Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

The Thinker

If you care about the environment, choose your realtor with care

The Koch Brothers have been much in the news lately, at least if you follow political news. The two brothers own Koch Industries, which itself is a holding company for a lot of other companies it owns. The brothers are Charles and David Koch, but Koch Industries was actually built up by their father Fred, who long ago went to his reward.

Aside from their obscene wealth, the Koch Brothers have been known for their extremely conservative views. Moreover, they have not been afraid to put their money where their mouths are. Their money helped elect Scott Walker as Wisconsin’s governor. Together their political action committee, KochPAC, spent huge amounts of money on the 2012 elections, to little effect. As an investment, it was an unwise one, but its magnitude was stunning: over $400M. Their PACs alone spent nearly three times more in the 2012 election than the top ten labor unions combined.

Koch Industries is into lots of industries, principally industrial in nature. Their profits depend on getting natural resources cheaply to market. It’s not surprising then that Charles and David are premier anti-environmentalists, who vehemently deny that global warming is a problem and are trying to keep their industries from being impacted by pesky and costly pollution laws. Koch Carbon has created a lot of petroleum coke as a byproduct from refining oil shipped from Canadian tar sands. The product, called petcoke, has been piled up many stories high along parts of the Great Lakes. A huge noxious cloud of dust from a petcoke pile was captured on video last year. Its presence doesn’t bother the Koch Brothers, who don’t have to breathe the stuff, but it was of great concern to residents of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, who were on the receiving end of these polluted dust clouds.

While primarily into industrial activities, the Koch Brothers have influence in some surprising areas. One thing the Koch Brothers do well is create PACs and network related companies to contribute toward these PACs to achieve common goals. For the Koch Brothers, this is principally electing conservatives with an anti-environmental bent.

Many parts of the country are controlled by a handful of national realtor firms. Ever hear of Realogy? I hadn’t. There is a good chance you have heard some of these real estate firm names: Coldwell Banker, Century 21, Southbys, ERA and Better Homes and Gardens RE. It just so happens that Realogy gives heavily to Koch Brothers-related PACs. And Koch Brothers PACs give money principally to candidates that are anti-environmental, not to mention anti-union.

Real estate commissions are quite profitable, typically six percent of a house’s purchase price. A house selling for $250,000 actually costs $265,000, when you add in the typical real estate commissions. (It’s more than that, of course, when you add in all those other fees that come with buying a house.) Often the fee is split between two realtors: the seller’s agent and the buyer’s agent. If you consider how many houses are sold across the country annually, you can see that real estate commissions amount to a huge amount of money. Of course the individual agents keep a lot of it: it amounts to their salary. However, they also kick back a lot of it to their companies. Companies like Coldwell Banker ship their profits back to Realogy. Realogy’s in turn uses some of those profits to fund Koch-related PACs. It helps explain why the Koch Brothers-related PACs can find more than $400M to spend influencing elections in 2012 alone. For a company this big, $400M amounts to the change found under the family’s sofa cushions.

Curiously, most of the agents who work for these companies have no idea where these profits go. It’s likely that many of them are like me: environmentalists. They would probably be aghast to learn a substantial amount of this money is spent to help elect politicians who will be anti-environmentalist. I’m not a realtor, but I am a likely home seller and buyer in the next year or so. I would have known none of this had I not spoken to a realtor, who shall remain anonymous, with progressive leanings, who gave me the inside dope on all this.

What this means for us home sellers and purchasers is that unless we are very careful we are indirectly contributing to the destruction of our planet. If next year when I expect to put our house on the market I choose a realtor who works for a company controlled by Realogy, I could be indirectly contributing to PACs controlled by the Koch brothers, which will go principally to electing people who will further harm the planet.

I am so glad to get this insider information. If you are an environmentalist and in the housing market, then you should be glad to be reading this post too. In fact, I hope you will take a moment to “like” it or hit one of the share buttons for this post, and broadcast it to your friends. Perhaps, before listing your house, you should choose a realtor firm not associated with Realogy. Among the national firms not part of Realogy are ReMax and Keller Williams. Perhaps, before hiring a buyer agent, you should do the same. That does not necessarily mean that ReMax and Keller Williams may not be channeling some of their profits into these anti-environmentalist causes. But it seems less likely that they are.

Deciding who to hire as your realtor or buyer agent of course is a complex decision. Typically you are more interested in the agent than the company they are affiliated with, and his or her track record. If you are an environmentalist, you can look for good agents that simply aren’t associated with these firms. You can also choose small, local and independent realtor firms. These firms don’t have to send their profits to a national office. They can keep the money in their community instead. And that sounds environmentally friendly.

You can bet that before I sign a contract with a realtor, I’ll be assured that my money will not indirectly support any Koch Brothers PAC, or any anti-environmental cause. I hope you will do the same.

Updated 3/9/14 – I initially published this with some incorrect information. I had suggested that Realogy was owned by the Koch Empire. This is not true, however Realogy does give heavily to the Koch Brothers’ related and approved PACs. The full extent is hard to determine, since individuals working for Realogy can make contributions to any organization they choose under their own name. As for the official Realogy PAC, you can see how it spent its money here. As you can see, a lot of it went to the Madison PAC, whose Facebook page indicates its purpose is to get conservatives elected to Congress.

 
The Thinker

Cruising into denial

The good news is that our cruise was perfectly timed. We missed a second massive polar vortex by escaping to the Caribbean via a cruise ship. Moreover, we did not spend it vomiting by catching the Norovirus, unlike the unlucky passengers of the Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas and the Caribbean Princess. Despite these risks, I am definitely starting to see the appeal of being a snowbird. Winter is not bad and it can be pretty and invigorating. But when it goes on too long, or it gets too cold, or when there are no breaks of cold weather, and when you are sick of the sun slipping behind the horizon by five p.m., maybe it’s time to be in southern latitudes for a while. It worked for us. I am still red in the face, despite the sunscreen. With luck it will last for a while.

The bad news is when we came home on Monday we were back into the thick of the cold weather. We missed the worst of the recent cold and snow. But it was still in the mid 30s, and this was sure not Aruba. Our car, twelve days on the BWI long-term parking lot, anemically came back to life. We were greeted to the traditional slow traffic on the beltway and by a mixture of snow and frost covering the front lawn. We may need to deal with a massive snowfall next week too. In short, we’ve been vortexed. We should get above freezing tomorrow but for three mornings in a row it was 8, 9 and 6 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning. Temperatures in the 40s will feel like a heat wave.

Earlier on Monday morning, we grabbed a quick breakfast in the dining room of our cruise ship as we waited for our call to disembark. Unless you holler, you usually get paired up with some other couple. You know you have been on a cruise ship too long when you recognize people and some of their names because you had long conversations with them over dinner. I had a few passengers call me by name on the cruise ship. Most of these people are fine to dine with.

