Saturday, August 30, 2008

Deep Economy

Just started reading a book called Deep Economy by Bill McKibben. While I intend to write a full review once I finish it, it brings up an intriguing question:

Should our economy (and therefore society) strive for growth as its central economic policy or should it focus on locally driven prosperity?

I don't necessarily believe the two are directly tied to one another - as our economy grows, our people prosper. It seems we have surpassed some type of tipping point, where "more" does not mean "better". More so, "more" no longer means increased happiness like it once did.

An example - the U.S. economy grew by 3.3% (as a whole) in the last quarter, even as people lost their homes, unemployment grew, income decreased, fuel prices increased, and food prices increased. The economy has also become the central issue in our next round of elections, even with growth, tax breaks, and rebate checks.

Has the economic theory of Adam Smith become less relevant as we move into another era in history?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Big request from Big Three

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 authorized up to $25 billion in federal government loan guarantees to auto manufacturers in the US. It also increased the CAFE standards 27.5 mpg for cars and 22.7 mpg for trucks to a fleet-wide 35 mpg by 2020. For reference, Toyota’s Prius, Corolla, and Yaris, the MINI Cooper, Honda’s Fit and Civic Hybrid, and everything made by Smart already meet or beat this.
GM now claims that the industry needs $50 billion in loan guarantees, in part because consumers are demanding more fuel efficient cars and because CAFE standards are placing an unfair regulatory burden on the auto US industry. With Michigan and Ohio as presidential battleground states, candidates seem to think that this is a great idea.
I pose some questions to the reader: Is it appropriate to loan $50 billion in public funds to private companies? If German and Japanese auto companies can successfully build and market fuel efficient cars, why do US companies seem to struggle with this? Is this the same thing as the 1980 bailout of Chrysler (which would be valued at $3.7 bn in today’s dollars)? Is this capitalism? Socialism? Good business? Is this a matter of lobbyists exploiting an election? Is this necessary for US firms to remain competitive?

Image sources:
National Archives and Records Administration; ARC Identifier 547699
Car and Driver

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Solution to "Climate Change"

The solution to so-called "global climate change" is more development and more abundant energy for every person on the planet.

Fully developed economies, such as the U.S., have the resources necessary to address issues of pollution. Less-developed countries do not.

Private property ownership increases the incentive for mitigating and preventing pollutants in the environment due to the desire for continued use of the owned resource. State ownership or "commons" ownership does not.

Lower birth rates are closely correlated to economic well-being and education. The poorest countries have the highest birth rates and the worst records on destroying the environment -- from poaching elephants to slash-and-burn agriculture. They are focused on survival. They don't have the resources, the time or the incentive to worry about the environment.

Abundant energy is one of the keys to economic development. Another key is good government based on personal property rights and individual freedoms with a free-enterprise based economy.

If you want to fix a problem you must treat the root causes -- not merely the symptoms.

Now, release the attack....

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Simple Question

Why do people pollute their environment?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Progress, I Wonder.

I'll stray from my typical policy/science posts to approach a very vague topic - progress.

This blog's goal is to drive debate and discussion around prescient issues and their solutions, such as those regarding science, ethics, the economy, and the like. The elementary idea being, that progress needs to be made in order to, among other reasons, move society forward, forge greater levels of peace, allow for increased prosperity, drive personal freedoms, and discover a better World for the present and future.

Therefore, is it justifiable to ask whether we are making progress? In what quantifiable manner? Are their hindrances? Is progress the correct method to measure society?

As I campaign with different candidates it is easy to note that there are voters that care, strive, and push for progress and those that don't. It may be one of the few topics that doesn't fall along political or cultural lines - so what dictates a persons need for progress? What jump starts or stops a person from wanting it?

In policy, progress is often made directly after a focusing event (i.e. Sept. 11). In science, progress is made post a scientific revolution (i.e. Einstein). Is progress ever made in ethics? Has there been any progress in economics? Philosophy? Taken within historical context, has society ever truly solved anything or just made the issue more narrow?

