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Voting – Compassion vs Fear

Most of the campaigns where the race is truly competitive, say within a five-point spread, are making their closing arguments. They are focusing on a message that has been honed over a year or so of campaigning.

In campaigns which involve national issues and even some local ones which have become nationalized a couple of central themes have evolved. Democrats are delivering a more positive message of the importance of compassion, health care, and civil and human rights whereas Republicans operate more on fear, fear of violence, fear of immigrants, and essentially fear of “others.”

Stepping away from the labels of Democrat and Republican and using the proxy of liberal and conservative, there is good evidence from psychological and even neurophysiological data for these different approaches to campaigning. It is not only what you think but actually how you think – how your brain responds to subject matter and what part of the brain is activated.

First the more obvious sources of difference between liberals and conservatives. Upbringing, education and personal experiences all influence our political attitudes. Two of these are easily observed. College students from conservative communities as freshmen in college tend to vote much like their parents. Graduate students from those same communities tend to vote much less conservatively. A liberal education actually does make one more liberal. Buzzwords like egghead, ivory tower and over educated are used almost exclusively by conservative commentators when describing liberals, never visa versa.

Women tend to be more liberal than men most likely due to personal experiences. Women are more likely to support collective actions which protect a broader swath of society such as children, minorities, ethnic groups, and the LGBTQ community. Conservatives are more of the “rugged individualists” where experience has shown them that personal actions are more important – being the soldier, the protector of the family, the breadwinner.

Of course all of the above are very broad generalizations and exceptions abound but the data are robust and come from very large data sets in well-controlled studies.

These themes are seen clearly in campaign verbiage. No better example is the issue of border protection and immigration. Republicans believe that building a wall at our southern border will protect us from immigrant hordes of murderers, rapists, and drug gangs. A recent twist is that immigrants from Central America will bring disease to our shores. One commentator claimed that they will bring Small Pox, a disease which no longer even exists. It was eradicated by an international vaccination program almost 40 years ago. He also warned of a biblical plague of leprosy, a disease easily treated with antibiotics.

They believe that blocking immigration from predominantly Muslim countries will prevent terrorism in our country while the only real current terrorist threat is from indigenous white nationalists. Recently pipe bombs have been mailed to news agencies and democratic politicians, and a gunman murdered eleven at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Democrats believe in an immigration policy that controls our borders while at the same time recognizing that migrants fleeing violence should be treated with dignity and respect. They don’t believe in open borders, regardless of what Republicans claim.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Electrifying Transportation

As of 2017, the United States regained the position of the world’s top oil producer. We now produce 15 million barrels per day (mmbd) of crude oil. That’s the good news, the bad news is that we consume 20 mmbd. The difference is made up from imports. Dependence on imported oil puts our markets at risk to forces beyond our control. A supply disruption in any overseas market would affect the price of oil here as oil is traded internationally.

As an example, we don’t buy oil from Russia or Iran, but if some or all of their production is taken off the world market, the price we pay for even domestically produced oil will rise. Oil is a fungible commodity and the price is set by international supply and demand.

Virtually all the crude oil we use goes to the manufacture of fuel- gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel for transportation. Conflict overseas could cost us dearly at the pump. All our other energy sources such as natural gas, nuclear, and renewables are produced exclusively here in the United States and therefore much less subject to the vagaries of the international markets.

The sensitivity of our transportation system to price fluctuations could be greatly reduced by a rapid conversion to electric powered vehicles because crude oil is not involved in the production of electricity.

Intense research is increasing the efficiency of renewable batteries. At the same time, economies of scale from increased production is lowering the cost. The technology already exists or is in pilot scale production for everything from passenger cars to big rigs like 18-wheelers.

Most automakers are already producing plug-in hybrids. These are really electric vehicles with a limited range, up to 50 miles. They also, however, have small gas engines that act as generators to power the vehicle after the battery charged from the grid is exhausted. Less common but in production are more exotic vehicles like the Tesla or the more mundane Chevrolet Bolt. These vehicles are total electric cars with ranges between charges of over 250 miles. As charging stations are built out, these total electric vehicles will rapidly replace the passenger vehicle fleet.