Occasionally you get a crank. We got a couple from southwest Florida on Monday morning in the Vista Dining room of the Noordam. After a long digression about the man’s stroke fifteen years earlier, we of course talked about the cold weather, although weather in Fort Lauderdale was already nearing eighty. Doubtlessly parroting Fox “News”, the gentleman we were with expressed the opinion that global warming and climate change were bunk. Look at that polar vortex freezing most of the United States. Case closed.

It’s quite a challenge for me to remain civil in these circumstances. Most people choose to see what they want to see, particularly viewers of Fox “News”, which is fair and balanced, as long as you don’t count the “fair” and “balanced” part. But when you are a white couple in your sixties like this couple, you live in a deeply red part of the state and you have been on 64 (yes, that’s what they said) cruises, you are obviously swimming in money and, when not on a cruise ship, probably living in a gated community somewhere where you can spout crap like this with conviction.

I gently pointed out news reports that temperatures in Rio de Janeiro recently reached a crushing 110 degrees. The southern hemisphere is in its summer, which also means out in Oz (Australia) temperatures are close to these stratospheric levels too. 106 degrees is forecast in Adelaide on Saturday, and there are the now usual brushfires to deal with, meaning there is a catastrophic fire rating in southeast Australia. Hopefully, these brush fires won’t destroy more Australian homes, but it’s becoming usual to have summers where hundreds of homes down under succumb to flames caused by fires created by these long and excessive heat waves. When we returned home and read the news, I learned that the temperature in Alaska reached 62 degrees in Port Alsworth. In general, the west coast is warmer and drier this winter than normal, due to the shifting jet stream, which is pumping the warmer air northward along the west coast, but otherwise is freezing the east coast. More than half of California is experiencing a severe drought. But of course, because the news is full of reports about negative degrees Fahrenheit across most of the northern states, it means to some that global warming must be bunk.

People wonder why scientists are overwhelmingly Democrats. It’s because they cannot deny the obvious, and they examine the totality of evidence before making assertions. For a Republican, if there is a polar vortex it means there is no climate change. If there is an excessive heat wave, it’s an aberration and evidence of nothing. Democrats though are looking at the earth as a system. And on average, in spite of the polar vortex, the earth is warm and getting warmer. It obviously doesn’t mean the world in general is cooling down.

I didn’t press my logic too far with this couple. I knew from experience it would engender some hostility. We simply had to finish a quick meal and the price was right, even if we had to sit with a couple that admired Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Keep pleasant. Keep positive. Keep civil. Smile, but don’t smirk.

It may be inconvenient, but neither Fox “News” nor Rush Limbaugh can change the laws of chemistry. When you keep adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more heat is going to be retained from the sun, on average, than otherwise and that means it’s going to be hotter. Rent a chemistry lab and do the experiment for yourself. So things are going to get warmer until we stop pumping these gases causing global warming into the atmosphere. Maybe God can move mountains, but he never has, at least not unless you count over eons. God isn’t going to change the laws of chemistry and physics simply because it disagrees with our prejudices.

I hate to give up cruising. Fortunately, this couple was not typical of those we sat with. But I may need a special cruise next time: where only sane people are allowed to board. The stupid: sometimes it does not just burn; it flares.

 
The Thinker

Bitcoin is libertarian bit nonsense

Are you intrigued by Bitcoin? It’s a digital currency much in the news these days. It even got a hearing on Capitol Hill last month. Surprisingly the foundation overseeing Bitcoin came out relatively unscathed. Some places are accepting Bitcoins as payment for actual goods and services. They do so on the assumption the currency has value. Like any other currency it has value because some people assert it has value.

Which raises the question, what is its value? There are clearly things you can do with Bitcoin that are convenient. It’s a sort of digital cash for our electronic age. Only it’s not really cash. Real cash doesn’t leave fingerprints. You make a Bitcoin transaction and the transaction is recorded in the coin itself.

If there is value in Bitcoin, maybe it is from the faith we place in its math. There is not much we trust anymore, but you can still trust math, and Bitcoin depends on math, not to mention encryption algorithms, to assert its value. The number of Bitcoins has a finite limit because of the power of math and algorithms. Each attempt to mint a new bit coin requires lots of computers to spend lots of time and use lots of energy. For all its electronic novelty, it’s hardly an environmentally friendly currency. In fact, it’s bad for the environment.

You can’t say that about gold. Granted, the process of getting gold out of the ground is often bad for the environment, but once you have it, there it is, probably to sit in highly protected bank vaults and never to be actually moved or for that matter seen. A Bitcoin is entirely virtual but it depends on lots of computer hardware to mint and to assert its value. You won’t be creating one of these with a pad of paper and a slide rule. In fact, a Bitcoin is entirely dependent on computers and high speed networks. No wonder then that it was abruptly devalued last week when China blocked Bitcoin transactions. Keep it from being used in the world’s most populous country and it has lot less utility. Of course, it’s useless to anyone without a computer or some sort of digital device, not to mention some network so you can trade the currency. So it’s not even universal. You can’t say that about the U.S. dollar.

The larger question is whether a currency built on nothing but math really can have value. It does have value at the moment, as I can actually trade Bitcoins for U.S. dollars, which in my country is what everyone accepts as currency. In the long run though I think Bitcoins are going to be worthless. I don’t plan to own any of them and maybe I can make a case why you shouldn’t either.

First, there is whether counterfeit Bitcoins can be created. New ones can be minted if you have the computer horsepower and these are “legal”, but if they can be created for virtually no computer time then they would be counterfeit. Call me suspicious but I bet either the NSA has already figured out a way to hack it or will soon. In short, to trust a Bitcoin you must buy into its assumption that it can’t be hacked. Since the dawn of the computer age, hackers have demonstrated their ability to hack anything. They love the challenge. It’s reasonable to believe that Bitcoin is going to be hacked one of these days.

Second, there’s the question of what its value represents. I’ve discussed the value of money before. My conclusion is that money essentially represents faith that the country coining the currency will remain solvent and viable. I based this conclusion on the observation that currency value falls whenever these assumptions are shaken. Having a currency based on the gold standard doesn’t seem to make any difference, as the United States has been off the gold standard since the 1970s. Printing new currency doesn’t seem to be that big a deal either, providing the new currency is used to acquire assets of value. This is what the Federal Reserve has been doing since the Great Recession: creating money (none of it actually printed, apparently) and using it to buy long term securities like mortgage-backed securities. Curiously, just printing money is not inflationary when it is used to buy tangible goods. This is providing that the institution printing the money is trusted, and the Federal Reserve is trusted. In any event, investors can value or devalue a currency based on examining its monetary system and the country’s economy. With Bitcoins, you can’t do this. It is backed by no country, which is its appeal to its adherents.

What is Bitcoin really about then? It’s about a political idea; more specifically it’s about libertarianism. It’s trying to be a means by which libertarianism becomes institutionalized. If you are not familiar with libertarianism, it’s all about freedom, buyer beware and minimal (and ideally no) government. Libertarians (at least the committed ones) are vesting their wealth in Bitcoins because it’s how they show loyalty to the cause. They want money to be frictionless and outside governmental control. Arguably, Bitcoin does a good job with this, providing buyers and sellers will accept it as having value.

But libertarianism is an idea, not a thing. Libertarianism is really more of a verb than a noun. A currency though has to be based on something real. The U.S. dollar is essentially backed up by the collective wealth of all of us who possess dollars, or assets valued in dollars, or really any property within the United States. It’s based on something tangible. You buy a house in dollars instead of Bitcoins because everyone in the transaction has faith that those dollars mean something. This is because everyone else is trading in dollars too to buy real goods and services. If the U.S. dollar gets too low, there are things we can do about it. We can petition Congress or the White House to take action. There is no one to go to to complain about the sinking value of your Bitcoins. Assuming the currency cannot be counterfeited, its only value is its finiteness, enforced by math and increasingly expensive computational processes to make new coins. That’s it. As those libertarians say, caveat emptor (buyer beware). Bitcoin buyers, caveat emptor!

This tells me something important: Bitcoin is a bogus currency, at least in the long term. Yes, you can buy stuff with it now, but only from a very limited number of sellers: those who have faith in the idea of a libertarian currency. It’s obvious to me that libertarianism is just not doable as a sustainable way of governing. I have no faith it in whatsoever because its philosophical underpinnings do not actually work in the real world.

I would like to see it in Glenn Beck’s libertarian community, however, if it ever gets built. One thing is for sure, no one is going to build it for Bitcoins. They are going to demand U.S. dollars.

 
The Thinker

Not quite the end of the world as we know it

Sigh. Today was another day when the world was supposed to end, but here I am still alive and frankly feeling rather disappointed. Granted that most end of the world scenarios are bleak. Fire, brimstone, wailing and gnashing of teeth are all usually assumed at the end of the world. In some scenarios the elect (usually those who accept Jesus Christ as their Personal Lord and Savior ™) at least get raptured. In general, it’s not the end of the world unless huge numbers of people suffer violently and in blistering pain, then die noisily, painfully and traumatically. It all over in a few hours.

So why was I rooting for the end of the world? Well, at least it would be different. Instead, it’s same old, same old.

There was no brimstone falling this morning when I walked to my car. 7:30 AM found me at the chiropractor for another round of traction to make sure my painful sciatica does not come back. At 10 AM, I was getting my haircut by Basma, who had to reschedule for doomsday because she is flying home to Jerusalem on Monday, three days after the end of the world! Thence I tootled to Wells Fargo Bank, not because I am a customer, but because a check from my money market account won’t process electronically. Finally around 11 AM I made it into the office and I realized the day was a huge disappointment. Another day parking in the same parking lot. Another morning flashing my badge to the security guard as I entered the building. Another trip up the same quiet elevators to my fifth floor office. On my desk was the same peace plant in need of water. Lunch was the same too: salad with chicken pieces dropped on top, with the only variant being the soup de jour (vegetable beef).

It was all the same stuff on the news too. Fiscal cliff. Dysfunctional congress. A snowstorm was moving across the Midwest. The NRA was making the same tired noises, this time in response to the Newtown massacre a week ago. (Their “solution” is to put an armed guard in every school.) And of course there was the usual slow moving climate crisis: melting polar icecaps, loss of biodiversity and most Americans living happily in denial.

Sharon at least found her own exit. Sharon was a lady in our office who died of complications from heart surgery a week ago, at the premature age of 51. She was a sweet lady, a huge Redskins fan, always the first to help others and good at herding us cats: people like me who put our time into our payroll system. It was part of her job to manage us cats so we could actually get paid on time. She did a great job of it because our payroll system is a crappy web-based system seemingly put together by trolls. Her funeral was yesterday and most of us in her herd went to it. We pondered our appreciation for having her in our lives and offered sincere condolences to her grieving family. But during the service we also learned of a blessing from her premature passing: she was spending Christmas with Jesus this year.

That sounds pretty awesome. Rapid climate change and fiscal cliff diving are no longer issues she has to worry about, although I don’t recall her being worried in particular about any of these things. And Jesus sounds like a pretty neat dude. I can think of worse things than hanging around him for eternity, like, say, hanging around this world and watching with daily horror as we slowly kill it.

Ask a Mayan (as we did in January when we went to see Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula) and you learn that they never said the world was going to end today. Rather, their calendar starts afresh. Today is like January 1, 2000 was to the rest of us. It’s a day for celebration, and the Mayans have plenty to celebrate. They may have been about four feet tall when their calendar was invented (their height was limited due to limestone water they drank) but they were amazing in many ways: astronomers and mathematicians arguably more advanced than the ancient Egyptians were at the same time. No, as our Mayan tour guide told us, it’s us Westerners who chose to hear what we wanted to hear. So today became yet another day to proclaim the end of the world and sell a few more newspapers. I won’t hold the Mayans to blame, just shoddy journalists who can’t be bothered to do basic research.

If you were to pick a day when Armageddon actually started, today would probably do, although any day would meet the criteria. Here’s the thing: barring some sort of large asteroid hitting earth (something we would know about) Armageddon is not something that happens quickly. Rather, it happens very slowly. It’s like boiling a frog by putting it in a pan of water on the stove and slowly increasing the heat. Feeling a bit sweaty? I know I am. The end of a world with us humans in it it strikes me as an inevitable consequence of global climate change and our dogged determination to largely ignore it. It’s coming at us way faster than we can adapt to it. While it’s impossible to say any one particularly extreme event is a direct result of climate change, Hurricane Sandy sure felt like Mother Nature was giving us a wakeup call. So for me Armageddon began officially on October 30, 2012, the day when Sandy made landfall on the Eastern Seaboard.

The earth will survive, of course, but humans won’t. There are far too many of us to keep the Earth in something resembling a natural balance. We make it worse on ourselves by craving a first world lifestyle. It’s not hard at all to see how this ends, and it won’t be with a joint Kumbaya. Sandy should have been our wakeup call but we will rebuild along our coasts anyhow, only to see these areas get soon wacked again by the next Sandy. Eventually we will figure out we need to move further inland and build on higher elevations, but that of course doesn’t solve the problem, it just lessens our pain.

Our whole ecosystem is rapidly changing, and not for the better. Lowlands are surrendering to the sea. Storms are becoming larger and more destructive. Farmlands are becoming deserts. Crop yields are lessening because it is simply too hot or too parched during the summers for food to grow to maturity. In good years the Obamas of the world will try to inspire and lead us. We may cheer them a bit but mostly we will prefer to wallow in our own issues rather than wrestle with the macroscopic ones. In bad years the John Boehners of the world will tell us to plug cotton into our ears and pray about your concerns at church.

We already know what causes this real Armageddon that is unfolding: reliance on fossil fuels, cravings for first world lifestyles, humans breeding like bunnies and succumbing to greed. These actions make the world hotter and it makes people meaner. Climate change is killing us and the species we rely on to survive.

The fiscal cliff diving of the moment inadvertently reveals the real end of the world underway. There are too many of us and the world cannot increase in size just because we keep having too many babies. So we enter a resource competitive era and that means someone has to take it on the chin. No one will volunteer to be the first to reduce their standard of living, so we will duke it out instead, and most likely this means the poor will get more wretched and the rich will get richer. The last bloodied man standing can keep his SUV and iPhone but there will be no place to go and no one to call. Eventually he will die, Armageddon will end, but because we won’t be around to tip the balance perhaps the Earth will finally have a chance to restore a natural balance.

 
The Thinker

Unless

Winter never really arrived this year. Typically we don’t get much in the way of snowfall in a given winter, but the snowplows tend to come out at least a couple of times during the season. And they were out a couple of times this winter as well, but they were mostly sitting by the side of the road waiting for conditions to worsen, which they did not. Most of our snow this winter, to the extent we had it, was flurries. None of the snow that we received lasted a day or exceeded an inch. To the extent we saw snow, it was on the top of cars that had driven in from the Shenandoah Mountains or points further north and west.

Temperatures also were moderate. There was a cold day here and there. I only recall temperatures dipping into the teens once. I usually go through six to eight weeks of scraping the frost off my windshield most days. This year I performed the chore only a half dozen times. Technically it was winter, but in reality it was some new amorphous season for which we have no name. Neither fall nor spring but feeling not at all like winter, it was full of short days, with highs mostly in the fifties but sometimes in the seventies. March brought a couple of days with temperatures creeping into the low eighties. The grass in my yard started growing in early March. The wild onions were peaking up in January. The cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin bloomed over the weekend: a surreally early start to spring that was (and still is) winter.

Thanks to climate change, we are likely to have to come up for a new name for winter because it no longer fits. On the plus side, our heating bill was manageable. No need to worry about frozen pipes, or being stuck in a snow bank. Only twice did I put on the heavy winter coat. A light jacket and some gloves were all I needed.

My wife wants to move further north to some place like Boston where winter is still cruel and still bites, and where you spend most mornings relocating snow off your driveway and digging a path to your mailbox. I’m pretty sure Bostonians did a whole lot less of that this year as well. Ski resorts spent much of the winter hunting for snow and customers. They created ski slopes loosely packed with artificial snow, which mostly vanished shortly after application. Out west, the usual mountain snowfalls largely never appeared. Westerners are already anxious about the probable drought they will be facing this summer.

One year does not a trend make, but one trend that is unmistakable is the rise in average global temperatures. There is about a one in three chance that this summer will be the hottest on record, again. It clearly won’t be much longer before the last of the Arctic sea ice melts during the summer. Much of it will reappear in the winter, but its gradual disappearance will lead to the extinction of many species that depend on the ice, like the polar bear. It is likely that extinction driven by climate change is already very much with us but we are simply not looking for it. Like a horse running a race with blinders, most of us simply choose to ignore the evidence all around us. The planet is fundamentally and rapidly changing, and not for the better.

You would think conservatives of all people would be alarmed. You cannot go back to those mythical good old days when the climate is so radically different. Instead, they are the ones aiding and abetting climate change. They do it through well-practiced and obnoxious denial of indisputable facts. Science is irrelevant because if you can acquire power you can legislate the science you want, such as they are doing in Texas where teaching “creationism” and a six thousand year old earth to public school students is considered on par with teaching evolution. Facts simply get in the way with the way you want things to be. Ignoring facts gives you the opportunity to not only keep climate change going, but to make it worse. Gas prices are approaching record levels and naturally it’s all Obama’s fault. It has nothing to do with demand worldwide by a wealthier and overpopulated planet that is taking off, as predicted, exceeding available capacity. $2.50 a gallon gas if you elect me, promises Newt Gingrich. Yet doing more to stimulate demand simply raises prices higher.

Acknowledging what is happening at least lets you ponder what can be done about it. Natural gas is not a long-term solution, but it can be a bridge that can move us to a carbon free energy future. It is plentiful and cheap as well as clean, but with the exception of some city buses, it’s hard to find any motor vehicles using it. No automaker that I am aware of is working to create cars powered by natural gas. Why should they when it’s so hard to get a fill up? Presumably Republicans think the free market will solve the problem but no one in the free market seems to be stepping up to the plate. Those few Republicans that acknowledge the problem know what is really required: government regulation and the (horror!) spending that comes with it. We need to require carmakers to build cars powered by natural gas. We need natural gas filling stations along all our major interstates. In populated neighborhoods, there should be a requirement that you should not have to drive more than five miles to fill up your tank with natural gas. Require it and Americans will start to drive cars powered by natural gas. Why wouldn’t they when natural gas will cost half as much, or less, than gasoline? Moreover, there are few things we cherish more than our mobility. If we can reliably fill up our cars with natural gas, we’ll take to it like a duck to water. But to do so requires the hand of government, and that must be socialism or something.

We are saying in effect that we are okay with our extinction, in spite of our so-called reverence for human life. I’d say in retrospect we’d have to say we saw our extinction coming. However, there won’t be any of us left to ponder these preventable mistakes. One thing is for sure: we cannot change the future until we acknowledge the present and let the facts instead of uninformed prejudices drive our policy.

The good news for the planet is that our extinction is likely to come sooner rather than later. Then maybe the planet can recover. We seem to be incapable of being stewards of our planet. Indeed, we believe it is our job to rape it. It’s in the Book of Genesis, and we must let nothing like inconvenient facts contravene our sacred scripts.

Our sacred scripts are also destined to disappear into the dust with our extinction and will thus ultimately mean nothing, except that our species was a foolish accident of nature whose extinction, fortunately, we hastened. We will have painfully destroyed ourselves as well as much of the species we depend on. That which we claimed to conserve and cherish, we will ultimately squander on the altar of reckless human selfishness.

Unless, very improbably, we take to heart the lesson of The Lorax now in theaters. Unless. The hour is very, very late.

 
The Thinker

State of the Union

President Obama gave a pretty good state of the union speech on Tuesday. He ended it with the usual rhetorical flourish that speaks more to our aspirations than to reality. He closed with:

We do big things. The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it’s because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.