Too philosophical? Maybe.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A visionary solution

Unless Hollywood has lied to us, we all know how much convicts like to workout. Big screen and small screen antiheros spend hours everyday in “the yard” making shady deals, bartering for smokes, plotting escape, and narrowly avoiding being disemboweled, all to the relentless clanking their fellow inmates hitting the weights. Even Edmond Dantès, better known as the eponymous brooding hero in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, got completely ripped in prison by digging tunnels and learning fencing from l’Abbé Faria.
In the US, we have about 2.3 million people in jails and prisons. Just think of the potential resource we have if we were to synergize this population with the “Powered by YOU” program at Hong Kong’s California Fitness gym. The gym employs specially designed exercise bikes and cross-trainers to run the lights and charge batteries. Just swap penitentiaries’ existing equipment for stationary bikes, treadmills, trainers, and revamped resistance machines, and we’re in business.
A typical person can produce about 50 watts per hour on one of these special machines. If each inmate were to workout for only one hour a day, five days per week, fifty weeks per year, that would yield 28.75 gigawatts per year. That’s more than the paltry 26.47 gigawatts the US produces (combined annual nameplate capacity) from wood, black liquor, other wood waste, municipal solid waste, landfill gas, sludge waste, tires, agriculture byproducts, other biomass, geothermal, solar thermal, photovoltaic energy, and wind. That’s right, prison power beats all renewables other than hydro combined. I should contact the Patent Office...
It’s a win-win, win-win-win proposition. Prisoners contribute something to society while they get into cinematic shape. Firms will enjoy high-dollar government contracts to build and install the machines, and owners of for-profit prisons get an additional revenue stream. Republican politicians and voters get to pat themselves on the back for being tough on crime and putting lazy convicts to work, making time for the real issues of getting handguns and religious education back into the public schools, where they belong. Democrats can have a warm, fuzzy feeling about creating green-collar jobs to rehabilitate offenders, while creating a renewable energy source, allowing them to get down to the real agenda of legalizing marijuana, teaching Marxism in Head Start, and stopping anyone from earning money for anything. And we, the American people, can crank up our air conditioners so high that we need to wear sweaters in July. Is this a great country, or what?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What a difference a week makes

August 11, 2008

August 19, 2008For the second year in a row the fabled Northwest Passage through the wide and deep water Parry Channel is ice free. The Parry Channel route is much farther north than the route taken with much difficulty by Amundsen in 1903 (see accompanying text at bottom of Arctic Sea Ice News page.

Anyone can follow the day-by-day changes in Arctic ice, and compare them to the satellite record back to 1979 at Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis.

The Political Spectrum and Climate Change

The climate change policy debate has produced little action, but some ideas are becoming more prevalent than others, while the science behind choosing policies is becoming better. A serious debate of all of this has just been posted over at Cato and is worth a good read. I give a general summary of each viewpoint, with some quick thoughts attached.

The lead essay is by Jim Manzi, a technology executive that has advised conservative politicians. He takes a more right leaning approach and brings up some excellent points regarding the downfalls of a carbon tax and alternative energy research funding through the government. It is interesting that, ultimately, Manzi agrees that the U.S. (and other industrialized countries) need to address climate change, diverging from many other right wing politicians. I'm still not sold on only relying on the market with some, limited government involvement. He proposes the government offering small grants for businesses to produce alt. energy technologies - a good proposal - but I fear not enough by itself (I still think the government needs to take a more active role in research and development, among other programs).

LIBERAL: The first response essay is by well published, liberal climate scientists, Joseph Romm. He may be the most ardent scientist when it comes to proclaiming the negative consequences of climate change and he has some great points. The most startling is the drastic decline in the ice sheets and permafrost, which will rapidly increase CO2 concentrations due to the trapped gas in the ice. He also notes the ever debated "tipping point", that while it exists, may not be known until it already happens. Policy-wise, he is very much on the left leaning, aggressive side. He notes that the U.S. should rapidly utilizing existing clean technologies, while extensively funding those in the pipeline (i.e. CCS, hydrogen, PHEV, etc.). I question whether the government can be the sole purveyor of a new technology revolution though - where does the private sector fit in? Also, is constantly stating the negative impacts of climate change really going to bring about the change needed?

CONSERVATIVE: The second response essay is by conservative environmental expert, Indur Goklany. He takes an interesting spin on things and questions whether climate change is even that important within the context of environmental based health issues. He correctly states that currently, hunger, malaria, tainted water, and habitat changes are hugely more important to address than climate change. I think he is correct if the assumption is that mitigating climate change is an "insurance policy" for the future. Yet, I don't think it is - if we truly mitigate the core causes of climate change I think it would become easier to mitigate the issues he states as more important, while generally opening the door to greater societal advances. It would be less insurance and more societal progress, in my opinion.

INDEPENDENT: The final response essay is by independent environmentalists and founders of the Breakthrough Institute, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. Let me first say that these guys get it, in my opinion. They see the battle between liberal and conservatives and instead of waiting for better times, take it head on. They propose a comprehensive retraining of U.S. workers in the same fashion that the G.I. Bill and National Defense Education Act did. They propose annual government funding of technology investment and research that costs tax payers only a dollar or so a year - much different than the farce that is the Lieberman-Warner bill in the Senate. They even go so far as to state that society needs to focus on adaptation and our energy infrastructure, two issues that seem to get lost in the shuffle. They ultimately show why Obama has it right when it comes to oil drilling and technology, I think.


Monday, August 18, 2008

Dead Sea consumerism

This weekend, my wife and I took our son for his first outing to a National Park. The logistical gymnastics of navigating a stroller, managing all of the baby-paraphernalia, and wrangling two basenji hounds bent on mischief meant that the camera stayed home on this jaunt.
In between seeing thistles and aster, watching half a dozen species of dragonflies and damselflies patrol the canal, and spotting a lizard I was taught to call a chameleon (but which is almost certainly actually some kind of skink), I saw a plastic toy floating in the water. Its owners lost interest almost immediately, and despite the fact that it would not have been an enormous effort to retrieve it, simply decided that it was a loss and moved on. When it finally washes up to a bank, someone will no doubt pick it up like the plastic litter I collected there yesterday, grumble about stupid yuppies leaving trash for others to deal with, and then blog about the indignity of the situation.
Having spent the last several months reading about the supply-chains for various toys, I began to think about the general flow of all of this stuff. It begins as some kind of petroleum source-product coming out of the Arabian Peninsula or its environs, or Canada or Brasil or Russia. Here and there it undergoes some intermediate processes of change and winds up in a factory in a boomtown in China. Manufactured bits are married to other manufactured bits, and they take a long trip to a port in the land of baseball and apple pie. The toy is loved or perhaps simply accepted for a brief time- it may enjoy a second life after a stint in a thrift store- before it finally winds up in a landfill.
What begins to emerge is a picture of products (and the raw materials and embodied energies thereof) following an economic path of least resistance until they reach the US. These products move like water flowing through a watershed, small streams coalescing into larger and larger ones, collectively moving toward the same end. Unlike a watershed, there’s little analogous to evaporation and transport, the processes that keep the water cycle- well- cycling. Instead, there’s a meandering line that ends just out of site from our homes, slightly mitigated by some recycling. Instead we’re simply accumulating waste and the long term costs of owning and caring for hoards of thrown-away junk. How long can we keep this up?

Monday, August 11, 2008

campaign advertising and race

Campaign advertising is an interesting art form. In just 30 to 60 seconds an advertisement wants to use images, sound, and a small amount of text to strike a chord in potential voters. Positive ads aim to provide images and words that will make viewers identify with a candidate, often by appeals to values (family, patriotism, smaller government, environmental protection, education, and so on). Negative ads aim to conjure adverse reactions to one's opposition with unpleasant images and phrases (like "higher taxes" or "soft on crime" or "liar").

Over the last week or so, I've found McCain's ad campaign curious and confusing. Never before have I seen the ads of one candidate (the ads actually "approved by" the candidate) feature positive and attractive images of his opponent so prominently, for such a large percentage of the ad time. Yet that is exactly what the McCain ads do. Yes, the big evil word "TAXES" is display prominently next to Obama's picture in one part of the ad, but for the most part the images of Obama are attractive, show him smiling, show people smiling at him. This is unprecedented in national campaign advertising, especially negative advertising where the few pictures of the candidate being slammed are generally chosen to be unflattering and appear only briefly. Which left me puzzled -- why would McCain promote these positive images of Obama?

