A podcast about context and the news.
Electric Lawn Care
This week we talk about weeds, lawn mowers, and California’s Air Resources Board.
We also discuss ornamental lawns, leaf blowers, and two-stroke engines.
Recommended Book: The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant
The concept of the modern lawn—a term that originally referred to a somewhat ecologically varied, short-cropped green space that was used for livestock, in contrast to fields that were used for growing agricultural plants—is derived from a variation of the lawns built and maintained by European aristocracy, especially British aristocracy, in the mid- to late-teens centuries, BC.
The concept evolved from a sort of posturing that only wealthy people could manage, back then, before the advent of grass-trimming machinery.
And the flex here was two-fold:
First, here is an expanse of land, which typically would have been put to use, in this case for livestock, but which I, because I'm wealthy, can leave unproductive, untarnished by beasts, and thus for purely beautification and recreational purposes; I can impress people with my sweeping plots of greenery, I can make it uniform and, thus, interesting, in an age in which nature is still being wrestled with and perfection by any standard is rare, and I have enough people working for me that all this maintenance, despite its incredible weight, all that grass in some cases being hand-scythed and sheered by human beings toiling all day long—I can afford to do that. So, look upon my fields, my vast tracts of ornamental land, and be amazed.
So simply setting aside land for this aesthetic-focused purpose was big, but so was maintaining such a thing in a period in which that maintenance was the consequence of long, hard, expensive human labor.
That ornamentality became more accessible to more people with the advent of early mowing machines, the first of which was unpowered, made from wrought-iron, and used a cylinder of blades that would spin when you pushed it.
That was invented in 1830 in England, and from there these Budding Machines, named after the inventor, Edward Budding, were sold to entities with large expanses of land, like the Oxford colleges and Regents Park Zoological Gardens, which in turn helped Budding, mostly financially, evolve his machine, which was then manufactured at a larger scale and licensed to other companies that wanted to make their own version of the same.
Within a decade, these mowing devices had been augmented so they could be pulled by horses, donkeys, and other beasts of burden.
Just over sixty years after that first model was built by Budding, the first steam-powered mower, still pulled by animals, usually, but much more powerful, was patented, and then eventually built and sold, and by 1900 a popular model of steam-powered mower, the Ransomes' Automaton, which is just a wonderful and steampunk name for anything, was dominant in the English market, and the first riding lawn mowers arose around the same time, as seats for operators were added on to the increasingly complex machines.
Mower designs started to show up in patent offices elsewhere around the world around this same time, as the concept of lawns had already spread globally, due to the British Empire's presence and influence, and in the US, the concept of the ornamental lawn was especially appealing: landowners who were gobbling up vast expanses of the—by their standards, basically uninhabited North American continent—were adding these sorts of areas to their growing estates, and the US Civil War meant that some of these landowners were finding themselves with a lot less abundant human labor—of the inexpensive and slave variety, at least—than before, thus the market for mowers, to maintain these brag-worthy lawns, grew quickly from the mid-1860s, onward.
The first gas-powered lawn mowers were produced in Lansing, Michigan back in 1914 by a company called Ideal Power Mower Company, and that same company went on to develop the first-ever self-propelled ridi
This week we talk about methane, the UAE, and organizational capture.
We also discuss climate change, broken governmental promises, and Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber.
Recommended Book: Raw Dog by Jamie Loftus
The United Nations Climate Change Conferences, often referred to as COP meetings, short for "Conference of the Parties," are formal, annual meetings where issues related to climate change are discussed by attendees.
These meetings have been occurring at their yearly cadence since 1995—though the November 2020 meeting was put off till November 2021, because of the COVID pandemic that almost entirely dominated international attention and governmental efforts, that year.
COP meetings are held in different locations around the world, with host countries chosen from among those that offer to provide the requisite facilities and services for all attendees, which can represent a who's who of governments and businesses; so this isn't quite an Olympics level of commitment and expense, but it is quite an undertaking, as those host countries need to provide security for all those leaders, translation services for six different working languages, and they also need to help engage stakeholders, ranging from diplomats to the CEOs of the world's biggest companies, flogging support for the meetings themselves, but also the core themes of each meeting, which vary from year to year.
These themes are important, as they've historically led to some of the most vital agreements we've seen between nations and other stakeholders, including the Kyoto Protocol, which was an early, 1990s-era emissions-reduction agreement between wealthy nations, and the Paris Agreement, which expounded upon that same general concept, though with much more aggressive targets and a wider scope of things the signatories had to take into consideration.