I won’t be running for president so there is no chance that I will be giving a state of the union speech. However, if I were to give one it would read in part a lot like this:

Thank you very much. As you know it is my duty as president to annually report on the state of the union. Unfortunately, I have to report that the state of our union is fractious. At no time since the Civil War have we been so divided as a nation. Extremes on both sides of the aisle are pulling us apart as a country. This extreme polarity as well as refusal on both sides to move toward meaningful compromise are undermining our national security, economic growth and put our nationhood at jeopardy.

Barry Goldwater once famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Goldwater was dead wrong. Our liberty is only sustained through finding and expanding our common ground. It happens by moving toward consensus rather than confrontation. At this critical time, true patriotism will be measured in our ability to come to consensus and make painful but necessary choices that one Congress and White House after another has punted.

We cannot undo these past damages, but we can move toward a sustainable and prosperous future for our country. Finger pointing no longer serves any national purpose. None of us here are blameless. We all contributed to our national problems. It includes me, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and new Speaker John Boehner. Many of us followed what we believed was the right and sustainable path. Sometimes an individual policy we advocated may have been right for the nation. However, if it is not congruent with our national needs it is still wrong. What can be said is that, in the aggregate, we were all wrong and have been mostly going in the wrong direction for decades.

For example, taking care of our senior citizens in retirement is a worthy national endeavor, but only if programs for them like Social Security and Medicare are put on a sound footing and are soberly and competently administered. It is scandalous that both Democrats and Republicans allowed Medicare costs to expand without addressing its inefficiencies and creating a plan to keep it solvent. Similarly, it is scandalous that both Democrats and Republicans allowed the last Administration to lead us into a war based on false pretenses. It was scandalous to offer tax cuts without offsetting these tax cuts with reductions in government services. My administration, previous administrations and previous Congresses failed to competently manage and govern our own country. Time and time again we put short-term thinking and ideology ahead of the national interest.

These are facts beyond any reasonable dispute. The evidence is overwhelming and can be found in record numbers of mortgage defaults, our bloated budget deficits, the high unemployment, the growing ranks of our homeless, our obesity epidemic and a fouled environment. By virtually any metric that you can use, our government has failed our job as national stewards. We, its leaders, have failed America.

The state of our union is fractious at best and alarming at worse. Now we must right-size our government so that it meets the needs of our nation. We need a new national strategy and we need sound tactics that align with our national strategy. Our strategy requires clear national goals, and both parties must agree on these national goals.

I offer six goals. Our most immediate challenge is not the budget deficit, as wrenching as it is in scope and size. It is to break the back of unemployment in this country, which has been dangerously high. In breaking the back of unemployment, we must do it in a way that creates good jobs that will restore our fading middle class. We don’t want to restore it by putting talented people to work flipping burgers or sweeping floors. Prosperity drives everything and makes anything possible. We can do this today by continuing to invest in common sense infrastructure projects, all of which will aid our current and future prosperity. To facilitate that our infrastructure investments are made wisely, we need an independent commission that places our money in investments that will create an improved infrastructure in the most productive ways possible.

That is our short-term goal and it should be easy for us all to agree on. However, infrastructure does not just happen. It will take money, and if we cannot agree on something simple like raising taxes on the rich to levels that were in effect in the Clinton administration, then we must keep borrowing the money. Projects that promote short-term employment and are most needed to improve our infrastructure should get the highest priority.

Our long-term goals should also not be controversial. I propose five long-term goals, in priority:

  1. Ending the extreme partisanship in this country
  2. Fix the federal government’s deficit spending
  3. Living in a sustainable way
  4. Making the United States the 21st century leader for new technologies and services
  5. Ensuring that all Americans receive quality health care

First, partisanship. Partisanship is not necessarily bad. However, our partisanship has reached extreme and dangerous levels. This did not happen by accident. It happened because we permit gerrymandering of our legislative districts where partisan interests are unduly represented and the interests of moderates were squeezed out. To solve this problem, Congress must pass and the states must ratify a constitutional amendment requiring all states to draw federal congressional districts in a politically impartial manner to be overseen by our federal judiciary.

Our government’s deficit spending has reached dangerous levels. We do not want America’s future to be like Greece’s present. To achieve fiscal solvency, a number of unpopular things must be done. Entitlements like Medicare must either have self-funding mechanisms in place or be limited to a percent of GDP or the federal budget by law. Both must be governed by independent and impartial commissions empowered to make changes to the system to ensure their viability. Medicare spending, for example, could be limited to twenty percent of federal expenditures or require premium increases annually to ensure that it remains solvent. Do these things and most of our other federal financial problems will take care of themselves.

America’s failure to live in a sustainable way increases the likelihood of war and suffering at levels so extreme they are hard to imagine, but are frighteningly real. Climate change and population growth are already causing wars, unrest and mass migration. It contributed to unrest in Tunisia. We must find a way to cap our population growth and live sustainably with nature. Our failure to get our environmental act together inside our country and with the rest of the world ultimately dooms not just our country but also our species. It will change life irretrievably here in our sacred home, the Earth. However, if we succeed we will do so by developing many of the products the world needs so that it too can live sustainably. Being green is not just good for the planet, it is good for our prosperity and it helps mitigate future wars and immense suffering.

To prosper, we must out innovate the rest of the world. Our prosperity rests in nurturing our human capital. Not only do we want to create business environments to allow companies like Google and Apple to flourish, we want to make sure that our children receive a first class education so when it is their time they can out innovate the rest of the world in the future. This cannot happen when we won’t pay teachers salaries that correspond to their importance to our nation, or when school districts in states like Oregon cannot afford to put their children in public schools five days a week.

Lastly, but certainly not least, we must make health care available and affordable to all, not just to those who can afford it. America cannot flourish unless we are healthy. There are plenty of examples in other countries of national health care systems that work. Some align very well with the American way. Japan’s health care system, for example, offers enormous competition at very reasonable prices. Let’s let an independent commission tell us which of these many plans will work best here in the United States, then let’s move aggressively forward to make it happen in our nation.

I am offering six steps toward a prosperous and sustainable future for our country. I need each of you to work in the common national interest. If you do so, you and this Congress will be forever revered in our national history.

Thank you and good night.

 
The Thinker

Recipe for extinction

Last winter, during our record snowstorms here in the East, various Republicans and climate skeptics took advantage of the extreme weather to tout that global warming was not happening. After all, what could be more convincing that a couple double-digit snowfalls? They had a good time with it and the media shamefully went along. Politicians in general seem anxious to deny the reality of global warming. The Senate seems unable to do anything to move legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, meaning instead being a leader on the global warming issue, the United States prefers the role of laggard. At this point, I would be happy if we could just be laggards. Instead, we prefer to just stick our heads in the sand and ignore the issue altogether.

