always been adjusted to keep pace with expenses. In 1981 and again in 2001 our government reduced taxes and essential government oversight of predatory corporate and Wall Street practices.  The economic toll of reducing the role of government started with Enron and culminated in the financial bailout and stimulus package required by the financial crisis of 2008.

The spike in spending after 2000 is compounded by the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses and the policy of paying for the war with borrowed money.

These outcomes are the result of "bad" government, not "big" government. They are mistakes of judgment that can and should be reversed. 

We are not going to fix "bad" government by reducing Federal spending relative to GDP. We need and deserve our government to grow in capacity with the increased size and complexity of living in a globalized world. 

We can fix "bad" government by taking the necessary steps to ensure that our government protects the general health, safety and well-being of its citizens. I want my government to contain predatory corporate and Wall Street practices. I want my government to speak the truth about the expanding global issues we face, and to engage in civil civic discussions to find practical solutions, not to grandstand political ideologies. 

Good government is our civic responsibility. We can start to reclaim good government by not confusing “bad” as being synonymous with “big.”

Size is not the problem. It is the quality.
Professor Renner teaches in the Honors Program at the University of South Florida. This essay is based on his podcast series “Forums for a Future” at

Friday, September 9, 2011

Time Travelers

We Are All Time Travelers Now
K. Edward Renner, PhD

Time travel has always captured our imagination.

 We know that when Scrooge saw the future that “was to be,” he changed how he lived in the present. 

But that was fiction. Back then, people could only live in the past tense. Quite literally, today was yesterday: A grandfather could put his hand on his grandson's shoulder and say "son, when I was your age…" and his advice would be relevant because his reality at that age was no different than his grandson's reality at that moment.

All that started to change with the advent of the Modern Era. Science and technology held out the promise that we could make today be whatever we wanted it to be. Over the next 500 years we were gradually freed from living in the past tense. 

Today is today. 

The crown jewel marking the end of the Modern Era was to complete to perfection living in the present tense. We have been living as if there was no tomorrow. 

But now – in the 21st Century -- the momentum of the change that carried us from living in the past tense to living in the present tense has propelled us into a new era. 

Suddenly, today is tomorrow. Now, unexpectedly and unprepared, we have been thrust into the future. Like Time Travelers, what we are now experiencing is incomprehensible based on what we have always believed. 

There are many examples of this time-warp. Population growth is perhaps the clearest illustration of the many transformations, although often imperceptible, that are invalidating our current way of life. 

When I was born in 1936 there were slightly more than 2 billion people on the planet, there is now nearly 7 billion. The planet can roughly hold 9 billion in terms of providing the food and energy we need and absorbing our waste.

In fact, if all 7 billion people now live as we do in the United States it would require five planets Earth to sustain us all. This cannot be. Those of us alive today need to find a solution before we sink the good ship earth with us still on it.  

But, population growth is just one example of how we are racing towards a limit, all within the span of a single lifetime: India has more honors students than America has students. For students in a four year technical degree program, half of what they learn in their first year will be outdated by their third year of study. 

Our human challenge today is to grasp the idea we must start living in the future tense. It is a whole new way of life. Truly, how we respond today will seal the fate of our own tomorrow. 

Unfortunately, a fictional ghost of what “is to be” cannot magically take us to where we can clearly see our own future. Nor, as in science fiction, can we be beamed momentarily into the future. 

The true legacy of the science and technology of the Modern Era are not the smart phones and all the other things we have made. Rather, it is all of the things we now know. 

Fortunately, we are not trapped in the necessity of living in the past tense like our early ancestors. Like the time travelers from literature, we can actually determine our own future based on forehand knowledge of “what is to be.”

That fictional Scrooge-like glimpse into the future is the supreme gift of the knowledge created by the Modern Era. 

What we will actually do with this knowledge will be the final judgment of the great human experiment on earth:  Can human intelligence grasp the notion, as Scrooge came to understand, that today is tomorrow?

At this time in history, learning how to live in a knowledge-based future tense is our purpose. If we so choose, we can let go of our ideological-based present tense and become time travelers. It is a whole new way of thinking. 

What an exciting time to be alive.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­
Professor Renner teaches in the Honors Program at the University of South Florida. This essay is based on his podcast series “Forums for a Future” at

Friday, September 2, 2011

Speaking the Truth About the National Debt

Reprinted from the St. Petersburg Times, Thursday, August 4, 2011, Page A13.
Speaking the Truth and the National Debt

K. Edward Renner, PhD [1]

In order to make sense of the $14 trillion national debt we should not be focusing on the amount of the debt, but rather the wisdom of incurring it and the capacity to afford it.

 The appropriate statistic for doing this is the ratio of debt to wealth.

Over the history of the United States this ratio has varied considerably depending on the external circumstances we faced as a nation. Before 1981 every peak in the level of our national debt ratio was triggered by a major external event, from the American Revolution through the Depression to World War II.

The wisdom of incurring these debts has been generally accepted. 

Each time, after the external situation was over, the nation significantly reduced the relative level of debt, not by eliminating it, but by increasing our wealth so that it became affordable. 

During and after World War II everyone pitched in to help support the war effort through savings bonds, rationing, recycling and a frugal lifestyle; and, later, through endorsing a progressive income tax in which the highest marginal rate remained around 80-90%. The revenue built our national infrastructure, generated jobs, created Medicare and a widely shared level of middle class prosperity. 

By 1981 our debt to wealth ratio returned to roughly what it was at the time of the American Revolution, even in the face of the “Cold War.” 

However, in 1981 we started a new uncharted economic policy based on the theory that the size and scope of the post-WWII involvement in our economy by government was bad for the nation and for the American people. 

The highest marginal tax rate was dramatically lowered under the assumption that providing additional income for the wealthiest, and the deregulation of business, would stimulate even greater economic growth. 

The theory was that the benefits would trickle down to the workers below and that there would not be any need to cut government social programs because the additional wealth would provide the revenue to replace that lost through the reduction in taxes.

We now know that the theory was wrong. 

The relative reduction in revenue resulted in a rapidly increasing national debt ratio. The money never trickled down, even though productivity went up due to new technologies and globalization. The economic gains were not shared, the wealthy got wealthier while the relative debt rose.

The end of the Cold War reduced the need for defense spending, and a modest increase in the marginal tax rate added additional revenue. This provided a brief period of national prosperity and a decline in the relative national debt from 1996 to 2000. 

Then, this changed again. In 2000 we returned to the economic policies of 1981 of additional tax cuts for the wealthy, and further deregulation of corporate economic activities by the government, with the same results as before —  a huge increase in the national debt to wealth ratio. 

But, the difficulty did not stop with the large debt resulting from the tax cuts and the financial bailout of Wall Street. It was compounded by invading Iraq and Afghanistan. We were not asked by government, as we were in World War II, to pay more taxes, ration gasoline and to reduce our excesses. Instead, we were told to go shopping!

Only now can we see the true price of those wars. They alone are a $3 trillion contribution to the national debt. 

Yet, the current solutions enacted in Washington are more severe forms of the theory that produced the problem in the first place. They pass the costs of reducing the debt on to the average person rather than to those responsible for the problem. 

We can either renege on a 70 year old commitment by the government to our citizens to protect their retirement, health and general welfare; or, we can, once again, make our debt affordable by increasing the highest marginal tax rate, end the tax cuts for the wealthy, restore government taxation and regulation of corporate economic practices, put an end to the two wars, and to start paying for them now. 

Our choices are that simple.

[1] Professor Renner may be reached at kerenner@ The podcast series on which this essay is based is also available through the University of South Florida at: