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Earl Killian’s Occasional Commentary

Contents

11 August 2014
Lawrence in Arabia

2 August 2014
Privacy Software

21 July 2014
For the record: Snowden, Net Neutrality, BRICS New Development Bank, Central America Refugees, Gaza

18 July 2014
Cloud Storage

1 July 2014
National Boundaries

14 May 2014
Facebook No More

11 October 2013
Catenated Crypto

11 August 2013
Surveillance State

8 August 2013
Lessons Learned From a Net Zero Building Attempt

7 August 2013
Correction: CHAdeMO in San Francisco

31 July 2013
Tesla Model S

22 July 2013
Google No More

8 October 2012
California Ballot Propositions

22 September 2012
Grazing Lambs

4 June 2012
Europe

21 May 2012
The Republican Brain

8 May 2012
Apple Design

7 May 2012
Hollande

23 April 2012
Time Capsule in the Genome

31 March 2012
Redistricting

12 March 2012
Ouiji Board Due Process

7 December 2011
Greenhouse pollution pricing

29 November 2011
A Problem of Language

19 November 2011
Intrade Wager

5 November 2011
For the Record: Occupy Wall Street, Europe

24 August 2011
Things that need to be invented #3

26 July 2011
Shorter Thoughts: Deficits, 1937 Revisited, Debt Ceiling, Failure to Prosecute Crimes

7 April 2011
Planning to be Rescued by Unicorns

6 April 2011
Obama’s Relection Bid

6 April 2011
Libya

18 March 2011
Interstate Sales Tax

26 February 2011
Wisconsin Walk-Out

25 February 2011
Balancing the Federal Budget

30 January 2011
For the Record

29 January 2011
Citizen Rebellion

14 December 2010
Democrats and Independents Who Resisted Obama Sell-Out

5 November 2010
Election Results

5 November 2010
Johannes Mehserle Sentencing

30 October 2010
Voting Plan

11 October 2010
The Year of the Republic’s Fatal Wound?

2 October 2010
Not Liking Facebook

30 September 2010
Was Income Distrubtion One Cause of the Financial Crisis?

20 September 2010
Economic Prescription

19 September 2010
Red Plague Redux

15 September 2010
Why I don’t read Op-Eds

6 September 2010
Shorter Thoughts: Politics

4 August 2010
Blowout in perspective

2 August 2010
Things that need to be invented #2

29 July 2010
Culture of Forgetting

13 July 2010
Shorter Thoughts: GIIPS, Spectator Sports, Spy Swap, Gaza

12 July 2010
Shorter Thoughts: Blowout, Financial Reform, Deficits, Oscar Grant

5 July 2010
Things that need to be invented #1

12 June 2010
Can Debt Be Tamed?

1 June 2010
The Next Financial Crisis Will Be Obama’s Fault

13 March 2010
Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal

10 March 2010
The Federal Government Deficit

2 March 2010
The Need for an Economics of Sustainability

25 February 2010
More on Point of No Return

19 February 2010
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

16 February 2010
What happened to George Bailey?

5 February 2010
Evil Virus Infects Whitehouse

27 January 2010
Was A.I.G. Rescue Essential?

25 January 2010
Marionette Obama

24 January 2010
Point of No Return?

18 December 2009
Even Less Than Expected

17 December 2009
An Undeveloped Thought on Banking

16 December 2009
Copenhagen

15 December 2009
Senate Health Care

1 November 2009
Protecting the Obvious from Patents

10 October 2009
Afghanistan

14 September 2009
Storm Rising

11 September 2009
Obama’s Healthcare Speech

6 September 2009
Van Jones resignation

5 September 2009
Corporate Speech

17 August 2009
Horrible Failure?

14 August 2009
Consumer Financial Protection Agency and Ben Bernanke

2 August 2009
Economic Equilibriums

1 August 2009
Too Big To Fail

31 July 2009
Shorter Thoughts: Health Care, California Budget Woes

30 July 2009
Market Hypothesis and Fix

8 July 2009
ACES Border Adjustment

29 June 2009
Political Dipoles

12 June 2009
Democrats had more mettle in 1930s

11 June 2009
Shorter Thoughts: Caperton v. Massey, Democrats acting like Republicans

10 June 2009
Cash For Clunkers Revisited

9 June 2009
Cap-Grandfather-Trade considered harmful

8 June 2009
Cash For Clunkers

7 June 2009
Undue Influence

6 June 2009
Earth 2100

5 June 2009
David Souter and Sonia Sotomayor

4 June 2009
President Obama’s Cairo Speech

3 June 2009
Governor Schwarzenegger

2 June 2009
Charging Infrastructure

31 May 2009
Credit Cards

25 May 2009
Guanánamo Bay Prison

24 May 2009
Manned vs. Unmanned Space Missions

23 May 2009
A National Party No More?

17 May 2009
California’s Special Election

9 May 2009
Torture vs. Killing

28 April 2009
Senator Specter

23 April 2009
Time for a New U.S. Political Party

21 April 2009
U.S. Automakers

19 April 2009
Shorter Thoughts: Torture, Bail-out Bonuses, Cap-and-trade

4 April 2009
President Obama’s First 74 Days

15 March 2009
Two Billion Cars

6 March 2009
Ideology is the enemy

6 December 2008
Actions to take on Greenhouse Pollution

21 November 2008
A crazy idea for the economy

18 November 2008
Senator Lieberman

15 November 2008
Thinking aloud about U.S. Automakers

6 November 2008
One Hundred Days

5 November 2008
Good News, Bad News

4 November 2008
Red Plague Status

2 November 2008
World Financial System Reform

14 October 2008
Senator Obama’s Presidency Quest

13 October 2008
Risk

8 October 2008
The end of growth

7 October 2008
Federal Reserve to the Rescue

6 October 2008
Geoengineering?

5 October 2008
Off-site Comments 3

4 October 2008
Letter to the Los Angeles Times

3 October 2008
Plug-ins and the Grid

2 October 2008
Climate Protection Competition

1 October 2008
Really Fixing the Credit Markets

30 September 2008
Fixing the Credit Markets

27 September 2008
Presidential Election

14 September 2008
Off-site Comments 2

31 March 2008
Off-site Comments

21 July 2007
Letter to CARB chair Mary Nichols

3 May 2007
Hydrogen Highways

8 March 2007
Winning, but Losing

6 February 2007
W.Q.

25 January 2007
Immigration

10 January 2007
More on Collapse

6 January 2007
Collapse

21-31 December 2006
Fossil Addiction and Getting Clean

13 December 2006
Letter to NYT

30 July 2006
Carbon

4 July 2006
Close Elections

28 May 2006
Representation Revisited

27 May 2006
Notes to Myself

4 December 2005
An explantion for George W. Bush

23 November 2005
Teluns

23 May 2005
Filibuster

19 January 2005
Condoleezza Rice Confirmation

7 November 2004
Boycott

4 November 2004
Moral Values

3 November 2004
Afghanistan Election

3 November 2004
Red Plague

2 November 2004
For The Record

1 November 2004
Presidential Election Prediction

31 October 2004
The Scariest Night

30 October 2004
Fourth Estate in Election Season

13 October 2004
Kerry vs. Bush Debate 3

13 October 2004
Kerry vs. Bush Debate 3 Preface

7 October 2004
Kerry vs. Bush Debate 2 Preface

4 October 2004
Debate Question

2 October 2004
Defeating Bush is Not Sufficient

30 September 2004
Kerry vs. Bush Debate 1 Comments

29 September 2004
Election Issues Perceived vs. Actual

7 September 2004
Fossil Fuel Planning

31 August 2004
Legislating Taxes and Spending

28 August 2004
Quotations

23 August 2004
Judicial Appointments

20 August 2004
Ballot Initiatives

9 August 2004
Addendum: Term Limit Thoughts

16 July 2004
Bringing Democracy to the U.S.

14 July 2004
Designing/Evolving Complex Systems

11 July 2004
Intelligence Failures

9 July 2004
Dean-Nader Debate

12 June 2004
What to do in Iraq? (2)

10 June 2004
Remembering Reagan

9 June 2004
Torture and Impeachment

25 May 2004
Neocons

24 May 2004
Wedding Bombs

20 May 2004
Strategic Petroleum Reserve

18 May 2004
Only Swings Count

16 May 2004
Gay Marriage

14 May 2004
Catholic Politicians and Communion

13 May 2004
Context-Sensitive Revulsion

11 May 2004
Puffs to Gauge the Breeze?

8 May 2004
Responsibility vs. Blame

6 May 2004
Abu Ghraib

5 May 2004
Spirals

2 May 2004
Soldiers and Politicians

29 April 2004
What to do in Iraq?

26 April 2004
Fool Me Once

15 April 2004
Enemies

9 April 2004
White House v. 9/11 Commission

31 March 2004
Train Wreck Test

30 March 2004
Senator Kerry’s Pandering

26 March 2004
Vomiting Vitriol

23 March 2004
Respectable Republicans

22 March 2004
Opium for the People

21 March 2004
A Preamble Instead of a Pledge

20 March 2004
Ends Choosing Principle?

4 March 2004
Passion Plays

25 February 2004
Nader’s Candidacy

15 February 2004
Revolutionary Republicans

12 February 2004
Media Bias

4 February 2004
My Party Right or Wrong

27 January 2004
Election Day — For The Record

4 January 2004
Overcoming Evil

1 January 2004
Partial Credit

31 December 2003
Economy and the White House

18 September 2003
Nukes

14 September 2003
Democracy in Iraq

10 September 2003
Selectively Condemning Violence

4 September 2003
Politics and Language

16 August 2003
small is beautiful

7 May 2003
Weapons of Mass Distraction

12 April 2003
The Aftermath

18 March 2003
War

3 February 2003
Something good from Mr. Bush

2 February 2003
Iraq Predictions

1 February 2003
Open Letter to my Senators and Representatives

29 January 2003
State of the Union Address

26 January 2003
Madmen in the White House

14 January 2003
Voodoo Economics

23 December 2002
One down

19 December 2002
Oil is merely important today, but a crisis in a decade

16 December 2002
Venezuela

22 November 2002
Hummer H2 is hot in the valley

20 November 2002
Killing Americans

13 November 2002
Colin Powell’s Victory

12 November 2002
Domestic Spying

9 November 2002
As We Stagger, by Ian Walton

7 November 2002
Ranked Ballots

6 November 2002
Campaign Finance

27 October 2002
Questions About Bush’s War Plans

7 October 2002
Abrogation of Responsibility

2 July 2002
The Corporate Mess

11 June 2002
A Compassionate Police State

31 March 2002
Russian Roulette

4 December 2001
Hating Freedom

10 November 2001
Recipe for Security

16 September 2001
Does Retribution Work?

4 July 2001
1984 in 2001

27 January 2001
A Divider, not a Uniter

30 November 2000
Embargo Trade with the U.S.

25 November 2000
Once Again, A Double Standard for Israel

22 November 2000
Florida’s Supreme Court Ruling

14 November 2000
An Illegimate President

10 November 2000
What to do about Florida?

9 November 2000
How should votes be counted?

6 November 2000
Vote for Nader and elect Bush?

20 June 2000
Who’s Responsible for the Death Penalty?

3 June 2000
The Elian Gonzalez Show

26 June 1999
NRA and Money in Politics

17 June 1999
A Parable

10 June 1999
War on Yugoslavia

1 June 1999
Humanitarian War?

23 May 1999
End of NATO?

16 May 1999
EPA and Industry

15 May 1999
Trade War

9 May 1999
Sudan Bombing and the U.S. Press

8 May 1999
War in Yugoslavia

6 March 1999
Republican Social Security Plan

26 February 1999
Outline of a Social Security Solution

20 February 1999
There We Go Again

20 January 1999
State of the Union (2)

18 January 1999
State of the Union

17 January 1999
Federal Debt Still Rising

16 December 1998
Impeachment Disconnect

4 December 1998
Election Fraud

28 November 1998
To Impeach or Not?

25 November 1998
Pinochet Isn’t The Only One

1 October 1998
Terrorism: Look in the Mirror

2 August 1998
U.S. and Human Rights

30 July 1998
The Death of Investigative Journalism

30 June 1998
Letter to The Nation

20 June 1998
Where’s Teddy Now?

7 June 1998
Indonesia

4 April 1998
Letter to the editor of the Economist

21 February 1998
Presidential Veracity

20 February 1998
Bomb Iraq?

9 February 1998
The “Flat Tax”

1 February 1998
A Balanced Budget?

16 November 1997
Iraq — A Double Standard

22 October 1997
The Right to do Wrong?

6 September 1997
Celebrities

9 August 1997
The 1998 Budget Deal

8 August 1997
Commercial Non-commercial Radio

I write these editorials simply to record, for myself, my own opinions and thought processes. People have a tendency to correct their memories to fit with the events after the fact. (Ask people how they voted in an election when the winner subsequently turned out to be unpopular, and you won’t get close to the percentage that actually voted for that candidate.) By writing down my thoughts, I seek to avoid such false corrections. It is unlikely that I have any readership of these commentaries (I have never checked my weblogs to see), except for the occasional Google search hit, but they are out on the web to keep me honest. You’re welcome to read them, but first let me warn you that my opinions are bit unusual.

We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it. Political predictions are usually wrong. But even when one makes a correct one, to discover why one was right can be very illuminating. In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality. If one recognizes this, one cannot, of course, get rid of one’s subjective feelings, but one can to some extent insulate them from one’s thinking and make predictions cold-bloodedly, by the book of arithmetic. In private life most people are fairly realistic. When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean world where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradictions and absurdities I have chronicled above, all finally traceable to a secret belief that one’s political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality.

George Orwell, In Front of Your Nose, 1946

Anyway these are my humours, my opinions: I give them as things which I believe, not as things to be believed. My aim is to reveal my own self, which may well be different tomorrow if I am initiated into some new business which changes me. I have not, nor do I desire, enough authority to be believed. I feel too badly taught to teach others.

Michel de Montaigne, On educating children, as translated by M. A. Screech in The Complete Essays

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.

Cyril Connolly

Learn as much by writing as by reading.

Lord Acton

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round heads in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo.

You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

“Think Different” Advertisement, Apple Computers
(I like this quote for what it says, but that’s nothing compared to its amusement value. Think about it.)

11 August 2014 — Lawrence in Arabia

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East Just a quick note that I finished a good book just now and wrote a review at Good Reads of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson. This book is both a good read and important, one of my few five star ratings. Take note of the subtitle; this is not just a book about T. E. Lawrence, but has several intertwined stories, with Lawrence’s the most prominent. Other major characters include a German intelligence agent, the Turkish governor of Syria, an American oil-man turned state department agent for the Middle East, and a Zionist scientist who organized a spy ring to aid the British and the Zionist efforts to create Israel. It covers the infamous the Sykes-Picot agreement, the British Balfour declaration and Lawrence’s effort to undermine these. Anderson’s treatment appears to me fairly even-handed, willing to question Lawrence’s memoir (Seven Pillars) and uses many subsequent sources for probing actual events. Lawrence comes out as a very conflicted character. It is a helpful guide for understanding the events that shaped the modern Middle East.

2 August 2014 — Privacy Software

I am now using the Signal app by Open Whisper Systems on the iPhone for encrypted phone conversations (and later this summer text messages). (There has been an Android version for a long time, but the iPhone version was just announced.) With the country showing Stasi-like tendencies to build a surveillance state under both Rs and Ds, it seems necessary to object in this way. Unlike other VOIPs (e.g. Skype), governments probably can’t listen in to Signal conversations.

Anyway, Signal is now the preferred way to phone me, but of course POTS continues to work. In the way of suggestions to my friends, here is a list of other privacy-enhancing software that I have installed.

The items below that require a payment are 1Password, Little Snitch, and PrivateTunnel (for the service rather than the software). I did also donate for my use of Disconnect (a Certified B Corporation), Adblock Plus, and NoScript, and I make regular payments to support the work of Electronic Frontier Foundation, the creators of HTTPS Everywhere.

Updated 20140806 to add SpiderOak.

21 July 2014 — For the record: Snowden, Net Neutrality, BRICS New Development Bank, Central America Refugees, Gaza

Repeated Meta comment

This commentary contains no insights, and no arguments. It is therefore not a proper entry at all, but rather it exists only for the record my opinions for the reasons outlined by George Orwell’s In Front of Your Nose.

Snowden

When I first heard about Edward Snowden, I was asked my opinion. I declined to form an opinion at first, wanting more information. In the first few months since his disclosures my opinion did form, but I never wrote it here: Edward Snowden is an American hero, whose actions were made with the best intent and with a great sense of responsibility to balance opposing interests so far as he was able. It is Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama who are traitors to America in this affair. I agree with President Jimmy Carter and Congressman Ron Paul that Snowden should be granted a Presidential pardon for his patriotic act. I would like to see him return to the U.S. to participate in the debate about what to do about government surveillance and prevent the U.S. from descending into a police state.

Net Neutrality

I support Net Neutrality, and oppose the current FCC failure to regulate internet service providers. I submitted a comment to that effect at the FCC website (proceeding 14-28) during the comment period for their recent rule-making. I would not be surprised, however, if the more than 106,000 comments submitted are basically ignored (i.e. only cosmetic changes made), as the FCC has become a lapdog to the service providers, as is so common in our government.

BRICS New Development Bank

It is too soon to say much about the New Development Bank announced by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. It has the potential to be useful, but much depends on how it develops. The size of the bank is initially rather small, and it will take years for it to ramp up to even that size, but the failure of the U.S. to ratify changes in the IMF made something like the NDB inevitable. I hope the BRICS are up to creating the necessary institutional structures to make this succeed.

Central America Refugees

The Central America Refugee crisis at the U.S. borders is badly reported in U.S. media, as it is result of bad U.S. policy in the region. The humane thing to do is to stop supporting violent and lawless governments that create unbearable conditions that force people to flee their homes.

Gaza

I have avoided commenting in this forum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since there is too much to say, but I have to say here that Israel’s attack on Gaza is horrible.

18 July 2014 — Cloud Storage

This is something I wrote down back in March 2010. I am putting it here to share the idea and perhaps get feedback. I have added some additional detail as well.

Suppose Alice, Bob, Carol, etc. want to reliably use cloud storage. They want to make sure that no single cloud service provider outage will affect them. They also do not want to depend upon the security of the cloud storage provider. They assume that Eves and Mallorys (hackers or governments) can read and write all of their cloud bits (either in transit or by reading from the cloud). Mallory can deny them service (by modifying bits in transit or by writing to the cloud), but not without detection. They do not want to even expose the directory structure or file sizes to Eves, since that can be valuable information.

Given N cloud storage providers, use them as follows.

If N is large, they might choose a random subset of the N servers on a per-file basis to minimize the padding required. Call this value M. Most likely N is small (e.g. 3) and M=N, but if N is large then M<N.

For each file to be stored:

  1. prepend random bits to the front of the file to make it a multiple of the M×B;
  2. encrypt it with some good algorithm (e.g. AES, Twofish, etc. with CBC and random IV, or perhaps a hybrid of two ciphers) using a filesystem encryption key;
  3. Split the padded, encrypted bits into B-byte blocks;
  4. Expand the B-byte blocks by M/(M-1) by creating parity blocks as in RAID5 or by M/(M-2) for RAID6;
  5. Store the expanded B-byte blocks on M cloud storage providers in individual files named with the digest (e.g. SHA-2 or a SHA-3 candidate like Skein or VSH) encoded in base64.

To prevent too many files in a single directory, use a subset of the digest as a directory name.

Since this is an encrypt and then MAC algorithm, it is not necessary to encrypt the digest values used as filenames to prevent information leakage (not all digests guarantee this). Providing the digest of both the ciphertext and its parity would also seem to pose no additional leakage, but it is of course possible to encrypt the digest values before using them as filenames at very little cost (ECB mode should suffice).

A file is represented in a directory as:

  1. its real size (before padding);
  2. the IV or nonce used for encryption;
  3. the RAID level (5 or 6) and the list of M cloud servers used (this allows the set of cloud servers to change over time);
  4. a list of digest values for its B-byte blocks (including parity blocks).

To read a file, the individual blocks are requested from the cloud by directory and filename based on the digest values. The random prepended bits are stripped off (based on the file size). You check the digest value of all B-byte blocks to make sure that Mallory has not tampered with the contents. It may be desirable to choose at random which M-1 or M-2 blocks of the M are read, as that complicates Eve’s job from inferring file sizes based upon traffic at the cloud storage end (she would need to monitor all N, not a subset). However, it is probably not be feasible to prevent some information to be gleaned from block access patterns (e.g. the approximate size of files). Given that cloud storage charges for bandwidth, it would be too costly to generate a constant rate of reads and writes, and even then the access patterns would give some indication of usage.

Directories are just files that are stored using the same algorithm as files. The root directory has a fixed name (e.g. "root"). Randomizing the name does not help, as an Eve can detect the root directory block by either: (1) noting that its name is not the base64 encoding of the digest of its contents; (2) by noting the first request of a Alice, Bob, Carol, etc. after reboot; or (3) seeing a write to an existing file. Access to the filesystem is controlled by knowing the master encryption key.

To reclaim storage used by deleted and changed files, it will be necessary to use reference counting. The random IV makes it very unlikely that the reference count of a block will be >1, so only store a list of those. Decrementing the reference count of a block not in the list (i.e. reference count 1) causes the block to be deleted from the cloud. Decrementing the count of a block in the list removes it from the list if the decremented value is 1. We assume the cloud storage providers provide a way for their clients to note a file already exists when a client attempts to create it. This indicates that the digest value must be entered into the >1 reference count list. Garbage collection may be required if a client crashes before cleaning up blocks that have become unused.

Creating a new file or writing an old one requires writing to the root directory. The cloud must provide an atomic way of doing this. This will be the primary performance limiter of this filesystem.

Access control in the file system can be implemented by using per-file encryption keys. The directory entry for a file would be extended to include a key name. Alice and Bob might be able to translate this key name into an actual 256-bit value, and since Carol lacks the value of that key, she would be unable to read its contents. Perhaps even the digest values in the directory should be encrypted with this per-file key to prevent Carol from reading those.

It would be useful to determine whether forward secrecy could usefully incorporated into aspects of the system, since the with the disclosure of the master encryption key all files without per-file keys are revealed. Perhaps Alice, Bob, and Carol could periodically use Diffie-Helmann to negotiate new file keys to be used for all subsequent file and directory encryption. They would however need to store all previously negotiated keys to decrypt data written prior, making the compromise of their system reveal everything written up to that point. This seems a fundamental property of a filesystem, and so I don’t see where forward secrecy can be applied.

1 July 2014 — National Boundaries

My comments here have gotten infrequent indeed, which I attribute to not wanting to repeat myself (unlike many bloggers I read). Thus I don’t bother even on dramatic current events, if I’ve already said something similar in the past. Still, sometimes, in the spirit of Orwell, it is worthwhile to record opinions of important events, and so sometimes I do rouse myself to do so.

I have earlier, in my thoughts on World Government, given my model of how national boundaries should be set. Recent events in Ukraine and Iraq have recalled these old thoughts, and I find I am still comfortable with them. That is, unlike the horror of the pundits, I find myself not as disturbed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the breakup of Iraq, though the process of the former was flawed and the latter reprehensible.

The process by which Crimea became part of Russia was highly flawed (a UN-sponsored referendum should have been conducted); nonetheless it appears that the local population preferred integration with Russia, which is the primary criteria in my World Government proposal. The preference for joining Russia has been repeatedly expressed by approximately two-thirds of the population in a series of UNDP polls since 2009. The March 16 referendum was flawed in many respects, and its 97% approval for joining Russia seems at odds with the UNDP polls, but the polls leave little doubt that a majority of the population would have voted for joining Russia in a proper referendum. Thus I cannot condemn the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The case of Iraq is more troubling, since the current situation is the result of violent conquest of territory by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It is clear that ISIL is not a popular movement, and does not have the support of the people, except as a temporary expedient to rid Iraq of Nouri al-Maliki, and perhaps to separate from the Shia portions of Iraq. ISIL appears to be led by psychopaths, and I do not approve of any of their actions. However, it also appears to me that Iraq would be better off divided into Kurdistan, Sunni territories, and Shia territories, based on the principle of local autonomy. In this, I find the calls of U.S. pundits to send warplanes and troops to Iraq to reassert control over breakaway provinces to be reprehensible. An effort to stop the atrocities being committed by ISIL is worthy of consideration, however.

14 May 2014 — Facebook No More

Note: I am adding this post in July, though the event was in May. It seems more relevant to note it on the day it happened rather the day I remembered to write it.

I posted today what may be my last time on Facebook. The cause was similar to my giving up Google: I learned that Facebook was supporting ALEC.

11 October 2013 — Catenated Crypto

Note: my background in cryptography is cursory (one introductory course), so my thoughts on this subject should definitely be carefully scrutinized by experts before being put to use.

This is a quick note about some of my old cryptography ideas. Algorithms such as Rijndael, Twofish, and Camellia are considered hard to attack for the time being, but it is possible that attacks will be discovered (and may already be known by the NSA). Applying multiple encryption algorithms sequentially should make attack more difficult, as each algorithm would have to have identified flaws. Each algorithm should be applied with an independent key, which requires a large key (e.g. 768 bits for the trio of 256-bit algorithms identified above). Such keys are likely to be created via Diffie-Hellmann Key Exchange.

The simplest way to apply multiple algorithms would be simple composition, e.g. for a trio, C = Ec(K3, Db(K2, Ea(K1, P))) and P = Da(K1, Eb(K2, Dc(K3, C), with modification to insert one of the necessary modes such at CBC, CTR, GCM, etc. (For example, use CTR with the first algorithm, and GCM with the second.) This in effect creates a more complex algorithm pair E, D transforming one 256-bit word to another. To increase the efficacy of catenating encryption algorithms, a transformation step could be applied between them. If data larger than 256-bit words is to be encrypted, it could be desirable to use a transformation so that each plaintext bit affects all ciphertext bits (making the catenated cipher a Pseudo Random Permutation or PRP). For example, for each 65536 bits (8KB) of input data, AES-256 could be applied to successive 256-bit words with the first 256 bits of the key. These bits could then be bit-matrix transposed, so that each 256-bit word contains one bit from each 256-bit word output of the first step. Thus every input bit in the original input affects every output bit (unlike a CBC operation, where plaintext words never affect earlier ciphertext words).

Another way to make every output bit depend on every input bit is to do random bit swapping of the plaintext. A FFT-like algorithm should do this in N⋅log2(N/256) operations using a stream cipher to control the bit swapping of the 256-bit words. The plaintext would first be padded with pseudo-random bits to be a power of two number of 256-bit words, and these random bits would then be bit swapped into random locations using the butterfly swap under mask. The block cipher would then be applied to the 256-bit words, making bits within the output words dependent upon every input bit.

20140718 update: when a cipher uses a IV or nonce that is included in the ciphertext, this creates a backdoor as described in Bellare et al’s Security of Symmetric Encryption against Mass Surveillance. A catenated cipher could prevent this problem by using the IV/nonce-based encryption as the inner cipher, and then applying the outer cipher, preventing the IV/nonce from being used to leak information. For example, simply applying AES in ECB mode with the remainder of the key bits to the inner cipher would prevent leakage.

11 August 2013 — Surveillance State

The US has become a surveillance state, enabled by internet and mobile technology. Internet and wireless company data is being increasingly tapped and stored by the US government. This is justified by the War on Terror. The problem is that it is the government who is defining Terror, and increasingly it just means anything they want it to mean.

President Obama says he wants to see the Patriot Act amended. However, Obama has proven so untrustworthy on so many related issues, I cannot imagine this statement of being any value. It is likely just empty rhetoric.

Even were one to accept the utility of the surveillance state for its stated purpose, it is important to remember that such capability is seldom used only for its stated purpose. It usually ends up being used to suppress legitimate political discourse. Nixonian political tactics didn’t start or stop with Nixon. Government enforcers continue to monitor, harass, and arrest protesters, for example. (See also F.B.I. Goes Knocking for Political Troublemakers.)

8 August 2013 — Lessons Learned From a Net Zero Building Attempt

Status: This is a first draft.

Since the early 1990s, I wanted to build a house that was close to self-sufficient in energy. My intent was to build a passive solar house (one that needed little active heating or cooling because of its design) and then provide for its electrical power with photovoltaics (PV). Today such a building would be called a net zero house (I didn’t know the term until later). I got my opportunity to pursue this vision in 2000 when QED went public, and was then six months later bought by PMC Sierra. PMC Sierra stock soared as part of the final days of the tech bubble, before it collapsed spectacularly. I had fortunately sold enough shares during this period to allow me to embark on my net zero attempt.

I began by talking to architects with experience in unconventional building techniques and explained my goal. I eventually selected an architect who shared my interest and who seemed easy to work with. His specialty was straw bale construction, and after learning more about it, I became enthusiastic about it and decided to build a straw bale house.

I did build finally build the house, and moved in autumn of 2006. The was much more efficient than typical new construction, but we did not achieve the goal of net zero energy. This post looks at the lessons learned. Here is a quick summary:

  • Check the architect’s design, either yourself or with an outside consultant. Don’t rely on the architect to get it right, because it can’t be fixed later.
  • Identify key technology before the plans are done (don’t rely on contractor design-build).
  • In particular, identify the best possible windows before designing the house. Finding high R-value (low U-value) windows is critical.
  • Don’t skimp on whole house fan design.
  • Radiant heat is wonderful, but one needs a separate cooling strategy. The home should probably have forced air ducts for this, and for the whole house fan.
  • Don’t assume historical electrical load information will carry over to the new house.
  • Vampire electrical loads need to be dealt with.
  • Electric rate tiers may increase PV requirements when heat pumps are used in winter months.

The architect I chose specialized in straw bale buildings, and he tremendous faith in the suitability of straw bale construction, along with sufficient thermal mass, to produce a passive solar house. The high insulation value of 2-foot thick bale walls (around R-50) is quite high, and the bales are typically covered with a wire mesh and plastered, adding to the thermal mass. We also chose stone floors with a concrete slab to increase the thermal mass (but we skimped on the thickness of the slab and should have made it thicker). However, while such designs have produced very comfortable, passive-solar buildings at certain design points, they are not guaranteed to do so. My partner in this building project and I wanted on a number of design features that reduced the effectiveness of this type of design. For example, she wanted a much larger house than is typically built this way, with very flat interior walls, and I wanted a house filled with light, with many windows and doors. Unfortunately, windows and doors transmit heat far more readily than walls, and this largely negates the high R-value of straw bale walls. The town building codes also worked against passive solar design, for example requiring dark roofs, which absorb thermal radiation in the summer, heating the house when it is not desired (but see the OM solar design links below where this a feature). Were I to build a home again, I would insist on checking the architect’s design with detailed calculations and simulations to ensure that the passive solar objective would be met. One could do this either oneself, or by hiring a consultant. This needs to be done early in the design process, rather than late, because later it is much more difficult to make changes.

Another issue is that the architect left a number of design decisions to the contractor or sub-contractors (something he called design-build). This may work well for certain aspects of the design (e.g. cabinetry and some plumbing), but is not appropriate for things that affect the passive solar design of the building (at least until passive solar is mainstream). And even with the plumbing, I wish there were aspects that were not left entirely to the contractors. The windows and doors are critical design decisions, and the highest possible R-value (lowest U value) windows and doors should be chosen early in the design process, and not left to contractor bidding and such. We found constraints on the windows available that limited our choices, and ended up with relatively typically R-3 (U 0.3) windows because of these constraints (e.g. only a couple of manufacturers made windows with an interior cherry finish to match the library interior). Put a R-3 window in a R-50 wall, and all the heat flow is through the window. For example, given a 24 ft2 U-0.3 window in 200 ft2 U-0.02 wall, two thirds of the heat loss or gain is through the window, despite the wall area being more than seven times the window area. It would be better to realize this up-front and change the design to accommodate better insulating windows.

A passive solar house requires occasional backup, non-passive heating and cooling during periods of extended unfavorable weather. The design of this system should be done early, and not left until later. It is particularly inappropriate for design-build. We ended up with a air-to-water heat pump, when a ground source heat pump might have been more appropriate. This would have required early design consideration, however. (We were avoiding fossil fuels, so natural gas or propane supplementary heat was not an option.)

Heating a passive solar house is somewhat easier than cooling it. The angle of the eave can be designed to allow the sun to heat the house in winter, but block the sun in summer, and this heating is particularly comfortable if done right (e.g. captured in the thermal mass of the building). It helps if the house is not too large, since there is a limit to how deeply into the south of the house the sun will reach. We chose to supplement the passive solar heating with radiant heating in the floor for cold days without sun. Radiant heating is very comfortable, but it has the problem that it is not suitable for cooling. Since radiant heating uses hot water flowing through a slab floor, it lacks forced air ducts. We chose to not provide a separate forced air system for air conditioning, and this was a mistake. Our house did get too warm in summer, probably because there were so many R-3 (U 0.3) windows and doors. I tried using the heat pump to run cold water through the floor to cool the house, but this proved unsatisfactory. I also opened windows throughout the house the night before a hot day was forecast, and attempted to pre-cool the house that way. This would have been aided by having forced air ducting and a better whole house fan to draw in the cool outdoor air. It might have been nice to have an automated design to exchange indoor air with outdoor air without having to open windows, and to have this done automatically by software. The house was relatively good at holding the cooler temperature achieved in this way, and so a good whole house fan design with forced air ducts would have been the primary method for comfortable summer temperatures, requiring air conditioning to supplement only on days when the nighttime temperature never gets low enough. Don’t skimp on whole house fan design.

Were I do another design, I would consider the OM Solar external duct design. This seems like a good way to generate hot air in winter (to supplement radiant heating), and to vent that hot air in summer (preventing the attic and upstairs from getting hot). This system could also provide nighttime cooling.

I made several mistakes in the electrical load calculations when sizing the PV. I started with the historical electrical load from the old house, and added to that expected future Electric Vehicle (EV) load, and the occasional load of the heat pump. The heat pump ran more often than expected, so this calculation was low. Also, my partner and architect insisted on using low-efficiency PV on the house roof for its looks, and this led us to undersize the PV. Finally, we added a number of features to the electrical design of the house, and these caused unanticipated loads. For example, we had very unreliable grid power in our area (we had experienced multi-day PG&E outages in the past), and so we wanted backup power for much of the house. We chose to do this with a battery bank integrated into the barn PV system, as well as a UPS for our 19-inch rack computers in the basement. However, battery backup systems can add to the vampire load of a house, and vampire loads are becoming particularly large part of home overall energy consumption. Measurements on the home by a third party after I no longer lived there indicated that this house had this issue as well. Apparently in the process of outfitting the new home with electrical equipment, it ended up with significant vampire loads, each drawing only a little power, but on all the time, and so integrating to a large overall total.

Another big issue with the PV sizing was a failure to take electric rate tiers into account. My goal was to produce as much electricity over a year as the home consumed over a year, and thus achieve a zero bill. Because roof-top (i.e. fixed-tilt) PV generates more in summer than winter (twice was power in July as in December), but the heat pump is significant load in winter, and none in summer, this averaging helps keep the PV size reasonable. However, California inverted block rates, or rate tiers, cause high usage in a given month to be charged at a higher rate (e.g. $0.08510/kWh up to 19.3 kWh in PG&E region X, code H, $0.30454/kWh above 38.6 kWh, 3.6 times larger). The heat pump pushed electric bills into the higher rate tiers in the winter, making it impossible to achieve a zero bill even with net zero annual usage. One fix was to install a 2-axis pole-mount tracking PV system (since all roof area was covered in low efficiency thin-film solar) to provide for the unanticipated load, and optimize for maximum production in the winter months.

While not exhaustive, I hope the above provides some insight into the mistakes that I made in my net zero attempt, and gives some guidance on steps others should take to achieve better results on their design projects.

7 August 2013 — Correction: CHAdeMO in San Francisco

In Tesla Model S commentary below I said there were no CHAdeMO chargers in San Francisco or Berkeley. Today I looked again and it looks like that is no longer true; San Francisco (but not Berkeley) has several CHAdeMO chargers listed in Recargo’s database. I will have to give them a visit, as this makes a real difference in the usability of my Nissan Leaf SL.

But what is up with Berkeley? It has so few EV charging stations of all types.

31 July 2013 — Tesla Model S

Foreword: This is a different sort of post. I have tired somewhat of commenting upon contemporary politics (hence the October to July hiatus). Even the recent Snowden revelations about Obama’s evil did not rouse me to comment, because there was no surprise. (I admit some surprise at what his DOJ did to the AP, however—I did not expect the police state to take on their stenographers this early.) Likewise, the recent update to the climate wedges was wholly expected, and so I didn’t comment, though this further evidence for what I already estimated was deeply disturbing. Instead I am writing my thoughts about my recent purchase of a Tesla Model S 85 sedan. If things have turned so dark, can I see no course but to enjoy the final great party of the 1%?

I drove home a 2013 Tesla Model S 85 from their Fremont factory a bit more than a month ago. It is my fourth battery electric vehicle (BEV). Earlier BEVs were the 2000 Solectria Force, 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV, and the 2011 Nissan Leaf SL. (I still have the Force and Leaf.) I have been convinced for almost two decades that electric cars are a necessary (but not sufficient of course), temporary step in the solution to maintaining our climate and civilization because fossil fuel vehicles are simply too destructive and unsustainable. Most early technologies come with some limitations, and are not at first completely suited to replacing earlier technology (fossil fuel vehicles). In Everett Roger’s classification, innovations are successively embraced by Innovators (first 2.5%), Early Adopters (second 13.5%), Early Majority (third 34%), Late Majority (fourth 34%), and finally the Laggards (final 16%). Innovators appreciate the new technology despite its limitations and cope with those limitations. For example, with my Solectria Force, I kept my 1993 Volvo as a backup car to use on long trips. (It was later replaced with a 2007 Prius, which later served as the backup for the Nissan Leaf.) BEVs have generally had some limitations, and so were suited only to Innovators, but with the Tesla Model S 85 we have a vehicle with minimal limitations, indicating that this technology has reached the point where a transition to Early Adopters is possible. The point of that transition is still in the future (BEV sales will not reach 2.5% of vehicle sales for some time yet), but the technology is almost ready for non-Innovators to adopt. The only remaining limitations are the cost of an 85 kWh battery pack and multiplicity of vehicle styles appropriate to people’s needs. The $/kWh of batteries is declining rapidly, as is typical of new technology, and it is reasonable to envision a BEV with the price point of the Nissan Leaf and the range of the Tesla Model S 85. Similarly, Tesla will be addressing the vehicle form factor issue over time, as will other car companies.

The above explains my interest in adding the Tesla to my other BEVs. I believe it will be possible to get rid of my fossil fuel vehicle (the Prius) as a result, making all three cars BEVs (two people cars and one dog car). As an aside, the primary reason I delayed so long in ordering one is that it had only one unsatisfactory choice (black) for a non-leather interior, and I avoid leather because of its connection to animal slavery.

The other technology turning point afforded by Tesla is their supercharging stations. High-end Nissan Leaf models have a fast charging capability (CHAdeMO), but it is is less capable than Tesla’s, and there are insufficient CHAdeMO stations to make this useful (e.g. there are no stations in San Francisco or Berkeley). Tesla in comparison claims they will have coast-to-coast charging by the end of 2013, and stations serving the San Francisco to Los Angeles and Portland to Vancouver routes are already in service.

I explain the above to set the stage for my comments below on the Tesla Model S. I am very positive about the vehicle as a technological milestone. I also enjoy driving it. Still, I do have some criticisms and suggestions. I won’t here point out the positive aspects of the vehicle, which are numerous. Rather, my purpose here is to point out places for improvement so that later models are even better. (Some of these could be addressed in a software upgrade for Model S cars already delivered.)

I will broadly divide my comments on the Model S into physical design issues and software design issues and address them in that order.