To complement the near record snowfalls last winter, the East Coast (where I live) has been suffering through record high temperatures. It is not our imaginations. No less than NOAA has formally declared that the March through June of this year has been the hottest months on record. Doubtless these records will be easily broken, likely next year. As much as we would prefer to ignore global warming, chemistry is what chemistry is. Keep dumping more carbon into the atmosphere and average temperatures are going to increase.

Storm events on average are also getting more severe. We here in the mid-Atlantic witnessed this again this weekend when a powerful cell of thunderstorms raced through our area, taking out power to hundreds of thousands of customers and causing three deaths. The thunderstorms came with seventy mile an hour winds that toppled trees like matchsticks and killing a boy in nearby Sterling, Virginia.

It just so happened that about an hour after the thunderstorms blew through, my wife and I had a party to attend in Montgomery County, Maryland. We ended up on roads blocked by trees. We encountered downed power lines stretching across the road. Needless to say, we turned around and tried other routes. At least half of the traffic lights were out as well. The lights were also out at the house where our party was held, but daylight and cooler temperatures from the storms made the party endurable. Most likely the house is still without power, as is much of the more rural parts of Montgomery County. Power crews from as far away as Ohio are coming to help restore power. One thing is clear: with record heat, there was plenty of energy driving these massive thunderstorms.

July in the Washington region is always a time you sweat your way through. Triple digits are not uncommon, nor are Code Red, Orange, Yellow and Purple days when the air quality is poor. The air quality doesn’t have to be this bad but, of course, we refuse to look toward renewable forms of energy. Instead, Midwestern power plants along with power plants hidden in the Appalachian Mountains grind out the energy our air conditioners need, almost entirely using coal. The greenhouse gases of course go into the atmosphere, turn our local atmosphere toxic soup and make the already dangerous triple digit heat even more dangerous.

I thought I had seen everything global warming had to offer at this point until on Sunday when I took a shower. In sweltering ninety degree plus heat and humidity I found I had to replace a post with our mailbox on it. I tried to minimize my misery by doing it during the mid morning, but it was still a sweaty and exhausting job. I looked forward to a tepid shower when I finally finished the job, knowing that a cold shower was out of the question.

The last thing I wanted though was a hot shower, so I kept dialing back the hot water until nothing was coming from our water heater at all. Instead of tepid water, though I was getting warm water. If I was hoping to cool down from a shower, I had hoped in vain. Our land was so hot and so cooked that our water pipes, buried more than a foot underground, now carried only warm water.

This was new. Eighteen sweltering summers in my house but only now in 2010 have I had no choice but to endure a warm shower.

Nothing will convince climate skeptics, but if I were looking for proof this warm shower experience would be very alarming. But not for long. Soon, I will expect to take warm showers during the summers. As for climate skeptics, if they acknowledge it at all, they will probably say it’s entirely natural. It’s part of God’s plan or something, when all it really is is us humans thoughtlessly and recklessly throwing trillions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. All this global warming is entirely preventable. All we have to do is choose to act.

Instead, we seem to be embracing our extinction. Climate skeptics tend to be pro-life, so to me the irony of their position is inescapable. Let’s just hope that on our way to extinguishing our own species a few other species can cling on. Perhaps they can find a way to live in balance with nature. We sure haven’t. Nor do we seem inclined to do anything meaningful that would at least halt our extinction.

Unlike the millions of species that went extinct due to natural selection, at least we can’t say we didn’t see it coming.

Future generations trying to survive in an overpopulated and overheated world will rue us for our current thoughtlessness. We won’t care. We will be dead but oh, the memories we will take to our graves: driving big and dirty cars, eating greasy artery clogging food and comfortable summers spent indoors in air-conditioned houses. These climate skeptics might as well give our children and grandchildren the finger, because it’s obvious they don’t really care about them or their children. All they care about is living selfishly and recklessly and letting others in the future pay the consequences.

 
The Thinker

The age of limits

The motto for the University of Central Florida (where I got my bachelor’s degree) is “Reach for the stars”. For a university less than an hour’s drive to Cape Canaveral it is an appropriate motto. While UCF will continue reaching for the stars, the world in general and America in particular is realizing that reaching for the stars is unaffordable.

I am not speaking specifically about the space program although we are “reaching for the stars” a lot less than we used to. For example, the Obama administration is trying (wisely, I think) to retire the space shuttle. It also has the novel idea that in the future, the private sector should provide the government with a service to get astronauts into earth orbit and back. High unemployment and exploding deficits seem to be generating a bipartisan consensus that we now have more government than we can afford.  Believe it or not, I agree.

It is my opinion that given our modern world we probably need more government, at least for select programs. However, I don’t see how to pay for these programs without cutting others. Granted, the government can be staggeringly inefficient. While certain agencies are very efficient and indeed innovative, others are hugely wasteful. This week’s Washington Post investigation into the proliferating and apparently overlapping authorities working in the murky and high-classified world of counterterrorism shows good intentions gone seriously awry. There appears to be no central authority managing all this. We do have a Director of National Intelligence but in reality, the DNI is more of a coordinator than a director, as he does not have budget authority. This explains the high turnover among DNIs. Even if he did have the authority, it would prove a Herculean task to align our counterterrorism priorities with this kudzu of agencies and contractors and their proliferating and overlapping missions.

The main reason the United States is not reaching for the stars is that a lot of genuinely needed government is squeezed by the steadily increasing costs of entitlements. These entitlements are principally Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, although the list could also be expanded to include items like federal pensions. Arguably, we could actually get both health insurance costs under control, push it out on the private sector, pay a whole lot less and cover all Americans if we adopted the Japanese health care model. Perhaps we will get there someday but right now, we prefer to dither around the edges. The recently enacted health care legislation is a step in the right direction, but only a step.

Efficiencies in government programs are fine, but ultimately all government must be paid for with taxes. However, you can only pay taxes in relation to your income. With less income, less discretionary money to spend, and with more of it allocated toward health care, the consumer can no longer prop up the economy, which reduces economic growth. Moreover, if economic growth slows or halts, tax revenues must slow as well.

As Joe Bageant depressingly points out, future economic growth also assumes that nature will keep providing us with its bounty in endless supply. It assumes that we be able to find new affordable sources of mineral wealth and endless new tracts of land for agriculture and housing needed for a burgeoning population. Unfortunately, it appears that most of the easily available minerals have been extracted, which means the cost of living is going up. If our income does not keep pace then our standard of living is likely to be lower. Moreover, land is also finite. We cannot continue to grow forever by developing unspoiled land. Survival itself is predicated on the existence of nature. In short, growth is becoming more expensive. The more we grow, the more it costs to grow, and the less benefit there is to growth.