The production of electric light-duty delivery trucks trails passenger cars but not by much. Fleet delivery vehicles with limited daily range requirement are an ideal market. Daily round trips back to a station house for overnight recharge would actually help the electrical grid, as excess power already exists at night. Ryder Trucks has just ordered hundreds of electric trucks from a start-up company in – where else – California.

Buses for everything from rural schools to urban transportation systems are coming into play. Blue Bird Bus Company is now taking orders for electric buses to be delivered this year.

Most surprising is the advent of all-electric Semis. Elon Musk of Tesla and Space-X fame is now building prototypes of electric Semis with 80,000 lb Gross Vehicle Weight. These are the industry standard currently fueled by diesel that fills the interstates and move over half the freight in the United States. Tesla’s Semi is designed for a range of 500 miles and a recharge time of half an hour.

Trump, Military at Cross Purposes

Recently, President Trump without acknowledging the actual name of the bill signed into law the “John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019.” The omnibus military spending bill outlines how over 700 billion dollars will be spent by the Pentagon. A number of interesting expenditures will address Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) which continues the trend begun by President Obama to ready the military for the effects of global warming.

Language in the bill calls attention to sea level rise and the impact on coastal areas of erosion and possible contamination of drinking water via salt intrusion. Currently, the Naval Academy in Maryland is experiencing increased flooding due to storm surges. The bill specifies that for any new military construction in a 100-year floodplain, the design must include an additional two feet above previous base flood elevation.

Also in the bill is concern for the warming Arctic. The rapid warming has created an increased focus on the north pole as a theater of concern. Both China and Russia have shown increased military activity in the area. Whereas Russia has a fleet of twenty-five icebreaker vessels, the US has only two. Six new icebreakers will be funded in the bill.

A recent Pentagon study discusses not only the ravages of sea level rise but also the effects of drought, wildfires, heat stress, and other extreme weather events at US bases here and around the world. Increasing calving of glaciers means an increase threat of icebergs. A warmer climate is increasing the spread of insect disease vectors which will impact military personnel.

At the same time that Congress is funding military concern for AGW, the white house continues to deny. During the 2016 presidential campaign then-candidate Trump famously decried concern for global warming and climate change by calling it a Chinese hoax, cooked up to make us spend money unnecessarily and thereby put us at an economic disadvantage. As president, Trump has acted on his belief by working to roll back regulations meant to address AGW.

President Trump’s position flies in the face of the global scientific consensus. Every scientific body around the world has agreed that AGW is real and needs to be addressed. Every government around the world agrees and has signed on to a collective effort to address AGW, with the singular exception of the world’s largest economy, the United States. Actually, we are signed on, but President Trump has expressed his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2020, the earliest possible date outlined in the agreement.

The regulations being challenged are meant to reduce the use of fossil fuels which release greenhouse gases that contribute to AGW. Regulations include the Energy Star rating system, increasingly strict emissions standards for cars and light trucks, and the Clean Power Plan.

These absurd conflicting interests, military spending to mitigate AGW and President Trump’s actions to aggravate AGW, do harm to our economy and make us look foolish to the rest of the world. Just another day in Trump’s America.


In the mid -1960s, IBM corporation introduced the S/360 computer. This computer is thought of as ushering in the modern computer age. IBM executives, especially Thomas Watson, Jr, literally bet the company on this one product – and won. The machine and subsequent later generation models were widely accepted and employed in both science and industry. The term computer systems originated to a large degree because of the interoperability of the IBM machines.

The 360 and its ancillary input devices such as card readers, and keyboards, output printers, card punch machines, and tape drives for storage could fill a good a good sized room.

Compare that with a current model cell phone which are hundreds of thousands of times smaller, yet have computational powers billions of times that of the IBM 360. In fact, one of today’s cell phones has millions of times the computational power of all the NASA computers used to develop and guide the Apollo Missions to the moon. And a cell phone, besides its communications functions, does so much more – cameras for still and motion photography, mapping functions from GPS signals, and an ever expanding group of applications.

This is without doubt the best example of miniaturization, ever more power in an increasingly smaller package. It certainly isn’t the only example however. About the same time as the figurative launch of the IBM 360 was the literal launch of the first commercial communications satellite, Telstar. This satellite, built by Bell Labs and utilized by a consortium of communications companies delivered phone and television signals across the Atlantic.

The satellite itself was about 3 feet in diameter and weighed a couple of hundred pounds. The signal strength was weak so the ground station which handled the signals was huge. The antenna dish needed to track the satellite was housed in a radome the size of a 14 story office building. The elliptical orbit of the satellite meant that it was capable of only 20 minutes transmission time out of its 2.5 hour orbit of the planet.

Recently a group of “cubesats” were launched. These mini satellites are smaller than a thin paperback book. Only four were launched but the plan is to launch hundreds of these “space bees” to be placed in geostationary orbits around the world. Their purpose is to tie the Internet of Things together in one massive globally connected group of devices. Radios to refrigerators, toasters to televisions, all will interconnect via the space bees.

The medical field is seeing the application of miniature devices. A device the size of a pack of chewing gum has been designed to monitor several blood components and send the data via a Bluetooth connection. Right now device is designed for hospital use collecting data from drainage tubes employed after surgery. In the not to distant future and with continuing miniaturization, I can envision devices the size or grains of rice circulating in our bodies and sending back information on any number of biological parameters.

Miniature medical devices may go far beyond data collection and be used to correct conditions. Marrying tiny electronic devices with molecular scale creations such as antibodies will not only be able to detect but even correct numerous disease conditions. While siting on your couch or running at the beach, your phone signals you that devices within you have detected malignant liver cells. Not to worry – there’s an app for that! Problem found and corrected.

Opioid Addictions

Once again, and for all the wrong reasons, we are at the top of a list. Arkansas leads the nation in childhood abuse of opioids. Basically, our teenagers consume more prescription pills and various street drugs such as heroin than those of any other state.

Opioids include drugs, whether legal or not that are derived from the Opium poppy – codeine and morphine, also semi-synthetic drugs that are made by chemical conversion of opium – notably oxycodone and hydrocodone. Fentanyl and related compounds (congeners) are made completely synthetically.

The only difference among these drugs is relative potency, the amount (dose) necessary to produce a given effect. The range is incredibly broad. Fentanyl and its congeners are hundreds, even thousands of times as potent as morphine. Emergency personnel have been poisoned by simply touching pills. The adage “one pill can kill” is frighteningly true.

The death rate due to this epidemic is rising and seems to cross all lines – red states and blue states, rich states and poor states. The top ten states for death rates include both the poorest and richest states based on income.

In some states there seems to be a concerted effort to oversell prescription drugs. Over a recent 5 year period, 780 million pills were shipped to West Virginia. Its population is only 1.8 million. Every man, woman and child received the equivalent of over 400 pills! It is no wonder that they lead the nation in opioid overdose deaths.

The numbers are no less staggering in Arkansas. In 2016 physicians prescribed 236 million opioid pills. That’s about 80 pills per person. Almost half of all adults filled one or more prescriptions that year. In Arkansas, someone’s son or daughter dies on a near daily basis from an opioid overdose.

A coalition of cities and counties in Arkansas recently sued dozens of makers and distributors of opioids, arguing that the companies should bear the cost of drug abuse in the state. Whereas this should help with prescription drugs it may drive those already addicted towards street drugs which are much more dangerous due to the unreliability of dosages and the vagaries of intravenous drug use.

Some states have begun needle exchanges to reduce the secondary infection rate due to shared needles. New York City has gone so far as to create safe sites where clean needles and a safe location for injection are provided.

A silver lining to the opioid cloud may be about to appear in Arkansas. Studies consistently show that states with medical marijuana have much lower rates of opioid overdose deaths. Researchers examined medical marijuana laws and death certificate data in all 50 states between the years of 1999 and 2010. At the time, only 13 states had medical marijuana laws. It was obvious that the rates of fatal opioid overdoses were lower in states that had legalized medical marijuana.

The effect seems to be due to the lower use of legal opioids among those who have access to marijuana. Ironically the federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule one chemical or substance – drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Biodiversity = Sustainability

Ask ecologists what is the best measure of the health of an environment and they will tell you diversity. There are a multitude of ecological niches from the frozen tundra to boiling hot springs, from bone dry deserts to ocean expanses. In every case, greater biodiversity signals greater productivity and hence greater sustainability. Broader plant diversity means more food available to herbivores, and more herbivores makes for more prey animals.

Homo Sapiens, the only species on the planet that is actually capable of thinking about its impact, doesn’t. At least not much. We might forgive our Ice Age ancestors for wiping out most the megafauna on the planet because they didn’t realize their impact, but whenever humans showed up on the scene large animals disappeared. Other than Africa where we co-evolved with several large mammals, few are left around the world. Even the African species are dwindling.

The slaughter began as modern humans migrated out of Africa as early as 100,000 years ago. Europe, Asia, Australia and finally the Americas saw the rapid disappearance of large mammals. Some blame may be placed on changing climate, especially what is called the Holocene extinction at the end of the last glacial period, about 12,000 years ago. This period coincided with human migration into the Americas. Not only did the more northerly megafauna disappear but others such as a giant beaver as big as a compact car and a giant ground sloth which towered over 20 feet tall.

A similar rapid extinction took place when humans made their way to Australia about 40,000 years ago. A prehistoric marsupial weighing in at 3 tons disappeared shortly after human arrival. Also on the extinct list are a 2 ton Goanna (lizard), a turtle with a shell diameter of over 6 feet, and 500-pound flightless bird.

Probably the best-known example of a human-caused extinction is that of the Dodo, a 50 pound flightless relative of pigeons. Over a very short period of time it was extirpated from its island in the Indian Ocean. The Dodo was first seen by Dutch Sailors in 1598. It was gone from history by 1662, a species driven to extinction over the course of one human lifetime.

At the same time that we drive wild megafauna to extinction, we are replacing them with a very limited number of livestock, principally cattle, sheep, hogs and chickens and little else.

The combined mass of humanity is currently around 300 million tons, that of our livestock, 700 million tons. Compare that with the combined weight of everything from beavers to blue whales, which adds up to only 100 million tons. There are 200,000 wolves in the wild compared to 400 million dogs. Our closest relative the chimpanzee number about a quarter million compared to 7.6 billion of us.

The last western Black Rhino died in 2011, the last male Northern White Rhino died last month, leaving two infertile females of the species. Biodiversity means resilience means sustainability. What is our plan for our descendants?

Yet Another Dam?

Here in and about the river valley, we enjoy what could be described as plentiful rainfall, and a pinch of snowfall on occasions. In all, we average about 50 inches a year. Precipitation is generally spread over every month of the year with maximums occurring in the spring and early winter months. For the time being, we have sufficient water for both agriculture and drinking water, but this will change in the future. Growth alone will mean that we need to expand our drinking water supplies.

If the projections of computer models continue to correctly predict changing climate, we’re in for more trouble. Generally, global warming should mean more rainfall as warmer air can hold more moisture, but computer modeling predicts changing weather patterns with less rainfall in mid-continental regions and more on the coasts. Further confounding the issue of water availability is the prediction that what precipitation we do get will come in more intense and less frequent storm events.

Even if we get the same amount of precipitation, but it occurs less frequently, we will need more reservoir capacity to tide us over between rain events. Where will we get our drinking water in the future? In the 1980s City Corp looked to the North Fork of the Illinois Bayou as a possible site for a reservoir. Objections from the environmental community and the Ozark National Forest shifted the attention to the current site on Huckleberry Creek. The watershed of Huckleberry Creek is not large enough, but the reservoir is supplemented by pumping water out of the Illinois Bayou.

This “off-stream pumped storage” option has served the River Valley well for a couple of decades, but now City Corp is looking again to expand its supply by seeking an impoundment on the North Fork. Aside from environmental groups’ objections, and reservations on the part of the National Forest to cede land, there is the considerable expense of constructing a dam. If constructed this impoundment will flood a near pristine area currently used for hunting, fishing, camping, and other water sports.

And when this small impoundment’s capacity is exceeded, then what is the next valley to be flooded? And the next and the next? Ultimately the real long-term solution is to draw water from Lake Dardanelle. Why don’t we just cut to the chase and avoid the costs, both fighting with environmental groups and the monetary cost of construction of dams.

Water in Lake Dardanelle is good quality and can be further refined if necessary by technology. Reverse Osmosis (RO) is employed around the world to turn seawater in the potable water. RO systems are scaled from under the sink units for homeowners to multi-million gallons per day systems for municipal desalination plants.

The Arkansas Department of Health frowns on the utilization of the Arkansas River as a drinking water supply, but their objections are based on old data, and failure to recognize drastic improvements in the cost and efficiency of Reverse Osmosis technology.

Minimally treated water from lake Dardanelle could be pumped to the current Huckleberry Creek reservoir at a fraction of the cost of building more impoundments. This solution will allow us to have the drinking water we need for an expanding population under pressure from global warming. At the same time, we can save some of our wild places so our children and their children can have the experience of a relatively unexploited environment, the same as we enjoy.

Net Metered Distributed Energy

While the rest of the world’s governments continue to move ahead with the development of sustainable energy supplies, the Trump administration seems to be operating in reverse gear. President Trump has famously declared that global warming is a hoax promoted by the Chinese. He pulled us out of the Paris Agreement (to reduce global warming) claiming that China would gain an advantage if we were forced to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

Ironically, it appears that China will now be looked to as the world leader in the development of sustainable energy. They are deploying both solar and wind energy plants at a rate that no other country can match.

Although the Trump administration can’t see the future, states, communities, and even individuals do and can work for a sustainable future and save money in the process. The cost of solar arrays continue to fall. The payback period for solar arrays is now below 10 years. With lifetime guarantees of 25 years, one can recoup considerable savings and help clear the air.

For home owners and small businesses the most cost effective approach for solar is to grid tie the system. Connecting the array to the grid allows for net-metering. When the sun is shining and the solar panels are producing energy in excess of what a home owner or small business is using, that excess is sent to the grid making the electric meter run backwards. This is good for the owners of solar panels but is this good for the power companies that provide the power when the sun isn’t shining.

Right now the Arkansas Public Service Commission (PSC) is considering rule-making which may impact the costs of net metered systems. Power companies argue that grid-tied systems cost them money. But is that really the case? A recent study by Crossborder Energy, specific to Arkansas contradicts the claims of costs to the Power company and in fact finds that net-metered systems save money not only for the owners of such arrays but also for the power companies and their rate-payers. A win-win for both economic and societal considerations.

Solar generation is frequently well-matched with demand. On hot summer afternoons solar arrays replace very expensive peak power that the grid operators must add to their base load. This peaking power is very expensive beyond what solar arrays are paid via net metering.

Solar arrays generate within the grid, thus decreasing transmission costs compared to power that is brought from farther away. Solar is eminently scalable. As the demand within a grid expands with population growth, incremental addition of solar is much less expensive and doesn’t need the the lead time that other large scale sources such as nuclear, which can take a decade or more to bring on line. Solar, on any scale affords more predictable future costs as there are no fears of price fluctuations for fuel.

Societal benefits are quantifiable also. Increased stability and resiliency, cleaner air, a more stable climate are economically beneficial. The use of private capital and private property can leverage additional capital to the benefit of all rate payers, not just the solar array owners themselves.

Finally the study reconfirms that renewable energy such as grid-tied, net-metered energy systems create more jobs compared to energy systems fueled by fossil fuels.

Name Your Poisoner

There seems to be a newfound fondness for the Russian government on the part of Trump’s followers, both in the government and the population at large. Several officials have been less than forthright about their connections with Russian government officials or moneyed oligarchs. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused from the investigation of Russian interference in our election. Mike Flynn was fired after only three weeks on the job due to his failure to divulge his connections to Russia. Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager was fired after it was revealed that he had multi-million dollar contracts with certain Russian oligarchs. Other examples abound.

There seems to be a consensus on both sides of the political aisle that the Russian government or associated criminal elements tried to affect the outcome of our election, and would like to see further destabilization of democracy in America. This is the usual stuff of “cloak and dagger” behavior reminiscent of the cold war. The Russian government also has a much darker side.