On November 30 through December 12 of 2023, signatory nations and other entities will meet for the COP28 meeting, this time hosted in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
This is interesting for several reasons, but the most prominent—and the reason this choice was controversial—is that the UAE, like many other nations in the region, is a huge fossil fuel producer, about 30% of its total economy reliant on oil and gas exports.
What's more, the President-Designate for COP28—the person who was put in charge of running things, but also getting those aforementioned stakeholders in line, making commitments, showing support, doing all the things they need to do to make this a successful COP meeting with something to show for their efforts—is Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber: the Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology for the UAE, the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, also called Masdar, and the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company—the first CEO to serve as a COP President, and, well, definitely the first oil company CEO to head up a meeting meant to help the world deal with climate change that's being amplified by the products his company is producing and selling.
What I'd like to talk about today is COP28 and what we might expect to emerge from this very unusual, but also quite significant, get together.
Al Jaber's appointment as the COP president for this year's meeting was a controversial choice, to say the least.
Dubai being selected as the host-city was one thing, but an oil executive running the show? This reeked, to some commentators and analysts, at least, as a sort of organizational capture: the United Nations either overrun by financial interests to the point that those interests were able to insert themselves even into this increasingly vital annual summit, or—maybe—the organization overcome by a naive sort of optimistic earnestness, wanting to get everyone involved, including those in some ways most responsible for the climate-related issues we face, to the point that the reins were ultimately handed over to one of those people, to do with as he and his ilk please.
The US Deficit
This week we talk about Rubinomics, government spending, and US federal debt.
We also discuss the Government-Household analogy, the House of Representatives, and the looming government shutdown.
Recommended Book: Quantum Supremacy by Michio Kaku
Early in November 2023, the credit firm Moody's lowered its outlook on the US government's credit rating from "stable" to "negative," pointing at a huge decline in debt affordability—the government's ability to borrow money cheaply, basically—and an ever-increasing, already gargantuan deficit as its primary justifications for that change.
And those issues are on top of another standoff in the House of Representatives over funding the government, which, if something isn't done, will come to a head on November 17.
A previous agreement struck by the previous House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, expires on that day, and if a new collection of 12 funding bills, which are what allows the government to pay for things, are not passed by then, the government could be shut down, possibly further diminishing the government's rating, on top of the many other consequences of not providing funding for things like national defense, energy and water development, and the Justice Department.
This new reduction in outlook by Moody's follows a recent downgrade by Fitch back in August, when that ratings firm dropped the US government's rating from AAA to AA+, largely because of all the down-to-the-wire negotiations about funding the government that have roiled Congress over the past few years, and what that kind of tumult does to a government's ability to say for 100% certain that they'll pay their debts and never default; the US has never defaulted on its debt, but the possibility becomes more realistic-seeming each time these politicians fail to provide funding for essential government functions, including, debt-paying.
Fitch also, like Moody's, cited the general diminishment in fiscal circumstances across the government, though, referring to a collection of variables that have been weighing down the state's capacity to acquire cheap debt.
Ratings are one such variable, as each decrease in a nation's credit rating makes debt more expensive, folks and other states buying bonds and treasuries and the like demanding more interest for the same amount of loaned money—which is what those sorts of financial instruments are, at the end of the day.
But beyond reputation, there are also factors like high interest rates, hiked by the Fed in order to tamp-down on inflation, and the accumulated interest payments that must be paid on previous debt taken out by the government to pay its bills.
So in addition to the government suddenly having to pay more interest on all its new debt, it also has to pay more and more interest on its existing debt, and that latter figure is compounding to the point that a lot of folks who are otherwise generally unconcerned about such things, are starting to take what could turn out to be practical notice.
What I'd like to talk about today is Rubinomics, government spending, and why the US federal debt is becoming a political talking point once more.
In the context of federal spending, fiscal responsibility refers to the balancing of a state's budget so that its spending is almost always close to, or below its revenue.
So if a government brings in a trillion dollars in revenue, from taxes, for example, and spends a trillion dollars to keep agencies running, infrastructure maintained, and its military up to date, that's a balanced budget.
If that same government were to spend a trillion and a half dollars without increasing tax revenues, though, it would have a deficit of half-a-trillion dollars.
And if it were to spend less than it pulls in, if it were to reduce the social safety net programs it provides or spend less on its military, and thus only spent a half-trillion of the trillion it earns in taxes, that would represent a surplus of a half-trillion dollars.
This week we talk about regulatory capture, Open AI, and Biden’s executive order.
We also discuss the UK’s AI safety summit, open source AI models, and flogging fear.