Thinking Americans seem to understand that we have reached a nebulous growth limit. If we can grow our way out of our economic problems, it will be at an unacceptable cost. We saw what the cost was recently with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Moving to an energy economy based on renewable energy is certainly more desirable than our current hydrocarbon-based economy, which among other things made June 2010 the hottest June on record. Our structural problems though are far larger than creating a clean energy future.

The real problem is we have reached a critical mass of people. Since 1970, the United States increased its population roughly by half: another hundred million people. From now on, population growth is going to introduce disproportionately negative effects. Unfortunately, at least in the short term, population growth is unstoppable. This means that the cost of living is going to increase, as more of us compete for fewer and more expensive resources.

The effects are being borne out not just at the federal government, but at state and local governments as well. As costs eat away at income, there is less revenue available for governments. Inevitably, this means fewer services. However, right now it seems impossible to come to consensus on how to address the problem. If government must be cut, what should be cut first? Since we essentially have government by corporation, it is likely that corporate interests will triumph over the needs of citizens.

Inevitably, something must give. In fact, that something is already giving. All sides seem to acknowledge our problems are structural, but parties are unwilling to move from ideology toward pragmatic solutions. Republicans will block any tax increases if they can, even if, as in the case of repealing tax cuts for the rich, there is plenty of ability to pay. Democrats seem loathe to admit that any part of the welfare state needs to be trimmed back. Most think that with the right mixture of pixie dust we can maintain the welfare state without raising taxes on the middle class. Right now Democrats are content with the delusion that health care reform will change the dynamics of runaway spending, when it will not. Even President Obama understands this. He has stated that it will only slow the growth of health care spending.

It won’t help in November if voters respond to their frustrations and visceral fears by electing more ideologues to Congress. This merely extends our national dysfunction, adding to the final bill. Perhaps Tea Partiers secretly hope that if elected they can effectively bring about the collapse of the federal government, thus allowing government to be reconstituted under a smaller federal model. Newt Gingrich tried it in 1995. Maybe it will work in 2011.

Even if they succeed, reducing the scope of the federal government will not really address the central issue. Reducing the scope of the federal government merely pushes costs back on state and local governments. For example, states already pay hefty shares of Medicaid services. If the federal government were simply to stop contributing to Medicaid, states would either need to pick up the slack, drastically cut Medicaid services or end Medicaid altogether. Unfortunately, ending Medicaid altogether does not solve the problem of treating poor people’s medical problems. It would simply extend lines at emergency rooms and push up already high health care premiums, which would make more people lose health care coverage. To “solve” this problem would mean to not solve it at all: simply not treat those who cannot afford to pay. Let ‘em eat cake, I guess.

Unless things are fundamentally realigned in a workable way, many of these sorts of horrible choices are in our future. If we acted united rather than divided, we could manage these problems with much less pain. Social security, for example, is not in much financial trouble and extending the retirement age can make it solvent with no increase in taxes. The real problems are in wasteful and hugely overpriced health care programs, which are exacerbated by our unwillingness to eat right and exercise, perhaps because lower income Americans simply cannot afford healthy food. Our choices here are stark: either do away with health insurance except for the increasingly smaller proportion of people moneyed enough to afford it, or institute the sort of “socialized” medicine anathema to so many on the right, whose effect might well be the rationing they fear. (We already have rationing based on ability to pay. What terrifies the right is that a physician might be required to put someone with less money but a more chronic condition ahead of their ability to get care.)

In an age of limits, other sacrosanct programs must now become touchable. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates understands that in a weak economy runaway military spending cannot be sustained indefinitely. Consensus seems to be forming that our War on Terror, or at least in Afghanistan and Iraq, are no longer affordable nor are they buying us national security.

There is plenty of general government bloat that could be removed if we could summon the nerve; it’s not just where a lot of politicians think it is. Bloat includes the excessive and overlapping national security programs The Washington Post documented, huge and wasteful agricultural subsidies, corporate welfare in general, Medicare and Medicaid payment reform, and even our manned spaceflight program. We should not be cutting those services that are vitally needed to run our complex and increasingly interconnected world. Some of these agencies arguably need more money. These include the FDA, FAA, FCC, NIH, TSA and the SEC, to name a few. These agencies in reality spend only pocket change yet provide invaluable and absolutely necessary services.

The glass half-full news is that we are hardly alone. Even China at some point will have to scale back its growth and limit its services. Countries like China less leveraged by debt will have more breathing room, but the dynamics of population growth and resource limitations are inescapable for all nations. The more we resist these dynamics, the harder things are going to be.

Nature is trying to tell us to live simpler. We need to start listening.

 
The Thinker

Can being “prolife” be anti-life?

If you pay attention to the news you have read about the murder of Dr. George Tiller. He was gunned down yesterday at his church in Wichita, Kansas by alleged murderer and “prolifer” Scott Roeder. Tiller was one of a small number of surgeons willing to provide late term abortions. He is hardly the first surgeon to pay with his life for providing abortions and he is unlikely to be the last. In fact, the National Abortion Federation has chronicled over 6000 acts or attempted acts of violence since 1977 against abortion providers, including eight deaths. Unsurprisingly, Roeder had close connections with the most extreme elements of the so-called prolife community.

Clearly many Americans feel passionately on the issue of abortion. If convicted, Roeder will be one of the virulent ones who felt murder was justified to prevent what he saw as other murders. Moreover, if convicted there is a significant possibility that Roeder will also be murdered, not by a pro-choice supporter, but by the prolife state of Kansas, which often executes first degree murderers.

I have noticed that being “prolife” rarely means being pro all life.  I doubt you will find many so-called prolifers who are also vegetarians. Sizeable numbers, and probably a majority of prolifers are also pro-capital punishment. This seems a reasonable inference in Kansas, which is heavily “prolife” but also heavily in favor of capital punishment. As has often been noticed, prolifers seem far more concerned about making sure pregnancies are carried through to birth than they are concerned about the babies after they are born. Many are glad to saddle mothers for the cost of their unplanned or unwanted offspring too. Whether conceived as a result of rape or incest, it doesn’t seem to make any difference to these folks. It’s all about principle. For them, life begins at conception. Never mind that when fertilization occurs the blastocyst is inert for an extended period of time, unless it comes in contact with the uterine wall and then gets lucky. Even so, Mother Nature provides all sorts of obstacles to keep many pregnancies from coming to term. I have a sister who miscarried. She certainly did not want to miscarry. You have to wonder though about some in the prolife crowd. If life is sacred, should all pregnant women also be required to take drugs to reduce the likelihood of miscarriage? Should they be charged with a crime if they miscarry and had not taken all possible recourses to prevent the miscarriage? I have no doubt that to many on the extremes the answer is “absolutely”.

Mother Nature does not intend all pregnancies to go to term. This too is entirely natural. There are millions of women who have needed abortions to save their own lives. In the mind of many prolifers, since they cannot deal with moral ambiguity, it is better to risk both the life of the mother and the fetus than to ensure one of them will survive. This is being prolife.