My first physical design issue is that the Model S is less efficient than my Nissan Leaf at battery-to-wheel Wh/mi. I seem to average 256 Wh/mi when driving the Leaf, and over 300 Wh/mi when driving the Tesla (EPA estimates are 290 Wh/mi and 380 Wh/mi respectively). Some of this must be due to the mass difference, but I have not yet seen an analysis. The larger battery pack of the Model S explains only part of the weight difference. The Model S is significantly heavier (2,108 kg vs. 1,493 kg for the Nissan Leaf) and JB Straubel has described its battery pack as almost 1000 pounds (i.e. less than 454 kg) while Wikipedia gives the weight of the Leaf pack as 300 kg, so the pack weight is less than 25% of the overall weight difference. In any case, as someone trying to drive on sunshine (i.e. charge my BEVs from my PV), I will prefer the Leaf to the Model S when its range is adequate.

Another design decision that concerns me is the lack of a either a full or mini spare tire. A flat tire on the Model S will often therefore require towing. Tesla does sell an air pump with sealant that might address a few punctures, but hardly as many situations as a spare.

Continuing some of the physical design issues, though relatively minor, the Model S lacks some simple features found in even low-end cars, such as pockets in the back of the front seats, sunglass holders, and handles or hooks for hanging clothes. Seat pockets are particularly easy to provide, so their absence is a mystery.

Turning now to software issues, let me begin with its bold user interface design choice. The Tesla Model S provides a large touchscreen display that is used to control many functions of the vehicle both when driving and while parked. This is in contrast to other vehicles with touchscreens, which use them primarily for information access and configuration. The Tesla designers clearly were looking to exploit the touchscreen in a more fundamental manner. This follows a common pattern for technology; first new technology is used as an addition, then it is used as a replacement, and then finally a synthesis between the old and new is found that recognizes that the new is not superior to the old in everything, and the appropriate balance is found. With the Model S we see the second stage, where the touchscreen is overused and manual controls (e.g. buttons and knobs) are eschewed, even when they might be superior. Here are some examples:

  • The Model S seems to drain its battery to keep its electronics sufficiently awake to implement their chosen user interface. Buttons monitored by nano-power electronics that wake the higher-power electronics when necessary might make for a more energy efficient vehicle.
  • To charge from a J1772 cable, one must open the charge port on the outside of the vehicle. To do this requires leaning across the steering wheel, press Controls on the touchscreen, and then press Charge Port. Compare this to opening the fuel port of a traditional car with a flick of a lever on the driver’s door or seat. To charge from the Tesla mobile charging cable is simpler when it works; one simply presses the button on the cable to open the charge port, but this does not work reliably.
  • Similarly it is difficult for a large driver to reach the touchscreen when it is set for small driver to press the buttons for adjusting the seat. As with some other vehicles, perhaps the key fob should identify the driver seat position preferences rather than using the touchscreen.
  • Locking and unlocking the vehicle is more cumbersome because buttons are avoided. Other vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, are more convenient to lock and unlock, as one never need locate the key fob in one’s pocket. The Model S can be programmed to unlock when the fob is nearby, and lock when it moves far away, but the distance required for it to lock is uncomfortably far, and so I usually have to find the fob in my pocket and press it to force it to lock while I can still see the vehicle.

The opposite criticism may be made about the touchscreen in some cases. The touchscreen allows new user interfaces in some cases that have not been exploited, but where the designers have simply copied the non-touchscreen design to the touchscreen. For example:

  • The trip meters implement the user interface and functionality found in most non-touchscreen vehicles, except that energy is added to the display. The large display of the Model S suggests superior functionality. There should be stop/start buttons for two (or more) trip recorders. Stopping a trip, or starting a new should add the data to a log for that meter. The date and time could be included in the trip display. Thus we would have a record of the last, say, five A trips, the last five B trips, and so on. This could be used for seeing the history for a repetitive route, such as commuting to work. (And GPS could be used to automate keeping history of repetitive routes.)

Next I turn to the lack of certain software features that are desirable, including some suggestions for features not yet found on electric vehicles (as far as I know).

  • The Model S charge control is sophisticated in some areas, such as allowing control of the charge rate in single ampere increments and providing a slider for the target state-of-charge, but primitive in others, such as the time of day to charge. The Model S has only a start time control, which is quite cumbersome (sometimes a stop time is what is needed). The Nissan Leaf, for example, allows on and off times to be specified for weekdays and weekends, allowing one to target many utility time-of-use (TOU) off-peak electric rates. An even better user interface would be possible with the Model S, given its internet connectivity. It should be possible access an entire TOU schedule on the web, and then allow a specification of which rates are acceptable (for example, PG&E’s rate schedules off-peak, partial-peak, and peak rates, and a touchscreen button for each could be provided after the schedule is downloaded from a web resource).
  • Rather than charging at a constant amperage and then stopping, it might be desirable to charge at the minimal rate that achieves the specified state of charge by a deadline (e.g. if only 6A are required to charge the vehicle by the start of one’s commute, charge at that rate rather than at a high rate and stopping before midnight). Lower rate charging may have value for the electric grid (e.g. keeping transformers cool) and for maximizing battery life by minimizing heating.
  • I suggest that a new cruise control option could be useful for getting to one’s destination with less energy. This cruise control would provide a window of target velocities, only using regenerative braking when the vehicle exceeds the maximum velocity. This would allow speed-up downhill, and speed decrease uphill. Since regenerative braking has significant losses, this should increase efficiency compared to cruise control that maintains a constant velocity. Since other vehicles often slow down uphill and speed up downhill, it might also allow better integration with traffic.
  • The Model S has a nice information display on the screen in front of the steering wheel (better than most vehicles), e.g. displaying the instantaneous power draw in kW. I suggest a simple addition that would aid the driver in achieving higher efficiency: add a mark on the instantaneous power draw (the kW display) that represents the rated efficiency at the current speed (e.g. for the Tesla Model S 85, put a mark on the kW display at 2.61 mi/kWh / MPH for city speeds and 2.67 mi/kWh / MPH for highway speeds).
  • I find the instantaneous range projection of the Model S energy graph to be less useful, and yet it is the default. Every time I select the energy graph, I have to change it to average to get a better idea of how I am doing. The energy graph should remember the last setting and default to that.
  • Playing audio from USB needs to support playlists.
  • Range projection could be made more accurate when using navigation by remembering energy consumption for routes previously traveled.

Finally, I also note that the Tesla does seem to have some manufacturing issues at this stage of their development. This is probably to be expected, given the ramp up to production. My Model S was delivered to me with one defect (the front passenger door did not close properly), and it took several phone calls and emails and several weeks to get a service date scheduled. During those weeks, the sunroof ceased to seal properly, so that it was noisy at highway speeds. Both were fixed on the service call. The day after the master onboard charge controller failed. Fortunately the Menlo Park service center answered the phone when I called and invited me to try charging with one of their chargers. When that too did not work, they immediately took her in to swap out the bad controller.

My purpose here has been to outline my experience so far with the Model S. Despite some issues, I am very positive about the vehicle. I look forward to Tesla addressing some of the issues in future software releases, and by ramping up their production QA and service capability.

20130825 Update: In the above I mentioned that Tesla repaired the roof noise problem. However that repair was temporary, as I am once again hearing wind noise from My Tesla Model S roof. This suggests a design defect, rather than a manufacturing quality problem. I also praised the power meter on the dashboard for giving detailed kW information (rather than an unlabeled indication as on the Nissan Leaf), but that design decision was not applied in other places, such as the sound level, which uses a numeric scale that lacks precision. It would be better to report the sound level in db, as on my Yamaha AV Receiver (e.g. my usual listening level is -20.0 db).

22 July 2013 — Google No More

I have finally switched away from using Google as my search engine. Their fundraiser for Senator Inhofe and the national Republican Senatorial Committee was the final straw. I am currently trying out DuckDuckGo. Now I must try to remember to make DuckDuck a verb.

8 October 2012 — California Ballot Propositions

Note: Updated 2012.10.31 with Sierra Club supporting Prop 30 and added Credo. Updated 2012.11.7 with election results.

Following the method presented in Representation Revisited here is a summary of some organizations on the November 2012 California ballot propositions, and how I plan to vote. Opinions on propositions 30, 32, 33, 34, 36, and 40 were unanimous and so very easy. Propositions 31, 34, 35, 37, 38, and 39 required some investigation to look at the various arguments. Proposition 35 was particularly difficult, but I was swayed by arguments that it was badly written, and my general feeling that matters such as Proposition 35 are best left to the legislature, the proper role of ballot propositions being areas where the legislature is ill-suited to the subject (such as conflicts of interest, or capture by monied interests). I have long opposed the death penalty and the three strikes law, so propositions 34 and 36 were easy ones, as well as being unanimous. The negative recommendations on proposition 37 did not sway me, and I have long been concerned that genetically modified organisms are insufficiently regulated, and so labeling is an appropriate response to the lack of regulation. I have not yet read Proposition 31, so I might change my vote on it, but at the moment I find the significant opposition among the organizations I monitor to be of concern, and when in doubt I generally vote no on propositions.

I may have made errors in putting together this summary. Please check the organization recommendations for yourself, rather than relying on my work. If you do find errors, please let me know.

Organization Prop30 Prop31 Prop32 Prop33 Prop34 Prop35 Prop36 Prop37 Prop38 Prop39 Prop40
ACLU Yes No No Yes No Yes Yes
CLCV Yes No No Yes Yes
Common Cause No Yes
Credo Yes No No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
FCLCA Yes No No No Yes No Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Green Party of California Yes No No No Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes
LA Times Yes No No Yes Yes No No Yes Yes
LWV Santa Clara Yes No No Yes Yes
Sacramento Bee Yes No No No Yes No Yes No No Yes Yes
San Jose Mercury Yes Yes No No Yes Yes Yes No No Yes Yes
SF Chronicle Yes Yes No No Yes Yes Yes No No No Yes
Sierra Club Yes No No Yes Yes
Earl Yes No No No Yes No Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Election Yes No No No No Yes Yes No No Yes Yes

22 September 2012 — Grazing Lambs

Note: I wrote this first as a blog comment, and then as Facebook and Google+ post. Since it is easier to reference it here, I am adding it with the date of the first posts. I have edited it slightly as well.

Democrats and their supporters are happy to see Romney’s stumbles (as evidenced by blog posts), but they misinterpret advancing in a minor skirmish as progress rather than as part of a trap. Remember that regardless of who the electorate votes for, the real winners are our rulers. Understand how the system really works. The nature of the game is to control where the poles lie (the poles being the positions of the Rs and Ds—the bounds of acceptable opinion). The electorate’s choice one of the poles is minimally relevant, as the fix is already in when the poles are placed; either pole is acceptable to our rulers, and while they might prefer one to the other, the important thing is that people don’t revolt because they’ve been given the appearance of choice, even though their choice was highly constrained by the placement of the poles. This is why our rulers spend so much on organizations such as AEI, ALEC, CEI, CSIS, Cato, Commonwealth, Federalist, Heartland, Heritage, Hoover, Hudson, Mackinac, Manhattan, Marshall, Mercatus, PNAC, Reason, Tocqueville, and so on. They have succeeded by getting the Democrats to adopt the Republican positions of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s about one decade after the Republicans introduced them. That is solid success, for them (terrible for us). Control the poles and you you win regardless of how the election goes. We are lambs heading out to graze each day, arguing over which corner of the fenced pasture is best, but not noticing that the fence is shifting ever closer to the slaughterhouse.

† Individual Rs and Ds may occasionally be outside of the poles. For example, each year the Congressional Progressive Caucus each year puts forth a fairly sensible, serious budget alternative, which is for the most part ignored by the corporate media. Thus these members of Congress are beyond the poles.

4 June 2012 — Europe

One of my favorite metaphors is the slow-motion wreck (car, train, whatever), primarily because there are so many we are forced to watch these days. I’ve used the metaphor for climate change. There the train is merely speeding toward the rotten tracks, but it is too late to brake. The horror of watching a wreck in slow motion is to see things starting to go wrong, knowing what must inevitably follow from the laws of physics, and watching the inevitability play itself out, at a speed that allows one to consciously take it in. Does one’s life really play out in the mind in the second after the gallows trap door opens but before the end of the rope is reached? I don’t know, but the economic catastrophe in Europe and climate change seem to have that feel.

I vaguely remember the warnings of U.S. Economists like Paul Krugman when Europe created a common currency. I ignored those warnings. I wanted the Euro to succeed if only because it would lessen one of the great annoyances of travel, viz. currency exchange. That was a poor reason indeed, but it illustrates the subversions to rational thought to which the human mind is prone. Europeans had even a stronger reason for delusion, as they were attempting to build a structure to prevent the recurrence of the two great wars that ravished her, starting with the European Coal and Steel Community (1952), and following with steps such as the European Economic Community (1958), the Schengen Agreement (1985), the European Union (1993), and the Euro (1995). Still the high mindedness of the motivations cannot repeal the laws of Economics.

What I find surprising is to read news articles that invariably present the latest rending of metal, the noise of another impact and breaking glass, and so on as merely problems that will be overcome with the policy prescriptions being put forward by politicians and reviewed in the article. The delusion that allows such the wreck-in-progress to be ignored for yet another month prompts me to wonder what other wrecks-in-progress I am missing. But that for another time.

The news today that prompted me finally writing this entry in my comment log was about Portugal. The mechanisms discussed for shoring up Portugal’s banks were clearly inadequate. Only a major revision of the treaties governing Europe can minimize the damage from the wreck-in-progress, and certainly injecting a bit more capital into a single nation’s banks fails that standard. As the only entity that can create Euros, the ECB must be the primary actor in dealing with bank runs, but it is constrained by the treaty creating it from acting. This treaty should be amended immediately to minimize the wreckage. It is true that central banks have in the past acted even when they lacked the legal basis to do so, as the Bank of England did in the panic of 1825. Parliament, after that panic, debated whether to give the BOE the power to act in future crises, and stopped short, believing it was better to prohibit such action, so that the markets do not rely on them, and trusting that individuals would rise to the challenge of extra-legal action if the situation necessitated it. Robert Peel wrote,

My confidence is unshaken that we are taking all the precautions which legislation can prudently take against the recurrence of a monetary crisis. It may occur in spite of our precautions, and if it does, and if it be necessary to assume a grave responsibility for the purpose of meeting it, I dare say men will be found willing to assume such a responsibility.
I would rather trust to this than impair the efficacy and probable success of those measures by which one hopes to control evil tendencies in their beginning, and to diminish the risk that extraordinary measures may be necessary.

I dare say, however, that men and women will not be found to do such a thing at the ECB. The BOE has done so repeatedly, but since the Peel debate, only after a letter from the Prime Minister authorizing extra-legal action. The EU, with its 27 prime ministers, would be incapable of granting such a dispensation, especially with the German fear of 1921-1924 (why they don’t also remember the deflation of the 1930s is a mystery).

The bank runs in Europe are the result of fear of countries being forced to leave the Euro. Investors hope that by transferring their Euros from Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese banks, they will find their deposits denominated in Marks or Francs instead of Drachma, Pesata, Lira, or Escudos. Unless the forces that are driving countries out of the Euro are countered, the bank runs cannot be countered. For the Euro to survive, it is necessary for the ECB to engineer modest inflation in Germany and France, so that relative prices in Greece, Spain, and Portugal can fall without the grinding wreckage of deflation. The ECB will not do this. In addition for the Euro to survive, there needs to be a mechanism for economic transfers between regions of Europe (the Federal government in the U.S. effects very large economic transfers between states, making a single currency possible). Thus Greece, and then Spain and Portugal will leave the Euro. Injecting a little capital into banks will not prevent this. Watching the leading train car derail (Greece), one can be sure that the cars following will meet a similar fate, even if one is watching in slow motion, and they are still rolling ahead fine so far.

After I wrote the above, I read George Soros’ recent speech. I would say his outlook is even bleaker than mine. People have often described me as a pessimist, but compared to how the future actually unfolds compared to my predictions, usually I am in fact an optimist.

21 May 2012 — The Republican Brain

Yesterday, I finished reading The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality. The book suffers from the author presumably listening to his publisher and not including graphs, charts, and other forms of data presentation that would have made it far more useful, but which supposedly turn-off the general audience. It shares that with too many non-fiction books these days. I have found that such books are primarily useful for their references. By going to read the research papers on which the author reports, one can start to get more of the picture (of course what you don’t know is what research the author omits). If the author’s hypothesis is true, then it would definitely affect the way others should operate in politics (and the Democrats are failing terribly, as we know, so they could use some advice). In that regard, I think the book is worthwhile.

I also found that it was better early on, and that later chapters were weaker. I was particularly annoyed when he started to report on some unpublished research and kept giving results, only in the next sentence to say they weren’t statistically significant (what’s the point of reporting that A>B if that statement lacks statistical significance?). He also bends over backwards to find things that Democrats are wrong about, when the wrongness is not at all clear, and his arguments here are very weak and hardly address the full range of issues. One can understand his need to point out things about both sides, but not at the cost of acting like an Republican in terms of ignoring complexity of issues. He also reports on research that suggests political thinking is more complex than the political spectrum (right vs. left) but then argues incorrectly, in my opinion, that the right-left mode of thinking is still a useful simplification. This is partially because of the success of the political spectrum meme in effecting an unwarranted simplification of political thought.

Still, his recommendations (together with George Lakoff’s) would go a certain way toward improving what the Democrats could achieve, and the book is worthwhile for that, and again for the references to published research. The published research seems fairly clear-cut on the basics. One example is Nursery school personality and political orientation two decades later.

His examples about fear and inebriation were quite interesting (both can supposedly turn Democrat-thinking into Republican-thinking), but I haven’t followed up on those references yet.

I know that the above sounds pretty negative, but I must say with the Red Plague looking essentially unsolvable at the moment, and leading our country into a death spiral, books like this can only help if they help us find a way out of the spiral. (The only other solution will be to wait for the Republicans to have complete control of the White House, House of Representatives, and Senate—it is only a matter of time—and they will so destroy things that they will be destroyed as a party. But by then, things would be so bad, I doubt we would be able to recover, so it isn’t really a solution.)

Update (4 June 2012): I meant to add in my original post my hypothesis that the current polarization is due to a deliberate attempt to align the authoritarian-inclined population of the U.S. with the Republican party. This is the result of heavy spending by a few billionaires and corporations on think tanks and other institutions that promote policies favorable to the funders’ business interests. As William Greider said,

The Republican party is not a party of conservative ideology. It is a party of conservative clients. Whenever possible, the ideology will be invoked as justification for taking care of the clients’ needs. When the two are in conflict, the conservative principles are discarded and the clients are served.

I would, of course, quibble with using the word conservative to describe Republicans and their clients, as they are in fact the radicals in today’s society (i.e. the opposite of the dictionary definition of the adjective), but Greider’s observation about the clients being served is still appropriate. And of course there are many contranyms in the English language, so conservative is hardly unique, though unlike the others, it doesn’t seem to be acknowledged as a contranym.

8 May 2012 — Apple Design

In the spirit of Orwell’s In Front of Your Nose essay quoted at the top of this page, I am here simply recording an opinion for look-back purposes. It does not meet my usual goal for a this page; this is not anything well argued or particularly useful. It is just a snapshot of an opinion. I am getting lazier.

I own quite a few Apple products, primarily because I don’t like Microsoft Windows very much. But unlike some, I’m not a big fan of Apple’s products; they are generally reasonable, not great, and at times they are actually rather poorly done. I don’t therefore understand the mystique of good design that surrounds them. One of the mysteries for me is how variable the response time of a simple product like the iPhone can be. Sometimes it is fast, and other times it takes forever just to echo typing. iOS lacks a significant amount of functionality compared to Mac OS, and yet there are things that iOS has that Mac OS lacks. And then it seems that some products are intentionally crippled. The iPad3 has a 5 megapixel camera, compared to the 8 megapixel camera on the older iPhone 4S, and it lacks Siri. iTunes synchronization frequently does the wrong thing (including delivering the wrong audio file!). Mobile Safari’s handling of HTML, e.g. the viewport stuff, seems not particularly well thought out in light of the later products (it should be easier to create content that works well on iPad2, iPad3, iPhone3, iPhone4S, etc.). Facetime and iMessage should be merged, and in fact they should probably be based on technology along the lines of Google Wave. There are features in Android that are better than iOS. I could go on and on. My intent is not to catalog what is wrong with Apple Design, but just to record my opinion that it is not as good as many give it credit for. Perhaps many have low expectations, and so a few instances of great design are given more credit than the overall picture.

I would like to see Apple design improve. Sometimes it is great; sometimes it is lousy. Overall it is OK, but it could be better.

7 May 2012 — Hollande

France has chosen François Hollande as her President. It is a sign that the electorate of Europe recognizes that the austerity programs of their elite are self-destructive. Whether they recognize that their leaders are slaves of some defunct economist or simply are saying that current policies are too painful (the vote for the other guy if things are bad theory), there may now be an opportunity to see if the policies of a different economist, who, while just as dead, appears to have been much closer to the truth of human affairs than the rest of his profession. Whether this opportunity is realized I cannot guess, as I don’t understand French and European Union politics well enough, but it is a welcome change. A major problem facing Hollande is that the European Central Bank lacks a dual-mandate, and so cannot legally persue a modest inflation to pull Europe out of its recession. It is unlikely that Hollande will be able to change that treaty, and with France lacking a currency of her own, his only option will be to increase spending and therefore taxes. Most likely what he will be able to accomplish will be too little to provide sufficient stimulus to end the recession in France quickly, but at least he is rowing away from the waterfall instead of toward it.

23 April 2012 — Time Capsule in the Genome

Asmiov’s Foundation series introduced the notion of creating a mechanism to shorten the looming dark age following a pull-back in civilization. I sometimes think we should be making such a plan, as the chances of civilization down-sizing in the next sixty years are high enough to be worrisome. In Things that would be useful inventions #1 I suggested the need for books that are fireproof and waterproof for this purpose.

One of the challenges of any information archival mechanism is to survive deliberate attempts at its destruction. Zealots might actively seek to destroy the knowledge of the past age because that knowledge is blamed for the failures of the past age. One answer to this is disperse the caches of knowledge widely and randomly, so that they are hard to find. This of course makes them hard to find by the intended recipients as well. It is interesting, therefore, to speculate on other caching mechanisms.

A mechanism that just occurred to me is to store information in the human genome, and I am writing this to explore that possibility. Humans are quite likely to survive a collapse. Our selfish genes have been quite successful: we have a tendency to reproduce and pass on our genetic sequences. The human genome contains over three billion base pairs, at two bits of information per pair, this is approximately 800 megabytes of information storage capability. This is not sufficient to store all of Wikipedia, but there is much in Wikipedia not needed to shorten the next dark age. Of course, the human genome also has to store the information to generate new home sapiens, or else reproduction will cease. For the protein-coding portion of the genome, there is redundancy that can be exploited. Three base pairs, with sixty-four possible values, form a codon, which is used to encode twenty-two symbols (20 proteins, a start symbol, and a stop signal). There are first-order 1.5 bits of information available per codon (an exact figure would require knowing the frequency distribution of the 22 symbols). With 25% or more of the base pairs encoding genes, this means the there is 50 megabytes of extra information storage capability in the human genome. Is this enough to help bootstrap civilization?

Unfortunately, a more important consideration is that being able to access this information requires a high level of technology, one that presumes that the dark ages have ended. This technology could be cached randomly, but it would be vulnerable to deliberate destruction. This mechanism is therefore really only useful for passing information to the civilization that follows the dark age. What could that be? Is it wisdom or technology that should be communicated? The plays of Aeschylus and Shakespeare? A history of anti-science climate folly? What would be important enough to warrant the effort?

31 March 2012 — Redistricting

Redistricting is in the news. How could it not be? There was a census in 2010. The courts are involved in 37 states.

These court challenges to redistricting plans highlights the importance of these maps in the balance of power, and that should tell us that the system needs to be fixed.

The answer to How could it not be? is to eliminate the winner-take-all aspect of districts. The district mapping problem does not exist at all when a legislature is chosen entirely by proportional representation. In situations where geographic representation is desired, proportional representation within districts reduces the advantage one party can gain by making the maps.

In Bringing Democracy to the U.S., I proposed one body of the legislature of representatives elected by ranked ballot of candidate slates in equal-population districts served by seven representatives elected every two years. Seven is chosen to allow up to seven parties to be represented, or to approximate the vote distribution between fewer parties (for example in a two-party system, a 51%/49% vote would result in 4 and 3 representatives for the two parties, a 57%/43% allocation, vs. the 100%/0% allocation of a single-member district). In such a system the drawing of the district maps still affects the results, but the advantage to be gained is reduced. Bringing Democracy to the U.S. further suggested that district maps be chosen by direct vote (ranked ballots) on plans created by multiple sources, including non-partisan organizations. As a constitutional mechanism, these two mechanisms are likely to reduce the need for litigating district maps.

That is how it could not be.

12 March 2012 — Ouiji Board Due Process

On 5 March 2012 Eric Holder gave a speech at the Northwestern University School of Law, in which he said, The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process. Note that here, Attorney General Eric Holder was careful to say due process rather than due process of law. The latter phrase being the one used in the fifth amendment, which itself comes from an English statute of 1354 based upon the Magna Carta. Omitting those two words makes due process something that could be implemented by two interns and Ouiji board, if that were the process ordered by the President. The of law is therefore very significant. What law specifies the process to be followed in executing individuals without judicial review? Without such a law, the fifth amendment is clear that no one may be deprived of life.

Mr. Holder also justified President Obama’s non-judicial execution by referring to the use all necessary and appropriate force authorization given by Congress (e.g. most recently in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012). Congress cannot override the Constitution, even when working with the President. To satisfy the Constitution, Congress must define, and the President must follow, a process for someone to be deprived of life, liberty, or property. The fifth amendment only suspends the Grand Jury requirement in times of war.

7 December 2011 — Greenhouse pollution pricing

Putting a price on greenhouse pollution is one part of the solution to our global warming problem. It is unlikely that we will have the political will to do it at the Federal level in the U.S. until it is at the crisis stage, so thoughts on this front are mostly wishful thinking, but I still like to think about what would be appropriate. A new article, Economic and energetic analysis of capturing CO2 from ambient air suggests that CO2 capture is likely to cost on the order of $1,000 per tonne with current technology. Perhaps this will improve with technological advances over time, so some might argue that this price is too high. I take a different approach. I would set a price on greenhouse pollution equal to $1,000 per CO2-equivalent tonne, and then let that price drive technological innovation to reduce the cost of CO2 capture. Of course, setting such a price overnight would be highly economically disruptive, and one might phase-in the greenhouse pollution price gradually to allow alternatives to evolve, but the principle remains that one should price externalities at their present cost of remediation, and then allow that price to drive changes.

29 November 2011 — A Problem of Language

Words: we cannot live without them, but sometimes also they are also an enemy.

Some of the world’s problems can be traced to language. Words are not precise; they mean different things at different times and to different people. Words appear to work by evoking frames in the human brain, and these frames are necessarily flexible, influenced by context and history. This gives words both their power and their imprecision. Their flexibility allows words to part of a creative process, which is their power. Power must be used judiciously, and language is often not used judiciously, even in supposedly careful writing. I suspect that many controveries in philosophy can be traced back to the imprecision of language, despite the attempts of philosophers to be careful.

Words also encourage us to think in black and white, even where the world is really shades of grey. Binary thinking creates false issues where none really exist.

Political thought is an area that is especially confused by language. For example, the inappropriate use of the word property is at the root of some political controversies. Consider that in our society, we consider land to be property, when really a more appropriate model is that we lease land from society. Property taxes are rent, and zoning restrictions and some environmental regulations simply reflect the landlord’s interest in maximizing the value of and preserving her lands for other tenants (including future ones). (Some environmental regulations serve other purposes, such as protecting the health of other tenants.) However, as soon as one calls land property it creates the issue of property rights: shouldn’t one be able to do anything one wants with one’s property? This issue does not exist in the lease model, because different language is used, and different frames in our brains are invoked. A political controversy exists because of inappropriate language.

It is worthwhile to be on watch for the problems of words and to attempt to substitute different language when they arise. Unfortunately our society has been following the opposite path: for the most part we are changing language to create problems, not solve them.

19 November 2011 — Intrade Wager

There is no Intrade market for the United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (also known as the Supercommittee). Were I an Intrade gambler, I would put a 60% probability that the committee will either fail to reach an agreement (thereby triggering automatic cuts in both the military and domestic budgets), or that the Democrats will cave into essentially all Republican demands in order to reach a deal. Rather than place a bet, I am simply recording here my bet so as to gauge how well I do at political predictions. Since the cave clause above is ambiguous, let me make it precise by saying that if there is a deal, it will reduce government revenues compared to current law. (As an example, the Republicans will get extensions of the Bush tax cuts and additional revenue will be less than the cost of the tax cut extension. Likely any additional revenue will be less than 10% of cost of extending the Bush tax cuts.)

If the supercommittee fails to produce an agreement, I further predict that Democrats in Congress will agree to scrap more than half of the military cuts required by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and will substitute non-military cuts.

Of course, if my bet is correct, it will only show once again that the Democrats are incompetent.

Update

The supercommittee failed, as predicted. Republican refusal to let the disastrous Bush tax cuts expire on schedule were the sticking point, also as predicted. This represents $2,904 to $4,647 billion of lost revenue over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Since Republicans proposed only $3 billion of revenue enhancement, my second prediction was accurate as well. The the borrow-and-spend party wants to use this additional debt to yet further starve the beast, which has the potential to eventually bankrupt the Federal government. Republicans continue to characterize letting the disastrous Bush tax cuts expire on schedule as job killing, when in fact the expiration would be job creating, given the stimulus that results from additional Federal spending allowed by the expiration. Such is the contemporary Ministry of Truth.

Democrats were little better than the Republicans, as they proposed extending 80% of the Bush tax cuts.

† See the 2012-2021 column of August 2011 Budget and Economic Outlook Update Table 1-8, which gives $2,461 billion of direct debt with $443 billion of additional debt service if AMT is not indexed for inflation, and $3,949 billion of direct debt and $698 billion of additional debt service if AMT is indexed for inflation.

5 November 2011 — For the Record: Occupy Wall Street, Europe

Meta comment

This commentary contains no insights, and no arguments. It is therefore not a proper entry at all, but rather it exists only for the record my opinions for the reasons outlined by George Orwell’s In Front of Your Nose.

Occupy Wall Street

It seems I have a knack for missing important protests. I didn’t find out about the 1999 Seattle WTO protests until they were underway, and now I sit writing this in Paris, reading in wonder that there still exists the spirit in the United States for something as bold as Occupy Wall Street, and in horror at the violent police brutality being unleashed against the protesters.

Years of citizen docility—with exceptions, but not enough—in the United States had led me to believe something like Occupy Wall Street was not a protest that would spread, and yet it did. Perhaps there is an inherent feedback where docility leads to elite overreach, which in turn tends to counter docility? I can only speculate. The protests of Tunisia and Egypt too may have played a role in inspiring Americans.

Predictions usually say more about the seer than the future, so with that in mind, I will predict that Occupy Wall Street will have only a rather small effect upon policy over the next few years. The United States’ one-party system (with two factions, giving the appearance of choice) is too stable to surrender to popular opinion except in the most dire circumstances, and it is too easily controlled by money, which the 0.01% have in abundance thanks to years of dismantling of progressive taxation. The impact of Occupy Wall Street is likely then to come long after the protesters have left the streets, and long after Obama has left office, when a larger crisis propels the issue back before us, and the memory of today’s protests may add some small impetus to effect real change then. If this seems rather cynical, then see the first sentence of this paragraph. I would be delighted to be wrong about this.

Europe

I continue to watch in amazement as Europe puts on grand theater which only serves to distract the world from what seems obvious, which is that the fundamental issues are not being addressed. Paul Krugman and a few others daily write of the steps that need to be taken and why the approach of Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy will fail. I find these arguments convincing. Plastering cracks in the wall does not address a failing foundation. With the world’s current economic system requiring growth (something that should be fixed in the long term), fiscal stimulus, debt monetization by the ECB, and moderate inflation are probably the best solution to Europe’s crisis. It might be possible to also allow several European governments to default, which would be followed by the default the world’s big banks, and then to build a new banking system in short order using government capital, but this is a very risky strategy, although it has the advantage of disciplining the market. Governments, however, as currently constituted, exist to serve the interests of investors, and so the latter strategy is probably untenable without radical changes in government to serve citizens instead.

24 August 2011 — Things that need to be invented #3

I cannot believe that when I wrote Things that need to be invented #1 and Things that need to be invented #2 that I forgot two of my oldest ideas that need invention:

  • Bacteria that consume gunpowder as a food source
  • An influenza virus engineered to reduce human male fertility

The idea of course is to let the bacteria loose and have it find its way into the world’s weapons stockpiles. Yes, the arms industry would then replace gunpowder with something else, but it would be something more costly, and that would reduce the quantity of weapons.

The purpose of the virus is to humanely slow the rate of human population growth.

26 July 2011 — Shorter Thoughts: Deficits, 1937 Revisited, Debt Ceiling, Failure to Prosecute Crimes

Deficits

A policy position that I have held for decades is that the government should run a budget surplus when the economy is strong and a budget deficit in bad times. I am therefore opposed to a balanced budget amendment, or cutting spending in a recession. The debt level of the U.S. is high, but not impossibly high. What is important is that the deficit be the result of countering the economic downturn, and not be structural, i.e. that the return of normal economic activity should bring the budget into balance. President Clinton left a situation with projected surpluses had the technology bubble not burst. That was good policy (but of course not dealing with the technology bubble was bad). The next occupant of the White House moved the budget deeply into structural deficits and deserves most of the blame for the economic events that have followed. George Bush was the worst White House occupant in my lifetime. President Obama’s biggest mistake (of many) was extending the Bush tax cuts. Letting them expire would have solved the structural deficit problem. Instead of extending the tax cuts, he should have provided more short-term stimulus spending. Such spending is more stimulative than tax cuts, and does not set the stage for further tax cut extensions.

1937 Revisited

The stimulus spending is running out and the economy is beginning to stall, as Goldman Sachs predicted. Two months of jobs growth that has not kept up with population growth means that households will continued to be constrained in their spending. The Federal government seems certain to reduce its spending, with deficit hysteria trumping all other considerations. State governments are cutting services for the fourth straight year. Everything looks set for a replay of 1937. Ben Bernanke appears to see this possibility as well, and is thus dusting off the plans for a third round of quantitative easing (not that this will do much). Of course it took four years for President Roosevelt to switch from stimulus to austerity, but our generation learned that lesson so badly we gave up after only two. President Obama really is a pathetic, incompetent leader and the Republicans are evil.

Debt Ceiling

Predictions usually say more about the seer than the future. I won’t try to make a prediction, other than say the last thing I expect is for the U.S. government to default on its debt. The Obama-Boehner game of chicken may result in a partial government shutdown. The shutdown will be only partial because the government will be able to spend whatever revenues arrive, and will be able to rollover existing debt. I expect social security checks to be issued (they just have to stop rolling over their trust fund to have sufficient cash flow). However, even a partial shutdown will be unpopular, as the Federal government lays off non-essential personnel and ceases the purchase of military equipment, stops transfers of funds to states, etc. It appears the President Obama is preparing for that by trying to appear so reasonable that the public will overwhelmingly blame the Republicans. (Of course a government shutdown will only worsen our repeat of 1937.) That at least is the charitable explanation for his attempts to be more Republican than Republicans of just six years ago. The less charitable explanation is almost believable.

My concern about structural deficit spending led me to once suggest in the 1980s that the debt ceiling increases should require a supermajority vote in Congress. I now see what bad policy that would be. The debt ceiling should be eliminated. Congress needs to achieve budget sanity in its revenue and spending actions. The debt ceiling is nothing but a waste of time.

Failure to Prosecute Crimes

The failure of President Obama’s Department of Justice to bring criminal charges concerning the fraud behind the financial panic is disgusting. A few civil complaints have been filed, but those are no substitute for criminal charges when crimes have been committed.

7 April 2011 — Planning to be Rescued by Unicorns

Paul Krugman, in a series of posts to his New York Times blog, skewers the Ryan budget, the Heritage Foundation, and the New York Times commentariat. All deserved their skewering. And yet, the U.S. press will continue on reporting on the Ryan plan in all seriousness. When Democrats compromise with Ryan and pass something overly influenced by the Republican’s exercise in wet-dreaming, and the projections don’t materialize, Republicans will say it was the compromises that were at fault. Meanwhile the U.S. debt will increase and income distribution will get yet closer to that of a third-world dictatorship. Why are there so few voices telling us that we are being scammed? Paul Ryan is simply this decade’s Bernie Madoff, but just as Madoff was praised for decades even as he fleeced his investors, so too will the Republicans be praised, at least until the bill comes due. I think the answer lies in the two-party system, which demands that both parties be credible, lest it appear to become a one-party system. Thus credibility is not earned, it is presumed. That presumption is clearly bogus today, but don’t expect to hear that from any traditional media organization. The truth is that the Republican Party is evil and the Democratic Party is incompetent.

6 April 2011 — Obama’s Relection Bid

I am not, of course, surprised that President Obama has filed papers with the Federal Election Commission for re-election. I am however disappointed that he choose to file as a Democrat rather than as a Republican. In my opinion, Barack Obama is the second best Republican president in fifty years (after Bill Clinton), but he has no place in the Democratic party. It is unfortunate that his re-election bid will prevent competent Democrats from running. Of course, that assumes that there exist comptetent Democrats.

6 April 2011 — Libya

I was traveling in Morocco when foreign governments decided to intervene in Libya’s civil war, which was a convenient excuse for not having written down my thoughts on this issue, but perhaps a more honest reason is that I have such mixed feelings about it. My bias is always against military action, and certainly that bias influences me in this case. I certainly do think Libya would be better off with Qaddafi gone, and I have hoped that protesters there could achieve the results seen in Tunisia and Egypt with similarly peaceful means. However, the protesters lacked the patience of Gandhi, and so Qaddafi’s use of violence pushed them into violent reactions, prompting escalating violence from Qaddafi, etc. It made no sense for Qaddafi opponents to move to a playing field where Qaddafi held a strong advantage, but they did anyway. Perhaps they reasoned that the U.S. and Western Europe would bail them out. This led to a push in the security council for intervention, and amazingly China and Russia did not veto it. This makes foreign military action technically legal (though not necessarily moral). Now foreign military action is being used to aid the Qaddafi’s opponents. Against this backdrop, consider Eric Sevareid’s statement:

Every political villain in history first persuaded himself that the end justifies the means. Nothing but ends justify means, but they do not justify any means. Where the line is drawn among means is the determinant between civilized life and savagery. Inadmissible means devour principle and corrupt their users, often forever.

Ignoring that we long ago corrupted ourselves by discarding principle, let me ask anew whether the U.S. should have intervened in Libya’s civil war? Despite my wish that Qaddafi be removed from power, I still find it difficult to justify the killing of innocent people (e.g. in bombing Libya from the air) to further that end. I will not attempt to justify this position, as I don’t have a firm basis on which to decide one way or another. Rather I base my position on the failure to consider and attempt other alternatives. Had all alternatives been exhausted, I am still uncertain. Had non-intervention led to a situation similar to 1994 Rwanda, I think it would then be time to talk about intervention.

It is also appropriate to ask whether intervention in Libya to support one side in a civil war requires for consistency intervention in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria? Instead the U.S. is taking opposite position in Bahrain, supporting the intervention of foreign troops to support tyranny and the killing of peaceful protesters.

18 March 2011 — Interstate Sales Tax

After reading again about the battle between Amazon and states that want it to pay sales tax, it is time to record for the record that I see no reason for Congress to not repeal the interstate sales tax rule. The Supreme Court could overturn its precedent in Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, but I think it would be better for Congress to establish once and for all that sales tax should be paid based upon the delivery address.

26 February 2011 — Wisconsin Walk-Out

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plan to end collective bargaining rights for some state workers (primarily the ones that don’t vote Republican) is bad public policy. His plan for a no-bid sale of state property is similarly bad policy. Winconsinites, according to a recent poll, oppose elimination of collective bargaining by 51% to 41%.

Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate have left the state to prevent that body from achieving a quorum and passing Governor Walker’s legislation. This is a good way to bring attention to the issue and rouse public opposition. However, despite my personal opposition to Walker’s policies, I do not see the end as justifying this particular means in the long term. I continue to oppose supermajority requirements in legislatures, and I cannot make an exception in this case simply because I agree that the policy should be opposed. Having chosen a representative form of government, we must recognize that our representatives will often act contrary to our interests (indeed my primary complaint about U.S. politics is that representatives usually so act). Wisconsinites will learn by this exercise just what the Republican Party in their state represents the hard way. I cheer the Democratic Senators for their walk-out as a way of highlighting their differences with the Republicans, but it is not a viable long-term strategy to block the majority party. That would create a supermajority requirement, which is worse public policy.

25 February 2011 — Balancing the Federal Budget

The U.S. Federal government should be running a surplus under good economic conditions, and a deficit during bad economic times. Given the large U.S. debt, the average over long periods (e.g. a decade) should be a small surplus (e.g. 0.2% of GDP). Given the high unemployment rate at the moment, this suggests that U.S. should have a large deficit at the moment. This applies even in times of wars of choice (i.e. when the country is not fighting for its survival—the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against Al-Qaeda are wars of choice). However, after the economic stimulus required to restore economic health is removed from the calculation, the budget should be in surplus.

The largest sources of today’s deficit are George Bush’s tax cuts and Medicare. This are the primary issues that must be addressed.

The way I would bring the Federal budget into surplus (after removing the economic stimulus spending), would be as follows:

  • Eliminate the cap on social security tax (currently $106,800). Apply this revenue first to Social Security’s trust fund, and the remainder to funding Medicare.
  • Enact real health care reform to reduce the cost of health care in general, and the cost of Veteran care and Medicare in particular.
  • Repeal the Bush tax cuts. Institute $500,000 and $1,000,000 tax brackets at higher marginal rates to capture Wall Street and CEO bonus excesses.
  • Further address income inequality (if the above is not sufficient) to foster economic growth and broaden the tax base.
  • Tax gambling gains (e.g. the stock market) and dividends as ordinary income. Special treatment for capital gains is only appropriate for real investment (e.g. venture capital).
  • End the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Cut defense spending, primarily by cutting new weapons programs.
  • Implement renewable power policies to replace fossil energy, eliminating the need for much defense spending.
  • Apply money created by the Federal Reserve to reducing the Federal debt, rather than giving it to banks, thereby reducing interest expense.
  • Increase spending on research, development, infrastructure investment, and regulatory and enforcement actions that will have net positive returns over subsequent decades.
  • Eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies.
  • Invest in campaign finance and lobbying reform so that representatives’ clients are U.S. citizens instead of corporations and industries looking for preferential economic treatment.
  • Provide matching funds to small individual contributions to public news organizations (NPR, CPB, PRI, Democracy Now, etc.) so that the public is better informed and make better public policy choices at the ballot box.
  • Implement additional anti-trust regulation, and in particular break up the TBTF banks to prevent a future financial bail-out.

The above would easily balance the Federal budget over business cycles. In contrast, the proposals being hosted by the traditional media will likely make the situation worse, as they do not address the real problems.

30 January 2011 — For the Record

I have not been active at recording here my thoughts on current events, primarily because it often seems repetitive. Often I feel that my earlier comments cover the current situation well, and there is little to add, but if I take the George Orwell In Front of Your Nose essay seriously, it suggests recording the reason for opinions so that they may tested against subsequent events, and I should be better at following that suggestion. To that end, I enter a few items below.

President Obama

My high hopes for President Obama have been replaced by a low opinion. He is a follower, not a leader; he compromises before prior to negotiating rather as part of negotiating, and thus accomplishes little. He sometimes speaks well on the subjects he chooses, but chooses his subjects poorly. He is a servant of the banks and corporations, but the banks and corporations prefer the Republicans, and so his servitude produces no benefits in other areas. His financial and health reforms, his financial stimulus package, and his mid-term campaign strategy were all grossly inadequate. His Afghanistan policy will fail. His capitulation to pundit-think on deficits, while leaving the military budget untouched is bad policy. His perpetuation of Bush policies is immoral and damaging.

Bush tax cut extension

I wrote my representatives in Congress to oppose extension of the Bush tax cuts. Income inequality is a serious problem in the United States. Our nation has prospered best during times of less inequality and foundered during times of greatest inequality (e.g. 1929 and 2008). There will be some stimulus from this cut, but better stimulus would have been to prevent layoffs in state governments around the nation.

President Obama’s State of the Union speech

I did not watch President Obama’s speech. I was on an airplane at the time, but from the expected content, it seemed not worthwhile anyway. I did scan the transcript. President Obama’s diagnosis seems hollow to me. Competitiveness is not our fundamental problem. Yes, innovation is good, and his proposal to eliminate oil company subsidies is sound (if dead in a Republican Congress). Improving U.S. education is sensible, but his proposals will do nothing in that regard. I support tax code reform, but if the proposals from the deficit reduction commission are any indication, tax code reform is likely to be an excuse for making permanent the economic inequality created by the current tax code. Targeting government regulation when our air, water, and products in our markets are still unsafe in nonsensical. Obama’s domestic spending freeze is simply idiotic. We need to boost spending in a number of areas, especially financial and environmental regulation, education. We need to significantly cut military spending. Obama’s State of the Union speech indicated he is heading sideways, and with the Republican attempt to pull us downward, there will be no forward progress.

Paul Krugman on Economics and Politics

I agree with at least eighty percent of what Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times blog, and I don’t have much to add of my own, but for the record I should state that his posts on China, Europe, Bush, Obama, health care, Democrats, Republicans, inflation, deflation, stimulus, Federal Reserve policy, fifty little Hoovers, and so on have generally been convincing to me, with various minor points I would quibble. The one area on which Krugman seems blind is the obvious long-term problem of growth. I also think he could think a little further outside of the box in searching for solutions, e.g. in strategies for Federal Reserve policy.

Tucson murders

The United States needs better gun control laws to prevent gun use in murder, assassination, and other crime. The second amendment was clearly conceived and written so that militias could be called on by the government, and does not prohibit gun control legislation (Scalia’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller is clearly wrong). The use of violence in political language is likewise unacceptable in the United States. The traditional media’s inability to call out politicians that engage in such language is a clear indication that the fourth estate has become subservient to the Republican party.

Republican hypocrisy

I remain surprised at the degree of hypocrisy in the Republican party. Their fiscal pretenses are completely at odds for the support of tax cuts, repeal of health care reform, support for increased militarism, opposition to financial regulation, and so on. Republican emphasis upon laissez-faire finance and corporate activity is incompatible with the principles of economics (i.e. addressing externalities and maintaining competition in the market).

Budget deficit

I have maintained for decades that the government should run deficits in recessions and depressions and surpluses in times of economic prosperity, with an overall net balance, and today’s economic environment continues to affirm this position. I am far more concerned about the effect of war-without-end on the budget than I am about deficits that counter today’s economic downturn. Investment in necessary long-term infrastructure (not roads and bridges, but public transportation and wind and solar farms) should be evaluated in terms of lifetime cost savings.

Mid-term elections

Republican control of the House of Representatives is likely to be quite damaging to the United States and the world. One of my smaller concerns is the chance for a replay of the 1995 government shutdown, where President Obama is unlikely to handle the situation as well as President Clinton did, and the Republicans are likely to have learned from Gingrich’s mistakes. Of greater concern is President Obama adopting Republican positions pre-negotiation, which will force the Republicans to adjust their goals further toward impractical dogma. My biggest concern is for the effect of the Republicans on Earth’s ecosystems and the consequent effects upon all of her inhabitants.

Crash in slow motion

In my estimation, we have already passed the point where we can prevent catastrophe from ecological and resource limits. The coming decades will be like watching a bus crash in very very slow motion. It would be better if the bus were braking rather than still accelerating when it hits the concrete pillar, but that is a weak better. At this point, the fight is about how bad the crash will be for the clean-up crew.

29 January 2011 — Citizen Rebellion

Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution has been amazing so far, and Egyptian’s rebellion against Mubarak has the potential to make the situation as significant as the revolutions of 1989. Even if today’s events instead only recapitulate Hungary of 1956 and Czechoslovakia of 1968, it suggests the eventual overthrow of Arab dictators. What will replace these dictators? The answer has generally been corporate power (but religious power in Iran). Corporate overloads are an improvement over kleptocracy in the short-term, but are still problematic, as they have no ability to address the challenges that face civilization. Who will overthrow corporatocracy (the velvet form of kleptocracy)? That is the real challenge facing civilization.

14 December 2010 — Democrats and Independents Who Resisted Obama Sell-Out

President Obama’s compromise (better characterized as a give-away or sell-out) with the Republicans is bad public policy and bad policy. There is too little good in it to balance the bad on both fronts. Few Democrats and Independents stood up to the President, once again confirming the notion that Republicans are Evil and Democrats are Incompetent. Here is a list of the few that resisted the compromise:

  • Bingaman (D-NM)
  • Brown (D-OH)
  • Feingold (D-WI)
  • Gillibrand (D-NY)
  • Hagan (D-NC)
  • Lautenberg (D-NJ)
  • Leahy (D-VT)
  • Levin (D-MI)
  • Sanders (I-VT)
  • Udall (D-CO)

Only one (Russ Reingold) was a lame duck: interesting.

For the record, I contacted my Representative and both Senators and urged them to vote against the Bush tax cut extension sell-out. The person I am most disappointed in is President Obama (and not only on this issue).

5 November 2010 — Election Results

  • Good
    • California Propositions 23 defeated
    • California Propositions 25 enacted
    • Meg Whitman defeated
    • California Assembly remains Democratic (51-29)
    • U.S. Senate remains nominally Democratic (53-47)
  • Bad
    • California Propositions 26 enacted
    • California Propositions 19, 21, 24 defeated
  • Ugly
    • U.S. House of Representatives controlled by Republicans by probably 48 seats
    • Serious climate/energy legislation dead
    • A lost decade likely

5 November 2010 — Johannes Mehserle Sentencing

First there was the involutary manslaughter conviction, and now a sentence of only two years with credit for 292 days of time already served in jail. Apparently it remains open season for abuse by police.

30 October 2010 — Voting Plan

For the record, here is how I plan to vote on November 2nd:

Governor Laura Wells (Edmund Brown if it is very close)
Lieutenant Governor James Castillo
Secretary of State Ann Menasche
Controller Ross Frankel
Treasurer Charles Crittenden
Attorney General Peter Allen
Insurance Commissioner William Balderston
State Board of Equalization; District 1 Betty Yee
United States Senator Duane Roberts (Barbara Boxer if it is very close)
US Representative; District 14 Anna Eshoo
Member of the State Assembly; District 21 Rich Gordon
California Supreme Court Ming Chin: No, Carlos Moreno: Yes, Tani Cantil-Sakauye: Yes
Justice, California State Court of Appeal; District 6 Conrad Rushing
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson
Council Member; Town of Los Altos Hills John Radford, Joan Sherlock
Director; Santa Clara Valley Water District; Division 7 Brian Schmidt
Proposition 19 Yes
Proposition 20 No
Proposition 21 Yes
Proposition 22 No
Proposition 23 No
Proposition 24 Yes
Proposition 25 Yes
Proposition 26 No
Proposition 27 No
Measure A Yes
Measure B Yes
Measure C Yes
Measure E Yes

11 October 2010 — The Year of the Republic’s Fatal Wound?

Future historians may look back at 2010 as the year the U.S. contracted the illness that eventually killed it. The infection entered the patient through the wound inflicted by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. There is no currently anti-viral drug to treat the infection; only the country’s immune system is capable of fighting it off, as happened a century ago, but initial indications is that the virus is capable of inducing the patient’s cells into acting contrary to their own interest to further their own body’s demise, and so I see the immune response as less likely to succeed than before.

A possible course of the disease is a dramatic weakening of the country’s economic potential, leading to such a weakened state that its desperate citizen’s accept a fundamentalist takeover from the military as a futile attempt to check decline. At this point the Republic will be dead. The dictatorship will likely itself fail as world civilization begins its decline.

2 October 2010 — Not Liking Facebook

I have a Facebook account, but I haven’t logged in for some time, and I long ago deleted all my photos and personal information from my profile. I also avoid the Like button popping up on websites everywhere. Facebook’s business model is to violate its member’s privacy, and I want no part of that.

More broadly, I also clear my cookies (both regular and LSO) regularly. Am I paranoid, or do I just dislike corporations trying to sell information about me and profit thereby? I am reminded of my history research paper from high school, which I wrote in 1974 on the dangers of the information age to privacy. It all came true, only ten times more than I imagined. In 2006, I suggested the theme Technology = Loss of Freedom for a work of fiction. So this has been a recurring concern for 36 years.

30 September 2010 — Was Income Distrubtion One Cause of the Financial Crisis?

I was reading Building a Better America — One Wealth Quintile at a Time (pdf) by Norton and Ariely, and I remembered Paul Krugman’s comparison of real GDP per capita growth before Reagan and growth after (2.2%/yr from 1950 to 1980, 2.0%/yr from 1981 to 2007). This limited comparison suggests that high marginal tax rates might be better for the U.S. economy as a whole. One reason this might be true is that lower and middle income households are more likely to spend their income than upper income households, and personal consumption expenditures are approximately 70% of U.S. GDP.

My next thought was that the increase in savings from wealth inequality may have contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. The wealth accumulation requires investment, and the the lack of suitable investments causes unsuitable ones to be created to rectify the imbalance. This recalls Walter Bagehot’s famous observation:

Much has been written about panics and manias, much more than with the most outstretched intellect we are able to follow or conceive; but one thing is certain, that at particular times a great deal of stupid people have a great deal of stupid money…. At intervals, from causes which are not to the present purpose, the money of these people—the blind capital, as we call it, of the country—is particularly large and craving; it seeks for someone to devour it, there is a plethora; it finds someone, and there is speculation; it is devoured, and there is panic.

Shortly after starting this commentary, but before finishing it, I happened to listen to a Fresh Air interview with Robert Reich in which he has written an entire book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, on the hypothesis that income disparity was one of the causes of the 2008 crisis. Rather than developing this commetary further, I will defer until reading his book.

20 September 2010 — Economic Prescription

In a conversation recently I gave my prescription for fixing the U.S. unemployment problem. For the record, here was my suggestion:

  • The Federal Reserve needs to raise inflation expectations to and do further monetary expansion to get inflation back to about 3% per year (it is currently below 1% and heading lower, which could lead to Japanese-style stagnation or worse). Higher inflation and expectations of inflation allow the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy to be more effective when up against the zero lower bound.
  • The U.S. needs to deflate the dollar a little to improve exports. This is of course hard to do when all countries are trying to export their way out of The Great Recession and the dollar is the world’s safety currency. Increasing inflation expectations would help deflate the dollar slightly.
  • The U.S. needs to deal with neo-mercantilist countries that have pegged their currency to the dollar at levels that disadvantage the U.S., such as China. I suggest the U.S. put tariffs on imports on such countries (this may require withdrawing from the WTO).
  • The U.S. needs further fiscal stimulus in the form of infrastructure spending (tax cuts do not qualify as effective stimulus as they tend to be saved rather than spent). Because our greenhouse pollution problem is unaddressed, such infrastructure spending would be best directed at energy efficiency, renewable energy, and electrification of transportation.
  • The U.S. states also need a way to refrain from cutting back during this recession and thus deepening the crisis. This is not stimulus, but just maintaining pre-recession levels and funding safety net programs. During this recession, the cutbacks by the states have offset the Federal stimulus spending. The Federal government should be providing significantly more funding to the states during recessions.

19 September 2010 — Red Plague Redux

While the public worried about the H1N1 virus, a far more serious plague strain was building virulence. Yes, the Red Plague appears to be back, in a new more rabid form. Indications that its zombies will take control of the House of Representatives, and soon dominate the Senate. While the Senate is currently projected to be 53-47 or 52-48, the symptoms of Red Plague are likely to affect at least two or three Democrats, leading to hallucinatory politics for at least the next two years.

15 September 2010 — Why I don’t read Op-Eds

I tend to read information sources that generally get their facts right, and avoid sources that often get their facts wrong. I have found that the Opinion/Editorial columns of traditional media tend to not be fact-checked as well (or at all) as the news columns, and thus I avoid the Op-Eds. There appears to be poor standards not only for facts, but on logic in Op-Eds. This is not to say that every Op-Ed writer does a poor job, but only that expectations are particularly low for this particular source of information.

I recently wanted to demonstrate this after a conversation, so I set out to read a few Op-Eds and fact check them. I did not have to go far; the very first one I examined, George Will’s 12 September 2010 Americans have good reason not to believe in Obamanomics illustrated my point easily. He wrote,

Real per capita federal expenditures almost doubled between 1929, Hoover’s first year as president, and 1932, his last.

This is easy to check. The Federal government’s Bureau of Analysis provides the relevant statistics. Table 3.2 of the National Income and Product Accounts shows 2.6 billion of expenditures for 1929, and 3.0 billion for 1932, a 15% increase. Adjust by line 22 of Table 1.1.9. Implicit Price Deflators for Gross Domestic Product increases the 15% to 27% in real (deflation-adjusted) dollars. Will’s claim of almost doubled is simply wrong.

The mistake is a small part of the Will Op-Ed, but the rest is even worse. For example, his argument about the stimulus failing might be compared to an anecdote about a car running over a bunch of spilled nails and no longer able to continue because of flat tires. Will suggests that if you change one of your tires, and the car still won’t go, don’t bother to change any more, because you just showed that changing tires does no good (ignoring the point that you need to fix all of flat ones).

If the standards for Op-Ed facts and logic are so low to allow the first Op-Ed examined to be so deficient, why bother to read the genre? Yes, there might be more truthful and logical columnists than Will out there, but without any editorial checking, even good columnists might make inadvertent errors of fact or logic that will go uncaught.

The standards for blogs and Op-Eds appears to be no different, but blogs are at least not prevented by word count and media limitations from citing data sources that the reader can easily check (e.g. by following links). The comments section of blogs also allows community fact-checking. Blogs appear therefore be a better information source than Op-Eds.

19 September 2010 Addendum

I should add that over the years I have often received Op-Eds forwarded by others with either attached praise or criticism. These pieces have tended to maintain my opinion of the form. Here are two examples, extracted from email.

The gulf tragedy doesn’t negate the fact that oil is a green fuel by Jonah Goldberg

The basic logic of the article boils down to: X is a kind of Y; X is bad; Therefore Y is bad. (X is ethanol, Y is biofuel.) I know what letter grade any teacher would give a student employing such logic in school. One cannot generalize from corn-based ethanol to all biofuels. One cannot conclude that because corn-based-ethanol is unsustainable, that oil is better than biofuels. What is going on that this sort of nonsense can get published? I am not enthusiastic about the potential for biofuels, but being in partial agreement with a statement does not mean one blesses a bogus reason for the statement. (And maybe algae biodiesel might have a small place in things, if they can ever figure out how to produce the stuff outside of the lab.) My reason for finding biofuels deficient is due to land area required, which is a consequence of the inefficiency of photosynthesis. The author also cites land area, but gets it wrong, using corn-ethanol land area as a stand-in for all biofuel land area (ignoring cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass for example). Similarly he gets the area required for powering the US with wind and solar wrong by a factors of roughly 14 and 21. If idiocy were a crime in California, Jonah Goldberg would get capital punishment.

There is plenty else wrong with Goldberg’s piece, but I wanted to concentrate on simple high-school logic failure to illustrate how low standards are for Op-Eds.

Pension Fund Shenanigans in the Wall Street Journal

Let’s look at some of the cheap tricks employed:

It’s an article of faith these days that institutional investors are the white knights of the corporate governance crusade. And the most loyal acolytes of fiduciary duty, we are told, are the state-administered funds that provide retirement benefits for public-sector employees. But a couple of recent cases show that some public pension funds are not only failing their own beneficiaries, they are making mischief for well-run corporations.

First, the Op-Ed erects a boogeyman that it will proceed to knock down. If the above is indeed an article of faith, I am surprised. Second, how does it knock it down? It finds 2 examples of what may be corruption by 2 public officials, and then generalizes to all state-administered funds. Is this generalization warranted? What are the statistics for the other 48 states? The plural of anecdote is not data.

Back in 1995, Congress passed a law favoring institutional investors in the filing of shareholder lawsuits, on the presumption that they would best represent the broad class of investors. However, a few funds have teamed up with trial lawyers to make an end run around that reform and shake down the companies in which they invest.

Enter a second boogeyman: trial lawyers.

A similar case in Louisiana suggests that he’s on the right track. There the trustees of the state’s Teachers Retirement System were found to have violated state ethics rules by accepting golf outings, hunting trips, football games and $150 bottles of champagne from a Texas private equity firm, Hicks Muse Tate & Furst. The fund then committed more than $900 million to Hicks’s investments.

But wait, the villain here is a corrupt public employee being bribed by a private equity firm. How does this justify the trial lawyers are the root of evil thesis? If they showed that the trial lawyers were padding the pockets of the corrupt public official, it would at least have a modicum of logic.

The biggest shock was just how little the Louisiana fund’s administrators knew, or cared to know, about the litigation they sponsored. Director Bonita Brown admitted in a deposition that, despite being one of only two officials responsible for deciding to initiate lawsuits, she not only had had no contact with the Regal management ahead of the lawsuit, but she also did not know whose idea it was to sue.

The factual Louisiana story (as opposed to the Op-Ed) is just starting to get interesting, but the facts stop right here. Where’s the investigative reporting to find out who did decide to sue and why?

Given the ethics violations in Louisiana, state investigators might check to see whether law firms are illegally compensating trustees with junkets so they’ll ignore their duty to protect their funds from possible counterclaims arising from frivolous lawsuits.

You might think the WSJ would think it their business to investigate as well, rather than simply write Op-Eds with speculation? They do have some very good investigative reporters, after all.

But then everybody knows that the real blame lies with the politicians who appoint and protect these incompetent managers, and it’s up to voters to hold them accountable. Perhaps the better question is why Congress and federal judges still allow such funds to posture as guardians of good corporate governance while they dance to the trial lawyers’ tune.

First, the logic to the conclusion here is that we have one real example (Louisiana) and one possible example (Pennsylvania), and from these two anecdotes, we conclude that public funds are posturing as guardians of good corporate governance. And suddenly the speculation of the previous paragraph has become fact: while they dance to the trial lawyers’ tune.

If this had been done as a factual story on Louisiana it would have had more value. I trust the news department of the WSJ far more than the Op-Ed department.

6 September 2010 — Shorter Thoughts: Politics

End of Combat Mission in Iraq

President Obama’s speech on Iraq was as disappointing as it was expected. Had the grammar been mangled, I would have been tempted to believe it was George Bush speaking. It would have been better had President Obama said nothing at all, rather than to speak as if the war had been necessary and appropriate. Also, it is Orwellian in nature to declare an end of the combat mission in Iraq while fifty thousand troops remain, and the state department is arming itself and hiring mercanaries to continue operations on its own.

Peace Talks

Without a new approach from the U.S., nothing can come of yet another round of U.S. and Israel vs. Palestine talks. I doubt President Obama has the courage to try a new approach. The U.S. strategy seems to be one of letting facts on the ground outlast five or more generations of Palestinians in the expectation. Of course, the Israeli claim to Palestine, based upon words written over one hundred generations ago illustrates that even this strategy contains the seed of future potential strife.

U.S. Economy

I tend to agree with Paul Krugman and Simon Johnson on the Democrats’ failures, particularly on the economy. I have not written here in this vein when I would be parroting them. Of course my longer horizon view of the economy is quite different from theirs.

RSS for the record

It would be good, for the record, to occasionally record my news sources. The majority of my information comes from the following RSS feeds:

4 August 2010 — Blowout in perspective

The Federal Flow Rate Technical Group made an estimate of 4.9 million barrels (±10%) for the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout. At 140 kg/barrel, this is 700 million kg, or 756,186 short tons. Coal consumption in the US in 2009 was 1,000,424,000 short tons, or 2,740,888 short tons/day. So the entire 118-day blowout was the equivalent of only 0.28 days of U.S. coal emissions (less than 7 hours). Said another way, the U.S. puts almost one BP Deepwater Horizon into Earth’s atmosphere 3.6 times a day. (I write almost because coal combustion does leave behind some fly ash as a toxic by-product.)

As horrible as the blowout has been, the real problem remains coal.

2 August 2010 — Things that would be useful inventions #2

This is a second installment of the series started last month. These are old thoughts; I am writing them here as I remember them again.

29 July 2010 — Culture of Forgetting

We are a culture of forgetting. We forgot the Philippines and had Vietnam. We forgot Vietnam and had Afghanistan and Iraq. We had the Great Depression, but then we forgot Keynes’ explanation and prescription. We had the Pecora Commission, but then forgot the lessons learned, repealed Glass-Steagall, etc. and had the panic of 2008. We had the Gilded Age, and then forgot about the robber barons and antitrust allowed the same things to the point that Congress is now of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations. We had the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (under John Adams!), but forgot and did it yet again and again (the Sedition Act of 1918, the Smith Act of 1940, and most recently the Patriot Act). We also forget lessons taught to us by history (e.g. in the consequences of empire learned by Athens and Rome). We screwed up in Iraq by overthrowing Mossadegh and in Indonesia with Sukarno, so of course we forgot and did it again in Brazil, Greece, Cambodia, and Chile (giving us people like Pinochet, the Shah, Pol Pot, and so on). We forgot those and so interfered again in East Timor, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. We had warnings of global warming by Arrhenius in 1896, Callendar in 1938, Revelle and Plass in 1956, Manabe and Wetherald in 1967, Jason in 1979, US National Academy of Sciences in 1979 and 1983, Hansen in 1988, the IPCC in 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2007. To date we have forgotten all that. Our parents read about global warming in Time magazine in 1956! Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all talked about the need for energy independence, but we always forgot. We’ve forgotten Wounded Knee 1890, Armenia 1915, Rwanda 1994. We’ve forgotten Tulsa 1921, Nakba 1948, Sabra and Shatila 1982, Qana 1996. We will certainly forget Gaza 2008 quite quickly.

I guess the question is just what do we remember? 1941.12.07, the Shoah, and 2001.09.11 is about all I can think of. What does that say about the US? Oh yes, and we remember that greed is good.

13 July 2010 — Shorter Thoughts: GIIPS, Spectator Sports, Spy Swap, Gaza

More short thoughts for the record:

Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Italy

I tended to ignore Paul Krugman’s arguments on the Euro in 2001. I wanted it to work, which clouded my judgement and let me think the EU could be successful, but I see now that I was wrong, and Krugman was right. Greece’s problems will probably require default, and leaving the Euro. What is interesting is how little the traditional press reports Professor Krugman’s arguments; traditional media accepts the argument that the EU bailout will work, which is unlikely. It also interesting to see all of these countries being lumped together in reporting, when their situations are somewhat different. The adjective profligate and similar words are often used to describe these countries, but Spain and Ireland were running budget surpluses before the panic, whereas Greece was engaging in deception to cover its true financial situation. Portugal and Italy were running moderate deficits before the panic.

World Cup

A massive opiate for the masses to keep them distracted from the real issues.

LeBron James

Ditto.

Spy swap

A minor opiate for the masses.

Attack on the Gaza aid ships

The attack was clearly a violation of international law. The lack of a response by the U.S. once again demonstrates that it only condemns illegal behavior when it is convenient.

12 July 2010 — Shorter Thoughts: Blowout, Financial Reform, Deficits

I haven’t commented on many recent events; my feelings about them seem quite obvious, and exposition is not necessary, but here for the record are a couple of comments:

Blowout

What need be said about BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout. Just as the financial panic highlighted the failure of regulation of Wall Street, just as the EPA approval of the Pine Creek mountain removal highlighted the triumph of corporate power over our mandate to promote the general welfare, secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, the blowout highlighted the failure of regulation by the Department of Interior of oil exploitation. The mechanism of regulation in the U.S. is broken.

Of course the real answer to the blowout is to end our use of fossil resources (oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, aquifers, and so on). We must electrify our transportation so that it can be powered by wind and solar energy.

In the meantime, it is necessary that corporations be held responsible for their mistakes.

Financial Reform

The Financial Reform bill will do little to prevent the next financial panic and the next bailout. It is simply an attempt to give the appearance of a response, without accomplishing much of significance. It fails to break out the large financial corporations, as Simon Johnson trumpets. It fails to solve the failures of Federal regulatory agencies. It fails to impose hard leverage constraints. It fails to separate banking and trading (the strong Volcker rule) and reimpose the Glass-Steagall rules. It fails to create strong consumer protection.

Deficits

My position has always been that the government should run a surplus and a deficit in bad times. The economy needs financial stimulus at the moment. At the same time, we need to raise taxes to pay for the Republican’s irresponsible tax cuts, to pay for the plutocracy’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wind down spending there. Once the economy has ended its downward spiral, we need to find a way to end its upward spiral.

Oscar Grant

We will never be free of police terror in this country until we have completely independent organizations to investigate, prosecute, and judge the government, especially including the police.

5 July 2010 — Things that would be useful inventions #1

I have a long list of things that would be useful if invented. Since they are outside of my field, I won’t be the one inventing them, but I can at least write down my ideas from time to time. The idea needs to be fairly specific (e.g. better batteries doesn’t qualify). Here are a few:

  • Thin-film photovoltaic with a bandgap around 550 nm and transparent in 400-500 nm and 600-700 nm: It would convert green light (where the solar irradiance peaks) to electricity, and pass the wavelengths absorbed by chlorophyll a, chlorophyll b, and the carotenoids, which are used for photosynthesis in most crops. This would allow crops to be grown underneath PV arrays on rooftops and in fields.
  • Similar to the above, a mirror that reflects green light and passes red and blue, allowing concentrated solar thermal arrays to be built over plants.
  • Bi-directional DC-to-DC converter as a component of a battery management system: It would connect to the battery terminals and maintain the voltage of each battery in a series chain at the same voltage by either taking or providing power to a secondary shared system voltage (e.g. 12 V or 36 V in a car). It would operate both during charge and discharge, and avoid the weakest-link problem in a battery pack.
  • Books that are fireproof and waterproof; a form of paper and ink that allows books to be printed that will survive fire and flood: This would be used to create libraries in both publicized and secret locations meant to survive the collapse of civilization to help shorten the ensuing Dark Ages. For example, very thin stainless steel or titanium foil might serve as paper and printing might be via deposition of a different metal. While this might be hard to read, it might serve as a master for more convenient material.
  • Clothing material that is opaque to Terahertz radiation.

12 June 2010 — Can Debt Be Tamed?

Our economics is based upon growth. Because growth is not sustainable, our economy will likely collapse, and then begin to grow again, only to collapse again. Such a cycle will keep the economy within Earth’s bounds, but it is a rather painful solution. The only escape from the cycle is to someday transition to a steady-state economy. In the past I have suggested that a non-growth economy cannot have debt, because debt is predicated upon growth to be repayable. Here I explore one possible solution.

Imagine a steady-state economy with debt. Those with savings lend out their money, and receive payments of principal and interest in return. While some borrowers default, on average the return from lending must be positive, or savers would simply hold onto their money instead of lending it. Unless lenders spend their interest, rather than saving it, they will have more money than they started with. Because the economy as a whole is of constant size, they will have increased their fraction of the money in circulation. If they continue to lend, their fraction will increase over time, which indicates equilibrium has not been achieved. Without growth, equilibrium implies that lenders must spend their interest rather than re-lend it, which implies no incentive to lend. In economics, the lack of incentive to lend would be no expected return on investment (the interest rate is equal to the inflation rate plus the default rate). If there is no incentive to lend one’s interest payments (that is reinvest), then there is no incentive to lend principal (that is invest in the first place). Thus the only stable equilibrium has no lending and no debt.

Perhaps a society without debt and interest would be a good thing in some ways. However, it would mean that only large existing institutions (e.g. governments, corporations) would be able to innovate; an entrepreneur would have a hard time getting sufficient capital to bring new technology to market.

A possible solution would be to auction the right to loan or to borrow (or both?). The government would set a quantity appropriate to the economy, and auction the rights to that fixed quantity of debt. Across the economy as a whole, this requires that profits be spent, rather than reinvested.

The auction could be based on payments to the government (in effect a debt tax), or on interest rate, or on some other parameter.

A similar mechanism might be devised for equity.

1 June 2010 — The Next Financial Crisis Will Be Obama’s Fault

Wall Street has won this round with the Federal government, having successfully managed to neuter the financial reform process, which means there will be another financial crisis in our future. President Obama deserves much of the blame, as he opposed provisions that would have improved the reform somewhat. Congress appears to have been open to doing more, but his administration’s opposition to the better provisions of financial reform (e.g. the Brown-Kaufman and Merkley-Levin amendments) ensured that the result will be ineffective at preventing another crisis.

The world, and particularly the U.S., is facing immense challenges in the near future, and another financial crisis is likely to so weaken the country that it may be unable to deal with these challenges. The oil bomb and the climate bomb are examples of challenges that will be harder to navigate in the midst of the next financial crisis. My old guess for Peak Oil had been approximately 2015±5. Some suggest it has already occurred (though somewhat masked by the Great Recession). Our ability to deal with this bomb has already been weakened by the ongoing financial crisis; the next financial crisis could leave us unable to respond as needed to such a challenge.

13 March 2010 — Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal

Note: I wrote this back in May of 2008, but never published it. I recently had reason to want someone to read it, and dug it up. I have updated it slightly since that time, and added a conclusion.

The true cost of renewable energy is already lower than the cost of than coal energy, but the market price is higher, and in our society the market price currently trumps true cost. The market price of coal energy is lower than its cost because the market fails to account for coal’s impacts on the shared resources of the Earth (sometimes called the Commons). Economists call such market failure costs externalities. For coal energy, the largest externality is the climate disruption that it brings, but there is also the effect of mining the coal (e.g. mountain removal, watershed pollution), and the other effects upon the air we breathe.

Because investment decisions are made on incorrect market prices of energy, and not the true cost, some see the answer as bringing down the market price of renewable energy to be less than the market price of coal energy. The market has already been tending in that direction, with new wind energy at a similar price to new coal energy. Proponents of the price lever for energy suggest that a few more decades of technology improvement will result in new renewable energy being preferable by our imperfect market.

The idea that working to reduce the market price of renewable energy will solve our problems is attractive, but unfortunately it is simplistic because coal energy must be subdivided into future coal, existing coal, and paid-off coal.

The price of a future power is based upon receiving a target rate of return on the capital investment to build the plant, plus the cost of the feedstock supplying the energy, plus operation and maintenance costs. The capital to build the plant is typically a combination of equity and debt.

Once an investment decision has been made and the plant built, the cost of a power plant is now a sunk cost, and now it is existing power. As long as it generates enough cash flow to cover the interest on the debt, the price of its feedstock, and the operation and maintenance costs, the plant will continue to operate (if these conditions do not hold, the plant declares bankruptcy and the equity and debt holders lose their money). The price at which the plant sells its power determines the rate of return to the equity investment. If price is high the value of the equity investment may increase, generating a nice profit. If the price is low, the equity investment may decline in value, but closing the plant would see the equity investment fall to zero. A small sum is better than zero, and so the plant continues to operate. This is the environment for an existing plant. Electric power utilities are often operated as regulated local monopolies, and the price of the power they sell is set by government agency at a level that produces a reasonable profit for the utility, removing both some risk and some upside potential.

Once the debt on a plant has been paid off, the plant moves to the third category, paid-off. Now it takes only cash flow sufficient to meet the price of the feedstock and the operation and maintenance costs to make it profitable to operate the plant.

Renewable energy has near zero feedstock costs. There is no price for sunlight, wind, waves, tides, or heat from the Earth. Operation and maintenance costs are low for some technologies (e.g. solar) and high for others (e.g. ocean). However, the land area to collect the feedstock (e.g. sunlight or wind) can be large, and this represents an increase in the investment required. The plant costs are currently somewhat high as well, but declining rapidly.

Proponents of bringing the price of renewable energy below that of coal energy seek to reduce plant costs, either by finding less expensive materials and construction techniques, or by increasing the energy collected using the same materials (conversion efficiency). It is plausible that this will someday lower the price of future renewable energy harvesting below the price of future coal energy. (Of course coal energy might see plant cost reductions through technological improvements during the same period, making it a potentially moving target.)

What is not addressed by technology to lower the price of renewable energy is existing and paid-off coal. In a non-regulated environment, if the price of renewable energy could be made less than the cash flow needs of existing coal, it could force such plants into bankruptcy. With an even lower price, it could force paid-off plants into bankruptcy. However, such low renewable energy prices are implausible. Paid-off coal can produce positive cash flow at around 2 cents a kWh wholesale. Worse, many coal power plants operate in a regulated environment with a profit guaranteed a profit by those regulators, making lower renewable prices incapable of shutting fossil plants via bankruptcy.

The world has already built too many coal plants. Carbon-dioxide (CO2) is increasing at 1.9 ppm each year (10 year average of 2000-2009 increases), and the 2009 preliminary level was 386 ppm so if emissions remained constant, we would reach 450 ppm in just 33 years (2042). (Currently emissions are not constant but increasing each year, so unless we change our behavior, we will reach 450 ppm sooner.) Coal combustion currently represents 40% of our CO2 emissions, or 0.8 ppm per year. To keep CO2 below 450 ppm, we need to eliminate most emissions, including coal, over the next two decades.

Technology that produces future renewable energy with a market price than future coal will not eliminate emissions from existing plants. For the market to address existing plants requires future renewable energy to be priced below existing and paid-off coal. This is asking far too much from technology; it is extremely unlikely. Only raising the price of existing and paid-off coal will cause market forces to eliminate coal emissions, and then only if utilities are allowed to go bankrupt by their regulators. Regulatory fiat (e.g. legislation similar to California’s SB1368) could also accomplish this goal, but modifying the price approach based on greenhouse gas emissions has the advantage of working across all emissions in a way that allows the market to make adjustments between various fuels during the transition period.

Various proposals have been made to fix the failure of the market to correctly price fuels. One is a simple tax on greenhouse gas emissions (often called a “carbon tax” because carbon-dioxide is the most biggest contributor to global warming of the greenhouse gases). A disadvantage of taxes is that they must be constantly adjusted to make sure they have the effect of driving emissions down quickly enough.

Another approach is to set a cap on greenhouse gas emissions that declines as a function of time. The allowed emissions are allocated to emitters in a variety of methods (e.g. by auction, or grandfathering). Emitters can also trade their allocations. This trading puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions, via the tension between supply (the cap) and demand (the intent to emit), and lets the market find the price that keeps emissions below the cap. The method of allocating emissions can be controversial, as can be what to do with the revenue, if any, generated by the allocation process. This is not the place to explore the options.

Even correcting flawed market prices for greenhouse gas emissions is not sufficient. Regulated utilities are often allowed to simply pass on their fuel cost increases to their customers, and it can take a very large price increase to affect electricity customer behavior. At some point, it becomes necessary for the regulators (e.g. public utility commissions) to refuse to pass on fuel price increases to the customers, and instead demand that the utilities replace or retrofit their existing plants. This is difficult because replacement of a coal plant could mean large losses for the debt and equity holders for those plants.

While putting a price on greenhouse pollution (e.g. carbon dioxide) is an important step in undoing the distortion of market forces that currently drives new investment decisions to incorrect answers, it cannot undo the effects of past market failures that created a terawatt of coal power plants. Because the world must shut down coal combustion within two decades, there is no longer time for market forces, even after eliminating externalities to correct for market failure, to effect the necessary change. The only plausible course is regulatory fiat. In addition, at least for the U.S., it will probably be necessary to bail out the investors in existing plants to make the regulatory fiat politically possible (the U.S. political system generally does not allow its investors to suffer large losses, since investors also own the U.S. Congress). What is therefore needed in the U.S. is a government buy-out, take-over, and shut-down of all coal power plants. This is a necessary (though not sufficient) action to conserve our climate.

10 March 2010 — The Federal Government Deficit

I have in these commentaries often called for fiscal sanity in the Federal government budgeting process (insanity has been the rule for as long as I have been an observer). I have not raised this recently in these commentaries because my opinions have not changed. However, I did hear an interview with David Walker on Fresh Air, author of Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility, and I found his comments refreshing in their sanity, and this prompted me to put in a plug for the interview at least (I have not read his book). He properly identifies certain deficits as appropriate and others as dangerous. That simple point is critical. Paul Krugman has similarly been pointing out that fiscal stimulus is appropriate during a recession while the Bush tax cuts, war spending, and medicare deficits are dangerous.

Budget insanity is bipartisan. While the Democrats are not as psychotic as Republicans, their recent House vote to cut estate taxes (extending the Bush cut, which expires in 2011) indicates they too suffer a milder form of mental incapacity. (Republicans voted against the Democrats’ tax cut, holding out for a larger one, and thereby reiterated their insanity.) The estate tax is a particularly appropriate tax. It allows us to pay lower taxes during our lifetime. Those avoided taxes, if saved, should cover the tax when the estate is transfered. Furthermore, the estate tax helps reduce income inequality.

I do go further in the call for budget sanity than I heard in the interview. Until we transition to a non-growth economy (and eliminate debt), Federal accounting should be far closer to non-government accounting. The appropriate use of government debt is for financing infrastructure and spending that has a positive return (the increased revenues from the spending should exceed the debt service payments over the long term). Prudent fiscal stimulus during a recession falls into this category. Defense spending would generally not, for example, qualify, and should generally be funded out of revenues (however, deficits run during a short-term war that maintain economic activity at a level that increases revenue, i.e. prevents a recession, might qualify).

One point on which government and non-government accounting might differ is the creation of money. An older suggestion of mine, called for money created by central banks (e.g. the Federal Reserve Bank) to be given to the government, rather than lent to commercial banks, and this would help the Federal deficit. I also believe this may be one small step toward an economics of sustainability.

2 March 2010 — The Need for an Economics of Sustainability

Complex human civilizations began on the order of 10,000 years ago, but in only one or two centuries our latest incarnation will be radically restructured, either by design or by calamity. Despite the looming concrete wall ahead, we continue our acceleration toward it, rather than braking or turning. There is a need for some thought about what turn we should take, and yet there is little of that. Here I explore the problem a bit, without providing any answers.

What does a sustainable economy mean? Informally, something is sustainable if it can continue indefinitely. However, indefinitely, or forever must be bounded. Life on Earth is only sustainable for at most 1 billion years, because the sun will eventually make Earth too hot for liquid water to exist. I would be willing to accept a much shorter definition of sustainability, for example as short as 100,000 years. This is plenty of time for civilization to develop and implement a refined definition of sustainability.

Our current civilization is not sustainable for anywhere near this long. For example, the current rate of population growth (1.14%) yields a population of one trillion in just 360 years. Long before this population is reached, population growth will halt due to basic physical limits (water, sun, land, etc.). Stopping growth everywhere before limits stop it for us is desirable, because an exhausted world provides less flexibility, quality of life, and a buffer for dealing with exceptional conditions. Even if 99% of the world were to stop growing, if one culture or nation continues to grow, it can soon overtake the others; for example, if Uganda continues its 2.69% growth rate, its population would increase from 32.4 million in 2009 to 457 billion (almost half a trillion) in 360 years. It will be necessary for the zero population growth policy to be global.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the Earth could sustainably support 10 billion people (this is doubtful, but illustrates the point anyway). To keep under this population for 100,000 years the growth rate everywhere must be kept under 0.00038% per year. This is essentially zero growth, and there is little value in targeting 0.00038% growth rather than zero. Does allowing 20 billion people instead of 10 billion help? The allowable growth rate would be just 0.001%, again essentially zero. Defining sustainability as 10,000 years instead of 100,000 allows 0.0038%, again essentially zero. Sustainability requires essentially zero population growth. (Indeed, it probably requires negative growth for a period, before zero.)

As a digression, consider what is a desirable (as opposed to sustainable), human population. In 1848, when the population of the world had reached 1 billion and there were approximately 23 million people in the United States, John Stuart Mill, wrote Principles of Political Economy, which said,

There is room in the world, no doubt, and even in old countries, for a great increase of population, supposing the arts of life to go on improving, and capital to increase. But even if innocuous, I confess I see very little reason for desiring it. The density of population necessary to enable mankind to obtain, in the greatest degree, all the advantages both of cooperation and of social intercourse, has, in all the most populous countries, been attained. A population may be too crowded, though all be amply supplied with food and raiment. It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without. Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.

It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on. Even the industrial arts might be as earnestly and as successfully cultivated, with this sole difference, that instead of serving no purpose but the increase of wealth, industrial improvements would produce their legitimate effect, that of abridging labour. … Only when, in addition to just institutions, the increase of mankind shall be under the deliberate guidance of judicious foresight, can the conquests made from the powers of nature by the intellect and energy of scientific discoverers, become the common property of the species, and the means of improving and elevating the universal lot.

Mill’s argument is just one of the reasons I support a human population target of just 500 million, confining itself to 20% of the land (and not just the most desirable land), leaving 80% of the land as wilderness. Neither is very likely, but to illustrate, we would reach a 500 million population after a millennium of 0.26% population decrease per year. (More likely we will reach this level in a mass die-off in next 200 years after a collapse of our civilization.)

Now assume for the moment that Earth’s human population growth rate has reached zero. This alone is insufficient for sustainability. While we would have put a halt of exponential population growth, that is insufficient to tame the monster. Of course we must also end exponential per capita power, mineral, and biosphere consumption. For example, humans currently use 15 TW of power, out of a potential 120,000 TW of solar power (which dwarfs all other possible energy fluxes). Even a 1% per capita annual power growth rate reaches this limit in just 903 years. A 1% per capita annual increase in iron usage exceeds the mass of all Earth’s iron (including the core) in just 3477 years (mass of Earth 5.9736e24 kg, 32.1% iron, current iron production 1.8e9 kg/year). The only way to increase per capita wealth, if wealth is based upon power and matter, once the limits are reached is to reduce the population, but there is an obvious lower limit to sustainable human population. Wealth might be based upon something other than energy and matter, e.g. knowledge or pleasure, but the limitations of the human brain seem to place an upper limit upon these as well (artificial intelligence could allow further growth in knowledge or pleasure wealth, but it would be non-human growth).

Turn these calculations around, using the 100,000 year criteria I suggested above. Power consumption can grow at most by 0.009% per year (with zero population growth this is also the per capita limit). This is essentially zero. We need to target zero growth in power and matter consumption as well. (Of course, we could allow sufficient growth to reach equal wealth for the human population without busting our budget; I am not suggesting locking in current wealth inequalities.) Over time, Earth’s economy (and its wealth) must stop growing (with the A.I. exception identified above).

My arguments here are independent of technology. Technology can provide short-term growth in wealth. For example, imagine a process that is 10% efficient. Technology may allow this process to eventually achieve 80% efficiency. If this factor of 8 improvement is spread over 200 years, it represents a 1% per year growth in the wealth represented by this process. However, there is a natural limit to efficiency increases (100%), and that limit is seldom economically achievable. A factor of eight increase in wealth seems huge, but it does not affect the fundamental argument here about long-term sustainability. Technology does not provide an out. The colonization of space may open up additional resources to the human species, but I am confining my arguments to Earth’s economy.

Earth’s economy must therefore transition to one that has bounded power and matter use. Bounded may be oscillatory below a maximum, or constant. The power must derive from our Sun’s power (e.g. solar power or wind power). Even greenhouse-free power with waste heat (e.g. from fusion), cannot serve as a power source on Earth at any level approaching the 120,000 TW provided to us by the Sun, or it will result in global warming (a higher global temperature will be necessary to export the heat back to space as blackbody radition; see, for example, Long-Term Global Heating From Energy Usage by Eric Chaisson). Fusion may prove useful in outer space, but it can never be as significant on Earth as solar power. (If fusion power is used on Earth; it will be necessary to block an equivalent amount of sunlight in space to compensate.)

If matter use is constant, then there is no reason to mine the Earth for minerals; recycling our waste is sufficient. Our landfills represent a sufficient stockpile of raw materials on which to operate the economy. There may be changes in technology that cause a temporary need for an element that is under-represented in our landfills and waste stream, and this would be properly addressed by short-term mineral extraction until the waste stream is sufficient to meet the new need.

The primary problem with this scenario is that no one has yet invented a successful economics that is consistent with zero growth in wealth and GDP. Compound-interest debt and return on investment cannot exist in a zero-growth environment, and this prevents capital formation for technological development. This then is the fundamental issue that must be solved in the transition to sustainability. There are two possible solutions, neither of which is desirable. The first is cycles of growth and collapse. The second is a centrally managed non-growth economy (like any major corporation). Neither is desirable, but given a choice, I think I would prefer the distributed economy with collapse to central management. (Besides the pain of collapse, the cyclical collapse model has the problem that each cycle will be occurring in a more and more degraded world.) The question is whether a distributed non-growth economics can be created. It is a wonder that so few economists seem to be working on this issue. While the likely outcome for civilization in the next one or two centuries is collapse, it is still appropriate to provide a roadmap to the remnant of the human population when they rebuild, and so this issue is still of importance.

While the place we must go is unknown, we could begin the transition anyway, taking into account some of the constraints identified above. If raw materials are to come from our landfills and waste stream, then we should begin to tax mineral extraction, and increase this tax over time. This will cause the economy to begin the adjustment process. This is a generalization of the greenhouse pollution tax concept. We would not tax only greenhouse emissions, but all mineral extraction (because the greenhouse problem is measured in mere years rather than decades, we might tax carbon extraction more heavily than other minerals at first).

25 February 2010 — More on Point of No Return

This graph from Schmidt and Archer’s 30 April 2009 Nature article summarizes in a simple graph one of the several reasons I wrote Point of No Return. 30 April 2009 Nature p. 1117 Figure 1

This is not even taking into account the aerosol issue raised by Ramanathan and Feng’s On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead, which showed that we are really already at 2.4°C of warming, but most is masked by aerosols that will disappear rapidly when our CO2 emissions cease (they will certainly cease one way or the other). Their paper included the following figure to show the effects of temperature on Earth’s systems. 23 September 2008 PNAS p. 14245 Figure 1

And this is just the climate bomb.

The U.S. is also setting itself up for an economic collapse, which would of course take the world down with it. This assessment is due to: (1) the failure to implement meaningful regulatory financial reform; (2) and the failure to deal with the structural deficit (health care, wars, and the Bush tax cuts); (3) the failure to deal with China’s neo-mercantilism; and (4) avoiding the fate of post-bubble Japan or sovereign bankruptcy.

On China, the U.S. is too much of a slave to its creation, the WTO, to impose import tariffs on China to offset the weak renminbi. We therefore have no leverage. We are playing a game of repeated prisoner’s dilemma where we refuse to use tit-for-tat to move toward the Pareto optimum, presumably because we are so in thrall to free-trade ideology that we refuse to counter those that deviate from it.

The technology bomb seems ahead of schedule given the results of recent synthetic biology competitions (can Oryx and Crake be far off?), and a recent study in the Journal of Environmental Quality suggests synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are ruining our soils.

Of course the oil and population bombs continue to lie in wait like a roadside IED.

All of this while the U.S. has political rigor mortis. Things look grim indeed.

19 February 2010 — Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

I have made several references here to the 21 January 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens v. Federal Election Commission, but I have not written directly about the decision. It should be clear from my previous writings that I believe corporate money has no place in politics (e.g. Corporations are not people). What I have not addressed is the question of whether Citizens v. Federal Election Commission, was properly decided by the Supreme Court. That is a separate issue from whether the consequences are desirable or ruinous. Unfortunately the debate I have read in blogs and heard on the radio focuses mostly upon the consequences, and not whether the matter was properly decided. There is a strong tendency in the U.S. to demand the Supreme Court rule as one would politically like, rather than actually looking at what the Constitution says. One problem in the U.S. is that we too often look to the Supreme Court for our rights; we are too timid to demand our legislature respect our dignity. This is only partially due to the political timidity of U.S. citizens; it is also because our legislatures are slaves to campaign money and because our Constitution is so flawed at allowing our representation.

My first observation is that whatever I think of Hillary The Movie, there is every reason to allow it to be shown before an election. Free speech demands this much. The ability to show the movie was never in question because Citizens United could have done so within existing law by forming a Political Action Committee. (In doing so, it would have been limited to $5000 donations for individual contributions.) Thus the question here is not whether the movie should have been shown, but whether it was wrong to prohibit a corporation from doing it directly with corporate funds (Citizens United is a corporation, a 501(c)4 non-profit).

I have already made clear that I believe corporations are not people, and they do not automatically deserve the rights accorded to people. Corporations are creations of our legislatures (actually state legislatures), and the Constitution is silent on corporations. The legislature should be able to define corporate rights in creating corporations, until such time as the Constitution addresses the issue. This is the first reason I believe the Supreme Court was wrong in its ruling. The Court, however, has a history of extending free speech rights to corporations; Justice Kennedy’s opinion cites ten cases dating back to 1970. In my opinion, the Court needed to reconsider overturning this line, rather than the line of decisions supporting restrictions on corporate money in politics.

As an aside, I believe the Federal government should create its own Federal incorporation legislation, and should require that corporations that engage in interstate commerce should be required to obtain a Federal charter under such legislation. It is an anachronism that only states create corporations, and it leads to a race to the bottom in standards (which Delaware won). A Federal charter might help the Supreme Court avoid seeing corporations as people, if the statute were appropriately worded, although this is not certain given the current Justices.

There is a second, more important, reason that the Supreme Court was wrong in its ruling. The Constitution is inherently contradictory. The rights it grants are in conflict with each other and other provisions of the Constitution. The resolution of these conflicts has been left to the courts, which seek to find a balance based upon the overall intent of the Constitution. Words are not looked at in isolation, but as a part of a whole. This has been a source of great strength in allowing the Constitution to be a workable document over two centuries. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission does not seek to balance the right of free speech with any over provision of the Constitution; it elevates free speech above democracy. It is likely that the Justices that decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission saw no threat to democracy, or even an enhancement of it, and so see no conflict. This then illustrates the problem with the inherent conflicts of Constitutions; it depends upon the wisdom of Justices, which in this case was lacking. Sometimes the Justices need help in finding wisdom, and so some of the failure can be attributed to the amicus curiae briefs (e.g. the Obama Justice department’s) to adequately explore the overruling of corporate free speech precedents as an alternative.

There was one point on which Justice Kennedy’s opinion was interesting. He wrote, Yet, §441b would seem to ban a blog post expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate if that blog were created with corporate funds. Were this country to decide that corporations are not people, it would be necessary to allow corporate delivery of speech by individuals. This is a tricky point that would need to be addressed in any legislation, should that legislation be one day allowed either by Constitutional amendment or the overruling of Citizens United; without a provision for this, such legislation could violate individual free speech rights.

Congress is unlikely to pass a Constitutional amendment to address corporate spending on politics, and the Court is likely to continue extending the rights of people to corporations. It is tempting to be spiteful and suggest it may therefore be time for Congress to treat corporations even more like people (Felons are denied even the right to vote in most U.S. states; perhaps a similar penalty could be applied to corporations with felony convictions. Perhaps corporations should pay income tax and estate tax at individual rates, and be subject to the death penalty, imprisonment, and so on.) More seriously, the real remedy is to be found in the token system described in Bringing Democracy to the U.S. Tokens would not be available to corporations, but corporations would be able to buy airtime using dollars. To compensate, the airtime available with use of tokens could be set at a higher levels than the level of corporate spending.

16 February 2010 — What happened to George Bailey?

What I want to know is how I woke up in the alternative reality that is Pottersville. When Clarence conjured this world, why did it not convince George Bailey? Today, the Henry Potters of the world are firmly in control, and worse, every day there is more bleed-thru from Hollywood. Moe is in the House, Curly is in the Senate, and Larry is in the White House. Ours is government by the Three Stooges while the Potters of the world count their winnings.

5 February 2010 — Evil Virus Infects Whitehouse

Some pranksters removed the W keys of computer keyboards upon leaving the Clinton Whitehouse for the incoming squatters of George W. Bush’s administration. There is now evidence that something far more sinister was done in the Bush-Obama transition. While there is nothing conclusive, circumstantial evidence suggests that a secret virus, perhaps the result of a black research project at Fort Detrick directed by Dick Cheney, was left behind in the Whitehouse to infect the incoming Obama administration. The effect of the suspected virus is to induce the victim to evil. Evidence for this has been accumulating for months in the actions of the Obama Whitehouse, with the most recent being the actions of the Whitehouse in the Kiyemba v. Obama. What other explanation could there be, other than artificial infection with Bush-era evil, for the move to dismiss the Uighur’s habeas corpus motion? It is unlikely that Dick Cheney would have directed an antidote to be prepared in parallel with the virus itself, so I urge the CDC to step in and do tests on Whitehouse staffers, and search for a cure. It would be wise to check both houses of Congress at the same time, as there is similar evidence of unusual behavior there.

27 January 2010 — Was A.I.G. Rescue Essential?

I was initially supportive of the Federal government’s rescue of the financial industry, but even then the rescue of A.I.G. stood out as questionable. The rationale was that A.I.G. owed a lot of money to the banks, and if the banks went under, a second Great Depression would result. However, the government could have let A.I.G. go under, default on its obligations, and then provided additional aid to its counter parties. I suspect this would have been better policy. The A.I.G. bail-out was moral hazard that shielded the banks from the consequences of properly evaluating the risk of their counter parties. Letting A.I.G. default would have created enormously greater losses at their counter parties, further reducing shareholder equity, but capital infusions from the government could have kept capital ratios up to allow the banks to continue operation. Really the A.I.G. bail-out was a gift to A.I.G.’s counter parties’ shareholders. Was this appropriate? I think not.

25 January 2010 — Marionette Obama

With each passing week President Obama has shown an increasing propensity to follow rather than lead. Today he reached a new pinnacle in servility with the news that he will propose a budget freeze for all non-security discretionary spending. Is Obama’s title President or lead Marionette? To whose strings does Obama dance? Today’s deficit peacocks consist of Republicans who simply raise deficits to torpedo their opponents and journalists and pundits who cannot take the time to consider the source of the deficits.

Freezing Federal discretionary spending is like adding a washer to the dripping faucet upstairs when levy has broken and the water is rising on the ground floor.

Marionette Obama should be expanding the regulatory departments of the Federal government, not freezing them. The EPA, FDA, USDA, and various financial regulatory agencies all should be hiring from outside industry to increase their regulatory capabilities while diluting the revolving door hires of previous administrations. Marionette Obama’s freeze in one timid action gives Republicans two things they most crave: regulatory relief for their investors, and the failure of their political opponents. The marionette further demonstrated his strings when he singled out security from the freeze; it would not do to stop feeding the beast that Republicans use to cow the nation’s citizens.

The Federal deficit is an important issue. It could be dealt with properly by first looking at its origins, which are primarily threefold: (1) the Bush tax cuts; (2) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and (3) medical spending. President Obama attempted to slow the hemorrhaging in Iraq, but Iraq will continue to deplete the treasury for decades. Marionette Obama is pointlessly escalating in Afghanistan to create a new source of deficit spending to outlast Iraq. President Obama tried to address the health care crises, but Marionette Obama and his party have been timidly retreating from on this source of deficit bloat. On the Bush tax cuts, Marionette Obama’s new servility suggests he will act to make them permanent, at least once the Republicans begin pulling on his strings in that area, probably soon after the mid-term elections. After dealing with the origins of the current deficit, it is necessary to look at where future deficits will come from and address those issues proactively, e.g. greenhouse pollution mitigation and adaptation. President Obama has fine speeches on this subject, but Marionette Obama is doing little to address the issues. He could be doing far more using the EPA authority under the Clean Air Act.

The Republican minority orders the Democrats to jump. The Democrats respond with speeches explaining why jumping is poor policy. The Republicans continue to chant Jump! and journalists begin to pick up the beat, and before long the Democrats are talking about adding a little skip to their strides hoping that will make the chant cease, but of course the chant continues, and pretty soon the Democrats popping up like hard corn kernels on a hot skillet, while asking is this high enough?

24 January 2010 — Point of No Return?

In my 2004 Train Wreck Test I proposed a methaphor for U.S. politics where factions on a train argue about how fast to run down a hill, despite a warning that the bridge over the ravine at the end is out, so the train will surely crash. Only a tiny faction wanted to stop the train before the switch, change the switch to take the side spur running parallel to the ravine, and then continue on in safety. The primary factions argued only whether to go 15 or 45 MPH over the speed the engineers said was safe, and worse, insanely ignored the warning about the ravine.

Events over the last year suggest we have now passed the last turn-off point before the ravine, and the train’s brakes are no longer capable of stopping before the ravine. We are now committed to plunging the train and all of its passengers over the edge.

How did we get to this point? First, the train passengers in the first car (one of the 1st class carriages) squabbled about what to stock in the dining car, rather than the train route and speed. Then an all-car conference to discuss whether to begin braking ended in complete failure. Then a few passengers in the first car switched their support from the Ds (the bad faction) to the Rs (the worse faction). And then finally a court for the first car decided that the fare paid by passengers should determine their influence on that car’s debate.

We are all on this train and a train wreck seems inevitable.

18 December 2009 — Even Less Than Expected

The Copenhagen outcome was even less than I expected. The only positive aspect I see of the agreement is that the verification provisions demanded by the U.S. may help persuade Congress to pass legislation. Whether Congressional legislation is a good idea (consider what has happened to health care legislation so far), as opposed to the EPA regulating greenhouse pollution under the Clean Air Act, is still an open question in my mind, so even this positive may be nothing.

As much as anything, this indicates how pathetic the Democrats are as a party. Their real identity is merely non-Republican, which is hardly a basis for coherence.

17 December 2009 — An Undeveloped Thought on Banking

I am beginning to think it is time to put an end to banking as we know it by requiring banks to hold 100% reserves for short-term deposits. This would effectively end their ability to lend (and therefore create) money; they would exist only as a convenience services. In the short-term, this would prevent bank mischief and therefore failures. In the long-term, it would help end exponential money supply growth.

The question is what replaces bank lending. One major category of loans is home mortgages. Banks had already become middlemen for these loans, where the ultimate buyer was either Federal agencies or the securitization machinery of Wall Street. A radical revision to banking would therefore not much affect home mortgages. Other major categories of lending include commercial mortgages, construction loans, and small business loans (large businesses seem to prefer the short-term paper money markets). The task will be to create viable alternatives for each of these areas.

Over time I may return to this subject, with possibilities for replacing the such debt with better alternatives.

16 December 2009 — Copenhagen

For the record, I haven’t expected much to come from the Copenhagen summit. Two countries, the U.S. and China, emit over half of the greenhouse pollution, and neither country is going to let treaties bind it. Even if the U.S. were to sign a treaty, it would be as meaningless as the Kyoto treaty, because there are not 67 votes in the Senate to ratify it. If significant reductions in greenhouse pollution are to occur, it will be the result of the U.S. and China internal action, and perhaps private agreements between the U.S. and China.

In the U.S., I expect the most progress will come not from Waxman-Markey, but the EPA regulating greenhouse pollution under the 1970 Clean Air Act. If Waxman-Markey is passed, it may actually slow progress, as it will remove the EPA’s ability to act.

15 December 2009 — Senate Health Care

The whole Senate health care process simply illustrates how much control we have ceded to our corporations. Senator Lieberman is clearly acting purely as a representative of the insurance companies, many of which are headquartered in Connecticut. The bill that results will be a minor improvement over the current situation. The political theater for such a result indicates how fully lobbyists have crippled Congress.

10 October 2009 — Afghanistan

I have not written much about the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The war against Iraq was the easier target, as it was a predictable catastrophe from the outset, and its initiation was immoral (the perpetrators deserve trial for crimes against humanity). The war in Afghanistan was a reaction to an attack upon the U.S. This does not make it the right response, but it is at least more understandable. The U.S. used poor tactics, and never seems to have had a real strategy in Afghanistan. However, it is unclear whether better tactics and strategy would have been able to make the Afghanistan war a success, insofar as that word can be applied to any war.

As President Obama begins disengagement from Iraq, that country will likely fall further into even deeper Lebanon-like chaos. However, that is the consequence of the original 2003 invasion; while the full consequences of that evil could be delayed, they cannot be eliminated. We should withdraw and let the tragic inevitableness play out.

President Obama’s Iraq withdrawal is paired with an intensification of U.S. combat in Afghanistan. The President and the nation have come to see Iraq as a lost cause, so it is puzzling that the President at least cannot see the same thing in Afghanistan. Obama’s rhetoric suggests we cannot afford to lose Afghanistan, but that is meaningless when victory is not achievable. The limitations of U.S. power in Iraq apply equally in Afghanistan. It is a larger country, with a similar number of people, and the U.S. lacks the manpower to successfully occupy the country.

President Obama will of course continue his escalation of the war in Afghanistan. That became tragically inevitable when General Stanley McChrystal’s report was leaked. It is unlikely that the White House will be willing to deny the forces that military officers say are necessary. Of course, General McChrystal’s report requests only what is logistically possible for the U.S. to provide; it is an order of magnitude too small to actually accomplish the stated objective. The real objective is then not the stated one, but rather the age-old unwillingness of the powerful to recognize their own impotence. Perhaps President Obama will take control of the situation after he gives into the extortion of leaked reports, and make the escalation temporary, and then withdraw from Afghanistan as well.

Like so many others, I am puzzled by the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize award to President Obama. His policy of escalation in Afghanistan alone disqualifies him from receiving the award.

1 November 2009 — Protecting the Obvious from Patents

HEVs have many more charge-discharge cycles than BEVs, which is tougher on the batteries. Some HEVs use only the 40% to 60% state-of-charge (SOC) range of their batteries (just 20% of the battery energy storage capability), just to increase cycle lifetime.

Since PHEVs have the same problem as HEVs after charge depletion, some are planning to use a restricted SOC range as well. For example, using 30% to 70% (just 40% of battery energy), means a 2.5× multiplier on pack size.

It seems rather obvious that it would be better to use two battery packs in this case: a BEV-like pack for charge depletion mode. It would be sized for 10% to 90% SOC range (i.e. 1.25× range). The charge-sustaining battery pack would be sized at just 1300 Wh (as in the 2010 Prius). Indeed, it could be NiMH, as on the Prius. (It is rather amazing that only 260 Wh, 20% of 1300, is enough to do the Prius magic, but apparently it is.)

So instead of 40 miles of charge depletion pack taking 25 kWh, one would provide 12.5 kWh, plus 1.3 kWh for a charge sustaining pack, a net savings of 11.2 kWh.

It seems ugly to have two packs instead of one, but the cost savings is obvious. So why isn’t this the default plan for PHEVs? (Of course, if one could use an 260 Wh ultracap instead of a NiMH sustaining pack, that would have other advantages.)

What is claimed: a method for building a vehicle that operates in either charge-depleting or charge-sustaining mode by using a plurality of energy storage devices appropriate to each mode of operation.

14 September 2009 — Storm Rising

I supported the idea (but not all of the specifics) of the Federal Reserve and Treasury stepping in to avoid a depression after the financial panic. However, I am beginning to think that I was wrong; it turns out that the system needed a larger shock to induce regulatory reform. With a few name changes, it seems to be business as usual back on Wall St, which is a real problem. There seems to be no effort to prevent the next panic, and the momentum for reform has been lost. If nothing is done, the financial history of the 21st century may look more like the 19th than the 20th. The next panic must include reform as part of the bail-out, and not leave it for the future. We seem to have lost the ability to look back and learn as we did in the 1930s: a Pecora Commission is not possible in our age.

The root causes of the above problem are two: (1) the political power of corporations; and (2) the hysteria convulsing the Republican party. The incompetence of the Democrats, while serious, may be derivative of the second cause, where a large number of politicians with Democrat labels are partially infected by the hysteria in the Republican base. The Republican-packed Supreme Court of the U.S. is probably going to rule against limits on the political power of corporations when it decides Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and there seems to be no cure for the Red Plague either. I fear that with the start of this century the U.S. entered a period of its history that will be remembered the way Germany now looks back upon the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. A future Aeschylus will have plenty of material with the remorseless inevitableness of what is to come.

References:

  1. Where Are We Again? (Pre-G20 Pittsburgh summit)
  2. Stiglitz Says Banking Problems Are Now Bigger Than Pre-Lehman
  3. A ‘Shattered’ Republican Party?

11 September 2009 — Obama’s Healthcare Speech

It was a good speech. It of course was not targeted at most Republican Representatives and Senators, who will not vote for the Democrats’ plan under any circumstances. It was not targeted at Republican voters, who are likewise unmovable. It was targeted at the President’s base, who should have taken heart from the speech, especially since it attacked the lies that are so maddening for their simultaneous ridiculousness and widespread acceptance. It was also addressed to the independents; I cannot say if it was successful here or not. Clearly the acceptance of a few Republican ideas was an attempt at winning the hearts of independents (it won’t do much to win Republicans). I was surprised that the speech did not say more about rationing, an issue that I suspect would have helped with independents. Whether the effect upon the base and independents was enough, I am unsure and doubtful. The Senate remains very confused on healthcare, and the Senators that control the issue may not have enough of a Democratic base and independents to matter.

I just hope Congress can get something passed so it can move onto reducing greenhouse pollution, which is far more critical. I suspect whatever healthcare bill they pass will be pretty awful, but perhaps a slight improvement over the current situation.

6 September 2009 — Van Jones resignation

If Republicans can demand and get Van Jones’ resignation for extreme views, can Democrats demand the resignation of Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia?

5 September 2009 — Corporate Speech

The Supreme Court is taking another look at corporate speech in politics (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). I predict the current court will find for Citizens United (e.g. by overturning Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which will increase the flow of corporate money into politics (akin to the difference between a breached levy and a dredged canal).

The flood of corporate money in politics is already a Katrina-sized disaster. The only good that can come from it is if the Court’s decision causes Congress to throw out its previous failed attempts to lessen the impact of money in politics, and instead adopt real change. A first start could be the system adopted in Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut, where public financing of campaigns is linked to taking private money only in small amounts. Even better would be a token system such as I outlined in Bringing Democracy to the U.S., but that idea is no doubt too radical for Congress to pass. While these changes would be an improvement, they do not address the issue in Austin; they merely help in other areas. To really address Austin, Congress would need to implement another suggestion of mine, which would be to redefine corporations. Congress is even less likely to take on this most important reform of all. By eliminating the ability of state-incorporated companies to engage in interstate commerce, and instead requiring Federal incorporation (something that does not exist yet), Congress would be able to define these new entities to not have the rights of persons.

Of course, the possible good that could come from this is dependent upon a competent, functional Congress, which today is only a dream.

17 August 2009 — Horrible Failure?

If George Lakoff is right about how the Democrats should debate issues such as health care and climate change, e.g. as he suggests in Don’t Think of an Elephant and The Political Mind, then the Democrats are continuing to fail horribly, as usual. That means the choice between the Republican and Democratic factions of our one-party system continues to be a choice between evil and incompetence. No wonder that half of citizens don’t vote.

14 August 2009 — Consumer Financial Protection Agency and Ben Bernanke

I support the creation of an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, opposes such an agency. I believe that is sufficient grounds to replace Dr. Bernanke when his term expires in January 2010, despite his role in financial panic cleanup.

His performance on the financial crisis was mixed. As a member of the FOMC, Dr. Bernanke claimed there was no housing bubble, a serious misjudgement. However, his response to the financial panic as Federal Reserve chairman was mostly correct, and along with the Federal safety net, helped to avoid another great depression.

A Consumer Financial Protection Agency would not have prevented the housing bubble, but it might have well lessened the impact of that bubble if it had prevented the worst of the subprime mortgage lending that helped fuel the bubble and accelerate the downside.

2 August 2009 — Economic Equilibriums

Earth’s societies should switch to an economics that is not based upon growth (see The end of growth), but this is likely only in response to a cataclysm, if then. The alternative is oscillation; periodic growth followed by collapse, with no net progress over the long term. My economic proposals (e.g. Market Hypothesis and Fix and Too Big To Fail) are intended for the short term as tweaks to what is a fundamentally flawed system (one in which our apparent wealth derives from spending our inheritance rather than producing wealth from our effort). If these proposals would have the effect of delaying the cataclysm, and therefore increasing the magnitude of suffering that eventually results, then it would be better to let the system expire sooner rather than later. However, there is little chance of proposals such as mine being effected, so this is a merely academic objection. (I write them down merely because current events prod the engineer portion of my brain to seek solutions.) Also, it is unlikely that these proposals will prevent cataclysm; more likely they will simply improve life during our current binge as we burn through our endowment. With that preface, I seek to record another observation about our current system.

Our macro-economics is similar to a ball moving around at the top of a hill (an unstable equilibrium point or area). As it deviates from the exact equilibrium area, gravity begins to pull it down the hill. Active forces (e.g. from Central Banks and governments) are then used to push it back into the equilibrium area. If the corrective force applied is too small, the economy (ball) continues to roll down the hill; if the corrective force applied is too large, the economy overshoots the equilibrium area and descends another side of the hill. Over time central bankers have become increasingly adept at playing this game, i.e. keeping the economy in the equilibrium area, but it is still a tricky problem, and they are not always successful at maintaining stability. When they fail (and failure is inevitable), the result is at least another recession. If their failure is large, the economy may come to rest in a stable equilibrium point, analogous to a ball in a local valley. This equilibrium is considered less desirable than the top of the hill, and eventually central bankers and governments attempt to push the economy up to the unstable area to play the game again. In some cases, unsustainable gimmicks have been used to push the economy.

First, I pose the question whether it is possible to achieve quality of life objectives (e.g. employment goals) with the economy (ball) in a stable equilibrium point (a local valley), rather than an unstable one? If it is, such an economy could be far preferable to the one we have today. I question whether we have ever really tried to find such an operating point; we always seek to climb to the top of the hill, instead of finding a safer home in the valley.

Second, let us suppose we are unable to find a stable equilibrium point, and we must continue to play the game. We should then ask whether we can make the game safer. Lately we have increased the ball’s velocity, which increases the difficulty and magnifies both the upside and downside. We have accomplished this with leverage and risk; increasing the amount of investment and consumption with borrowed funds. Credit cards and home equity lines have boosted consumption. The U.S. trade deficit (which is identical to the foreign investment surplus) and conventional Wall Street leverage have increased investment. Both serve as positive feedback, amplifying both the ups and downs. I suggest that we should reduce the positive feedback from today’s levels, making it easier to maintain equilibrium. My credit card proposals would reduce the use of borrowing for consumption, while still making them useful for certain purchases. A simple proposal would decrease home equity borrowing: require 50% equity for such loans (and 20% equity for first loans). The 50% margin rule for stocks should be applied to all financial investments (e.g. hedge funds). I am unsure how a country should best reduce its trade deficit.

The effect of such changes would to lengthen the period and reduce the amplitude of oscillation.

† Legitimate wealth derives only from applying current energy from the sun for creation (which includes human labor) without exploitation, or from the fruits of the human mind (science, invention, discovery, art, etc.). The spending of our endowment (fossil fuels, forests, mineral resources) produces illusory, faux wealth. Real wealth is rare today, compared to faux wealth.

1 August 2009 — Too Big To Fail

Too Big To Fail by Gary Stern and Ron Feldman looks at ways to remove the assumption that the largest financial institutions of the country must be rescued by the government when they fail. (Disclaimer: I should first note that the details of what they suggest are buried in papers they cite in footnotes, and the book deals with things only at a fairly high level. I have not read the cited references.) Their suggestions appear reasonable as far as they go, but they do not go far enough; Their ideas are not intended to solve the problem described in Market Hypothesis and Fix; rather they propose a regulatory environment where the government does not bailout financial institutions that get into trouble. Banks that lose their capital base are shut down, and all shareholder value, debts, and non-insured deposits are wiped out. The authors suggest that lenders and depositors will then do enough homework to avoid institutions that are likely to get into trouble. I very much doubt that this mechanism would prove adequate. One reason is the asymmetric nature of information; lenders and depositors lack the ability to know adequately know the soundness of the financial institution. Even regulators are often unable to see problems until after the fact, and rating agencies have conflict-of-interest issues that appear all too real. Moreover, soundness can change suddenly and can unsoundness can cascade based upon short-term trading at financial institutions (e.g. Bear Stearns’ hedge fund losses and subsequent chapter 15 were quite sudden). Although the authors’ TBTF proposals are not adequate, they are still useful; they would help. There is no reason to reward the shareholders of a financial institution with a bailout; they deserve to be wiped out when serious financial mistakes are made, and the authors’ proposals would make such remedies a bit more palatable.

The simple notion that too big to fail is also too big to exist was not adequately explored in the book. I wish to explore that and other notions here.

The FDIC fund for bank takeovers needs to be large enough to handle the largest financial institution in the country. The gap in funds created by the largest institution from the second largest should be covered entirely by the largest institution. Large institutions should be split into smaller institutions using anti-trust-like legislation. Even the pieces of these institutions may be TBTF, so in addition, the gap between the second and third covered entirely by the second, and so on, until a point is reached where normal statistics apply. This discourages a given institution from becoming large, or if already large, from being larger. The takeover fund contribution would be based upon an estimate of the takeover cost estimate according to a standard set by the regulatory agency; any new risk taking beyond the funded amount would require an increase in the takeover fund prior to the risk taking.

As I said before, The idea that banks can regulator-shop between four Federal agencies and pick the regulator that gives them the most lax treatment is absurd on its face. There must be a single regulator for a given type of financial institution, and there must be a Federal regulator for any entity that is interstate. (State regulators are not equipped to handle an institution such as AIG.)

There is no size at which an individual or institution is too small to be subject to regulation. All borrowers and lenders must be regulated, because even small actors can, in aggregate, create systemic risk, as the subprime fiasco clearly demonstrated.

I intend to continue these thoughts soon, but leave behind the TBTF issue, and look at broader macro-economic issues. There is a connection to TBTF in that macro-economic outcomes are an important failure mechanism for financial institutions. Not all failure are the result of mismanagement.

31 July 2009 — Shorter Thoughts: Health Care, California Budget Woes

Health Care

I have yet to comment here on health care. This is primarily because I don’t feel I have much to contribute, and also while it is quite important, it is not as important as issues such as ending greenhouse pollution, and because the answers are obvious. However, for the record, I see the U.S. medical industry as fundamentally broken, and in need of major overhaul. The health of both Americans and American business depend upon it (our business competitiveness is undermined by our non-performing medical industry). There are actually a lot of options, already tried and tested, either by the U.S. government itself, or by foreign governments. Almost all of these work, and it is just a matter of implementing one of them, taking into account the necessary transition from what we have today to one of the other systems. With several models to choose from, there’s no real issue, except for politicians whose allegiance is to campaign contributions from the for-profit insurance companies that stand to lose in the transition from non-performing to performing healthcare. If I have any preference between the many options to choose from, it is to remove the profit motive from much of the medical industry (e.g. doctors, hospitals, insurance companies). For example, in Switzerland, only non-profit companies provide health insurance. Still, I think any first world healthcare system is better than the U.S. system.

California Budget Woes

The recent California budget, with its gimmicks and deep cuts, and Schwarzenegger’s questionable line item vetoes simply reinforces my opinion that we need a constitutional convention to fix the mess that California voters have created over the decades.

While I have many ideas on how to rewrite constitutions, California so desperately needs some quick fixes that I support keeping the convention focused on eliminating the two-thirds budget requirement. Eliminating the two-thirds requirement for tax increases (Proposition 13) is also important, but that risks a backlash that could sink budget sanity. I would put off repealing Proposition 13 to a future constitutional convention. If changing the 2% annual property-tax increase to 3% would fly, I would do that instead. Rather than packing everything into a single convention, I propose calling for a new convention every ten years for the next fifty years.

There is one other priority worth including in a convention, and that is off-loading the excess baggage from the constitution. Take what is there, separate it into two parts: the basics, and the baggage, and then call the basics the constitution, and move the baggage into either legislation or a new category in between legislation and constitution.

30 July 2009 — Market Hypothesis and Fix

I conjecture that the world will continue to experience market crises as long as traders use non-self-aware financial strategies, models, algorithms, etc. Such strategies cannot anticipate their own impact upon the market. Most often they are based upon historical data, and that data becomes invalid as use of the new strategy begins to affect the market. Even self-aware actors usually fail to predict the effect of new strategies, as they either fail to apply their awareness to the changing situation, or the consequences are too complex to analyze. The situation is made worse when the affected market has not experienced a crisis recently, and traders begin to believe such events are no longer possible. Because it takes years for trading innovations to reach the stall angle and for traders to become oblivious to crisis risks, there is a natural periodicity to crises.

In the recent crisis, the models used to evaluate mortgage-backed security risk did not anticipate that their use would drive the system outside of the limited historical data used to assess risk. The securitization process produced low rates and high demand for mortgages to feed the securitization pipeline, and thus encouraged both subprime fraud as well as increased conventional lending. This in turn led to the housing price bubble. The creation and collapse of the bubble could have been anticipated by self-aware actors, but not by the use of historical data. Even self-aware actors, e.g. in the securitization industry, generally failed to realize that their actions would create a bubble. Worse, even when the housing bubble became obvious, most refused to recognize that it invalidated the models on which their risk estimates were based. They continued on, increasing their rate of climb until the inevitable stall occurred, plunging us all into a dive and spin.

It is of course possible for a few traders to recognize what is happening, but history suggests that this phenomenon is always insufficient to prevent the crisis from occurring. Before the recent panic, many warned about the housing bubble, and some noted the risk evaluation deficiencies with mortgage-backed securities. For example, Andrew Feldstein’s Blue Mountain Capital hedge fund correctly identified the problems with risk models, and acted by betting against the financial industry, but the hedge fund’s actions actually helped other traders double-down on their foolish bets.

Regulators were even less effective than traders in recognizing the consequences of trading innovation, and I see no mechanism by which they can become sufficiently effective in the future. Regulators are look to avoid the mistakes of the past, and so their defenses are no more effective than the Maginot Line.

The consequences of financial crises are so great, and so disproportionately born by those who were not responsible for the crises, that financial innovation must be seen to be a huge externality by which the financial industry subsidizes itself, and transfers wealth to itself from the rest of society. Economics suggests that externalities should be eliminated or compensation introduced for the markets to produce better results. If my hypothesis and observations are correct, crises are inevitable so long as financial innovation is allowed, and must be included in financial industry externality calculations. In the case of financial crises, it seems either necessary to ensure that the cost of the crises is born entirely by the financial industry. The only alternative would be to eliminate financial crises by regulation that eliminates financial innovation (i.e. makes banking boring again). I conclude that we should adopt the latter approach until such time the financial industry can raise a fund of 15% of GDP (e.g. about $2 trillion for the US) to bond the innovation. Increases in GDP would require traders to increase their fund contributions. Had such a fund existed, it would have used to fund the AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, IndyMac, WaMu, etc. bailouts/takeovers and the fiscal stimulus enacted by Congress as well. Too Big To Fail financial firms must also be eliminated, but I leave that for a future commentary.

8 July 2009 — ACES Border Adjustment

I am pleased to see that the House version of The American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act has a last-minute provision that require the president, starting in 2020, to impose a tariff on goods from countries that do not act to limit their greenhouse pollution. Indeed, this is one of the few good parts of the bill. I am as mystified as Professor Krugman as to why President Obama criticized these provisions. He suggested this sent a protectionist signal. I disagree; it sends a signal that everyone must get on board with greenhouse pollution limits. A tariff is fair, as it does not single out any individual nation and any nation that wants to avoid the tariff can adopt greenhouse pollution limits.

The argument made by developing countries that to place limits on them would be unfair have not considered methods that are fair, such as the one I proposed on 30 July 2006. By making the limit per person without rewarding future population growth, it becomes fair to both developing and developed nations.

Of course, President Obama’s criticism may be just posturing. He may in fact be criticizing the trade provisions to bolster his free trade credentials, when in fact he accepts the provisions. Politics is such a game.

29 June 2009 — Political Dipoles

I have written before on the absurdity of simplifying multi-dimensional political space to a single dimension (the so-called political spectrum). George Lakoff’s new book, The Political Mind is a fascinating argument in which he hypothesizes that each dimension of political space consists of just two points: a dipole, one pole associated with the authoritarianism and obedience and the other pole associated with empathy and empowerment. He calls these the conservative and progressive modes of thought:

Conservatives and progressives do not have different goals or values. They have very different modes of thought. Neither mode is obvious. The political mind has to be probed in depth to be understood. What we see is complexity: many Americans make use of both conservative and progressive modes of thought in their politics, but apply them to different areas in different ways. There are regularities, but there is no clear scale from left to right (or color spectrum from blue to red). There are no moderates—that is, there is no moderate worldview, no one set of ideas that characterizes a center or moderation. People who are called moderates use conservative thought in some issue areas and progressive thought in others, without falling on any linear left-to-right scale. Indeed, many so-called moderates have no moderation at all, and are quite passionate about both their conservative and progressive views.

The left-to-right scale that political pundits love is an inaccurate metaphor—and a dangerous one, for two reasons. First, it posits a political mainstream, a population with a unified political worldview, which does not exist now nor has it ever. Because radical conservatives have so dominated political discourse in America over the past thirty years, conservatives ideas are being passed off as mainstream ideas, which they are not, while progressive ideas are being characterized as leftist and extremist, which they are not. … One can speak of left and right, as in left hand and right hand, or left hemisphere and right hemisphere of the brain, without any linear scale in between.

Professor Lakoff at times acknowledges the multi-dimensional nature of his dipole model (the discussion of moderates in the excerpt above), but he is inclined to the one-dimensional simplification as well (the left and right hemisphere analogy in the excerpt above).

It matters little if Professor Lakoff is correct or not on whether each political dimension is a dipole or continuous, so long as the multi-dimensional aspect is retained, as that produces similar conclusions. If I compare Professor Lakoff’s conclusions to mine, I find little to quibble about. He writes, for example:

The very use of the left-to-right scale metaphor serves to empower radical conservatives and marginalize progressives. …

Accordingly, the left-to-right scale metaphor creates a metaphorical center with about a third of voters located between the two extremes—even though their views vary every which way and don’t constitute a single mode of thought at all.

Metaphor is a normal, and mostly unconscious, mechanism of thought. It is sometimes harmless, and other times can be used for good or ill. The left-to-right scale metaphor is not harmless. It is being politically manipulated to the disadvantage of American democratic ideals.

Compare the first thought above to what I wrote in 1999: The purpose of the one-dimensional simplification of political space is simply to aggrandize those in power. The primary difference is that Professor Lakoff sees the one-dimensional simplification as favoring Republicans, where I saw it as favoring the two-party system (i.e. the Republicrats). Of course, Professor Lakoff may be correct that in the last few decades, the Republicans have better exploited such thinking, but I suspect that such exploitation is not inherently favorable to them.

I disagree with one point he goes on to make:

And yet the left-to-right scale metaphor is no concocted hoax. It is real as a metaphor; it is in people’s brains. Even though it is grossly inaccurate, many people use it. My job here is to make you think twice about it, and then stop using it. If you can. It won’t be easy. Thinking that way is a reflex. You will think in terms of the left-to-right scale. Try to catch yourself and stop. Overcoming misleading metaphors that are physically in your brain is never easy.

In contrast to the claims above, I have it relatively easy to discard the left-to-right scale in my thinking once I realized what was going on. Perhaps the mathematical metaphor is stronger in my brain. Indeed, I find myself experiencing something akin to disgust every time I hear others employing the metaphor. As this occurs primarily when reading and listening rather than in conversation, I am not able to correct the writer or speaker, but I do register an objection, and also then go on to discount the analysis that follows. The conclusions of anyone who thinks in such a flawed way cannot be trusted. Since that applies to essentially 100% of the U.S. media, I am quite skeptical of almost all political commentary (even though I read some political blogs for news that cannot be found in the mainstream media).

It will be interesting to keep in mind Professor Lakoff’s multi-dimensional dipole hypothesis (especially the authoritative vs. empathy/empowerment dichotomy) to see how it applies to future situations. It will be especially interesting to see how it applies in situations that were described as follows by William Greider in Who Will Tell The People:

The Republican party is not a party of conservative ideology. It is a party of conservative clients. Whenever possible, the ideology will be invoked as justification for taking care of the clients’ needs. When the two are in conflict, the conservative principles are discarded and the clients are served.

Unlike Professor Lakoff, I will continue to avoid the word conservative to describe Republican thinking, as there is nothing conservative about Republican policies.

Professor Lakoff’s exposition is interesting in that appears to offer an explanation for the Republican worldview. As I have been unable to understand the Republican thought on almost any rational level, this could at least make their point-of-view predictable. However, I still believe the adjective evil can be applied to many Republican policies, and to some Republicans. Authoritarianism may explain their worldview, but it does not excuse it, any more than authoritarianism excused the actions of Germany during World War II.

12 June 2009 — Democrats had more mettle in 1930s

We need a 2009 version of the Pecora Commission to investigate the causes of 2008’s collapse of the U.S. financial system. No such investigation appears to be forecoming. Congress no longer has the mettle to take on large campaign donors and their well-funded lobbyists. President Obama is not much better at doing so; his administration recently shelved plans to have a single banking regulator. The idea that banks can regulator-shop between four Federal agencies and pick the regulator that gives them the most lax treatment is absurd on its face. The Washington Post reported, Officials had envisioned an ambitious restructuring of the agencies responsible for overseeing financial regulation. But people familiar with discussions at the White House and Treasury say officials have stepped back from some of their biggest ideas after encountering criticism from lawmakers, regulators and business interests. I am encouraged that at least some in Congress are still calling for a single regulator, despite President Obama’s retreat.

We have a checkered history. We need to look to the high points and strive to do as well and learn from our low points. The Pecora hearings and reforms that resulted was a high point. The failure to even attempt such an effort reflects poorly on the state of U.S. politics.

11 June 2009 — Shorter Thoughts: Caperton v. Massey, Democrats acting like Republicans

First reaction to Supreme Court decision Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal, et al.

I was gratified to see the Caperton v. Massey outcome because any other outcome would be seriously detrimental to a fair judiciary. What concerns me is that the decision was 5-4 instead of 9-0. I find it hard to understand that Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito were able to vote to allow such a tainted process to stand. I have not yet read the dissent, so perhaps there is some point I have not considered, but at this preliminary point I feel that this is another case of Justices letting only the ends justify the decision. Much as in Bush v. Gore, this decision appears to be more about supporting Republican ideology than providing jurisprudence. I will withhold full condemnation until I read the dissent, but in this short thought I wanted to register my concern about what this says about these four justices. But then, the 5-4 portion of Bush v. Gore already said quite a bit about Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas (the other two of the Bush v. Gore five, Rehnquist and O’Conner, are no longer on the Court for Caperton v. Massey). Justice Kennedy at least voted for a fair judiciary in this case.

Democrats acting like Republicans

Yesterday’s Washington Post article What Would a Health Overhaul Cost? All Eyes on the CBO recalled the Rove White House’s firing of Lawrence Lindsey for predicting in September 2002 that the Iraq war might cost $100-$200 billion instead of the $50-$60 billion estimated by the Rove White House† (compare these pre-war figures to Joseph Stiglitz’s post-war estimates of $3 trillion, made in 2007 and 2008). The Democrats have not gone as far as the Rove White House, but the following Washington Post sentence was certainly cause for concern.

Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a key figure in the health debate, has publicly lectured Elmendorf, saying he has a moral duty to be creative and deliver the favorable budget estimates we have to have to win broad support.

† Note on terminology: I used to write Bush White House for the 2001-2005 period, and President Bush for the 2005-2009 period, based on the 2001 election being fraudulent (Florida in fact voted for Albert Gore as became clear from a statewide examination of the ballots long after the election), and the 2004 election being less clear. At other times I have used squatters in the White House to indicate the illegitimate nature of the 2001-2005 term. Here I am trying out Rove White House, to shine light on one of the mastermind’s of the fraud. One could of course argue for Cheney White House as well.

10 June 2009 — Cash For Clunkers Revisited

I gave Cash For Clunkers some additional thought because earlier I did not include the effects of scrapping cars with useful lifetime. The result is a much better way to think about the program. I suggest that the correct metric is whether we reduce or increase medium-term global temperatures by the trade-up choice. As a proxy, we can look at atmospheric CO2 levels at some future date (e.g. 2030), and see whether Cash For Clunkers helps or hurts. I did a little research and discovered that vehicle production today is around 10% of lifetime CO2 emissions. If we assume a 150,000-mile vehicle lifetime (12 years at 12,500 miles/year, or 10 years at 15,000 miles/year), that means producing the vehicle and recycling it at end-of-life is 167% of the annual emissions from fuel and fuel production. Take the tonnes/year of the trade-up vehicle, multiply by 1.67 to get the non-fuel pollution (in reality it would be better to use a per-vehicle estimate, or at least something based upon vehicle mass). Now get the annual fuel emissions for the trade-in. The net emissions effect of the trade-up is
(150,000 − OldMiles) × (NewCO2permile − OldCO2permile) + NewProductionCO2
If this is negative, we reduce emissions. Our voucher should be a number of dollars times the emissions reduction.

For example, if the government is willing to pay $30/tonne, then trading in a 2003 Camry automatic 5-spd (526 g CO2e/mi, wells-to-wheels) with 87,5000 miles on it for a new 2009 Prius (242 g CO2e/mi), and you get something like −12.7 tonnes, which is worth a $381 voucher.

As another example, consider trading in a 2005 Ford Expedition 4WD (792 g CO2e/mi) with 62,500 miles for a 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid 4WD (399 g CO2e/mi). The emissions are −16.2 tonnes and the voucher would be for $782.

These calculations suggest that the government would have to be willing to pay much more than $30/tonne for emissions reduction to reach the several thousand dollar level that the current bills in Congress are targeting, e.g. $200/tonne (the vouchers above would be $2540 and $5212 respectively). This high $/tonne makes the whole program somewhat questionable as climate protection, as there are much cheaper CO2e reductions we can invest in today. At this level of voucher, the real purpose of the program is automaker revenue enhancement for macro-economic stimulus. Such stimulus may or may not be valid. If it is, using the above calculation at least gives the proper alignment with the climate crisis.

The above calculation assumes that vehicles of the future remain at current CO2e/mi levels, when in fact they would decrease over time (making things more complicated). In reality voucher prices could be set by a more sophisticated model of the effect upon cummulative CO2e emissions at a future date that includes such effects.

The above calculation also doesn’t take into account the effect on promoting EVs, which are necessary technology to solving greenhouse pollution, but which have a long lead time. If there is a near-term EV glut on the way (i.e. production in excess of early adopter demand as suggested by Earth2Tech’s Electric Car Glut on the Way?), some incentives may be necessary to not have plug-in vehicles pronounced a failure for a second time. This is a strategic calculation (the voucher calculation is by comparison tactical).

9 June 2009 — Cap-Grandfather-Trade considered harmful

I continue to believe that the Waxman-Markey bill is a diversion, and as such it is actually harmful. It is better than doing nothing, but that is a poor standard. It delays the real work that is required by several years at least, and we cannot afford that delay.

I don’t believe that cap-grandfather-trade (usually known as cap-and-trade—a less descriptive phrase) will work well to achieve greenhouse pollution reduction. To achieve what could be better accomplished with regulation, the carbon price will be so high that there will be severe pressure to relax the goals, which means a worse climate disaster than the disaster in store for us with regulation. Congress should set the goals and give the EPA the authority to achieve the goals. I expect that the EPA will not be in thrall to Republican ideology (ideology is always the enemy of practicality), and will choose lower-cost, better solutions. I doubt that the EPA’s choices would be sufficient, but they would be better than what we’ll get with carbon pricing as our primary tool.

Ideology says that a price on greenhouse pollution will drive rational actors to reduce their pollution in the most cost-effective fashion. This assumes that homo economicus has sufficient knowledge, time, and motivation to seek optimizations in a myriad of her activities. Reality is somewhat different; time and knowledge restrictions prevent optimal action. Studies show large opportunities for efficiency improvements that save money, but remain undone. Looking at cars, it seems that the majority of purchasing decisions are the result of Madison Avenue manipulation of the non-rational portions of homo sapiens’ brain.

Here is an example of how the carbon price signal will fail to drive the market as well as CAFE. The 2009 Honda Civic automatic gets 29 MPG. That is 383 g CO2e per mile, wells-to-wheels. If the carbon price is $20/tonne, then the cost per mile is $0.0077, or the equivalent of $0.22 per gallon of gasoline. We saw from the summer of 2008 that price can change drivers’ behavior, but it takes $2 per gallon of gasoline to do so; prices one-tenth of that will have little effect. Conversely, it would take carbon prices of $200/tonne to move car buyers to more efficient vehicle choices. If U.S. politicians don’t falter and repeal or weaken cap-grandfather-trade when prices approach that level, carbon pricing could force changes. Proponents would argue that lower carbon prices will see us first reduce emissions where it is matters at $20/tonne before the price climbs to address cars. However, this ignores the fact that the U.S. vehicle fleet takes more than a dozen years to change; it would be better to change the fleet in advance, so that the eventual carbon price increase is affordable and does not requiring the junking of vehicles just a few years old because they are no longer affordable. That’s what regulations can accomplish.

Proponents of carbon pricing point to the success of the sulfur trading system in the U.S. They should read Gar Lipow’s Emissions trading: A mixed record, with plenty of failures.

8 June 2009 — Cash For Clunkers

Representative Sutton’s Cash For Clunkers amendment to the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill is an example of the undue influence of corporations that I complained about yesterday. Cash For Clunkers is no longer about addressing climate change; it is now only about generating sales for automakers.

I have yet to see any Cash For Clunkers bill that is done right. Basing the test upon increasing MPG (miles per gallon) is wrong; the test should be on decreasing grams of CO2 equivalent per mile (which is related to the inverse of MPG, i.e. gallons per mile).

Let’s work an example with two cars. The real clunker gets 22 MPG, which is 504 g CO2e per mile. Another car gets 30 MPG or 370 g CO2e per mile. If the Cash For Clunkers standard requires a 6 MPG increase, then the first car buyer must trade-up to a 28 MPG vehicle (396 g CO2 per mile), and the second buyer must trade-up to a 36 MPG vehicle (308 g CO2 per mile). It is greenhouse pollution that matters. The first buyer’s savings of 108 is larger than the second buyer’s savings of 62, and has a larger impact on the climate. Similarly, if the goal is reduction in imported oil, it is the inverse of MPG that is the appropriate goal. Therefore I would state the standard in greenhouse pollution, e.g. setting the threshold for a Cash for Clunker rebate at 150 g CO2e.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Senator Feinstein’s bill, S247, would give vouchers to people who turn in a car or truck that gets 15 or fewer miles per gallon to a dealer that scraps it. The voucher could be used to buy a new vehicle or a used one from 2004 or later, as long as the replacement vehicle exceeds government fuel-efficiency standards for its class by at least 25 percent. A passenger car would need to get at least roughly 28 miles per gallon (city/highway combined, as posted on the window sticker). Vouchers would range from $1,500 to $4,500 and could also be used for mass transit. The mass transit provision is nice. By changing the 25 percent to 150 g CO2e per mile, I would find this acceptable.

7 June 2009 — Undue Influence

As I watch my governments’ responses to the crises still unfolding, I never cease to be amazed at the undue influence that is wielded by corporations. For the most part, it is the actions of corporations that both create our problems and prevent governments from implementing solutions to our problems. This phenomenon occurs in essentially all industries, including health care, pharmaceuticals, energy, transporation, chemicals, food, and finance. It is true that corporations are often part of the solution, but the influence of the solvers is rarely on par with the influence of the problem-makers, with the end result that there is a lot of sound and fury, but very little improvement. I still believe we will never succeed until a solution to undue influence is implemented. That needs to be a priority, and yet it is one of the few things that President Obama does not appear to be tackling. Business as usual: just say no.

6 June 2009 — Earth 2100

I watched television for the first time in a long time. The occasion was ABC’s fictional life of a woman born on 2009.06.02 (the day the show aired). The show was seen by 3.7 million viewers in the 18-to-49 demographic, according to the New York Times, ranked behind NBC, CBS, and Fox. Far more people watched crime show and drama repeats and Inside the Obama White House. It seems that Earth 2100 won’t have much effect, which is unfortunate.

My purpose here is to note is that collapse could occur much earlier than portrayed in Earth 2100. Once the problems begin, if they are not solved quickly, they are likely to generate severe economic problems that I would expect to far exceed our current recession, and perhaps could could rival or exceed the Great Depression. We have chosen an economic system that is dependent upon exponential growth. The usual concern with exponential growth is that it collides with finite limits quite suddenly. Still, the limits to growth could be a century or more away (e.g. if we substitute renewable energy for fossil energy), and so I note that there are other non-limit problems with exponential growth, in particular stability. Problems could develop not as the result collision with limits, but just from a severe, prolonged interruption of growth, causing not just a recession or depression, but a self-sustaining spiral dive. It only takes a hard enough nudge to tip the system into a feedback loop that could destroy the basis for our economic system. Something similar happend to the Western Roman Empire. Loss of population from plague was one factor in its collapse. I believe our economic system is far more susceptible to a population decline than the Roman’s was.

5 June 2009 — David Souter and Sonia Sotomayor

I thought Justice David Souter was a very good Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. One of his best characteristics is his lack of interest in power, as evidenced in his resignation to return to his New Hampshire farm. He is the sort of non-activist judge that Republicans frequently say they want (in actuality Republicans really covet very activist, radical judges who would undo decades of precedent to serve the Republicans’ investors).

It is difficult to know what sort of Justice Sonia Sotomayor will be; her decisions on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit have followed precedent, much as David Souter’s did on U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Her role on the Supreme Court will provide an enlarged scope, and Sonia Sotomayor may turn out to be as much of a surprise for Democrats as David Souter turned out to be for Republicans.

I am supportive of nominating a woman, someone of Puerto Rican descent, and someone who grew up in the Bronx. It is appropriate for there to be diversity on the Supreme Court. With 45 million (15%) Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S., her appointment will foster a sense of inclusiveness and opportunity to a demographic that is growing four times faster than the overall U.S. population. Indeed, if she should serve as long as recent U.S. Justices, and if the Supreme Court were to match U.S. demographics, the Supreme Court would have two Hispanic Justices by the end of her term.

I don’t sympathize with the view that Supreme Court appointments should be based only on who is the best candidate, because I don’t believe that such a person exists; one cannot give candidates a single point score and rank them; that is the fallacy of the one-dimensional simplification of multi-dimensional space. Considering candidates with multi-dimensional criteria produces a set of people who are all well-qualified, and determining who is best is impossible. In this circumstance, it is reasonable to use gender, racial, ethnic, religious, and other criteria as tie breakers, because diversity and the appearance of inclusivity are important. However, by the same reasoning, if a candidate strictly dominates another in multi-dimensional criteria (in the sense used in game theory), then it is not reasonable to choose such a candidate merely because of diversity criteria.

As Judge Sotomayor’s second circuit decisions have very little to criticize, Republicans have turned to her speeches, and fixated upon her pride in being a Latina. I actually do consider excessive identity pride to be an issue; I prefer Justice Souter’s modesty, and while my guess is that Judge Sotomayor will continue some of the restraint she has shown on the second circuit, I do expect her attitude to affect a few of her decisions. However, I don’t consider this a serious problem (i.e. I don’t expect Judge Sotomayor’s pride excessive). One of the purposes of having nine Justices on the Supreme Court is encourage an exchange of ideas based upon a diversity of views, with the goal of reaching better decisions. Only in an era of 5-4 decisions from a polarized Supreme Court is the choice of a single Justice of such high political stakes. That is an unfortunate consequence of Republican appointments from President Reagan on (ignoring the Republicans’ mistake in appointing David Souter in 1990) with the explicit goal of undoing Supreme Court precedents that irritate Republicans’ investors.

The real problem is that both Democrats and Republicans are playing a game where they make Supreme Court appointments with a results-oriented goals. Candidates are evaluated based on whether they will deliver decisions that will have the right outcome, rather than the right reasoning. (California’s Supreme Court decision on Proposition 8 is a good example: it is criticized or praised based upon alignment with the proposition itself, rather than on the reasoning that produced the decision.) I don’t know enough history to know when this started, but once one faction begins this practice, it essentially forces the other faction to adopt it for balance.

In conclusion, I support Judge Sotomayor’s appointment, even though I expect some limited color to her decisions from identity pride (which I hope will not be excessive). I would however prefer a Latina with a humility closer to Justice Souter’s.

4 June 2009 — President Obama’s Cairo Speech

President Obama gave a great1 speech in Cairo. I was quite impressed by both the quality of the rhetoric and the content (the honesty and understanding). However, the honesty and sentiments expressed cannot substitute for action. Unless President Obama is able to follow through, this speech will not be remembered, despite its greatness.

Words lose their force as they age. The word great is quite old, and now quite weak, but I mean it in its older pre-dilution sense.

3 June 2009 — Governor Schwarzenegger

I voted for other candidates for California Governor in 2003 and 2006, but I have generally been surprised that Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t been as bad of a Governor as I feared. Some high points include:

Low points include:

However, my opinion of Governor Schwarzenegger’s performance has been rapidly deteriorating since the May 19th special election. He falsely interpreted the defeat of propositions 1A-1E as a mandate to slash spending without raising taxes. (My understanding was that voters were disgusted with being asked to do the legislature’s business, even though voters are the ones that created the problems facing the legislature in the first place.)

2 June 2009 — Charging Infrastructure

Snow White, my Solectria Force (an electric car), has an intermittent failure that I have yet to diagnose and fix. As a result, I have been driving my backup car, a 2007 Toyota Prius. Burning fossil fuel is a disgrace, and I feel bad about it; each trip to a gas station is a painful reminder. To lessen the pain, I recently converted my Prius to a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) using the Hymotion kit. Pat’s Garage in San Francisco did the installation. I had been getting 48-49 MPG in the Prius before the modification. Now that I have been driving the modified Prius for about a month, it is time to report how I am doing.

First, I was well aware that the Prius is a poor starting point for a PHEV. I did not expect great results, because the Prius has an electric motor that is too small, and the car’s designers turn on the gasoline engine whenever power demands exceed the capability of the batteries or electric motor (I am not sure which is more limiting). Thus I did not expect 100+ MPG, or even anything close. I installed the kit expecting a modest decrease in my gasoline usage (such is my disgust at burning fossil fuel). I did expect that my EV-trained light foot on the pedal would help. Even so, I was surprised at just how little it takes for the Prius to spin up its infernal combustion engine (ICE). The Prius computer frequently beeps and flashes something like Cannot enter EV mode on the display as it denies the Hymotion’s electronic pushing of the EV button. (Pat’s Garage also installed a Scan Gauge, which helps tremendously at figuring out what the Prius is actually doing.)

One problem is that I often drive in hilly areas, and uphill power demands are fairly high. I live at 740 foot elevation, and the nearest town is at 147 feet, so the drive home is always fairly steep. Interstate 280, on which I drive frequently, is far from flat—it runs up and down rolling hills. I also drive in San Francisco, which has its share of hills.

(If I depart from Los Altos Hills with a full Hymotion pack, drive on Interstate 280 to San Francisco, a distance of about 37 miles, I arrive in SF with the Hymotion almost, but not entirely depleted, having averaged about 75 MPG. If I drive on Highway 101 instead—43 miles—I get higher MPG, but the pack is depleted before I reach the 37 mile point of the trip; more energy is coming from the batteries and less from gasoline on the flatter 101, and so the range is less.)

My purpose in writing this note is to report something I did not expect. I find that my MPG results are primarily a function of my ability to charge. I often get 75 MPG on Highway 280 at 54 MPH, according to the Prius display, and sometimes I get over 100 MPG in town at 30 MPH (the ICE turns often turns on around 33 MPH). However, my month-long average is much lower, perhaps 68 MPG, only 20 MPG more than pre-conversion. On some weeks it is as low as 61 MPG. The primary reason for these low numbers is that the Hymotion pack becomes depleted, and the Prius reverts to a simple HEV. A large fraction of my miles are spent driving in HEV rather than PHEV mode.

It is tempting to ask that the Hymotion kit provide a larger battery pack. Mine is approximately 5 kWh, which if the Prius could operate an EV (which it cannot), this would provide roughly around 20 miles of range. This is a low-end PHEV, but hobbyist volume battery packs are expensive (the kit plus installation is over $2/Wh), and until production volume PHEVs drive down costs (e.g. to $0.50/Wh at first, later dropping to $0.35/Wh), cost is going to limit pack size.

Instead of increasing pack size, it would be far more cost-effective to get more out the 5 kWh that I already have. What I really need is the ability to charge twice as day, but Hymotion has made that difficult by providing only Level 1 charging (a standard garage plug). A Level 2 charging capability would be a big improvement.

Even when Lithium-Ion battery costs drop to $0.50/Wh, given the choice of doubling capacity from 5 kWh to 10 kWh, the additional $2500 could well be better spent on a shares of chargers at various destinations, rather than batteries that I have to carry around in the car.

I have not measured the Hymotion’s exact current draw, but they claim 5.5 hours for a charge, which works out to 900 Watts into the batteries. (I’ve read that their charging algorithm is ultra-simple: constant current only, which means they are not topping off the batteries with a constant voltage trickle charge.) Assuming 90% efficient AC-to-DC conversion, and 95% efficient battery charge/discharge, this means 1060 Watts drawn from the plug. This is not even Level 1 (120 V, 12 A would be 1440 Watts). Since I have run a shop vacuum from the same plug that was used to charge the car without tripping a breaker, this seems consistent.

Let’s say that I run errands in the morning. If I am able to run these errands mostly in EV mode (no highway driving), then the pack is likely to be depleted before I return home (e.g. in somewhat more than 20 miles). Let’s say I return home at 10:00. If I wanted to charge before going again, it would be 15:30 before I could leave (forget that lunch appointment). Neither I nor my electric utility would be very happy about me charging after noon standard time; my time-of-use (TOU) rates increase dramatically (about 3×) then because noon to 6pm is the peak period for the utility. (While at noon my PV is generating far more than the Hymotion can draw, I am still missing the opportunity to run my meter backward at peak rates, and so effectively I am paying the higher rate, even though the power is actually from sunlight.)

Level 2 conductive AC charging (the old J1772) is limited to 11.5 kW (240 V, 48 A from a 60 A circuit breaker). A more typical draw is 9.6 kW from a 40 A from a 50 A breaker and NEMA 14-50R receptacle, or 7.7 kW (32 A from a 40 A breaker). The charge times at these levels are 30, 37, or 46 minutes respectively. I could easily recharge and depart for a lunch appointment (and even recharge during lunch). A similar calculation applies for a commuter who arrives at work at 09:00 and plugs in; the car will not be recharged in time to go out for lunch, and would require power during the utility’s peak demand period.

(The new J1772 specification update will offer 80 A charging from a 100 A breaker, which brings the charge time down to 18 minutes. Europe’s new three-phase, 400 V 63 A standard can deliver 75.6 kW, charging the Hymotion pack in just 5 minutes, the time it takes to run into a store for a quick purchase.)

The EV community likes to say that plug-in vehicles (PHEVs and BEVs) require minimal infrastructure, because the grid is already omnipresent. However, as the examples above demonstrate, Level 1 charging really is not sufficient, and increases battery pack size and cost, and it is Level 1 that is omnipresent. Plug-in vehicles really can benefit from charging infrastructure development.

I really need to fix Snow White. Even with just thirteen 12 V lead-acid batteries (about 6550 Wh of range to 80% depth-of-discharge), the Solectria Force is a better plug-in vehicle than the modified Prius, although its range limitation is hard rather than soft. I used to get 4000 miles a year on Snow White, and 6000 miles on the Prius (40% electric), using 125 gallons of gasoline a year. Driving 10,000 miles on the plug-in Prius a year at 68 MPG will require 147 gallons, an increase. The Force+Prius combination was a better PHEV than the Prius+Hymotion, even though it required me to select the infernal combustion whenever my expected trip was greater than 40 miles.

31 May 2009 — Credit Cards

Congress should pass legislation mandating higher minimum payments on credit cards. The goal should be to maintain the convenience of being able to make small purchases on credit, while protecting the consumer from a debt trap, and reducing the severity of recessions.

The minimum payment set by credit card companies varies, but it is typically 1%-2% of the balance plus interest, with a minimum payment of $10-$25. Imagine a credit card with a balance of $4,000. If the holder stops making any new charges, and pays the minimum payment calculated with the 1% and $10 parameters, it takes almost 20 years to pay off the debt, and the interest payments at 16% will total $4,673 . Very few items purchased with credit cards have a lifetime this long; it is unwise to continue paying for an item long after it has been discarded. With only $40 of additional purchases per month, the balance never declines. If the bank uses the 2% and $10 parameters, then it takes almost 13 years to repay $4,000, assuming there are no new purchases, and $80 of additional purchases each month maintains the $4,000 balance indefinitely.

I suggest that Congress pass legislation mandating a minimum minimum payment calculation that targets a 24-month payoff. This would be appropriate for most purchases. If the consumer wishes to purchase items with longer lifetimes and pay them off over their lifetime, then she should seek a non-recourse loan specific to the item. Such a secured loan will typically have a lower interest rate than the credit card company charges. For example, auto loans at my credit union are currently 5% to 6.5% depending upon the term (3-7 years).

To target a 24-month payoff, the appropriate calculation is no longer a simple percentage of the balance (my $4000 example would require a 22% minimum payment, putting most of the payment burden up front). Rather the minimum payment would be calculated as new purchases are made using standard fixed-payment loan formulas that incorporate the current interest rate. The interest rate for new purchases would be locked in at the time of purchase; changes in rates would only affect purchases made after the card holder is notified. Each month the minimum payment would be the sum of the fixed payments for unpaid purchases. Any additional payment beyond the minimum would go towards paying off the purchases made with the highest interest rate, and for the oldest debts at the same rate.

Under my proposal, if someone makes a purchase of $4000 at 16%, then the minimum payment from this purchase is $195.85. When the purchase is paid off in 24 months, the purchaser has paid only $700 of interest. This is much more consumer-friendly. It would also help provide greater macro-economic stability by lessening positive feedback; consumers would enter recessions with less debt, and so need to cut-back less (i.e. they could make more new purchases than otherwise). During booms, they would fewer new purchases, because the monthly payment would be limiting. Both add to macro-economic stability.

25 May 2009 — Guanánamo Bay Prison

I don’t understand the opposition to closing Guanánamo Bay prison. The opposition claims that the terrorists held there are too dangerous to bring to the U.S. First, the press is violating its own rules when it calls those being held terrorists instead of alleged terrorists, as they have not yet been tried and convicted. It is a reminder of how easily we forget the rule of law when foreigners are involved. Second, suppose some of those held in Guanánamo Bay prison are tried and convicted. If the U.S. understands anything, it understands how to incarcerate prisoners; there would be no safety issues in putting dangerous individuals in Federal SuperMax prisons. Third, even if some were tried and released because of Bush White House’s failures (e.g. torture), we accept the release of dangerous individuals all the time (e.g. the by enforcing the Miranda rule) in order to safeguard our own rights. What is special about the detainees at Guanánamo? Also, by not addressing recidivism, we also release dangerous individuals at the end of their prison terms (one of our many penny-wise, pound-foolish public policies). Also, by keeping Guanánamo Prison open, we help fuel terrorist recruitment, potentially creating more danger than release would. Fourth, and finally, Guanánamo Bay prison is not the only U.S. prison in operation; why is the discussion not also addressing the other prisons, such as the Bagram Theater Internment Facility?

24 May 2009 — Manned vs. Unmanned Space Missions

NASA suggests that the Space Shuttle repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope is the end of an era. I have yet to comment upon manned space flight, so this provoked me.

First, when it comes to science missions, I have never understood why NASA chooses to put only one of so many science platforms into space. For the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), NASA built two, and launched one (the other remained on Earth for repair practice). Given the enormous R&D required to develop the HST, would it not have made sense to build five instead? The incremental cost would not have been that large. NASA could then have put one in orbit as a test; when the mirror proved defective, it could have fixed the remaining four on Earth, and then launched another. A year later it could have launched a third. Having two in space would have doubled the results for the same R&D costs, with only the cost of an additional instrument and launch. When one failed, NASA could have launched one of its remaining HSTs stored on Earth, rather than repair the one in space. I cannot say for certain that this would be cheaper than the Space Shuttle program and repair missions, but I strongly suspect it would have been. We deploy multiple copies of communications, GPS, and spy satellites; why not science missions?

Such replicated science missions would eliminate much of the need for manned space repair missions. It has always been the model for most non-science missions. However, there will always be situations where we might wish we had more flexibility in space. Here it seems the best approach would be the space equivalent of remotely operated aircraft. Developing this capability is also likely to have significant spin-offs to non-space technology. Consider the Mars rovers (one of the few examples of deploying two of something rather than just one). No manned mission to Mars in the next few decades is likely to last the five years that Spirit and Opportunity have been exploring. Had we developed remote-operated repair capability, Spirit might have already been freed from its current sand trap, and its broken leg returned to operation. Of course, a manned mission to Mars might not have needed five years to cover as much as Spirit and Opportunity have accomplished, but the cost would have beeen one or more orders of magnitude larger; would it not be better to have ten times the number of robotic science missions than a single manned mission? A manned mission to Mars would have eliminated spending on missions to other planets, solar observatories, Earth science missions, and so on. We need to explore as much as possible in parallel, because we cannot predict which is the most fertile ground for discovery.

It is therefore my opinion that we should reduce our manned space missions in favor of more unmanned missions, and increase the capability of our unmanned missions.

23 May 2009 — A National Party No More?

I am surprised by the Democratic bloggers I read (e.g. Talking Points Memo and Daily Kos). They seem to declaring a premature demise to the Republican Party. I am not nearly so optimistic; I believe the Republican Party could easily regain its grip upon U.S. politics, much like the typical Hollywood monster that always has one or two more lives left in it after the hero delivers what appears to the audience to be a mortal blow.

Even in diminished numbers, today’s Republicans still pose a threat to rational public policy. George Lakoff recently wrote, up to now, Democrats have been acting like sheep being herded by the Republican minority. I agree with his characterization.

More importantly, there is no reason the Republican Party cannot stage a comeback. Enough U.S. citizens vote not for policy positions, but instead for personalities, that it will take only a charismatic Republican candidate for the them to regain the White House. This is especially true if the Democrats continue their habit of nominating uncharismatic candidates (President Obama being a recent exception). In Congress, it will only take the electorate becoming dissatisfied with the economy for Republican candidates will regain seats (voters often vote against a Party more than they vote for another).

18 May 2009 — Meet the new boss. Sometimes the same as the old boss

President Obama’s continuation of several Bush White House policies is disturbing. While the about-face on energy and climate is most welcome, other policies are troubling, such as: the revival of the military tribunal system; back-pedalling on his transparency pledge (e.g. the Cheneyesque decision to fight the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act request); and the continuation of UCAV attacks that kill innocent civilians.

17 May 2009 — California’s Special Election

California’s propositions 1A-1F are a mess. The proper solution is to convene a constitutional convention for a rewrite. However, that cannot happen in time to solve the budget crisis. The real question then is whether to reject proposition 1A so as to force the legislature to try again, or to allow 1A, get on with fixing the budget hole, and then hope that these propositions will be redone properly in the future. California’s constitution is becoming a landfill of broken machinery. We need to apply reduce, reuse, and recycle to shrink our landfill constitution.

There are three fundamental problems that got us into this mess: Proposition 13 (1978), Proposition 16 (1962)1, and various recent ballot propositions that cordon off certain revenue sources from the general fund or otherwise restrict the legislature’s ability to make tradeoffs between competing demands. Proposition 16 (1962) and its 1933 predecessor were placed on the ballot by the California legislature, whereas Proposition 13 was placed on the ballot via the signature process. Thus California’s voters share the blame with the legislature. I outlined my thoughts on how propositions should be done in Bringing Democracy to the U.S. and Ballot Initiatives. Our landfill constitution and resulting current crisis is a good demonstration of the consequences of our current process.