Early in the twentieth century, Russia developed a lab to test poisons to be used by various agents and spies. Poisoning is a common method for dealing with both foreigners and Russian dissidents. One of the more famous events occurred during the cold war. Georgi Markov was an anti-communist Bulgarian writer who lived in exile in London. While crossing a bridge to catch a bus in 1978, he was poked in the buttocks with a umbrella. Later in the day he went to a hospital with flu-like symptoms. Three days later he was dead. On autopsy, a small hollow pellet was discovered at the site of the poke. Chemical analysis showed that he had been intentionally poisoned with ricin, an extremely potent toxin made form castor beans.

Victor Yushchenko ran in 2004 for president of Ukraine on a policy of aligning his country with the west rather than Russia. Shortly after his election he met with Ukraine officials who favored an alliance with Russia. Later he came down with what was initially diagnosed as acute pancreatitis. Later still he developed extreme chloracne, a condition only seen in individuals exposed to certain chlorinated hydrocarbons. In Yushchenko’s case it was determined that he was exposed to TCDD, a toxic bi-product of the manufacture of Agent Orange. Although he survive he was ill for months and remains disfigured from the chloracne.

Another dissident, Alexander Litvinenko fled Russia for asylum in the UK. In 2006 he became ill in the evening after having lunch with two Russian officials. He was diagnosed with acute radiation poisoning from Polonium-210. Three weeks later he was dead. It is thought that only a few drops of a Polonium solution in a bowl of soup would produce a lethal effect. This synthetic element can only be had from reprocessing waste from a nuclear reactor.

Surely the luckiest Russian poisoning victim is Vladamir Kara-Murza. Mr. Kara-Murza describes himself as a Russian democracy campaigner. In May 2015 he became ill for unknown causes. Blood works showed elevated levels of heavy metals but no known toxins were found. Although sophisticated chemical analysis can detect the most minute amounts of toxin, it only works if you know what to look for. Last February he became inexplicably ill again. He was in critical condition for weeks but is now recovering. It can’t be said for sure if Kara-Murza was poisoned – twice – but surely he is a target of the Kremlin and Russian leaders have a long-standing monstrous tradition of poisoning political opponents.

End of the Empire?

Since the conclusion of world war two, the United States has been viewed as the global leader. Much of this was due to the fact that we were the only industrial power on the planet that didn’t suffer massive infrastructure damage due to the war. We also had vast reserves of fossil fuels which we exploited to considerable advantage.

To most of the world we were the industrial, technological, educational and even moral leader. Now and especially since the election of the present national leadership, much of this is being questioned.

On the energy front we are still a major producer of fossil fuels, especially with the advent of the marriage of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The problem is that the world is moving on. Fossil fuels are yesterday’s technology. This has been clearly signaled by the Paris Agreement.

Seventy-two countries have ratified the agreement to reduce carbon emissions through efficiency and increasingly sophisticated solar and wind technologies. The countries which most vigorously develop and deploy these these “future fuels” will become the next leaders. Although we here in the US invented solar photovoltaics and pioneered wind power we are becoming small time consumers in this energy market.

The majority of wind turbines and solar panels here in the US are made overseas. Wind turbine blades, made here in the US, are made by foreign companies’ subsidiaries. Our labor goes to produce profit for companies in China and India.

And what does our current leader do? He has signed executive orders rolling back President Obama’s clean power plan that would have drastically reduced carbon emissions at little to no cost. The president’s proposed budget eliminates the energy star program – a program which has returned an astounding 300 dollars for every dollar invested! What does he say about our energy future? We’re gonna make coal great again. This makes about as much sense as subsidizing buggy whip manufacturing.

What does China do? China is on a trajectory to drastically reduce their reliance on coal. They are the world leader in producing photovoltaic panels and just recently became the world leader in installing solar. Denmark is a world leader in wind energy – currently getting 42 % of its electric power from wind. They are on target to reach 84% by 2035.

We currently get a scant 4 % of our electric power from wind and have essentially no target for improvement. We have essentially abandoned our position as world leader in the future of energy production.

Our immigration policy shows that we no longer really care about the “huddled masses yearning to breath free.” It is also impacting our educational leadership. Student in-migration is down. Forty percent of graduate schools are reporting decreased applications from foreign students. They represent the world’s best and brightest, who no longer see the US as the place to be.

Is this end of the empire? Just as the center of civilization passes from one society to another we very well may be witnessing the decline of or dominance in the world. We still possess the world’s biggest military but we may no longer be the world’s leader.