Recommended Book: The Resisters by Gish Jen
Regulatory capture refers to the corruption of a regulatory body by entities to which the regulations that body creates and enforces, apply.
So an organization that wants to see less funding for public schools and more for private and home schooling options getting one of their people into a position at the Department of Education, or someone from Goldman Sachs or another, similar financial institution getting shoehorned into a position at the Federal Reserve, could—through some lenses at least, and depending on how many connections those people in those positions have to those other, affiliated, ideological and commercial institutions—could be construed as engaging in regulatory capture, because they're now able to control the levers of regulation that apply to their own business or industry, or their peers, the folks they previously worked with and people to whom they maybe owe favors, or vice versa, and that could lead to regulations that are more favorable to them and their preferred causes, and those of their fellow travelers.
This is in contrast to regulatory bodies that apply limits to such businesses and organizations, figuring out where they might overstep or lock in their own power at the expense of the industry in which they operate, and slowly, over time, plugging loopholes, finding instances of not-quite-illegal misdeeds that nonetheless lead to negative outcomes, and generally being the entity in charge in spaces that might otherwise be dominated by just one or two businesses that can kill off all their competition and make things worse for consumers and workers.
Often, rather than regulatory capture being a matter of one person from a group insinuating themselves into the relevant regulatory body, the regulatory body, itself, will ask representatives from the industry they regulate to help them make law, because, ostensibly at least, those regulatees should know the business better than anyone else, and in helping to create their own constraints—again, ostensibly—they should be more willing to play by the rules, because they helped develop the rules to which they're meant to abide, and probably helped develop rules that they can live with and thrive under; because most regulators aren't trying to kill ambition or innovation or profit, they're just trying to prevent abuses and monopolistic hoarding.
This sort of capture has taken many shapes over the years, and occurred at many scales.
In the late-19th century, for instance, railroad tycoons petitioned the US government for regulation to help them bypass a clutter of state-level regulations that were making it difficult and expensive for them to do business, and in doing so—in asking to be regulated and helping the federal government develop the applicable regulations—they were able to make their own lives easier, while also creating what was effectively a cartel for themselves with the blessing of the government that regulated their power; the industry as it existed when those regulations were signed into law, was basically locked into place, in such a way that no new competitors could practically arise.
Similar efforts have been launched, at times quite successfully, by entities in the energy space, across various aspects of the financial world, and in just about every other industry you can imagine, from motorcyclists' protective clothing to cheerleading competitions to aviation and its many facets—all have been to some degree and at some point allegedly regulatorily captured so that those being regulated to some degree control the regulations under which they operate, and which as a consequence has at times allowed them to create constraints that benefit them and entrench their own power, rather than opening their indus
This week we talk about Peronists, Milei, and Argentina’s inflation rate.
We also discuss Justicialism, Bullrich, and military coups.
Recommended Book: Future Starts Here by John Higgs
Peronism, sometimes called Justicialism, after the Justicialist party, whose name is derived from the concept of social justice, and which is the main Peronist party in Argentina, has been the dominant political force in the country since the mid-20th century.
The word Peronism comes from the labor secretary-turned-president of Argentina, Juan Perón, who's wife, Eva Perón you might have heard of, but Juan came into that labor secretary position after playing a role in a military coup in 1943, and was then elected president in 1946.
His platform was broadly predicated on new social programs, support for unions, and supporting his wife's efforts to attain rights for migrant workers, among other, adjacent efforts.
In 1955, though, under the Peróns' leadership, the country was experiencing high levels of inflation and other economic issues, alongside political repression from the Peronists—making it difficult for anyone else to step in and take any of their power, basically, despite being ostensibly democratic—so the military overthrew them in 1955, and the party was banned until 1973 when open, non-military-controlled elections were held again; and Perón won that election, returning to the presidency after nearly two decades.
Juan died a year after returning to office, and his widow, his third-wife Isabel, who was also his vice president before he died, stepped in to run the country, but she was overthrown by the military in another coup in 1976.
Argentina was then run by a military dictatorship until 1983, when democracy returned, political parties were able to function again, and from that point forward, Peronist parties have dominated Argentine politics, their candidates holding the presidency for 28 of the 40 years between then and today, despite the very mixed record of Perón and others who have run as Peronists.
And fundamental to that mixed record is the Peronist party's seeming inability to manage Argentina's economy.
The Peronists have always promised a great deal to Argentinian voters, including social benefits, allowing workers to negotiate as unions with their employers, and offering legal protections and the other benefits of citizenship to people and groups that have traditionally been disenfranchised—all of which was has earned them accolades over the years from groups across the political spectrum.