This afternoon, while watching the Olympics my husband and I were talking about how Americans view athletes who immigrate from other countries to the U.S. and compete on our teams. My husband, a serious competitive runner, who spends a lot of time on-line on running discussion boards and blogs, has told me that many of the people on the boards have expressed negative feelings about Bernard Legat and Lopez Lomong, as "foreigners" who should have stayed where they belonged. We were watching women's gymnastics at the time, and the performance of Nastia Liukin a member of the U.S. women's team. Liukin is the daughter of a former USSR Olympic medalist in men's gymnastics; in other words she is an immigrant like Legat and Lomong. We were speculating whether attitudes about immigrants similar to those expressed in the running world were expressed in gymnastic circles about Liukin. We wondered if age made a difference. Then we wondered if race and ethnicity made a difference; do you get a pass if you are blonde and blue-eyed?

Suddenly I had a flash of an idea. What if the unspoken subliminal message of the McCain ads is "Look at this extraordinarily popular BLACK man -- he just might get to be president! Be afraid, be very afraid." What if, the McCain ads are aimed at the unspoken reservoir of racism that they know runs deeply under the surface of American life? What if the ads are just simply to visually underline the one thing that they are not allowed to actually say -- "oh, my God, this is a BLACK man."

I'd like to think it isn't true, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder. Let me be clear, I am most definitely not saying that McCain is a racist. Nor am I saying that the individuals who plan and produce McCain's ads are racists (I don't know who those people are and would not presume to attach that label to someone I didn't know well). What I am suggesting is that the people responsible for the content of the ads may be hoping to strike a chord with the racist values of some Americans, values that they know exist out there in America, and that if they can mobilize some voters around that particular value, McCain is likely to benefit. What do other people think?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Winds of Wildorado

Approximately 450 ft. in height from the blade tip in top position to the ground, this windmill is one of 70 in the Wildorado Wind Field near Wildorado, Texas.

The base of the tower is anchored on almost 4 foot bolts set in a concrete pad that weighs over 350 Tons. That seems like a lot until you consider that the nacelle alone weighs about 92 Tons.

The Wildorado Wind Field is situated on approximately 16,000 acres and generates 161 MW of power. It was built in a period beginning in June, 2006 and ending April 27, 2007. The Siemens equipment was shipped from Denmark to Corpus Christi, Texas, and then trucked over 700 miles to the location just west of Wildorado which is on Interstate 40, west of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle.
Texas currently leads the U.S. with 4,446 MW of installed wind capacity. That is 5% of the world's production of wind-generated electricity. It is enough to power approximately 1.5 million homes. The cost of construction for wind-generated electricity is about $1.92 million per megawatt.
The industry has far exceeded the goals set in the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard to date because of the virtually unregulated wind-energy environment in the state.
Should siting of wind-generation facilities be regulated by state or federal law? If so, why? What might be the impact of siting regulations on landowner property rights?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Your Ideal Energy Energy Act of 2009

I've had an on going back and forth with friends over solutions towards U.S. energy issues. Without stating drilling for oil (which is a separate argument and under a best case scenario only would account for an increase in 1% of oil supply by 2030), what would your ideal Energy Act of 2009 contain? Off the top of my head, I came up with the following:

1) Regulate speculation - I think the SEC is more than able and should be given a budget increase to stop the unnecessary speculation that has added over a dollar to the price per gallon of fuel.

2) The federal government will invest $30-50 billion a year in clean energy technologies (lets say, for ten years), many of those programs being in partnership with the private sector. To help get that funding, all tax breaks and subsidies to oil and coal companies would be eliminated (they don't need them).

3) All levels of government should offer retraining to any factory worker that is losing or has lost their jobs in the areas of solar, wind, geothermal, and the like. Firms should have to sign an agreement that in order to get federal or state tax breaks and subsidies they must hire within the US. This will create a community aspect to these new energies, leading to a quicker adoption of them.