Maybe it is just me, but I suspect that people whose moral positions are absolute about anything are mentally deficient. We know from experience that life is ambiguous. It is built into our universe at no less than the subatomic level, as anyone who has studied quantum physics knows. To survive in this world we must all come to grips with the ambiguity that frames life. And yet, to absolutists like these ultra-extreme prolifers, they would prefer to ignore this uncomfortable reality. The cycle reaches its paradoxical and tragic nadirs in incidents like yesterday’s murder of Dr. George Tiller. The very incident is both tragic and rife with irony: that for some who value life more than anything, they must take it away, thus proving the paucity of their argument beyond ambiguity.

Absolutism is bound to twist and pervert the glorious dysfunctional ambiguity which is our natural world. Consider what our world would be like if we were 100% “prolife”. At the macro level there would be many more humans on the planet than we already have, many of them with serious and lifelong disabilities. There would also be many needlessly traumatized mothers, many of them who would not survive childbirth. Arguably we cannot sustain the people we already have on the planet, as witnessed by the resultant poverty and disease which tragically kills tens of millions of us every year. To the extent we add more humans on the planet, we further erode the mutual ecosystem on which all life depends.  The result of being “prolife” is to help ensure a reduced standard of living for those of us who are already alive and to make life for future generations of humans even more wretched and miserable. Ultimately, being “prolife” means being anti-life in general, pro-misery and anti-environmental.

If we are lucky, the best result for future generations will be similar to what is already unfolding in China: compulsory family planning. This is the most humane and environmentally benign way to deal with rampant population growth and a planet that cannot sustain this growth. Much more likely though will be larger and more brutal wars, genocides and suffering on scales that are hard for us to currently fathom. This will unfold in a world of diminished resources where we all fruitlessly try to ensure we get the life we want at the expense of someone else. Whatever form of homo sapien emerges from this dark future will be far more brutish, uncaring, inhuman and anti-life than anything alleged killer Scott Roeder will dish out in a single act of murder for the sake of some insane absolutist principle.

Perhaps it is time to embrace the ambiguity which is life here on earth. It may be the prolife thing to do.

 
The Thinker

For Obama: some environmental cheers and jeers

No candidate running for president will run a perfect campaign and that certainly includes Barack Obama. When I endorsed him in January, I said he too was a flawed candidate. Overall, Mr. Obama has pleasantly surprised me with his post nomination campaign. He comes across as very thoughtful and articulate. It is clear that his campaign is remarkably well managed and on message.

If a presidential candidate is serious about winning, some accommodation toward the politically fickle winds of the moment is generally considered necessary. So we have seen in the last few days some statements by Barack Obama that have my head shaking. Pandering may seem necessary when winning at all costs is the goal, but when it happens it lowers my opinion of the candidate.

Obama’s proposal to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was one of these political accommodations that made me wince. What a bad idea! Yes, I know his plan is to remove the easily refined light sweet crude oil from the SPR and replace it with the harder to refine heavy crude oil. This is supposed to result in no net loss from the SPR. As a result, he believes this will provide some working relief to the middle class, which is still reeling from the latest oil shock.

The SPR is there for a reason: to accommodate the nation’s needs in a national emergency. No such emergency exists. I grant that many families are suffering under the burden of $4 a gallon gasoline. Still, the economy is in no danger of collapse. Artificially lowering gas prices, if it works, simply encourages more of the dependence that got us in trouble in the first place. Obama says such a release would be temporary. He points to the effect of a decision made late in the Clinton administration to sell oil from the SPR and says that decision reduced gas prices. It is unclear whether it would have that effect today, but it would make it harder for America to get over its addiction to oil and move toward a post oil age. This is a politically expedient decision but overall a call I think he will regret.

Another bad call: tacitly agreeing with John McCain that we need to drill for oil off our coasts. Obama characterizes this change of heart as one part of an overall energy strategy and suggests such drilling would be limited. He knows that any oil we discovered would have but the most modest effect on oil prices. If oil companies started drilling tomorrow, it would be at least six years before we would see any oil from these fields.

There are a few reasons that oil companies are not drilling in these tracts that they are already allowed to drill in. Their geologists have surveyed these oil fields. The likelihood of getting oil in the quantity desired is slim and the cost of drilling in these deeper waters is high. In addition, you cannot force an oil company to drill for oil. Oil companies will look out for their bottom line, and if it does not increase it they will politely spurn politicians’ suggestions. This means that both Obama’s and McCain’s calls for drilling are specious. There are the many coastline states that have prohibited offshore drilling. They recall California’s 1969 experience that fouled 35 miles of beaches. Any oil that is recovered would have only the most modest effect on oil prices and would do nothing to move us to a post oil economy. Even if there were no oil spills, the drilling would have a major environmental impact on our seaboards.

What the nation needs is a comprehensive energy strategy that moves us into a post oil economy while simultaneously moderating greenhouse gas emissions. It may not get much in the way of votes, but if the nation had a strategy like this backed up by money and commitment it would be good not only for the nation and the environment, but good for the economy too. It would stimulate growth in jobs that are environmentally friendly.

However, I did like Obama’s speech today in Berea, Ohio. Obama pointed out a few days ago that a great way to reduce oil consumption is for drivers to make sure their car is tuned regularly and their tires are properly inflated. Republicans for some reason latched on to it as a crazy idea and began handling out tire pressure gauges to draw people’s attention to the proposal. This attitude is particularly odd coming from Republicans, who are reputedly big on individual responsibility. His proposal is not laughable; it is effective and can be made workable.

If I were running for president, I would do more than just suggest that Americans do these things. I would give modest tax deductions or credits for having your car tuned. Aside from the 1-3% reduction in oil consumption, if Americans practiced this regularly, it would help get Americans into the habit. Most Americans are too busy to be proactive about car maintenance. Knowing they can get a tax deduction for being kind to the environment (and their wallet) can lead to a pattern where most people will have their cars tuned regularly.

Getting people to check their tire pressure regularly can be accomplished too. We could offer modest credits for gas stations that add or expand air pressure hoses. A tire pressure center should provide tire pressure gauges on site and easy guides for determining the correct tire pressure for your tires. Why not add a penny to the gasoline tax but offer a penny a gallon rebate for checking your tire pressure within one hour of filling your tank? Simply insert the same credit card you used for your gas purchase to activate the tire pressure system at your gas station where you filled your tank to claim your credit. These modest steps, along with regularly increasing CAFE standards are pragmatic steps toward energy independence.

I suspect that before this campaign is over we will see many more accommodations by both Obama and McCain to lure in swing voters with proposals that are stupid. I just hope that these latest proposals from Obama are not serious and are discreetly dropped when, as I expect, Obama wins the election in November.

 

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