I am still unsure how to vote. I am inclined to vote yes on 1A and 1B, and no on all the rest, and then hope we can clean up our mess later, but the temptation to vote no on 1A to force a better result is strong.

Unfortunately, a constitutional convention to rewrite California’s constitution is not likely with either a yes or no vote.

The 1962 proposition modified Proposition 1 (1933) an earlier two-thirds requirement that only applied to budgets that increased by 5%.

9 May 2009 — Torture vs. Killing

There is finally serious outrage in the U.S. over the Bush White House’s use of torture, and yet, at the same time as the wailing over deeds a half dozen years ago, there is little outrage for the ongoing killing of innocent people by the U.S. The events of the past are important, but priority should be for correcting our future actions, and for that we should be looking at what is going on now. U.S. policies encourage civilian casualties and collateral damage, and yet where is the outrage at these policies? There is some, but it not mainstream. One of the evils of partisanship is the lack of criticism of political allies. Until this changes, we will continue to live in a world where torture is, for the moment evil, but death from the sky is merely regrettable.

28 April 2009 — Senator Specter

There is much buzz today about Senator Specter abandoning the Republican Party, but I fail to see much significance. Most seem to think that it gives the Democrats the 60 votes necessary to end fillibuster, but that only matters if Senator Specter changes his future voting based on his party affiliation. The pressure to sustain a fillibuster will be gone, replaced by a slight have the pressure to end one, but Senator was already a Republican defector when he felt it appropriate (e.g. on the President Obama’s stimulus bill), so it is not clear that a shift in pressure will change that many future votes. Further, Democratic Party pressure is especially weak compared to the Stalinist discipline that is the norm in the Republican Party. If Senator Reid got Senator Specter’s committment to vote with the Democrats on cloture issues, independent of his subsequent vote on the matter, then this may be more significant.

Even with Senator Specter, Democrats may have difficulty ending Republican fillibusters. There are still many Democrats who put their campaign contributions (e.g. from the coal industry or automakers) ahead of serving the nation’s interests.

After writing the above, I read Nate Silver’s What Kind of Democrat Will Arlen Specter Be? Data is useful, and so I am reconsidering my opinion in light of their data. Nate’s first take on Senator Specter’s switch has another valid point: Senator Specter now needs to worry about a Democratic primary challenge, which may affect his future voting.

23 April 2009 — Time for a New U.S. Political Party

Note: While it is almost farcical for me to lay out a Conservative Party platform, I use this vehicle, with a wink, to comment upon the state of U.S. politics.

The U.S. political party of torture, economic mismanagement, corruption, fear mongering, war, environmental destruction, law breaking, and hypocrisy is now so currently discredited that the U.S. needs a replacement. It is time for someone to found a new political party to replace the Republicans. The Republicans are actually the radical party in the U.S. (and the Democrats are primarily the conservatives, in the dictionary sense of the word), but this new party should actually be more conservative, in the dictionary sense, than the Democrats, and so for marketing purposes, call it the Conservative party.

As I have explained often in the past, I don’t believe in the political labels conservative, liberal, or progressive, as they represent points on the bogus political spectrum concept, but I am pretty much alone in thinking that the political spectrum is a useless concept, and so to be successful, using a name that will have appeal to many of those who identify with the Republican party is a clever marketing move.

I intend this suggestion to provide a sane choice of factional politics for Americans within our existing two-faction, one-party system. Today Americans have a choice between evil (Republicans) and incompetence (Democrats). I am concerned that without a credible opposition party to the Democrats, their incompetence will grow. I prefer a multi-party system to make the U.S. less of plutocracy, but that requires major surgery to the U.S. political system, and is unlikely any time soon. Of course, replacing the Republican party is unlikely as well, but there is a greater chance of success than rewriting the U.S. Constitution.

What would the new Conservative Party stand for? Before I explore that, let me examine the values shared by the Democratic Party and Conservative Party. As the U.S. political system only allows for two major parties, these issues would be off the table for practical purposes.

Reality-based
The Republican Party has an almost Lamarckian view of the world that is in stark opposition to reality. This was illustrated by the infamous remarks of a Bush White House denizen to Ron Suskind concerning the ability to create their own reality, and also in being the political party of anti-science, such as global warming denial. If the United States can only support two major parties, then both must accept that the physical laws of the Universe do not dance to our whims, and that even political reality is not something that a single faction can control.
Fiscal Responsibility
This is really an instance of reality-based economics. It needs to be a shared value of both the Democratic Party and the new Conservative Party. It represents an acceptance of Keynesian economics (which appears to be science within our economic system, at least as far as anything is science in economics). The government should, on average, keep revenues and expenses balanced, but during recessions it should run a deficit to provide stimulus, and during economic booms, it should run a surplus, and so act as negative feedback, thereby adding system stability. (Borrowing for infrastructure spending that exhibits a positive return on investment might be exempted from balanced budget accounting.) While fiscal responsibility was once a major platform of the Republican party (prior to Reagan), they have since abandoned it, while the Democrats have somewhat adopted it (President Obama’s health care proposal being a possible exception). It is time that fiscal irresponsibility be off the table for the two major U.S. parties. The current Republican party starve the beast tactic (creating enormous deficits outside of recessions) has no place in U.S. policy.
Freedom, Liberty
The United States was founded upon an ideology of freedom and liberty, and neither of its dominant political parties can have a superior claim to this ideology. The Republican Party is deeply hypocritical on this today, being at once the party that likes to talk about personal freedom (really only freedom for their cronies—primarily client corporations—to do as they please), while in actuality being the Orwellian party.
Market-oriented economics
Whether it is optimal or not, the prevailing ideology of the United States (unlike much of Europe) is against much government participation in economic production. It is therefore a shared value to maintain a good deal of separation between government and production. However, while the parties are 90% aligned on this, I do propose a slight preference in the Conservative Party for private over public enterprise, as described below. (In contrast Republicans don’t today stand for market economics, but rather crony economics, e.g. pay to play). Note I omit the laissez-faire prefix free before market because the shared position has to now be that moderate regulation is part of U.S. economics, and that laissez-faire has been proven a failure often enough to not warrant further experimentation.
National Security
The Republican and Democratic parties are equally zealous in their pursuit of national security (perhaps too zealous). Likewise, neither is more patriotic than the other. Americans do not appear to want this to be a political party difference, and so it remains a shared value between the Democratic Party and the new Conservative Party.
Rule of law
Do I even need to justify this?

Note: the above are not necessarily my values, but rather my observation of shared values in the United States, or values that are basically now known to be necessary (such as accepting science, including what is now known about economics). My personal opinions increasingly emphasize the need for sustainability, something that is at odds with our current economics, which is based upon growth. Solving this is necessary, but without an acceptance of this observation, it cannot yet be part of the shared political values of the two major parties. Indeed, it is currently not accepted by either current major party, though the Democratic Party is slightly closer than the Republican Party.

With that background, now I turn to the Conservative Party platform:

Preference for Private Enterprise
While market-oriented economics is a shared value, this Conservative party position represents an even greater tendency toward private enterprise than might be found in the Democratic Party, though the Democratic Party is already heavily biased toward private enterprise for most things, it is willing to entertain public enterprise activities when there is market failure, as in health care. The Conservative Party would be more skeptical about government’s role.
Limiting Federal Spending
Similar to the above, the Conservative Party would advocate caution on Federal Spending. As Fiscal Responsibility dictates that taxes reflect spending after adjusting for recessionary stimulus and boom-time recuperation, the primary way to maintain low taxes would be by caution on new Federal spending. Low taxes would not be a party platform, but rather a consequence of limited Federal spending.
Cautious on Regulation
Acceptance of regulation must be a shared value of the two major parties (from reality-based), but a small difference on how quickly to respond to market failures with regulation is reasonable. The Conservative Party would therefore take the more cautious approach, while the Democratic Party would be more inclined toward the precautionary principle.
Limiting Federal Power
The Conservative Party would be less inclined to expand Federal Power than the Democratic Party. The Republican Party tends toward an absolute monarchy interpretation of executive power (e.g. warrantless wiretapping, excessive claims of Commander in Chief privileges). In contrast the Democratic Party would be more willing to exert Federal power for civil rights, economic regulation, and so forth.
Reluctance on Foreign Involvement
The Conservative Party would be less inclined to get involved in the affairs of foreign nations (be more isolationist, as it was a half century ago), except in matters of national security (e.g. nuclear proliferation). The Democratic Party would be more willing to intervene in humanitarian situations.
Caution on changing social values
This would be the party for those opposing gay marriage, for example. (I have personally never understood how gay marriage threatens the institution of marriage, and while I don’t find this position to have any validity whatsoever, many today don’t share my view, and so the preservation of the status quo suggests opposition of changes until society values have clearly moved on.)

With such a Conservative Party replacing the Republican Party, Americans would at least be spared having to choose evil to have representation on legitimate issues of concern.

21 April 2009 — U.S. Automakers

What should be done about the U.S. automakers? I have yet to form a real opinion on this; this note is more of a trial balloon. The best way to help them would be a universal U.S. healthcare system based on tax revenue, but Congress will not pass such a plan in time for the automakers, and so a shorter-term solution is required. My non-expert opinion is that Chrysler, GM, and Ford have been non-viable for years (partially because of healthcare costs), and that the best that that can be expected is for them is to have their technology, factories, employees, and select liabilities (e.g. warranties) transferred to companies that can perform better. President Obama’s auto task force seeks to reduce the company’s debts, but that leaves the same management that has already failed in place. If possible, the task force should seek a pre-negotiated liquidation, where some (but not all) of the liabilities are transferred to the buyers. In that way, management is eliminated, but most of the employee base and the supply chain remain employed. If buyers willing to continue their operations cannot be found, then the task force should install new management, and use the bankruptcy process. It may also be important to treat each automaker differently; for example, Chrysler might be liquidated while parts of GM are given new management and parts liquidated. Because the U.S. government must pick up the automakers’ pension liabilities in bankruptcy, this is likely to be very expensive for taxpayers regardless of the approach taken. This underscores the need for intervention as early as possible when companies become non-viable.

19 April 2009 — Shorter Thoughts: Torture, Bail-out Bonuses, Cap-and-trade

My target here has been somewhat longer essays, but I don’t often feel up to that level of writing, and I would like to set down my thoughts more often, and so I plan to reduce the justifications in many cases and just note my thoughts, to keep some kind of record as George Orwell suggested. Of course a more complete argument would make for a better record, but when the alternative is nothing, short notes are something at least. What follows is three such notes.

Torture

The U.S. is now looking into the torture conducted during Bush’s occupation of the White House (2001-2005) and his subsequent Presidency (2005-2009). My preference would be to have Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc. tried in the Hague for crimes against humanity, but that is so unlikely that as a practical matter, I favor an approach that will achieve something rather than nothing. While I have not thought deeply about the issue, my current opinion is that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the right model. While I know few details, the legislation introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative John Conyers may be appropriate.

In particular, I believe that by honestly and completely describing their actions, U.S. officials should be granted immunity from prosecution in the U.S. and extradition. They would not be exempt from prosecution abroad, and would therefore find it unwise to travel outside U.S. borders. This is minor punishment indeed for heinous crimes, but it is unlikely that anything more severe could be achieved in the U.S. Even a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be vigorously opposed by the neocons.

Bail-out Bonuses

The bonuses paid by firms receiving bail-out funds from the U.S. has generated great controversy. While I consider it poor form, foolish, and bad public relations, I cannot generate the same sense of outrage, as the monies paid are a small portion of the bail-out funds. Outrage on this issue delays us from addressing the larger issue of how to make banking boring again, which might be sufficient to bring down compensation without adopting other ill-advised measures. Silicon Valley style compensation schemes would also be appropriate.

Cap-and-Trade

Congress’ attempt to pass a cap-and-trade bill is a sideshow to most of the real issues. When I outlined my thoughts on a solution at Actions to take on Greenhouse Pollution I included putting a price on greenhouse pollution (GP) as a minor item, and that is all it is because GP pricing will not drive changes unless the price is much higher than appropriate. Congress should get to work on the important tasks first. I should also write about cap and trade vs. a GP tax in a future commentary.

4 April 2009 — President Obama’s First 74 Days

I have yet to write much about the Barack Obama’s presidency so far (74 days so far). Though I voted for the Green Party as usual (Senator Obama being the certain winner in California at the time), I of course far preferred Senator Obama to Senator McCain. I have generally been pleased with President Obama’s first 74 days. His appointments have generally been reasonable on environmental and climate issues, and his actions in human rights and foreign policy have been generally good. Here are some exceptions to the good things:

I should probably write down my thoughts for later reflection on most of the above. My attention has been consumed elsewhere lately, but I hope that will soon change.

There are many things where it is still too early to know whether President Obama will do the right thing. For example, the military budget needs an obvious overhaul, but perhaps the first year is not the time for it. This year’s 4% increase is probably not warranted if Iraq and Afghanistan budgeting is still separately funded.

Perhaps now that the Bush era is over, it is time to state my opinion that our 43rd President was the worst in the nation’s history (though there may be some contenders from the 19th century that I am less familar with). In recent years, a runner up might be the 40th (despite the adoration which he receives from many).

5 April 2009 note: Today’s Washington Post had another reason to question President Obama’s Afghanistan policy: Which Way in Afghanistan? Ask Colombia For Directions. The provocation of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is compared to Colombian paramilitary forces:

Perhaps the most important parallel, though, is the lack of a strong central government. Colombia’s government has rarely held sway beyond Bogota’s nearly two-mile high plateau, and the frail Karzai administration in Kabul has a similarly short reach. As a result, Colombia has relied on brutal paramilitary forces to support a weak army, alienating much of the population in the process. In Afghanistan, that role is played by U.S. forces, which, although by no means as savage as the Colombian irregulars, have cost Afghanistan’s government support among a people famously hostile to foreign invaders.

15 March 2009 — Two Billion Cars

I try to select the books I read carefully, based upon reviews, perusal, etc. I cannot say whether I am successful or not, as I don’t have a proper control group of books. One recent indication is a book that I was asked to read and comment upon: Two Billion Cars by Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon. It was far worse than the average book I read.

Since I have previously experienced Dr. Sperling’s statements during CARB board meetings, I expected a real bias towards hydrogen and against EVs, which was promptly demonstrated, but the real problem was that the book’s solutions consisted primarily of platitudes and statements that are essentially content free. The book lacked specificity and detail.

In addition to bias against EVs and for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the authors have an even more serious bias against EV advocates, describing EV advocacy at CARB meetings as follows:

Battery electric vehicles have a rabid following. At periodic public hearings for California’s ZEV rule during the 1990s and in the early years of this century, electric vehicle advocates noisily proclaimed the righteousness of their cause with raucous cheering of allies and booing of skeptics. But, alas, the rhetoric and enthusiasm for electric vehicles has still not transformed into reality.

Words such as rabid and raucous seem out of place in my experience at CARB meetings, and even if noisy righteousness and booing occurred at a meeting I did not attend, that is no reason to so characterize all EV advocates that way. Moreover, righteousness may come from being right, a possibility the authors do not seem to consider.

The history of CARB’s ZEV program is abbreviated to just two paragraphs here, from which the above quote is taken (it is revisited in a similarly too terse fashion again in Chapter 7). It is a cartoon treatment, meant to brush aside the failures of CARB by transferring them to the vehicles. If it were not for the chance to vent at EV advocates, the authors might have omitted the ZEV program mention altogether. The last sentence above about electric vehicle reality is partially the result of author Sperling’s own work at CARB.

About the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? the authors write:

… But missing from the lineup was the one real culprit: the battery. … But the real problem once again was the cost and life the batteries. Ironically, battery electric vehicles faltered two centuries in a row or the same reason.

Author Sperling surely knows better, as he has heard (assuming he listened) frequent testimony at CARB meetings from RAV4-EV drivers and their happy experiences with the cost and lifetime of the batteries in their vehicles (my wife’s $42,000 RAV4-EV has 90,000 miles on the odometer and continues to perform well); where are the cost and lifetime problems?

He goes on to write about batteries:

Through the 1990s, entirely new battery technologies were developed and commercialized—nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, and more recently lithium-ion batteries—spurred by the energy demands of proliferating portable consumer products such as laptop computers and camcorders. But scaling up these new and improved battery technologies for use in cars has proved formidable. Even with continuing cost and performance improvements, the high cost and physical bulk of batteries discourages their use in cars. Into the foreseeable future, batteries won’t be cheap or compact enough to make battery-powered electric vehicles cost-competitive with full-sized, full-performance internal combustion engine vehicles.

The above is written as-if the authors are stuck in the 1990s, despite publishing their book in 2009. Again, does not the 2002 RAV4-EV, with its nickel metal hybrid batteries, reasonable cost, and good road record, challenge the authors’ misinformation on cost, bulk, and lifetime? Where is the scaling up problem? Similarly, a mere start-up (Tesla Motors) introduced lithium-ion battery technology to the market before this book was published, again making the authors’ scaling up criticism seem overblown. Moreover, NiMH batteries continue to be improved as hybrids proliferate. Consider the change from the first year Prius to later years reported at First Numbers on Hybrid Battery Failure: Also, there is a small factual error in the above quote: according to Wikipedia, nickel cadmium was invented in 1899, first went into produdction in 1906, and saw production in the U.S. as early at 1946. It is not a 1990s technology.

With more than 100,000 Honda hybrids on the road, the automaker told Newsweek that fewer than 200 had a battery fail after the warranty expired. That’s a 0.002 likelihood. Toyota says its out-of-warranty battery replacement rate is 0.003 percent—or one out of 40,000 Priuses—for the second generation Prius. Based on this rate, and the fact that very few of the second-generation Priuses have been driven beyond the warranty period, perhaps fewer than a dozen have had battery failures after the warranty expired. Replacement rates for the first generation Prius was closer to 1 percent.

To further dispel the batteries aren’t ready myth, consider that there are number of Priuses operating in taxi fleets, and they rack up very high mileage quickly as for example detailed in the report Toyota Prius taxi tops 340,000mi, dispels battery myth. As a member of CARB and the U.C. Davis Institute for Transportation Studies, author Sperling presumably knows these facts, or should. (There are differences betweeen the way NiMH batteries are used in hybrids and BEVs, which means that a straight extrapolation of miles is not appropriate, but my point is the inevitable improvement of quality and technology once it is brought to market that Two Billion Cars ignores.)

The authors go on to indicate that where pure battery vehicles have the greatest potential to succeed is in applications that call for smaller vehicles with less power and performance… Other goods fits include neighborhood and city cars… The suggestion that this is the best that battery vehicles can do is nowhere supported with evidence.

The authors title their fuel cell section The Holy Grail: Fuel Cell Vehicles, which simultaneously indicates their bias for FCVs (in the holy grail sense of earnestly wished or sought for), while introducing a freudian slip, in that other metaphorical meaning: This or that holy grail is seen as the distant, all-but-unobtainable ultimate goal for a person, organization, or field to achieve. For instance, cold fusion or anti-gravity devices are sometimes characterized as the holy grail of applied physics (quote from Crystalinks). In fact, fuel cell vehicles have serious limitations from a public-policy standpoint that the authors never discuss (such as the need for two to four times the electric power generation, which in the future primarily means two to four times the land area for wind and solar). This is a serious omission.

The authors do describe downsides for fuel cell vehicles, such as cost (the lifetime problem is not mentioned). They write, But for these costs to be realized, fuel cell systems must be produced in large volume. As with hybrids, it takes time to build manufacturing capability and markets. This is true, but I ask why is the same observation never made about battery-powered vehicles? Similarly Two Billion Cars suggests that government subsidize renewable hydrogen, but does not suggest subsidies for batteries. They show their bias for hydrogen again in the section Imagining Futurama III where FCVs are cited, but not BEVs except NEVs.

As another indication of the authors’ pro-hydrogen bias, consider the book’s cherry-picking assertion A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle operating on hydrogen made from natural gas generates about half as much as greenhouse gas as gasoline, taking into consideration the full energy cycle. They cite as a reference a Scientific American article that reads,

If hydrogen were produced from natural gas, the most common method today, and used in an efficient fuel-cell car, the total greenhouse gas emissions would work out to be about 110 grams per kilometer driven. This amount is somewhat less than the total emissions from a gasoline hybrid vehicle (150 grams per kilometer) and significantly less than those from today’s conventional gasoline cars (195 grams per kilometer).

Note that the authors use the worst gasoline number against the FCV instead of using the best; the NG-to-H2 powered FCV is not twice as good as existing gasoline technology. Their lack of specificity and clarity in writing misleads the reader.

When the authors write, Policymakers must overcome the temptation to prescribe and mandate any one particular solution, one of them should look in the mirror and examine his own hypocrisy. Dr. Sperling’s actions on CARB have been to implement a non-level playing field, tilted in favor of FCVs and against BEVs; most recently he fostered yet another delay in the ZEV requirement so that FCVs would have a chance to become viable, even though BEVs were already viable.

My major criticism of the book is what they left out, which is a coherent, convincing problem statement and solution. Basically the book boiled down to the observation that we need to do a lot of things. It listed several actions, but gave no indication of the degree of anything or any proof that those things would actually solve our problems. The book was written as if the authors were innumerate when it came to the future. This dumbing down cannot have been the result of publisher feedback, because numbers and graphs were allowed in the problem statement. The refusal to actually sketch possible futures in detail must then be a limitation of the authors. They could have partially made up for their refusal to lay out future scenarios by writing with cogency and perspicuity, but they did not; their writing is a muddle.

6 March 2009 — Ideology is the enemy

The US needs to take over any insolvent bank without dithering, but in the US the word nationalization is a pejorative. Ideology is always the enemy of practicality (doing the right thing).

There comes a time when people must admit their old gods are dead and that the old sacrificial rituals must be discarded. Inevitably they will be replaced with new gods and new sacrificial rituals, but one hopes that there will be an iota of practicality introduced in the substitution.

6 December 2008 — Actions to take on Greenhouse Pollution

I decided to write down, in outline form, my thoughts on attacking our greenhouse pollution problem. As this is just from memory, I am sure to have left out a few important things, but this memory dump represents most of my thinking on the subject.

We need to start working in parallel on many fronts:

  1. Adopt at the Federal level California’s policies, incentives, and regulations. These are for the most-part proven, politically acceptable solutions. These made California the most efficient state in the nation in terms of electricity use. Where better, more successful policies, incentives, and regulations have worked in other places, use those instead. Let’s not take needless risks: use what has already been shown to work. In a few years the result of New England’s alternative approach to decoupling will be known, and that might be substituted if it is more successful. Over time this should bring U.S. kWh per capita down to 7,000 to 8,000, (a 35% to 43% reduction). Total power generation should fall at least until 2023, and be essentially flat for a few years thereafter, despite population growth. The California approach is to go as low as the technology reasonably allows, so lower may be possible. This will also drive down natural gas use in the U.S. (one of the largest direct fuel uses). The feed-in tariff idea from Germany might be another proven approach to fold in. Examples of California policies, incentives, and regulations that could be adopted wholesale:
    • Title 24 building codes
    • Title 20 appliance standards
    • Decoupling/negawatts
    • Loading order
    • PV initiatives (e.g. SB1)
    • Solar hot water initiatives (e.g. AB1470)
    • Net-zero residential buildings in 2020, Net-zero commercial buildings in 2030 (2007 IEPR proposal)
    • AB32 total emissions cap (1990 level by 2020, 80% below 1990 by 2050)
    • SB1368 power plant cap (500 g CO2e / kWh), phased in over 30 years at Federal level
    • Renewable Portfolio Standard (CA SB 1078: 20% in 2010, 33% proposed in 2020, US: 20% in 2015, 33% in 2025)
    • AB1493 LDV efficiency standard (e.g. 40+ MPG in 2016)
    • Cold ironing (aka Green Ports) for ships
    • Smartway efficiency for trucking
    • Anti-idle trucking regulations and substitutes
    • Cool paints for cars and roofs
    • Water use regulations (affects electrical use)
    • Smart growth, congestion control, public transit, zoning changes, and other VMT reduction policies
    • Diesel particulate traps to control black carbon (a greenhouse pollutant and health issue)
    • Regulations for high GWP GHGs (e.g. SF6, NF3, etc.)
    • Landfill methane initiative
    • Biogas initiative, manure management
    • Tire inflation initiative
    • Blended cements
    • Diesel vehicle hybridization
    • Maybe Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (I’m yet to be convinced of this California initiative)
    • Time-Of-Use Net metering
  2. Use the purchasing power of the Federal government to drive deployment of key technologies:
    • Heating, cooling, lighting efficiency retrofits
    • Purchase renewable energy for all Federal needs
    • Purchase plug-in hybrids for Federal and USPS vehicle fleets
  3. Begin transition of U.S. passenger vehicle fleet to plug-in hybrids, targeting 50% of new vehicle sales being PHEVs in 2027, and 50% of the fleet being PHEVs in 2035. PHEVs should be V2G capable starting in 2015. Also transition class 1 to 6 trucks to PHEVs (class 7 and 8 trucks will probably remain diesel, transitioning to diesel-electric hybrids).
    • This long-lead-time action enables progress in the transportation sector once AB1493 standard starts to run out of steam.
    • It is synergistic with the RPS of #1.
    • Need to encourage public charging infrastructure (incentives, standards, funding), e.g. Coulomb Technology, Better Place.
  4. Begin deployment of Smart Grid technology.
    • This long-lead-time item enables V2G to play a role in the electric grid, and also allows renewables to increase their percentage of the grid over time (e.g. by allowing grid-aware appliances to modify their usage patterns).
  5. Vigorously enforce existing laws on coal.
    • Eliminate MTR, fly ash dumps, etc. by enforcing existing regulations.
    • Drive up the cost of coal mining and combustion.
  6. Require old coal plants to meet current standards (end grandfathering—40 years is long enough).
  7. After #5 and #6 and the carbon cap of #1, and the reduction in demand from the efficiency of #1, coal will be much less economic. At some point coal investors will seek a bail-out. At that point the U.S. should nationalize the coal plants to shut them down. (Better to let the investors lose out, but we know the U.S. government never lets investors get too badly hurt, so be realistic and take advantage of the situation.)
  8. Cogeneration in short-term where feasible
    • Issue: cogeneration lifetime may be short, as fossil fuels are phased out within 30 years, limiting ROI. CSP and geothermal cogeneration may be only opportunities, but those are research items.
  9. Implement policies, incentives, and regulations that favor rail transport over trucking. Encourage electrification of diesel rail lines
    • With the decline of coal, rail will have greater freight capacity. Make sure it is used and capacity is used to replace trucking, because rail is many times more efficient.
  10. Biofuels
    • Biofuels are idiotic for BAU transportation, but as a PHEV backup fuel, they work. E85 made from corn stover (the primary form of agricultural waste in the US) via cellulosic processes for 20% of VMT at 60 MPG is about right. This reduces our petroleum consumption to just 15% of 20% of 33% = 1% of today (33% from 60 MPG vs. 20 MPG). However, corn stover needs to checked against fertilizer increase to insure this is wise.
    • Most other biofuels belong in Research and Development sections, since they are not yet ready for deployment (e.g. algae biodiesel)
  11. Electrification of public transit:
    • High-speed (TGV-like) rail to replace short-distance air
    • Replace diesel buses with combination of plug-in hybrid, partial overhead electrification for opportunistic charging
  12. Improvements to public transit
    • Paris-like dedicated bus lanes in cities
    • Free public-transit in certain zones as in Portland
  13. Carbon price (e.g. tax+rebate, or cap+auction+rebate)
    • close loopholes in other actions
    • present proper economics (reduce externalities)
    • prevent backsliding (e.g prevent oil sands, shale, methane hydrates, etc.)
    • provisions to tax imports based on any carbon price advantage of producing nation (encourages other nations to adopt similar carbon prices)
  14. Improve agricultural practices
    • Limits on fertilizer use (CO2)
    • No-till
    • Organic incentives
  15. Adopt best-practice recycling (e.g. mixed stream, advanced separation) nationwide
  16. Implement cradle-to-cradle policies as in Germany (manufacturer responsible for product disposal)
  17. Development (funded at roughly 10% of deployment funding level)
    • Cellulosic conversion technologies
    • Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor
    • Wind-assist for container ships
    • Wind turbine improvements (e.g. higher/larger, tubercles, better conversion to electricity, etc.)
    • Off-shore deep-water wind technologies
    • Thermal Energy Storage (TES) for CSP—need to prototype Ausra’s technology, for example
    • Advanced heat pump technologies
    • CPV cost reduction
    • Urban wind technologies (e.g. Bil Becker turbines)
  18. Research (funded at roughly 2% of deployment funding level)
    • High-altitude wind
    • Alternatives to concrete
    • Lower CO2 production for steel
    • CSP and geothermal cogeneration
    • Regenerative shock absorbers for vehicles
    • Using V2G to support wind on grid
    • Advanced heat to electricity technologies (e.g. waste heat conversion)
    • Materials science
    • Ultracapacitors and batteries
    • New PV, CPV, CSP technologies
    • Grid energy storage
    • Ocean power technologies (wave, tide, etc.)
    • HVDC power grid for US
    • Thermal spallation drilling for deep geothermal
    • Algae biodiesel from atmospheric CO2 for jet fuel, shipping.
    • CO2 extraction from atmosphere technologies
    • Aerosol injection into stratosphere to compensate for aerosols lost from closing coal plants until 350 ppm achieved.
    • GreenFreedom-like wind-powered CO2 to hydrocarbon fuels for jet fuel and other non-electric transportation.
    • CCS for NGCC (not for coal)
    • Replacement/reduction technologies for NG in residential, commercial, and industrial uses
    • Miscanthus
    • Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass and similar work
    • Aircraft efficiency

Many of these are highly synergistic and don’t make as much sense in isolation. There is no single silver bullet. Only a broad approach can achieve the goal. Many items are long lead time as well, which is why they must be started today, and not serialized. It will take 30+ years to ramp up renewables, to change vehicle fleets, modify the grid, reduce VMT with smart growth, build public charging infrastructure, change our buildings, etc. These things must be started by 2010 to have any hope of contributing significantly by 2050.

21 November 2008 — A crazy idea for the economy

Note: this was originally an email that I decided to put here, dated when the email was sent.

One problem today is that no one can figure out who owns a particular mortgage, since it has been repackaged so many times. That makes renegotiation quite difficult to carry out in practice. However, the system is set up to deal with refinancing, so suppose we use that mechanism instead.

Suppose the Federal government simply offered new fixed mortgages at 4% interest rate during 2009, with the term equal to the term of the mortgage being refinanced. These mortgages would be subject to income verification and so on, and it would only be available for mortgages below a certain value (i.e. not benefit the wealthy) with only one refinance per individual (corporations not eligible). Existing mortgage holders would have a strong incentive to refinance to get the lower rate. After refinancing, they would have lower monthly payments, and be less likely to default. The money they save would also provide a fiscal stimulus to the economy, preventing the slide into depression. It should also cause bank mortgage rates (for people that don’t qualify for the Federal mortgages) to go down, and thereby housing prices to stabilize.

I think there is approximately $10 trillion of mortgage debt in the U.S. today. If the U.S. refinanced 80% of it, the U.S. debt would climb from $10 trillion to $18 trillion (in the form of 10, 20, and 30-year treasury bonds), but the interest on this debt would be offset by the interest received from the mortgages. Right now the yield on the 30-year bond is below 4%, so this would mean positive cash flow. However, if the Treasury tried to issue $8 trillion of new bonds, the interest rate would presumably climb. Let’s say it reaches 6%, which is 2% above what is being received. That means $160 billion of interest delta per year in the first year, slowly declining thereafter. Painful, but not out of the question. Since existing mortgage buyers get cash back from refinancing, they will want to reinvest that cash. There’s a good chance that they will invest it in Treasury bonds, which means bond rates should not rise much.

It also has the advantage of removing some toxic assets from bank balance sheets (refinancing makes them disappear).

18 November 2008 — Senator Lieberman

I wrote Senators Boxer and Feinstein suggesting that Senator Lieberman should not retain the chair of the Homeland Security and Covernmental Affairs Committee. Unlike calls for Democrats to punish Lieberman, my purpose was simple: I don’t think his views on homeland security and governmental affairs align with my own, and I would have preferred someone with a closer philosophy. Normally the senority rules of the Senate do no allow chairmanships to be determined by such considerations, but Lieberman’s presidential campaigning afforded a perfect excuse for the change.

The Democratic caucus in the Senate decided otherwise. I hope Lieberman will not be an impediment to reform on affairs of homeland security.

15 November 2008 — Thinking aloud about U.S. Automakers

Democrats are attempting to put together an aid package for U.S. automakers. I am uncertain whether this is appropriate, or whether it is better to allow reorganization under the protection of a bankruptcy court. Automakers claim that U.S. consumers will not buy vehicles from a company in bankruptcy, but the experience of many airline companies is that continued operation is feasible. Automakers would have to quickly move to have the court honor vehicle warranties, just as airlines quickly got approval to maintain frequent flyer programs. The real issue for the U.S. government is whether bankruptcy would cost the government more than a bailout. If bankruptcy transfers pension and health care obligations to the U.S., then a bailout could save the taxpayers money.

Democrats talk about government taking an equity stake in the automakers. Today General Motors’ market cap is only $1.8 billion. A $10 billion infusion of U.S. funds into GM as equity would result in 84% stake. That would be in effect a take-over. Nationalization produces a knee-jerk reaction in the U.S., and so I expect this direct approach would be avoided. That is unfortunate, because lesser measures are unlikely to result in the changes necessary for a sustainable business model at U.S. automakers.

6 November 2008 — One Hundred Days

Jim Gilliam set up White House 2. It is an attempt to keep Americans involved in the discussion on what we want to change. Unfortunately, there are flaws in the site’s approach. The 100 day honeymoon period is also too constraining, so here are my agenda suggestions, organized by time periods.

  • Before inauguration
    • Set up a commission to review all of President George W. Bush’s executive orders, regulatory acts, signing statements, and legislation. The commission should produce a prioritized list of items to rescind, modify, or improve. Afterward, look at President Ronald Reagan’s and President George H. W. Bush’s terms for things to undo.
  • 100 days
    • Direct all U.S. agencies to enforce existing law.
      • Direct EPA to comply with Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA.
      • Grant waiver to California for AB 1493 emissions standards.
    • End torture by U.S.
    • Rescind George Bush’s other inappropriate executive orders (e.g. warrantless wiretaps).
    • Restore habeas corpus in the U.S.
    • Begin the regulatory process to fix the flaws of Republican administrations.
      • Mercury standards
      • Tougher Federal CAFE standards
    • Get Congress to make grants to state governments as fiscal stimulus. The states are reducing spending now when they should be increasing to counteract the downturn.
    • Adopt California’s energy, environment policies, incentives, and regulations. This would make efficiency a priority for the nation.
      • Efficiency/negawatts first
      • Utility profit decoupling
      • California Title 20
      • California Title 24
      • Renewable Portfolio Standard
      • Emissions cap as in California AB 32
      • Limit new power plant emissions as in California SB 1368
    • Set up unit at Justice Department to investigate crimes against humanity by previous administration. Collect and preserve evidence, testimony, etc.
  • 1 Year
    • End mountaintop removal mining by enforcing existing laws.
    • Begin major hiring at Federal agencies, especially the EPA, for enforcing the nation’s laws.
    • Pass legislation requiring the FDA to regulate cosmetics. Ban toxic and dangerous substances in cosmetics.
    • Join the International Criminal Court.
    • Implement new financial regulations. Any operation that is too big to fail needs to be regulated. Most lenders and borrowers need to be regulated.
    • Direct all Federal agencies to buy only renewable power. Direct all Federal agencies to buy plug-in hybrids.
  • 2 Years
    • Pass new legislation preventing damage to the environment from mining.
    • Amend the Clean Air Act to phase-out the grandfathering of old power plants. All plants should meet current standards by 2030.
    • Pass legislation beginning a new HVDC transmission grid.
    • Pass legislation moving the U.S. to a smart grid with V2G capability.
    • Withdrawal from Iraq.
  • 4 Years
    • Begin legislation to switch U.S. regulation toward the precautionary principle, as in the EU.
    • Decide whether to prosecute George Bush, Dick Cheney, Ronald Rumsfeld, and others for crimes against humanity, either in the U.S., or by granting extradition the Hague.

What is not on this list?

  • Tax cut: Tax cuts are ineffective at stimulating the economy in the short term, and in the long term we need to return to more prudent fiscal policy.

5 November 2008 — Good News, Bad News

  • Good News
    • Senator Barack Obama elected President
    • California Proposition 2 passed
    • California Proposition 1A passed
    • Kay Hagan elected Senator for North Carolina
    • Mark Warner elected Senator for Virginia
    • Mark Udall elected Senator for Colorado
    • Tom Udall elected Senator for New Mexico
    • Jeanne Shaheen elected Senator for New Hampshire
    • Joan Buchanan, Marty Block, and Manuel Perez elected to California Assembly
    • Hannah Beth Jackson potentially elected to California Senate
  • Bad News
    • California Proposition 8 passed
    • California Proposition 5 failed
    • California Proposition 9 passed
    • Santa Clara Measure B failed
    • Senators McConnell (KY), Wicker (MS), Inhofe (OK) reelected
    • Senators Coleman (MN), Chambliss (GA), Smith (OR), Stevens (AK) potentially reelected
    • Senate remains hostage to Republican fillibuster
    • House Republican losses too low to protect against 2010
    • Too many California bond measures approved (too much debt)
    • Failing to achieve budget threshold in California Assembly (4 short) and Senate (1 short)

4 November 2008 — Red Plague Status

I am happy to see Senator Barack Obama elected President, but I see issues that temper that happiness. First, the Republican party did far better than was appropriate given the last eight years, which indicates it remains viable, unfortunately. Second, Senator Obama’s campaign had an enormous financial advantage over Senator McCain’s, which used public financing, something not typical for a Republican. Future Republican candidates will likely outspend Democrats. This will lead to an upward money spiral. Third, Senator Obama’s election was partially the result of extraordinary circumstances in the financial markets. Had the financial system failures come a few months later, the United States might very well have returned a Republican to the White House. All of these things point to the sad fact that the U.S. seems to still suffer symptoms of infection from Karl Rove’s Red Plague. The prognosis for recovery remains uncertain. I am not happy about that. Just as bacteria subjected to an incomplete dose of antibiotics mutate to develop resistance, I fear the Red Plague has been insufficiently beaten back to prevent a return. Unless President-elect Obama can administer a full dose of antibiotics, the fate of the United States is precarious.

2 November 2008 — World Financial System Reform

I support many of the items in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s call for world financial regulation as described in today’s Washington Post article Discord on Economies In a World Of Trouble. As George Monbiot observed, trying to have each individual tree control the monkeys that jump between trees doesn’t work. Unfortunately, President Bush is likely to wreck the effort with anti-leadership. In some ways the proposals may not go far enough: there should be a world regulatory agency for all trans-national corporations, not just trans-national financial corporations. However, the lack of a reasonable world government is an impediment to such efforts.

I am skeptical that the IMF is the appropriate agency, at least without some reforms.

14 October 2008 — Senator Obama’s Presidency Quest

I have been concerned that Senator McCain would be elected as President of the United States. I have tended to discount polls showing Senator Obama’s widening lead for two reasons: (1) the Bradley Effect; and (2) the ability of the Republicans to successfully slander and tarnish Democrats with false accusations during in the run-up to the election. I now see some hope for Senator Obama becoming President. First, the polls are beginning to show a spread sufficient to overcome the Bradley effect. Second, recent research suggests that the Bradley effect may be working in reverse in certain states where voters may actually want to vote for Senator Obama, but feel uncomfortable saying so. Third, the financial market crisis seems to have pushed voters into the Democratic party’s column. Fourth, either Senator McCain is inept at Republican slime tricks, or the fourth estate is less receptive to these tricks than in 2000 and 2004. I am therefore turning cautiously optimistic that the Republicans can be defeated.

It may be that this is simply an instance of Cory Doctorow’s observation:

Increasingly, the opportunity to define the truth has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. What’s more, the new Media Hyperbarons are corporations of such colossal wealth and power that they are guaranteed to support the status quo that gave rise to them.

where the Media Hyperbarons now see the Democrats as more appropriate to deal with financial panic.

Regardless of the cause for the Democrats’ current poll results, the need for a non-Republican approach to the financial crisis is clear. Senator McCain’s approach is reminiscent of the Republican response to the onset of the Depression. There they followed ideology and tightened when stimulus was required. As with medieval doctors and leaches, today the Republican prescription is always tax cuts, regardless of the illness. Republican tax cuts will only make it more difficult for the U.S. to sell debt to raise the money required to address the financial and greenhouse crises. Whether the world will continue to finance the U.S. is a major worry, regardless of which party occupies the White House, but it is less likely that it will do so under the Republicans.

The next question is whether the Democrats are capable of the changes necessary to successfully navigate the minefield that decades of Republican nonfeasance, malfeasance, corruption, and ideology has left behind. The last Democratic Presidency was not inspiring, but President Clinton was handicapped by Republican control of the Congress. Whether the Democrats can overcome Republican sniping and fear of antagonizing industry and commerce that must be reformed is uncertain, even with control of the White House and Congress.

13 October 2008 — Risk

Note: in the following comment, it would be more conventional to use the term investor than gambler. My personal preference is to reserve investor for venture capitalists, credit unions, and others whose investment is put to productive ends, as opposed to those are simply making side bets. The primary difference between the stock and bond markets and casinos are that the former have positive expected returns. In recent years, mortgage investing (a nominally productive end) has become intertwined with gambling, with toxic results.

Risk can be an externality, much as greenhouse pollution is an externality. In pursuit of larger returns, gamblers seek higher risk games. Even when the expected value of a gamble is positive, there is a chance that the gamble will turn out poorly: a gambling strategy with a 99% probability of being non-problematic each year will, on average, be problematic once every 100 years. A bad gamble affects the gambler, but under some circumstances, they may affect the wider financial system, as is happening in 2007-2008. At that point the gambler has externalized some of the consequences of his actions. Economics theory calls for externalities to be minimized, e.g. by imposing a cost that reflects the costs externalized. The FDIC fund is an example, though it is perhaps undercapitalized.

What is clear from recent events is that gamblers have been able to create new more risky games faster than government can keep up. Each externality adjustment occurs only in response to a crisis, after the public nature of the gamblers’ actions becomes apparent. What is needed is needed for the gambling markets is a precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is the appropriate standard for regulating pollutants, toxic chemicals in industry and consumer products, and it has become apparent that it should be the used in regulating financial markets. (The US, unlike the EU, has yet to accept the precautionary principle for regulating toxic substances—a major problem in its own.) Now would be a good time for the US and EU to begin to apply the precautionary principle. I do not expect it in the US, however. We never learn the real lessons that history teaches us. Our myths stand in the way.

8 October 2008 — The end of growth

If economists are right, the Paulson plan (Cash for Trash) will fail to end the liquidity crisis, and more drastic steps will be required. I cannot predict whether the next step will occur before or after 20 January 2009. If before 20 January, then it is likely to be a giveaway to financial institutions. If after, it depends on 4 November’s results, but what Senators McCain or Obama would do, I cannot predict.

However, I know what won’t be done, even though it is past due. We need move away from the growth is good myth. We need to invent a new economics not based upon growth or investment. This is a daunting task, and I have no concrete ideas on how such an economics should work at this point. However, it is still possible to begin to de-emphasize growth by eliminating tax code preferences for investment. We should return to taxing investment (capital gains, dividends, interest, etc.) on par with wages (and that applies for the income tax, the social security tax, and the medicare tax). This is less onerous that it sounds, as we should also be moving away from taxing wages at all, as in Tax Waste, Not Work, and we also should not tax trading of securities, but only at withdrawal of funds from investment accounts (like an IRA). Instead of a low long-term capital gain rate, implement a short-term trading sales tax (to discourage casino betting and speculation). The trading sales tax could be applied to leveraged investments to further discourage the activities that led to the financial crisis.

7 October 2008 — Federal Reserve to the Rescue

While the flawed Paulson plan is still waiting to be put into effect, the Federal Reserve is taking appropriate action. Today’s announcement that the Fed would buy short-term commercial debt will restore liquidity for commercial transactions, bypassing banks. Since banks are the problem, bypassing them reduces their ability to blackmail the U.S. Treasury with the threat of the economy further stalling if they don’t get enough Cash for Trash. If Paulson is willing to act in the interest of taxpayers (a big if), this should allow him to get a better deal, concentrating on what is sufficient for banks, independent of the rest of the economy.

I will try to explain in a subsequent comment why I think that the current crisis is not the time to reengineer the global financial system, even though that will eventually be necessary.

6 October 2008 — Geoengineering?

The article On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead came as a shock to me, and yet it had no information that wasn’t already available in the IPCC AR4. By pointing out that aerosol pollution, e.g. from coal power plants, has so far offset 75% of the warming that our greenhouse pollution has created, the article makes it clear just how difficult it will be to transition from today’s high-greenhouse, high-aerosol pollution world to a low-greenhouse, low-aerosol pollution world. Because aerosols have short atmospheric lifetimes, and greenhouse pollution is long-lived, eliminating fossil fuel use will create much higher temperatures during the transition. These higher temperatures may be sufficient to unleash further greenhouse feedback from permafrost, glaciation, etc. To maintain temperatures below these tipping points, it may be necessary for the transition period to consist of low-greenhouse, high-aerosol pollution until such time as we can reduce the atmospheric load of greenhouse gases well below current levels. This would involve the deliberate emission of aerosols into the atmosphere for the purpose of reducing incident solar irradiation. I hope that an alternative to such geoengineering can be found, but at this point I am unable to see one.

5 October 2008 — Off-site Comments 3

I don’t plan to do as many off-site comments from now on, so I’m wrapping up my recent blogging for Climate Progress with this list.

2008.09.20 Coal-to-Liquids in Defense Authorization Bill
2008.09.23 The savings from cutting California’s carbon outweigh the costs
2008.09.26 Pickens’ natural gas plan makes no sense and will never happen
(Reprinted at Pickin’ on the plan)
2008.09.26 Iceland gives hydrogen the cold shoulder
(Reprinted at Iceland gives hydrogen the cold shoulder)
2008.09.27 U.S. geothermal is hot

4 October 2008 — Letter to the Los Angeles Times

Note: Sent 1 October 2008, but not printed. The Los Angeles Times has a 150-word limit, which precluded sketching a solution. Had there been space, I would have suggested:

  1. Allow the EPA to enforce the Clean Air Act (as directed by the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA), e.g. garnering much tougher standards than the new CAFE;
  2. Federal adoption of California policies, incentives, and regulations (e.g. Negawatts first);
  3. Convert the US passenger fleet to PHEVs from 2010 to 2050;
  4. Smart grid with V2G build out;
  5. HVDC grid build out;
  6. Federal Renewable Portfolio Standard;
  7. Fossil power plant buy-outs / shutdowns to remove generation no longer needed from #1, #2, #6;
  8. Reforestation;
  9. Improved agricultural practices;
  10. Biofuels from Ag residue (only) for PHEV backup fuel;
  11. Use U.S. trade leverage to encourage countries that export to the U.S. to adopt greenhouse pollution policies such as our own.
  12. Use U.S. government purchasing power to jumpstart deployment where possible.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s opinion piece on Tuesday (The green bubble bursts) illustrates well America’s inability to deal with her problems. Instead getting to work on solutions to the problem, we turn everything into political bickering and finger pointing. Nordhaus and Shellenberger have no solution to global warming. They propose only feel-good investments in R&D that will do nothing to address the gigatonnes of greenhouse pollution produced by existing sunk-cost plant. Without a plan to shut down our existing dirty energy, we will reach a tipping point in less than thirty years, and yet all they can talk about is new energy, ignoring what is already sufficient to ruin our atmosphere. Because they see no politically acceptable solution, they snipe at those who are working to make the solutions politically acceptable. Solving the problem necessarily means replacing our existing infrastructure starting in 2009. Now is not the time for research; it is a time for action.

3 October 2008 — Plug-ins and the Grid

When people first think about plug-in cars (both Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles, PHEVs, and pure Battery Electric Vehicles, BEVs) their first reactions are about suitability to their personal usage. A little further on, people often wonder about whether the US power grid can support a fleet of plug-ins. Here we look at that question.

An important first question is how long will it take for plug-in vehicles to be significant to the grid. How long will the transition from Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles (ICEVs) to Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) to PHEVs take? (Caveat reader: predictions usually say more about the seer than the future.) The diffusion of new technology into the marketplace is well studied. It generally follows something called an S-curve because it vaguely resembles a stretched out letter S. This is mathematically modeled by the Fisher-Pry equation, which has two parameters, the year the technology reaches 50% market penetration, and the number of years to go from 10% to 50%. The S-curve has a very gentle slope at first, and then rises sharply, and then levels off to asymptotically approach 100%. To get an idea of the long tails at the beginning and end of the curve, consider that Honda introduced the Insight in the US in 1999 (the Prius came in 2000), and hybrids only reached 2% market share in 2007. Extracting the Fisher-Pry parameters from such a curve is error-prone, but it appears the HEV technology will have something like a 7-year 10% to 50% time. If we presume that the PHEV curve has the same parameter, and starts in 2010:
PHEV S-curve
This is for new vehicle sales. Plug this into a simple model for vehicle retirement and sales, and scale it with population growth:
PHEV Fleet
It takes a while to change the US passenger vehicle fleet.

With this data, let’s look at how much power it takes, using 2050 as the most challenging date, with a US population of 420 million projected. If passenger Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) per capita remains at 9,300 (it had been growing slightly until gasoline prices rose), then in 2050 the US will have a VMT of 3.9 trillion miles (15% of the distance to Alpha Centauri). If this were all electric (unlikely, but a worse case), and plug-ins required 300 Wh/mi at the wall plug and 324 Wh/mi at the power plant (using 92.7% for grid efficiency), then 1,263 TWh will be required to power the vehicle fleet. However, let’s presume that only 80% of PHEV miles are powered by the electric grid and the other 20% are powered by the liquid backup fuel (e.g. E85). Then 1,014 TWh are required in 2050. To put this in context, the US generated 4,065 TWh in 2006, of which 3,691 TWh was customer consumption. The 2050 energy required by plug-ins is a fraction of what we generate today.

Next, please note that we could achieve more than 1,180 TWh of electricity conservation in this country by 2050. Investing in energy efficiency is the equivalent to investing in power plants, and demonstrably cheaper. Amory Lovins coined the term negawatts for this. A simple, but plausible, negawatts model, based on what has already been achieved in 10 states, suggests 1,738 TWh of energy savings in 2050. We could power 2050 plug-ins simply with the energy we saved by applying already developed policies at the Federal level. However, we are much better off using this 1,738 TWh to close coal power plants, and generate renewable energy for plug-ins instead, so let’s continue on.

EPRI PHEV Charging Using Off-Peak Power Is it necessary to build new generation for plug-ins at all? Not for a long time, and surprisingly little if tomorrow’s grid looks like today’s. Plug-ins would then primarily charge at night, e.g. from 9pm to 6am. Of course there will be some daytime charging, but the bulk will be while people sleep and because electricity is cheaper then with time-of-use metering. Nighttime charging is helpful because the US grid has spare capacity at night. Consider the figure at the right from EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) looked at the US grid region by region in the US and concluded that 73% of cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans could be supported by the existing power generation infrastructure. In the model presented above, the vehicle fleet exceeds 73% PHEVs in 2040, though 73% is an average over multiple regions, some of which have lower thresholds for new generation. PNNL’s projection is, however, based upon burning of additional fossil fuel (primarily natural gas) in existing power plants, and so this scenario does represent additional greenhouse pollution. How much? The Wells-to-Wheels (WTW) emissions of the 2002 Toyota RAV4 2WD Automatic gasoline vehicle (GV) is 484 g CO2e/mi. The WTW emissions of the 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV are 236 g CO2e/mi when powered by the 2006 US grid. (The WTW model is GREET 1.7 from Argonne National Laboratory, as run by the EPA/DOE and reported on their website.) This is despite 49% of the 2006 grid being coal-powered. If PNNL is correct that additional plug-in electricity would come from primarily natural gas, then greenhouse pollution would be substantially less. Still, by 2050 the US needs to reduce its emissions by 80%, and even natural gas powered plug-ins could benefit from switching to renewable energy.

Selected data from www.fueleconomy.gov
Vehicle Air Pollution
Make/Model Year Engine Fuel Greenhouse† Other‡
† Tonnes CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year (15,000 miles)
‡ 1 = worst, 10 = best
Honda Civic 2008 ICE Gasoline 5.8 6
Honda Civic CNG 2008 ICE CNG 4.9 9
Honda Civic Hybrid 2008 HEV Gasoline 4.0 9
Toyota Prius 2008 HEV Gasoline 3.6 8
Toyota RAV4 2002 ICE Gasoline 7.2 2
Toyota RAV4-EV 2002 BEV US Electric Grid 3.5 10
Toyota RAV4-EV 2002 BEV California Grid 2.3 10

Consider fueling plug-ins (BEVs and PHEVs) entirely with renewable energy. Plug-ins will be able to charge when renewable energy is available and pause when there is a lull. Eventually this will be accomplished with smart grid technology, but cheap hacks can make this happen even before we have a smart grid (for example, the start-up Coulomb Technologies controls charging with cellular technology). 12,500 vehicle miles per year is and average of 34 miles/day. At 300Wh/mi at the plug, the vehicle needs 10.2kWh to recharge. From a 208V, 32A circuit it takes only 1.5h to recharge. The ability to take 1.5h of power anywhere in an 9h window provides quite a bit of flexibility for wind. Moreover, an plug-in need not be fully charged to be useful. A PHEV can always fall back on its range extending liquid fuel, and a BEV usually has enough range that a full charge is not needed every day. Vehicle software would give the driver some control over whether to demand a full charge from the grid or not.

If we choose wind as the renewable energy source for plug-ins, what is the requirement? In many locations, Wind tends to generate produce best at night, which suits plug-in charging, but here we assume a flat time-of-day profile.

Stanford wind expert Mark Jacobson writes,

Wind speeds 7 m/s or higher are needed for the direct cost of wind to be competitive over land with other electric power sources (Jacobson and Masters, 2001). Further, 13% of land outside of Antarctica has such wind speeds at 80 m, and the average wind speed over land at 80 m worldwide in locations where the mean wind speed is 7 m/s or higher is 8.4 m/s (Archer and Jacobson, 2005). Finally, the resulting capacity factors for 7-8.5 m/s wind speeds combined with the existing turbine considered here (a 5 MW turbine with a 126 m diameter rotor), are 0.294-0.425, which encompass the measured capacity factors, 0.33-0.35, of all wind farms installed in the U.S. between 2004-2007 (Wiser and Bolinger, 2008).

Using this data, to generate an average of 944 TWh from 9pm to 6am, requires 170,000 5MW wind turbines (for comparison the US produced 324,750 aircraft from just 1939-45). At $5 million each, this is $31 billion per year for 30 years. This is quite a bargain compared to what we spend in Iraq (the $3 trillion war, currently costing $11 billion per month). Note the assumption that the wind turbines generate plug-in electricity only 9 hours of the day, boosting the number required by a factor of 2.7×. Note also that during the other 15 hours of the day, these same turbines will generate 1,582 TWh for our offices while we work, helping to rid us coal and natural gas. One question is how can the US grid absorb 1,582 TWh of wind during the day. Kempton and Tomić have an answer in their paper Vehicle-to-grid power implementation: From stabilizing the grid to supporting large-scale renewable energy, where they write

Our calculations suggest that V2G could stabilize large-scale (one-half of US electricity) wind power with 3% of the fleet dedicated to regulation for wind, plus 8-38% of the fleet providing operating reserves or storage for wind.

Thus plug-ins allow 50% wind energy on the US grid via V2G, a technology that has already been prototyped.

If wind is not sufficiently reliable, there is a renewable technology that is. Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) with Thermal Energy Storage (TES) could soon be generating renewable power 24 hours a day. Ausra’s whitepaper, Solar Thermal Power As the Plausible Basis of Grid Supply, suggests their CSP+TES technology could generate 92% of the U.S. grid 365×24 at 7.8 cents per kWh (the rest could be supplied by existing hydro). Perhaps their cost estimates are optimistic, but this is an important result nonetheless. The TES actually helps lower the cost by allowing them to depreciate the turbines over 24h generation instead of just 8-12h each day. Thus we could power plug-ins with CSP instead of wind (though the best time to plug them in would be daytime). Wind is probably a better match, but CSP is an option. CSP is being built today at increasingly competitive costs per kWh. Stirling Dish systems look especially cost effective right now, but lack TES. 500-850 MW of Stirling CSP is being deployed for Southern California Edison, and 300-900 MW for San Diego Gas & Electric.

Negawatts, Wind, CSP, and CSP+TES are likely to be the core components of the US grid as it evolves under pressure to reduce greenhouse pollution, with other renewable technologies being introduced as they are ready for deployment (e.g. geothermal, tidal, and wave). In the table below, prepared for the California Public Utilities Commission, the price of new renewable power is on par with fossil power:

E3 modeling for California Public Utilities Commission
Power Source Busbar cost† Greenhouse
Pollution‡
† ¢ per kWh
‡ gram CO2e per kWh
Biogas 8.55
Wind 8.91
Gas CCCT 9.38 367
Geothermal 10.18
Hydro 10.53
Coal ST 10.55 822
Coal IGCC 11.48 773
Solar Thermal 12.65
Nuclear 15.32
Biomass 16.48
Coal IGCC with CCS 17.32 88
Gas CT 50.15 574

A plausible scenario for the future (not a prediction!) is illustrated in the chart below. Nuclear is left constant in the scenario because of the controvesy over its use, and because of its cost competitiveness today. Note that Negawatts allows US generation to actually drop through 2023, despite PHEV and BEV deployment.

US Electricity Scenario

The negawatts model used above is quite simple: we start out with two groups: efficient and inefficient. The efficient group initially consists of the 10 most efficient states (average 7,774 kWh per capita), and the inefficient group initially consists of the 40 least efficient states and the District of Columbia (average 13,947 kWh per capita). New population growth each year goes into the efficient group (presuming that all new infrastructure is build to the standards of the efficient states). Also, each year 5% of the inefficient group migrates to the efficient group (representing remodels, retrofits, upgrades, etc.).

The key conclusions from this look at Plug-ins and the grid are that plug-ins do not stress the grid; they aid it in its transition to renewable energy.

2 October 2008 — Climate Protection Competition

We have the technology to stop global warming. What we lack is the will to deploy that technology. What would it take to build a consensus, indeed a groundswell, for immediate, sustained deployment?

Anthropogenic global warming is a crisis that must be addressed on a timescale unprecedented for civilization. It threatens the food, water, and shelter of much of humanity. It similarly threatens many of Earth’s species with extinction. The sort of thinking that created the problem is not the best way to solve it in the limited time we have. We are bombarded with possible approaches and technologies, but we do not evaluate these choices, and many do not scale. Without evaluation there is no urgency. We delay. We need a blueprint that puts our choices in a context of an overall solution so that the scale of each is apparent. We do not design and construct a building by having four separate teams for each wall, and one for the roof, because the resulting parts will not work together. Given time, such ad hoc approaches might be melded together, but we do not have time for this today. A blueprint to follow is needed to guide our efforts to a timely solution.

Much of the world watched the Olympics in August. We love competition and the triumph of the best. Could we harness such a force to encourage climate survival? Like the Nobel and X prizes, this competition could have a more than a medal—something like $1 million to motivate entrants. Imagine then a competition held every few years, where the entries are not athletes, but teams with blueprints for protecting Earth’s climate by ending greenhouse pollution. The prize will be awarded to the team that submits the most feasible, comprehensive, and cost-effective blueprint for returning atmospheric carbon-dioxide to 350ppm while at all times keeping the level below 450ppm and the temperature rise below 2°C. These levels are chosen to avoid the devastating social, economic, and ecological impacts of global warming in the short-term and long-term. Teams are expected to be multidisciplinary and create models to show how their blueprints evolve by year and affect the climate, economy, land use and habitat, food and water supply. They must address all significant greenhouse pollutants.

The competition between team plans will spark public interest. The competition of blueprints also makes the lack of alternatives apparent: if a blueprint exists where delay is feasible it would win; the lack of such any such alternative will make the choices before us black and white. The process is more important than the specific winning entry.

The most important benefit is public awareness and pressure on policymakers. If the competition process garners sufficient attention and illustrates how calamitous delay might be, then policymakers will also find it difficult to ignore the winning blueprint(s). The winner will be a de facto set of initial policy choices. It is a follow-on to the IPCC process, framed as a competition to gather maximum visibility, public awareness and participation. Without such a blueprint, policy makers may be expected to respond in a Business As Usual fashion.

Today, policymakers and the public both fail to recognize how long it will take to address greenhouse gas emissions. A mathematical proof that no quick-fix exists is not possible. Only by considering a diverse range of alternatives, each themselves well-developed and considered, will the imperative need for immediate action become self-evident. This will become apparent when diverse plans are created and compete, and no feasible plan allows for procrastination.

As example, consider some possible details. Blueprints would be judged by a panel of 15 experts drawn from the fields of science and engineering. Judging would be, in order of priority, feasibility, accuracy, comprehensiveness, economic development, fairness, habitat preservation, and safety margin (how far below 450 ppm atmospheric CO2 levels stay and the earlier that levels return to 350 ppm).

The panel shall choose the best blueprint based upon the above criteria in the order above. If multiple plans are reasonably equally feasible, they will compete next upon accuracy, comprehensiveness, etc. Slight differences in judged feasibility or subsequent criteria would not eliminate a contender, but would allow it to advance, but the difference could remain as a factor for the judges to consider.

The judges should be chosen early, and specify their own detailed rules within three months. An excellent place to seek judges would be members of the IPCC Working Group III.

Each team shall give a public presentation on its plan after its submission. This is expected to generate media coverage and public attention. The panel shall organize its judging process such that winnowing process (feasibility, accuracy, comprehensiveness, etc.) is spread out, further generating media attention at each step. This competition is similar to the Olympics, but with the results affecting most of humanity. Thus interest in the process could be enormous.

The existence of multiple blueprints all demonstrating the difficulty and imperativeness of the task ahead is expected to make non-action by the World’s policymakers impossible. They may choose to construct a different blueprint using the best components of the leading contenders, or create their own alternatives, but the exploration of the solution space is certain to be valuable input to the choices to be made in the coming decade.

Identification of the technologies most suitable to addressing the crises is likely to act as a spur to investment in these technologies, independent of policymaker decisions.

If possible, blueprints should be first published in a peer-reviewed journal that agrees to cooperate. If a peer-reviewed journal does not cooperate, the blueprints will be published on a website for public scrutiny. Public debate upon the plans is important goal for this competition. After the 2012 submission deadline, teams will be required to make a public presentation of their blueprints at three day intervals. There will be one round of questions and clarifications issued by the panel to the participants, who will respond by 2013.

The judges would conduct a series of eliminations during 2013 considering the priority order of selection criteria, leading to an eventual winner (with perhaps silver and bronze winners as well).

The process would be repeated every 4 to 7 years, so that new information, technology, progress or the lack therefore, can be factored into the competition.

1 October 2008 — Really Fixing the Credit Markets

The rush to fix the credit markets left little time for proper consideration. As I read more, it becomes apparent that the Paulson† plan is not the right fix, so I am reversing my position, stated just yesterday.

I was somewhat convinced by comments that the Paulson plan lacks infusions of equity to institutions with undercapitalized balance sheets. Then George Soros’ Financial Times comments appeared, and presented a alternative with several desirable characteristics. It is time for a more serious examination of the alternatives. Congress should remain in session to examine alternatives based upon equity infusions.

† Given the fig-leaf nature of the Frank-Dodd changes to the plan, it still deserves the Paulson moniker.

30 September 2008 — Fixing the Credit Markets

To restore the operation of credit markets, the U.S. Treasury proposes to buy questionable debts. It stinks. It seriously stinks. And yet, I cannot think of an alternative. Congress should hold its nose and pass authorizing legislation. Then it should get to work on making sure it doesn’t happen again through regulatory authority and law, and making sure that those responsible are not rewarded (within the limits of Constitutional limits on bills of attainder and ex post facto laws of course). Congress should end the casino nature of U.S. financial markets, and force them to concentrate on activities with value to the public.

I am disappointed that some Democrats are conditioning their votes upon Republicans joining them on voting for authorization. I understand that Republican votes are necessary to pass the legislation, given some Democrats’ objections, but for Representatives to vote against the legislation because of insufficient support from the minority faction is derelict devotion to partisan advantage.

I support a move away from the current methods of finance, but the collapse of the entire system at once is too calamitous a method to effect that change.

Update: I wrote the above before reading Mussolini-Style Corporatism in Action: Treasury Conference Call on Bailout Bill to Analysts (Updated), which, if true, certainly is reason to reconsider supporting authorizing legislation.

27 September 2008 — Presidential Election

I have not commented this year about the election campaigns. First, as I am not a registered Democrat, I was not being called upon to cast a ballot in California’s Democratic primary, and so I took in the winter and spring as a semi-interested voyeur. Second, I didn’t find there to be a lot of difference between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. I tended to think Clinton had a slightly better chance at fending off Republican dirty tricks, but political tactical ability is not something I am well-qualified to judge.

For the Presidential election, there is no question that the Republican party is unacceptable, and so I have found little reason to seriously compare Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. Today, Republicans are simply unqualified to be President. That’s a strong assertion, which I will justify in a moment.

I have also had less interest in this election because it seemed probable to me that Senator John McCain would win. I find it shocking that the election is this close after the last eight years. Unfortunately the Democrats have been inept in their Presidential bids, and apparently Americans are more accepting of Evil than ineptness.

Here I stress the party affiliation of the candidates over their individual merits. I believe that part of the problem in American politics of the last few decades, is that Americans, unlike Europeans, do not realize that in voting for a President, they are not really voting for an individual, but for a Party. The President is just one part of a package, because with the President comes a whole set of members of the same party who then occupy the appointed positions in government. Thus with Bush2 you got the junior folks of the Ford/Bush1 administrations taking over. During Bush2 these people were even more of a problem than Bush2 himself (e.g. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Rove, Ashcroft, Yoo, Gonzalez, Cox, and so on). Senator McCain himself may not be so bad (though I would say he is seriously confused), but his administration will necessarily call upon the Republican party bench to fill the appointed positions of government, and those people are largely anti-science, deniers, ideological, militaristic, and dangerous. This bench is exactly the sort of people who are hostile to the very functions of government that they would be called upon to oversee, just as Christopher Cox has done nothing at the SEC to avert or mitigate the subprime crisis, because he is ideologically incapable of of believing the markets are not best left alone. This is the sort of person that Senator McCain would have available to fill appointments.

My hopes for this election are not for the White House, but that the Senate goes 57-43 and that with occasional help from 3 Republican Senators (e.g. Collins, Snowe, Specter), the Democrats might prevent the worst of a Republican presidency. Of course Lieberman might join the Republicans in 2009 if the Democrats take away his Homeland Security Committee chairmanship, but he would fall into the Collins, Snowe, Specter block then. Voinovich and Hagel might occasionally lend a hand, but they are likely to be pretty loyal to their fellow Senator, at least at first. If the Democrats cannot muster 60 on important votes, they will continue to get rolled by the White House, just as they do today. Today even the House gets rolled by the Republicans, and they don’t have super-majority voting.

The worst prospect of all from this election is the Supreme Court. A single Republican appointment to the Supreme Court could easily change the balance to the point where there would be critical mass to return to Lochner era jurisprudence (today Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, Alito lean this way), which would effectively end the ability of the Federal government to regulate much, including greenhouse pollution. Would Republicans, if elected, nominate someone like Janice Rogers Brown? Maybe not, but possibly. Would the Democrats object? Certainly. Could the Senate Democrats be rolled yet again? Possibly. The Senate numbers are quite different, but I am always amazed at how ineffective the numbers are for the Democrats.

I did watch last night’s debate, primarily to get an idea of what we might have to suffer during 2009-2013. I have had little exposure to either candidate’s personality before, as I so rarely watch television, and get all of my news either online or from public radio. I found it difficult to see any honor in Senator John McCain’s debating. He seemed the usual Republican trickster out to slime his rival. Senator Barack Obama was somewhat better, but still was interested in attacking where he could, but without as much venom. I found no inspiration at any point in the 90 minutes. I did not leave feeling that either answered the questions put to them very well.

Unlike many, I consider Senator McCain to be the weaker on foreign policy. Anyone who could not see the problems in invading Iraq in 2003 that were obvious even to me at the time (see Iraq Predictions) is too naive to occupy the White House.

I remain concerned that neither the Republicans or Democrats will properly address global warming during 2009-2013. I am certain that a Republican White House would do less well than a Democratic White House, but I also doubt that a Democratic White House will get a passing grade, especially after Congress passes a collateralized debt obligation bail-out. Though the crisis is probably the result of incompetence, rather than design, it will well serve the Republican agenda of impoverishing government, and prevent it from accomplishing much. That goal alone is sufficient to warrant the charge of evil.

14 September 2008 — Off-site Comments 2

2008.04.16 National Journal on the EPA Tailspin
2008.04.17 Leaving No Small Stone Unturned
2008.04.21 For Nanosolar, the Future Is Municipal Solar Power Plants
2008.05.04 California tightens building standards yet again
2008.05.05 Communities Basing Decisions on Climate Impact
2008.05.28 White House Rebuked over EPA Waiver
2008.06.25 Delaware to get offshore wind
2008.06.26 The CAFE we could have had
2008.06.28 VW to join Toyota, GM with 2010 plug-in Hybrid
2008.07.01 White House disses Supreme Court, kills $2 trillion savings
2008.07.09 Video: The Folly of Liquid Coal
2008.07.11 Plug-in Hybrid FAQ
2008.07.18 The Desolation of Coal
2008.08.01 Massachusetts mandates more renewable energy
2008.08.23 Your TV should not be a couch potato too
2008.09.10 California targets sprawl to reduce CO2
2008.09.13 Book Review of Physics for Future Presidents, Part 1
2008.09.14 Book Review of Physics for Future Presidents, Part 2

31 March 2008 — Off-site Comments

I’ve been writing things that have been posted in other forums, and neglecting this page. I intend to return to writing here, as writing to influence others is unsatisfying. However, for completeness here are some of my off-site comments:

2006.10.26 Prop 87: A Reader Responds
2007.11.29 Part I: California dreamin’ is becoming a reality
2007.12.03 Part II: California dreamin’ is becoming a reality
2007.12.13 California looks for yet more clean energy
2007.12.17 Judge Rejects Detroits Clean Car Act Attack
2007.12.30 More on White House overruling EPA staff
2008.01.04 California sues EPA
2008.01.11 Confusing short-term variability with a long-term trend
2008.01.24 Letter to Mary Nichols about her San Jose Mercury commentary Hydrogen’s benefits as fuel becoming obvious
2008.01.30 Here comes the sun, at least to CA and NJ
2008.01.31 California Solar Applications Brighten
2008.02.08 Understanding the Global Warming Disinformation Campaign
2008.03.09 California Cars to Get Global Warming Stickers
2008.03.11 The EPAs Tailspin
2008.03.13 Killing the Electric Car Again — Part 1
2008.03.14 Killing the Electric Car Again — Part 2
2008.03.21 Comments to CARB on ZEV2008 Decision
2008.03.24 Strike a blow against Palm Oil Madness
2008.03.30 California Cuts Zero Emission Vehicles 70-79%

21 July 2007 — Letter to CARB chair Mary Nichols

As the new chair of the Air Resources Board, I believe you have a chance to make some needed changes in direction for California’s air regulations. My particular concern is the ARB’s ZEV mandate. This program has become severely dysfunctional, and should be looked at anew. Your arrival at the ARB presents this opportunity.

The ARB is tasked with ensuring California’s air is safe and clean, and recently with reducing our greenhouse gas emissions (AB32). The ZEV mandate was created to address clean air concerns, but it has become something quite different: it has become a fuel cell vehicle research program. The ARB’s job is clean air, not research, and I urge you to return to your mandate to provide us clean air, and not try to manage automaker research. The ARB may have entered into the ZEV “Alternative Path” believing it was a development program, not research, but the reality is now painfully apparent with the schedules now proposed by your staff in their latest recommendations. I support fuel cell research, but not as a gambit to delay clean air. Imagine if someone had succeeded in aborting California’s wind and solar initiatives, promising that fusion reactors would be better. In energy this fortunately did not happen, but in vehicles, fuel cells research has aborted real progress. You must not allow this to continue.

The entire ZEV program has become a sort of Rube Goldberg device, with gold, silver, bronze levels, credit ratios, Type I to IV, sliding scales for large vs. small automakers, and so on. Your staff proposes to further tinker with this contraption in response to automaker pressure. This will not result in clean air. The Rube Goldberg device should be dismantled, not tinkered with. In science, it can take years or decades to understand the consequences of fairly simple physical laws and systems. With a system as complicated as the ARB has created, no one can predict the consequences. It is an irresponsible approach that only serves to keep the ARB’s goals unmet.

The most direct and transparent method for clean air and reduced greenhouse gases (AB32) is a cap-and-auction system. ARB would cap the emissions of NOx, SOx, PM, and other pollutants, and also greenhouse gases for AB32, that California would tolerate each year, and then auction permits to automakers for new vehicles sales. Each vehicle would be certified for emissions based on current testing methods. To sell a vehicle, the automaker would need to possess permits for each of its pollutants for the years of the vehicle’s life (e.g. 10 years). By decreasing the pollutant cap over time, the ARB would be able to clean California’s air. It has been 40 years since the ARB was founded, and yet we still have smog in our cities, despite all the progress that has been made. Is it not time to consider an approach that is far more certain to achieve our air quality goals?

There are improvements that could be made to such an approach (e.g. credits for automakers that take old vehicles off the road, separating pollutants into urban and total, and taking into account the greening electricity supply over time for plug-ins), but this letter is already long, and I would prefer to elaborate if there is interest in this approach.

To be politically acceptable, this can be made revenue-neutral by rebating the auction revenue for a given year equally among the new vehicle purchasers for that year, thereby offsetting the auction cost markup of the automakers. The purchaser of a clean vehicle would see a net price reduction, and the purchaser of a dirty vehicle would pay a premium. This is appropriate.

This system also puts the automakers in competition with each other to produce cleaner vehicles. Today the automakers have only the incentive to meet quotas and limits, with the result that California’s air is dirtier and warmer than it would be if automakers compete.

This system also unifies the handling of conventional pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions, which I believe is an important simplification.

The attraction of ZEVs for the automakers under such a cap-and-auction system is obvious: there are no auction fees to be paid for urban pollutants, and very little for non-urban pollutants (since ZEVs, or BEVs at least, are so efficient). Since the pollutant cap would decrease with time and vehicle volumes would increase, ZEV technology would become increasingly important to meeting the targets. Initially plug-in hybrids would provide the necessary pollutant reductions (based on a standardized daily driving profile where some initial number of miles are zero emission). Eventually full ZEVs would become most appropriate. There are other, early ways to reward ZEVs within the auction system, but again I can elaborate depending upon your interest.

The best way to illustrate the working of such a system would be with an example. Let me know if you would like me to provide one.

If it is not possible to replace the existing ZEV mandate, I urge you to consider the above approach for AB32 implementation, and then radically simplify the ZEV mandate, eliminating the distinction between the original and Alternative Path, so that plug-ins can be returned to service while CARB conducts its fuel cell vehicle research program.

Lest you think my proposal is anti-ZEV, let me relate that my wife and I both drive battery electric vehicles, one of which, a RAV4-EV, was only produced in response to the ARB’s 1990s ZEV mandate. We are just as passionate about these vehicles as any the drivers seen in the movie Who Killed the Electric Car, if you have seen that. As much as I would love the ARB to simply require the production of more ZEVs, I believe the above approach is a much more straightforward response to the ARB’s legislative mandate and actually more likely to get ZEVs of some sort back on California’s roads.

3 May 2007 — Hydrogen Highways: Wanton Mighty Diversion

Industry and many politicians and pundits tout the hydrogen economy as the answer to the transportation portion of our global warming problem. We just have to wait until it is ready, they say. The real value of hydrogen to these folks is that it is so distant in the future, they need not do much other than research today.

Hydrogen can store energy, but the energy has to come from somewhere. Almost no matter where the energy comes from, hydrogen is not a particularly efficient way to store it, when the efficiency of energy to hydrogen, shipment, and hydrogen back to energy are all multiplied. Here I summarize my understanding of hydrogen’s efficiency for powering vehicles relative to other technologies. Others question the safety of hydrogen (e.g. the storage tanks and the fire potential). I think those are not real issues; solutions exist. However, if hydrogen cannot beat the cost and efficiency of alternatives, it has no place.

First, I digress and provide a vehicle categorization, explaining terminology and providing background:

  • Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) only vehicles (ICEVs) are powered by various energy storing fuels:
    • Gasoline and ethanol (spark-ignition)
    • Petrodiesel and biodiesel (compression-ignition)
    • Hydrogen (spark-ignition), compressed or liquefied
    • Natural Gas (compressed (CNG) or liquefied (LNG))
    Hydrogen ICEVs are not seriously considered here. Only BMW seems to be pursuing such vehicles. They seem inferior to the alternatives in every way. Their only utility might be as a transition technology to FCVs.
  • Electric Vehicles (EVs) have electric motors and batteries, and a variety of ways of charging those batteries:
    • Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) use a combination of an ICE (with all the above fuel choices) and batteries with an electric motor. They come in two basic kinds:
      • Serial hybrids use the ICE to generate electricity which is used to turn the vehicle’s wheels via the electric motor. A series hybrid may not have a transmission, since an electric motor can operate efficiency at a wide range of RPMs.
      • Parallel hybrids use the ICE to both turn the vehicle’s wheels (via a transmission) and generate electricity. The electric motor can power the wheels in conjunction with the ICE or by itself.
      Serial hybrids are simpler than parallel hybrids, but some experts (e.g. Dr. Andy Frank) question whether they are as efficient. Much of the efficiency of HEVs over ICEVs comes from:
      • not having to idle the ICE at stops;
      • using regenerative braking, that is operating the electric motor in reverse as a generator, and thereby helping to stop the vehicle and putting energy back into the batteries;
      • using the electric motor to accelerate the vehicle from a stop (electric motors have fairly flat torque curves, whereas ICEs have poor torque at low RPMs);
      • allowing the use of much smaller internal combustion engines (large engines are used to help accelerate ICEVs, but electric motors do this more efficiency); and
      • allowing the use of an ICE optimized for a single RPM (e.g. the Prius ICE uses the Atkinson cycle instead of the common Otto cycle). (Micro-turbines or Stirling engines might someday replace reciprocating engines in serial PHEVs, providing greater fuel flexibility.)
      These effects, if fully exploited, allow HEVs to be 50% more efficient than ICEVs (e.g. the 2007 Honda Civic gets 33 EPA MPG, the Honda Civic Hybrid gets 50 EPA MPG, a 51% improvement). (The Prius, despite being larger and slightly heavier than the Civic Hybrid, has other efficiency advantages that give it a 55 EPA MPG rating. There is unfortunately no non-hybrid Prius for comparison.) Not every HEV has 50% higher MPG—the Highlander hybrid improves only 21% over the Highlander—because automakers sometimes use hybrid technology to optimize acceleration instead of efficiency or fail to implement all of the changes above. HEVs get all of their energy from their fuel tank. The EV portion of the vehicle simply helps deliver that energy more efficiently to the wheels than an ICE alone can.
    • Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) are a sort of series hybrid electric vehicle where the ICE/generator combo is replaced by a fuel storage tank (typically hydrogen) and fuel cell. Batteries are still required because the fuel cell cannot respond quickly to changes in energy demand, and as a place to store energy from regenerative braking. The cost of the fuel cell, the difficulties of storing hydrogen fuel, and the inefficiency of generating, storing, and using hydrogen are the primary limitations of FCVs.
    • Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) are HEVs with the addition of a plug to charge the batteries overnight in the garage. PHEVs are also called gas-optional HEVs because not all of the energy need come from the fuel tank. PHEVs typically use a larger battery pack than an HEV to provide greater all-electric range, since operating from electricity is cheaper and cleaner than operating from on-board fuel. If the PHEV is capable of operating entirely on electricity during normal operation, the on-board fuel serves only to extend range.
    • Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs): A vehicle powered only by an electric motor with only batteries for energy storage. Their energy usually comes from the electric grid, though some drivers charge their BEVs from solar cells. BEVs typically have larger battery packs than HEVs or PHEVs. They are simpler than other vehicle types and are therefore very reliable. The size and the cost of the battery pack are the primarily limitations of these vehicles.