That said, the party and all its offshoots have also been accused of being authoritarian, coasting to power on populist messages and demagoguery, stripping would-be political opponents of their rights and sicing their supporters on them, initiating violence against them, in some cases, and in general creating an ideology that sounds great on paper, but which, when put into practice, is often tainted by the power-hoarding efforts of those in charge; and all these efforts, on top of those other issues, tend to be unsustainable, leaving Argentina in precarious economic situations over and over again.
That economic unsustainability is part of what has made Argentina something of an outlier in South America; despite having all the ingredients of a decently successful, burgeoning state—like its neighbor to the north, Brazil—it somehow, over and over again, has stumbled into economic catastrophe, leaving it drowning in debt, stagnating, suffering from chronic inflation, and generally declining even when its regional peer-nations have enjoyed economic boom-times.
What I'd like to talk about today is Argentina's 2023 presidential election, the people and ideas involved, and what a November run-off might mean for the country's fortunes, moving forward.
On October 22, 2023, Argentina held a general election, during which voters cast ballots for most government positions, including provincial governors, all the
This week we talk about fuel efficiency, the California EPA, and Scope 3.
We also discuss the EU’s emission reporting efforts, regulations, and business incentives.
Recommended Book: Undue Hate by Daniel F. Stone
The California Air Resources Board, or CARB, is a California government agency that resulted from the 1967 merging of the state's Bureau of Air Sanitation and its Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board. It's part of California's larger Environmental Protection Agency, and its purpose is to make the air cleaner, healthier, and as free of toxins as possible.
Falling under that remit is the setting of vehicle emissions standards: the minimum miles-per-gallon of fuel efficiency vehicles must offer in order to be sold in the state.
And California is the only state that's allowed to set such standards, as the federal US government is generally the setter of such things—but the Clean Air Act of 1967 allows the state to get permission to set its own standards from the US government, and then as long as the EPA doesn't find their standards arbitrary or broadly inconsistent with the goals of the US's ambitions, and as long as they're more ambitious than the US's standards for such things, they must grant that permission.
The CARB only has 16 total members, two of whom are there just for oversight purposes, so they don't have voting powers, and 12 of the remaining 14 are appointed by the governor of California, and are then confirmed by the state senate.
Each of these members are different sorts of air and pollution experts from different regions across the state, except for two members of the public and one person who serves as the Chair of the group.
This group, though small and relatively humble in terms of the powers granted to them, and resources allotted, has an out of proportion influence because other states can choose to adopt the vehicle fuel standards they set, instead of those set by the US government.
And that's important, because California's fuel standards, since 2009, at least, when they won a court case that confirmed their ability to do this, tend to be more ambitious than those set by the federal EPA; the states that choose to use California's standards are often referred to as CARB states, and there are 16 of them, inclusive of California, as of the 2025 regulatory year.
This capability was temporarily truncated in 2019, when then-President Trump decided to take away California's right to set such standards, and the right to set up other popular—in California and other CARB states—programs, like the ZEV mandate, standing for Zero-Emissions Vehicle mandate, which basically said a certain percentage of fleet vehicles had to be zero-emissions vehicles, the percentage increasing each year—he wanted to take the right to set such things away, saying, in essence, a state government shouldn't be able to do so.
This rule was reverse in mid-2021, which gave California back that power to set standards, and though many carmakers, including Ford, Volkswagen, Honda, and BMW stuck with California's earlier standards, even after they were no longer legally required to do so, because of Trump's actions, seventeen states sued the EPA in 2022, saying, basically, that because California's standards have such a huge impact on how vehicles are developed and sold, car companies adhering to them even when not legally required to do so, because they want to keep selling their cars in California, it unfairly gives them power over the industry that other states don't enjoy.
That lawsuit, Ohio v. EPA, is ongoing, but California's influence in this and many other industries—especially in climate-related spaces—continues for the time being.
What I'd like to talk about today is a recent piece of legislation passed by the California government that could have even bigger and broader implications for corporations across the United States, and around the world.
California's Senate Bill 253, also called SB 2
Calm in the storm
I’ve been listening off and on since 2018, and I appreciate Colin’s calm delivery and exploration of context in a world of hot takes. He generally has an unbiased perspective, though his preferences creep in from time to time. I always appreciate his random book reviews at the end—some are in my wheelhouse and some I never would’ve known about without the pod.
This podcast is amazing and so enjoyable and informative. I listen to this podcast every day and love all the detail Colin puts into these episodes. Keep up the great work!
A relaxing bit of knowledge
Wonderfully relaxing way to learn and be entertained. It helps keep me calm in these stressful times. Thank you.