4) We should target the top ten states that are on the verge of an energy crisis, such as New York, and immediately fund and put into motion the construction of nuclear power plants. I hate nuclear power and I hope that some day we can shut them all down and never have to use them again, but we will need them in these states.

5) Mandate that all new homes be outfitted with solar panels - it should have been done during the previous housing boom, but that ship has sailed.

6) Mandate all homes in the western states (many of which are growing the fastest in the country) be outfitted with geothermal technology.

7) Outfit all U.S. power plants with energy recycling technology. Currently, we waste over 50% of the power we generate. If power companies don't do it, they are fined heavily until they do. Time for playing games with them is over...

8) Major cities should institute strict conservation and sustainability codes. Portland can do it...Philly is beginning to do it...they all can do it.

These are just quick ideas...what are yours?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Abortion Politics

Over at the blog Prometheus, Roger Pielke, Jr., has posted a discussion on "The New Abortion Politics" of climate change. In essence, there is an emerging philosophy among climate change activists (for arguments sake, lets say it is the political left) that the only method to get action on climate change is to present those who deny or obfuscate efforts to do so are immoral. It is conceived that this is in line with how the political right has handled abortion - those that are pro-choice are not just wrong but morally bankrupt, which leads to the use of a litmus test when making choices (i.e. supreme court, President, etc.).

Pielke, Jr. lays out some examples of whom would be considered immoral:

*Not questioning any consensus views of the IPCC (in any working group)

*Not supporting adaptation [measures or policies]

*Not emphasizing the importance of significant technological innovation

*Not pointing out that policies to create higher priced energy are a certain losing strategy

Is this a winning strategy? Is it a just one? Will this shorten or lengthen efforts to mitigate the sources of anthropogenic climate change? Will it just embolden the opposition?

I think it can be argued that there has been some good to come out of the give and take between the pro and anti climate change groups (for lack of better labels). The constant questioning of scientific findings has led to better science, almost like an extra layer of peer review. An indirect example has been the ever increasing certainty of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - the most recent report stating a 90% level of certainty regarding the realism of climate change and its human-induced drivers.

The fierceness of the climate change opposition has also played a part in molding the policy discussion. Many "deniers" have pointed towards the economic ruin that would be caused by emissions reducing policies, like a carbon tax. From such discussions, policies centered on green economies through technological innovation, conservation, and increased electrical generation through nuclear sources, have become top priorities.

While each of these is still heavily debated, they have led to a progression of policy. Presidential candidates have used climate change mitigation as a solution for economic hardship, expanding the pool of voters who truly care about climate change as an issue. Up until now, those who believe we need to act on climate change have used deniers to strengthen their arguments and solutions. Yet, will a hard right turn to paint deniers as immoral actually digress recent forward thinking movement? I fear it would...

Friday, August 1, 2008


Over the last few months, excited murmurs have given way to boomtown glee over a bed of rock called the Haynesville Shale. In truth, it’s not the rock that has caused this hysteria, but what may be the world’s 4th largest natural gas deposit locked-up in it. Extraction companies are clamoring for mineral rights that have been made relevant by this discovery and by recent developments in extraction technology.
It’s in Dubai? The rich Canadian gas fields? Siberia? Nope. The Haynesville Shale spreads out around Shreveport, Louisiana, a burg of around 200,000 people. What’s interested the press lately is the fact that the shale also extends into some economically depressed areas in northwestern Louisiana. Stories have begun to appear about small-towners turned overnight millionaires by leasing their mineral rights. Unfortunately, there’s also been talk here and there about people being swindled out of mineral rights for a few thousand dollars.
I happened to read an article about the Haynesville rush today, moments after reading an article about the use of cyanobacteria to produce ostensibly carbon-neutral fuel. This begs a few questions, some of which I’ll put to the reader:
Should landowners in this situation lease their mineral rights? Is there an ethical question here vis-à-vis climate change? Does anyone outside the area being drilled have a right to weigh-in on this? Can anyone hold it against someone living in or near poverty for accepting an offer to make outlandishly rich? How about if the offer simply makes that landowner less poor?