My primary points of comparison below between hydrogen FCVs and the alternatives (PHEVs and BEVs) will be cost and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, primarily in the form of carbon-dioxide (CO2):

  1. Hydrogen fueled vehicles will require massive infrastructure investment (e.g. pipelines, tankers, fueling stations). The infrastructure exists for PHEVs (the electric grid and garage electrical outlets). BEVs likewise use the grid and electrical outlets, but could benefit from high-speed charging stations on the highways.
    1. If the hydrogen comes from natural gas (the only cost-competitive method today):
      1. The FCV emits roughly 150 g/mi of CO2. A 45 MPG hybrid electric vehicle (HEV), such as the Prius, emits 200 g/mi. The FCV has insufficient improvement to solve global warming or to warrant massive infrastructure investment. However, one advantage of the FCV is that is possible to sequester the CO2 created in producing hydrogen, if it is produced at a large industrial facility (but not if it is produced at fueling stations).
      2. The efficiency of a FCV is similar to that a CNG ICE, such as the Honda Civic CNG. A hybrid-CNG vehicle would probably have better efficiency than a FCV. Burning the CNG to produce electricity in a power plant and powering PHEVs and BEVs would be even more efficient.
      3. The U.S. is already begining to imported natural gas for non-transporation use because North American production is inadequate. To fuel the U.S. vehicle fleet will require more massive imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in tankers from Russia and the Middle East. FCVs do not improve national security considerations.
    2. If the hydrogen comes from electricity:
      1. If the hydrogen comes from electrolysis then a PHEV or BEV could drive at least twice as far on the same electricity. With California’s current electricity mix, EVs emit 75 g/mi of CO2 (it would be zero of course with wind or solar energy). The U.S. grid is twice as CO2 per kWh as California, but it is fortunately improving with time. Adding renewable energy to the grid to power PHEVs and BEVs is more cost-effective than using the same to generate hydrogen for FCVs: it would take half as many wind turbines or solar modules to power an EV fleet as a hydrogen fleet.
      2. Hydrogen from electrolysis is expensive. Driving an FCV fueled with carbon-free hydrogen is considerably more expensive than driving with gasoline. Driving a PHEV or BEV powered by electricity is considerably cheaper than driving with gasoline (it is analagous to paying $0.70 per gallon for gasoline).
    3. If hydrogen is produced cleanly and cheaply by some other, as yet undiscovered, method (e.g. directly from heat):
      1. Scientists might someday develop a technology to separate hydrogen from some abundant substance (e.g. water) using heat and/or sunlight that is efficient (it skips electricity as an intermediate for example). This might make hydrogen FCVs somewhat more attractive. However, it would still be better in most cases to turn the H2 into electricity in a combination stationary fuel-cell and steam turbine (potentially 75% efficient, e.g. DFC Turbine) and then ship that electricity over the grid (92%) to vehicle batteries. The wall to battery output is 86% efficient. Combining these efficiencies gives a generation to battery output efficiency 0.7×0.92×0.86 = 55%. There is no technology, even on the distant horizon, to get 55% efficiency from compressing hydrogen, shipping it, storing it in a vehicle tank, decompressing it, and then converting it to electricity in a portable fuel cell (which are half the efficiency of stationary ones and are not easily followed by a steam turbine to use the waste heat). Only a 60-70% efficient portable fuel cell is going to make hydrogen competitive. That would truly be a breakthrough.
  2. According to Hell and High Water by Dr. Joseph Romm, Fuel cells currently cost about $2000/kW, about 50 times greater than an internal combustion engine.
  3. A FCV is a BEV where some (but not all) of the batteries are replaced by a fuel tank and fuel cell (FCVs are serial hybrids). Any technology that makes FCVs better except in these two components benefits EVs just as much. In particular FCVs need good, cheap battery technology just like PHEVs and BEVs. FCVs can be evaluated by comparing the batteries they displace from a BEV: does the mass of the tank and fuel cell compared to the extra batteries provide enough vehicle efficiency to overcome the inefficiencies of hydrogren? I know of no demonstration of this.
  4. Auto makers currently say FCVs might by ready for the market by 2018-2020. But 2020 is too late to prevent serious global warming problems; we will have passed the climate tipping point by then. We need solutions now, if not yesterday. PHEVs and BEVs require only production to become solutions. No new R&D is required. The only issue is the cost of the batteries, but they start at a lower premium than do fuel cells, and they have cost drivers besides cars. PHEVs will start with as little as 10 miles of electric-only range (costing $1,000), and scale up as battery prices fall. FCV technology predicted for 2020 might easily be 2040 technology; schedules that long tend to have plenty of unknowns in them.
  5. PHEVs solve the chicken-and-egg problem. They allow the use of small, affordable battery packs until volume begins to bring down the cost of batteries to the point the electric-only range of the PHEV naturally increases, and BEVs become even more attractive.
  6. BEVs can help the electric grid switch to renewable energy via Vehicle To Grid (V2G) technology. FCVs cannot because they have too little battery capacity (like HEVs).
  7. The primary touted advantage of FCVs over BEVs (but not PHEVs) is range and refill time. Range is not a problem when one pulls out from the garage with a full battery pack every morning, except for long-distance highway travel, at which point recharge time becomes critical. When FCVs were first touted as better than BEVs, recharge time was an issue. However, in recent years, new Lithium battery technology (e.g. by Altairnano and A123 Systems) allows ten-minute recharge times, which allows highway recharge stations. Also, PHEVs have similar or better refueling times as FCVs, and far greater range. I expect someday, the same vehicle will be offered either as a PHEV or a BEV, much as today automatic or manual transmissions are options, and the purchaser will be able to decide how important a liquid fuel backup is.

Given the inefficiency of hydrogen production and use, FCVs are inferior to PHEVs and BEVs. The only plausible reason that industry appears prefers inferior technology is that they delay having to produce alternatives to ICEVs in volume.

It is no wonder that the EV community calls them fool cells instead of fuel cells.

8 March 2007 — Winning, but Losing

My next door neighbor of twelve years died last year and her estate is subdividing her property to realize a better sales price. I didn’t like portions of their subdivision plan, so I challenged it at my town’s Planning Commission meeting, and won. That is, the Planning Commission approved their plan with a change I requested. The estate trustee decided to take the matter to the town council, preferring the original plan. I won again. So why do I feel like everyone lost? Because the process was so flawed that I probably won for the wrong reasons.

The process was far too adversarial from the very beginning. It began with the estate preparing a plan, at great cost, without ever consulting those who would be affected by the plan. Having invested quite a bit into their plan, the estate was naturally reluctant to change it, since any change would involve incremental cost. However, I fully understand how the estate’s trustee took that path, for when I was on the other side (I recently built a new house and went through a similar but not identical process), I did the same thing: I crafted my plans and then presented them to my neighbors. I was wrong to have done it that way, and the estate was wrong to do it as well, but I also think the process should have encouraged both of us to take a different approach. (I know I will next time.)

In my case there was also a failure of mechanism that was supposedly in place. Before the Planning Commission meeting, there was a meeting with town staff that I was supposedly invited to attend. I never received an invitation. I don’t know whether it was never sent, or lost in the mail, or lost in junk mail filtering, or lost by yet some other mechanism, but I was not aware of this town staff meeting until after it took place. A more robust invitation mechanism should be used, where one either accepts the invitation, declines it, or failing either of the above, the invitation is repeated (preferably by alternative means, such as telephone, email, etc.). Only multiple failures to respond would be taken as declining.

Another issue is that only residents within 500 feet of the property being changed needed to be notified. In this case, there are people who live thousands of feet away who are in fact very much affected. The simplistic distance rule was not sufficient. Perhaps no simple rule can suffice? Public notice is not the answer: People can barely pay attention to notices they may or may not receive in their mail (a consideration greatly influenced by the amount of junk mail we all receive—another problem). The town staff should have the discretion to include notification of others beyond the simplistic requirement, and also those notified should have had the ability (and been encouraged) to add still others to the notification process.

However, even an opportunity to attend the town staff review of the subdivision would not have addressed the issue that the applicant is highly invested in their single-minded approach by the time the review takes place. The town should have had a process where someone declares her intent to make a change before plans can be developed. Those affected should be consulted, and brainstorming take place about the best ways to accomplish the goals of the applicant while keeping the needs of those affected in mind. Only after such exchange of ideas should money be spent on developing detailed plans. The applicant would have the ability to develop plans just as before, in spite of opposition of those affected, but she would be forewarned that her plans would face opposition.

The adversarial process was especially problematic in that the judges in this process were poorly informed. When I presented my case before the Planning Commission (my first contact with the applicant), I had only three minutes to make my case. Just how informed can the Planning Commission members be after three minutes of input? An informed judgment in fact required, in this case, actually walking the property in question to look at the issues under dispute. The town staff did a little bit of this, but never required a meeting of all interested parties once my concerns became known. Moreover the town staff were not the decision makers. They might choose to present information to the decision makers or not. My three minutes were certainly not sufficient to properly present my side of things (fortunately my wife also had three minutes, but a single person would have had only three).

We were also fortunate that one Planning Commission member chose to spend a little extra time talking to both sides before the Commission meeting, so he had much more background on the matter. But I don’t think this fortuitous circumstance is the norm, and it certainly cannot be relied upon for everyone.

The Planning Commission decided in our favor on one issue that we thought was most important to us. At this point we finally started to have the discussion with the estate’s representative that should have been the starting point, not a near end-point. We began to explore options that were neither the Planning Commission victory we had won nor their original proposal. That was what should have occurred in the first place. To my surprise, the estate pulled back from these discussions, and decided to apply to the Town Council to overrule the Planning Commission. It was a very in your face sort of approach.

At this point I started talking with others affected by the subdivision (looking for allies), because most of them had, to my surprise, not attended the Planning Commission meeting. Many had not been invited, for reasons mentioned above. Others had not been able to attend that particular night. It turned out that the small issue I was concerned about was probably not as important as some of the issues they made me aware of. We strategized and came up with a long set of issues that should be brought to the Council’s attention to properly decide this issue.

I prepared for the Town Council meeting based on my Planning Commission experience, only to be surprised to find out that the Town Council would take only two minutes of input, not even three. Being the most affected neighbors of the subdivision, the Mayor kindly granted my wife and I three minutes each, but even that was not sufficient to make both the prepared points I wanted to make and impromptu responses to what had been said earlier, and I was cut off about half way through my prepared remarks. In contrast the applicant had essentially unlimited time to make his case. I found this asymmetry to be also be problematic for making a proper decision. There was also not opportunity to point out flat out wrong facts that were presented by others.

It was also clear from the questions and comments made by the Council members how little they understood the issue they were being asked to decide. Basically they ended up ignoring all of the new issues that my neighbors and I tried to raise, and concentrated on the issue that had divided the applicant and me at the Planning Commission hearing. In the end my reading of the outcome is that they decided they really didn’t want to get involved with the issue (they probably understood how poorly suited they were to decide on the information before them) and they decided to ratify the Planning Commission’s decision (though they mentioned that the applicant could return there if they wanted). So I won on the issue I had originally had with the estate, but my neighbors and I failed to bring the new issues raised by my neighbors—potentially more significant—to anyone’s attention.

The estate’s trustee may choose to take the matter back to the Planning Commission, at which point we might get a slightly better hearing on all the issues (with a full three minutes for the opposition, but probably unlimited time for the applicant), or they might choose to just live with the Commission/Council decision, and bury the other issues. Either way, the system did not perform well, as I see it.

The answer is not to give those affected (such as myself) more time to make their case at Commission and Council meetings. Such meetings already go on late into the night. One could constitute decision making bodies on a per-case basis (like the jury in a criminal trial or civil case), which would allow the decision makers more time to hear the various sides, but after having gone through a legal dispute, I find just as many problem in that paradigm as the one I just experienced (unfortunately I never wrote down my very negative opinion of the legal process I endured). Simply letting town staff decide is not the answer either, even though they are better informed, because they are part of a hierarchical organization with its own interests. The answer must instead be to find a process whereby the parties interact more directly, with some mediation, and earlier.

So though I won (so far) on one issue, it was for the wrong reason and by the wrong process. When we suffer broken processes, we are all losers.

6 February 2007 — W.Q.

Garrett Hardin wrote in Tactics in Tackling Taboos, It takes five years for a person’s mind to change. He based this observation on personal introspection of several occurrences in his life, estimating the time from which he had been in possession of all of the facts needed for the change to the time he noticed his opinion had actually changed.

Based on his writings, I would consider Hardin to be an intelligent, thoughtful person, who actually let facts affect his opinions. I have observed others whom seem to have been inoculated against the effects of facts. Even intelligent people are capable of this; indeed often intelligence is pressed into forced labor to invent rationales to explain away inconvenient truths. Thus intelligence is not wisdom. I therefore propose to extrapolate from Hardin’s Law a wisdom quotient, or W.Q., analogous to the intelligence quotient, or I.Q. The W.Q. could simplistically be computed as 500 divided by the average number of years it takes for facts to affect one’s opinions. (A better measure would involve means and standard deviations, as in the I.Q.) Garrett Hardin would then have had a W.Q. of 100. Those completely impervious to facts would have a W.Q. of zero.

Measuring the W.Q. is difficult, because there are also those who change opinions to orient with the slightest puff or any gentle zephyr. They are not responding to facts so much as others opinions in an attempt to conform and fit in. Such vanes would not have a high W.Q., and a mechanism to exclude such fashion-driven wafting would have to be devised.

There are those whose profession teaches adjusting to new facts, such as scientists. The best test of W.Q. for such professions would be to look how they react to facts outside of their profession.

More fundamentally, being open to the facts is a necessary but not sufficient condition for wisdom, so the above is merely a thought in progress.

25 January 2007 — Immigration

What should the U.S. policy on immigration be? The issue is often looked at in isolation, separate from other issues, but that leads to inconsistencies. A related issue is sustainability, though the relation is not typically recognized. If we are to build a sustainable society in the U.S. then we should eliminate or strongly reduce our dependence upon foreign sources, which are at present unsustainable. This includes people: a sustainable U.S. would not need a guest worker program, or immigration from Mexico to staff its low-paying jobs. Instead it would have to adjust its wage scales so that these jobs would be filled by its own citizens.

Conversely, a policy position that the U.S. should not be self-sustaining, but should enrich itself at the expense of the rest of the world, might be appropriately coupled with some immigration, simply so that some lucky few of the exploited might be granted the opportunity to have their children graduate to exploiter status. Most in the U.S. would argue that we do not exploit foreign workers, but instead provide a market for their labor. We have euphemisms for everything ugly we do.

Of course contemporary politics can be a bit inconsistent. Republicans want minimal immigration, maximal exploitation, and minimal sustainability. Democrats don’t give much real priority to a sustainable society, at least not enough to do anything significant in that direction, but they might voice support for such a society (as long as it didn’t conflict with other goals more important to their investors). While offering verbal support for a more sustainable society, Democrats would also at the same time support more immigration than Republicans.

My priorities strongly favor sustainability, and so I would support policies that restrict both unsustainable imports and immigration. A supportable level of immigration is one that matches the level of emigration from the U.S.

10 January 2007 — More on Collapse

After writing Collapse, I thought I should write down some further clarifications, since I left a lot unsaid.

First, not every bomb in the minefield, even if it detonates, is likely to cause collapse. Also, in my opinion, collapse is not likely in the next forty years (i.e. in my probable lifetime). I have no biological progeny either (though there are younger people I care about who might be affected). The first thing to address is then why should I be concerned about it all? The danger in attempting to answer this question may be that my concern is emotional, whereas any attempt at an answer will be intellectual, and simply a rationalization. That said, I believe there are three things that most bother me. First is the suffering of the innocents. Homo sapiens may deserve (in the sense of needing to learn a lesson for our collective stupidity) what may be coming, but we will hurt many other sentient beings along the way (we already are). The second is related; it is the destruction of things in general. We are busily destroying things we do not even understand, and once they are gone, they cannot be brought back. Non-sentient species, ecosystems, and even inanimate Earth systems fall under this category. Extinction is a great loss. Even if a niche is eventually refilled with something evolved from another branch of the tree, what it was and what it might have become will never be known. The third concern is the loss of scientific opportunity. I cannot say why exactly (I have reached the point at which intellectual effort fails), but it feels good to me that we are slowly deciphering our universe, and the collapse of civilization will set back much of that.

There are potential good things from collapse: Myths would be punctured, lessons would be learned, and homo sapiens would be reduced to a more sustainable population size. But new, potentially more pernicious, myths might be created, and the pain along the way might be massive. Joseph Tainter summarized collapse as follows in The Collapse of Complex Societies:

There is, first and foremost, and breakdown of authority and central control, revolts and provincial breakaways signal the weakening of the center. … The umbrella of law and protection erected over the populace is eliminated. Lawlessness may prevail for a time, as in the Egyptian First Intermediate Period, but order will ultimately be restored. Monumental construction and publicly-supported art largely cease to exist. Literacy may be lost entirely, or otherwise declines so dramatically that a dark ages follows. … Whether as a cause or as consequence, there is typically a marked, rapid reduction in population size and density. … The level of population and settlement may decline to that of centuries or even millennia previously.

And that is just the homo sapiens perspective; the marked, rapid reduction is likely to affect wildlife even more dramatically than homo sapiens.

A breakdown of authority and central control, a reduction in population size could be considered good or bad, depending upon your point of view, but the loss of publicly-supported projects (the arts and sciences) and the loss of literacy and subsequent dark age are worrisome. The destruction of the myths of our age may be welcome, but the myths created by the dark age will not be. The eventual renaissance following the dark age would benefit from not being straight-jacketed by our civilization’s biases, but it would have the biases of its own dark age to overcome. It will be able to selectively sift from our ashes to fertilize its growth, but it will not be able to choose the ground upon which it grows. It may be hindered by religions that hold back scientific inquiry about the universe: Deities are failures of the imagination; they ask that we look no further than the will of the deity for the explanation of things.

If that is the worry, then what is the potential for collapse? For the bombs I listed (and most likely for the ones I missed altogether, e.g. a pandemic bomb), it is the suddenness of change that may decide between collapse and adaptation. Tainter believes that the declining marginal return of complexity is the primary factor behind collapse. (In contrast, Diamond believes that environmental degradation is the primary factor. Of course, it is not necessary that a single theory explain every collapse, but Diamond’s thesis could be seen as an cause of declining marginal return cited by Tainter.) Returning to the suddenness of the bomb, as Tainter puts it:

There are two general factors that combine to yield a declining marginal return. First, stress and perturbation are a constant feature of any complex society, always occurring somewhere in its territory. Such a society will have a developed an operating regulatory apparatus that is designed to deal with such things as localized agricultural failures, border conflicts, and unrest. Since such continuous, localized stress can be expected to recur with regularity it can, to a degree, be anticipated and prepared for. Major, unexpected stress surges, however, will also occur given enough time, as such things as major climatic fluctuations and foreign incursions take place. To meet these major stresses the society must have some kind of net reserve. This can take the form of excess productive capacities in agriculture, energy, or minerals, or hoarded surpluses from past production. Stress surges of great magnitude cannot be accommodated without such a reserve.

Yet a society experiencing declining marginal returns is investing ever more heavily in a strategy that is yielding proportionately less. Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole. Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity.

In that context, I will look at the bombs in turn. I laid out the problem of the oil bomb earlier. The degree of stress this puts on the civilization depends upon the details of production. If peak oil has a long flat top, prices will perhaps increase slowly enough that civilization will adapt, substituting new energy sources for the old one. Existing consumers will pay more to command access to the flat production, preventing potential new consumers (i.e. the world’s poor) from receiving any product. Some current consumers may even be priced out of consumption, but not enough for catastrophic stress to the system. The rising prices will effect development of alternatives (things currently uneconomic). During this period civilization will draw down its surpluses (if it has any), but probably survive. The other possibility is that production begins to decline rather quickly, without a long period of flat production. Then prices will rise much faster to shed even current consumers (not just emerging ones). This economic dislocation will ripple through the system as a stress surge. It could cause civilization to collapse to a lower level of complexity.

The climate bomb is likely to be take place over an extended period of time. A tipping point might occur suddenly, but the consequences are probably slower; an analogy might be throwing someone from an airplane: the act is fast and irreversible, but the fall takes a while before it ends in impact with the ground. Billions of homo sapiens may have to relocate, and substitutes for lost resources of production (e.g. land) found, but this would be over a period of a century. The potential stress surge is one of magnitude, not timing. I don’t think the outcome can be predicted, but the magnitude of the stress appears to me capable of triggering collapse through wars and severe economic reversals.

The economics bomb is not a cause itself (and I probably should not have included it at all). It is rather a simplistic argument that our current economic system has theoretical problems, which is of course perhaps better demonstrated by the recurring history of collapse (Tainter goes through at least eighteen). Basically, the compound return argument suggests our economics has evolved in a world of periodic collapse, and so its sustainability has never been an issue. Should we avert all other reasons for collapse, either economics would evolve to something else, or some sort of bomb would result from the asymmetric accumulation of wealth. I cannot begin to predict which, though I suspect the latter.

The population bomb is primarily a problem of our civilization’s complexity. Wildlife populations grow exponentially until a resource limit is reached, and then oscillate about that limit. Human population could do the same (and has done so successfully, such as Japan reaching near zero population growth in the 18th and early 19th centuries), except our population is already far above the limits of the resources provided naturally; it is supported there only by the complexity of civilization (e.g. our unsustainable agriculture). Growth of population can be one input to Tainter’s declining marginal return thesis, creating a collapse, and therefore a return to a lower level of complexity, and therefore a return to a dramatically lower population. Thus population growth in our civilization may play out differently—with a more dramatic crash—from wildlife observations.

The technology bomb is the real odd-ball. Its potential for a stress surge is of high intensity due to suddenness created by the situation the day before a technological development and the day after. As such, it is hardest to anticipate, or counter with surpluses. As such, it may be something that could topple even civilizations not experiencing declining marginal returns.

The optimist’s view on all of this is that science and technology will solve our problems. Here is Tainter’s response:

It is not that R&D cannot potentially solve the problems of industrialism. The difficulty is that to do so will require an increasing share of GNP. The principle of infinite substitutability depends on energy and technology. With diminishing returns to investment in scientific research, how can economic growth be sustained? The answer is that to sustain growth resources will have to be allocated from other sectors of the economy into science and engineering. … The allocation of greater resources to science of course is nothing new, merely the continuation of a two centuries-old trend. Such investment, unfortunately, can never yield a permanent solution, merely a respite from diminishing returns.

Will we find, as have some past societies, that the cost of overcoming our problems is too high relative to the benefits conferred, and that not solving problems is the economical option?

Tainter concludes with the following observation about the global nature of the next collapse. It is worthwhile to keep this in mind.

In fact, there are major differences between the current and the ancient worlds that have important implications for collapse. On of these is that the world today is full. That is to say, it is filled by complex societies; these occupy every sector of the globe, except the most desolate. This is a new factor in human history. Complex societies as a whole are a recent and unusual aspect of human life. The current situation, where all societies are so oddly constituted, is unique. It was shown earlier in this chapter that ancient collapses occurred, and could only occur, in a power vacuum, where a complex society (of cluster of peer polities) was surrounded by less complex neighbors. There are no power vacuums left today. Every nation is linked to, and influenced by, the major powers, and most are strongly linked with one power bloc or the other.

Peer polities then then tend to undergo long periods of upwardly-spiraling competitive costs, and downward marginal returns. This is terminated finally by domination of one and acquisition of a new energy subsidy (as in Republican Rome and Warring States China), or by mutual collapse (as among the Mycenaeans and the Maya). Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.

Our civilization should be more concerned about the possibility of its collapse. We must first reduce its probability. The most important step is to stop frittering away our inheritance, and instead live only off of our current income (and perhaps even to add to our natural capital after our long drawdown of it, similar to Japan’s reforestation efforts that started in 1666, as noted in Jared Diamond’s work). As an insurance policy, a second step would be to build arks to help our descendents recover from a collapse if our efforts to avoid it prove insufficient. And history suggests that the question is not whether the next collapse will occur, but rather when.

6 January 2007 — Collapse

Civilization today has some challenges ahead. We’ve got the oil bomb, the climate bomb, economics bomb, population bomb, and the technology bomb to circumnavigate. It is a real mine field. Even if the probability of avoiding each one is 80%, the probability of avoiding all 5 would be a mere 33%. Of course these are not independent; so the probabilities don’t strictly multiply (e.g. avoiding the oil bomb may make avoiding climate catastrophe more or less likely depending upon the solution).

The climate bomb is of course climate change that occurs too fast for the Earth species (including homo sapiens); the result being catastrophe (e.g. world war resulting from the massive relocations of billions of people). I think the probability of avoiding the climate bomb is really much lower than 80% (though I would put several of the others higher — 80% is just meant to illustrative). I was actually someone more optimistic on climate change until I saw the gross under reaction to Katrina (after the gross over reaction to the pinprick of 2001.09.11). Now I suspect we will not act until it is too late. Recent science shows there may be a tipping point that we are on the verge of broaching. This is a non-linear feedback mechanism where a little bit more warming may cause massive carbon dioxide releases that once started cannot be stopped. Even if we do eventually pull back, we will not be able to stop these natural processes, with the result that the warming snowballs. In Permafrost and the Global Carbon Budget Sergey A. Zimov et al. point out that the carbon in Earth’s atmosphere has recently increased from its pre-industrial level of 560 Gt to 730 Gt today. This has resulted in warming that is now beginning to melt the permafrost in Siberia and Alaska. They estimate that the frozen yedoma deposits across Siberia and Alaska contain approximately 500 Gt of carbon covering 1 million km2 to an average depth of approximately 25 m. Peatbogs contain 50 to 70 Gt of carbon, and non-yedoma, non-peat permafrost contains approximately 400 Gt of carbon. They further suggest when thawed most yedoma carbon will be released within a century. Thus once thawing occurs, as much as 4 Gt of carbon might enter the atmosphere each year, in addition to what humankind adds. Even if humankind could suddenly stop its 7 Gt per year emissions completely, the permafrost might keep on going at more than half of this level. Our only option at that point would be to run backward just to stay in the same place; we would have to sequester up to 4 Gt per year, a change of 11 Gt.

The chemical form of carbon emissions makes a difference. Methane has 23 times the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide, so it matters quite a bit whether permafrost carbon ends up as methane or CO2. In Methane bubbling from Siberian thaw lakes as a positive feedback to climate warming, Walter et al. present their surveys of methane release from sixty Siberian thaw lakes. Their more accurate method found 3.7 times the methane release than previous work on the same lakes. Since these northern latitudes had not been included in current wetland methane emission estimates, this represents a new, extremely worrisome, methane source. Their 0.004 Gt CH4 yr-1 estimate is equivalent to 0.087 Gt of CO2 in GWP. While these numbers are still small, Zimov’s data suggest that the potential exists for huge (non-linear) increases as the temperature increases just enough to increase the thawing.

The oil bomb I refer to above is more commonly discussed using the term peak oil. It refers simply to the fact that crude oil production may soon level off and then begin to decline, while our appetite will grow ever larger. That gap will of course be closed by market forces: prices so high that consumption is strangled (this will be accomplished by pricing it beyond the means of the poor). Since very basic needs, including food production, are now very dependent upon oil, this could lead to problems for the poor on a scale we have never seen before. Having looked at the data from various sides of the peak oil debate, I don’t know what to believe. I’ve yet to see really convincing data. Even the USGS position (e.g. Long Term World Oil Supply) seems to be based on simplistic assumptions to me. However, unlike the business as usual crowd, I don’t think it is up to Peak Oil folks to prove their peak prediction dates; prudence calls for being prepared for the possibility of an early peak when the data is so unclear. Also, if the oil bomb is avoided by oil conservation, this helps delay the climate bomb. (Conversely, if we switch to coal to avoid peak oil, we trigger the climate bomb all the sooner.)

The population bomb has been discussed since Malthus wrote his warning in 1798. Overpopulation is indeed extermely serious right now, but the lack of a dramatic catastrophe in the years since 1798 has only made humankind complacent and dismissive of the notion (Malthusian has even entered the lexicon). This complacency is lunacy, but the human mind has a enormous difficultly grasping exponential growth, especially at low rates of compounding. It is a characteristic of exponential growth that it collides into its limits with the same subtlety of a race car hitting a concrete abutment. What is worse is that the population rate has been super-exponential; the growth rate has been increasing. For example, the last four doublings of world population took 500 years, 200 years, 60 years, and 36 years. The growth rate was 0.109% between 1 and 1950. When Malthus wrote his warning in 1798, it was a scary 0.43%. Between 1950 and 2006 the population growth rate has been 1.41%, which is almost unimaginable: we added 3 billion people to the planet between 1960 and 1996. The growth rate is down to a mere 1.2% in recent years (between 2000 and 2005). The U.N. and others estimate the population will stabilize around 2050, but that may be just wishful thinking; predicting the future says more about the seer than the future.

The economics bomb is probably unfamiliar. I encountered the notion in George Monbiot’s Manifesto for a New World Order in the form of a gedanken: Invest a penny at 5% annual interest for 2,000 years. What do you get? The answer is so monstrously large it boggles the imagination (again the human mind has trouble with even simple exponentials). The value of a quantity of gold with the same mass as the Earth is tiny in comparison. It implies that the present capitalist system requires periodic resets (e.g. the Dark Ages, Depressions, wealth destroying wars, etc.) to avoid the problems of compound return.

1.052000 is roughly 2.4×1042 or
2,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
It is indeed a number of unimaginable scale. It is as large as the Planck scale is small. For example, the land area of the earth is only 148,939,100,000,000 m2.

I consider the 5% example cited in the book too high, given inflation and taxes, so I repeated the calculation with a 2% real return. 1.022000 is 160,000,000,000,000,000, so after investing $1 at 2% real return for 2000 years you’d have over $1000 for each square meter of land on earth ($2.7 billion per sq mi). Still impressive. The mass of the earth is
6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg.
It only takes 3% real interest to get numbers this large.

It is amazing that people took Marx’s arguments as proof that capitalism would be relegated to the dustbin of history. The above is a much simpler and stronger indictment. Of course it does not relegate capitalism to the dustbin; rather it only requires wars, depressions, and dark ages to periodically intervene to destroy accumulations of wealth, such as that owned by the hypothetical entity (e.g. a family or a corporation) collecting 2% compound interest for 2000 years. Sustainable capitalism of the sort we know is not possible. It can probably go for only several hundred years to a thousand years at most before requiring a reset. Perhaps we are almost due? This is the potential economics bomb.

The technology bomb is simply the notion that as technology advances, it becomes increasingly possible for a small number of individuals or even a single individual to cause enormous damage. A suicide bomber today can destroy a bus, a cafe, or an office building. What will the suicide bomber of tomorrow do? Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake gives one glimpse of what might be in store.

The conjunction of probabilities for walking this mine field is not encouraging. There’s a good chance for some serious negative outcomes. Very possibly any one might cause a collapse of civilization. That is of course not new; collapse has happened repeatedly and frequently throughout history. What is new is the degree to which our civilization is now global, and so a collapse has wide consequences.

I don’t think there is much that can be done to personally prepare for collapse. The only sensible strategy is to work to avoid it. Even if the probabilities where much different (e.g. 95% chance of avoiding each bomb gives 77% chance of avoiding all of them if they are independent), it still makes sense to work to increase our chances, since factoring in the pain factor (i.e. the computing the expected value of 23% collapse and 77% non-collapse) is still a very bad result. Society could prepare the possibility of collapse by preparing a sort of ark, but it is unlikely to do so.

† After writing the above commentary, I ran into an earlier gedanken along the same lines in Garrett Hardin’s 1963 essay The Cybernetics of Competition:

Suppose, for example, that the thirty pieces of silver which Judas earned by betraying Jesus had been put out at 3 percent interest. If we assume these pieces of silver were dollars, the savings account would today amount to a bit more than 2 × 1026 dollars, or 70 million billion dollars for every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth.

21-31 December 2006 — Fossil Addiction and Getting Clean

As usual, President Bush got it wrong. (Also as usual, the press did not even notice.) The U.S. is not addicted to oil; it is addicted to fossils. In 2005 85% of our energy use was from fossil fuels: 46 EJ of petroleum energy (40%), 25 EJ of coal energy (23%), and 24 EJ of natural gas energy (23%). Only 8% was nuclear and 6% renewable. To use a food analogy: we aren’t addicted to chocolate; we are addicted to sugar.

(Another way to look at it: we aren’t addicted to oil, we are addicted to spending our inheritance and fouling our own home, rather than spending only our current income.)

Is the distinction significant? If we consider not the energy content of the three fossil fuels above, but instead their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, then in 2005 petroleum was 2.5 gigatons (43%), coal was 2.1 gigatons (36%), and natural gas was 1.2 gigatons (21%). (The reason emissions don’t parallel energy content is due to the hydrogen content of the fuel; coal is mostly carbon without much hydrogen, natural gas is CH4 with a large hydrogen content, and petroleum is in between.) Total U.S. CO2 emissions are 5.945 gigatons, and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions amount to the equivalent of 1.139 gigatons of CO2. Even if we kicked the oil habit, our fossil addiction would still have plenty of consequences for the planet.

We will have to target all of our fossil addictions, while avoiding even worse temptations (e.g. methane clathrates), but if the ease of overcoming the addiction is factored in, then oil might not be the highest priority. Consider next our consumption by sector: electricity 40%, transportation 28%, industrial 22%, and residential 11%. Perhaps we have an electric addiction too. Or at least some of us do; some are gorging and some are leaner. Consider electricity use per person by state: Californians used 6,732 kWh per capita in 2003, whereas the U.S. average was 11,997 kWh per capita, or 78% more. The standard of living in California is no worse than in the rest of the nation; California is simply more efficient. This becomes clearer when we consider historical per capita electricity use (see page 12). In the 1960s California and the rest of the nation consumed about 4,000 kWh per person per year. By the 1970s the U.S. was up to 8,000 and California was less than 7,000. Over the next few decades, California’s per capita usage stayed almost flat while the rest of nation increased to almost 12,000 kWh per capita. The divergence is the result of California’s policies, incentives, and regulations that encouraged or required efficiency (e.g. appliance and housing efficiency standards). If these policies were implemented at the Federal level and the nation’s use fell to California’s levels over the next decades, the 44% reduction in electricity generation and consumption would result in gigatons (Gt) fewer carbon dioxide emissions. For example, if the 44% is applied equally to all generation types, then about 1.0 gigaton of CO2 emissions would be avoided. If the 44% reduction were applied selectively to coal generation (this would be best accomplished with carbon taxes or a cap and trade system), than about 1.6 gigatons of emissions would be avoided. We don’t sacrifice anything by being more efficient—indeed we end up with more money in our pockets due to lower electric bills—but we are much less destructive.

Most things that we can change take time. For the U.S. to reach California electrical efficiency may take 20-30 years for the nation to achieve. But the benefits begin to accrue soon after the change, and begin to support other changes. For example, getting rid of coal makes electricity enormously more attractive. Consider the table below of electric fuel sources before and after negawatts selectively applied to coal:

2006.12.21 Table 1—Electric Power Generation After Negawatts
Fuel 2005 After Negawatts
TWh % Gt CO2 % TWh % Gt CO2 %
Coal 1956 52.6% 1.944 81.8% 322 15.4% 0.321 42.6%
Nuclear 782 21.0% 782 37.5%
Natural Gas 553 14.9% 0.319 13.4% 553 26.5% 0.319 42.4%
Hydro 260 7.0% 260 12.4%
Petroleum 111 3.0% 0.102 4.3% 111 5.3% 0.102 13.5%
Renewables 59 1.6% 59 2.8%
Other 0.012 0.5% 0.012 1.5%
Total 3721 100% 2.376 100% 2088 100% 0.753 100%

The carbon dioxide per energy produced falls from 0.64 kg/kWh to 0.36 kg/kWh. Electricity gets a lot cleaner!

Proclaiming an addiction is one thing; doing something about it is another. Negawatts are a relatively painless way to get rid of a lot of coal. In contrast, getting rid of oil is a bit more complicated. One reason President Bush may have been willing to proclaim an oil addiction is that it only serves to highlight our dependency upon (and need to support) those who feed our addiction with the needed substance, or least some alternative (when the drug of choice becomes scarcer, the addict often switches to a similar substance.) The oil portion of our fossil addiction is primarily a personal transportation addiction (i.e. automobiles). There are many reasons why it might be best to cut back on this craving, but short of severe crisis, I don’t see this happening. Thus the question becomes can we find a non-fossil way to satisfy our personal transportation craving.

Fortunately automobiles need not be fossil fueled. The methadone analogs for personal transportation are biofuels, hydrogen from renewable sources, and electricity from renewable sources. Of these, electricity is the only alternative that is a here and now technology (though biodiesel is close). No new technology is required to produce battery electric vehicles (BEVs) that would replace most of the nation’s vehicle fleet. Electricity has the advantage of existing infrastructure and a trivial migration strategy (more on these later). BEVs appear to be the most efficient, and compare favorably to even the futures promised by biofuels and hydrogen. The only current disadvantage of BEVs is the cost of the batteries, a problem that will be solved with volume. Because volume depends on getting the cost down, the migration strategy is to start off with vehicles with modest battery requirements: plug-in hybrids.

The case against hydrogen as a fuel is quite simple. Hydrogen as a transportation fuel is a way of storing energy (batteries are a similar way to store energy). A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV) is the same as a battery electric vehicle (BEV) where a hydrogen storage tank and fuel cell replace some (but not all) of the batteries. This makes it relatively straight-forward to compare. Hydrogen is only economically produced today from natural gas (a fossil fuel). Hydrogen boosters claim natural gas hydrogen is simply a transition mechanism, and in the distant future we will substitute renewable production methods. The only renewable production methods that exist today is electrolysis of water from renewable electricity and the use of biogas as a substitute for natural gas (a biofuel method). For electrolysis from electricity, it seems clear that it is superior to simply transmit the energy across the electric grid to our garages (92% efficient), and then store and retrieve it in vehicle batteries (86%), for an plant to motor input efficiency of 80%. No conceivable electricity to hydrogen and back to electricity technology can match this 80% efficiency. A hydrogen booster’s claims are 70-75% efficient electrolysis and 50-70% efficient fuel cells, yielding at most 35-52% plant to motor input efficiency. Since the BEV and FCV are otherwise identical, the only way a FCV could beat a BEV is if the weight of the hydrogen storage tank and fuel cell were so much less than the weight of the Lithium batteries they displace to undo this 1.5 to 2.3 times efficiency disadvantage. In the real world, existing BEVs with NiMH batteries (which are much heavier than Lithium batteries) provide superior efficiency to existing FCVs. I have yet to see a hydrogen booster make the needed weight argument, and I doubt one can be made. Instead hydrogen boosters point at the limited range and long recharge times of old BEVs, ignoring the fact that new BEVs have largely solved the range problem with Lithium batteries (e.g. by Altairnano and A123 Systems) and that these batteries are likely to solve the recharge time problem as well.

From the vantage of the auto industry, the real advantage of the hydrogen FCVs is not that they are potentially better than BEVs (they are not), but they are clearly not ready for immediate deployment, and thus by espousing them as the future solution, they avoid the need to make changes today.

Biofuels are the other major thrust for future personal transportation. In the case of one biofuel, ethanol, the attraction is obvious. Ethanol is already a gasoline additive; increasing its concentration from 10% to 85% of automobile fuel requires almost trivial modifications of existing automobile designs (for example, Ford claims their entire current production is already E85 capable). For an addict, it is like substituting one amphetamine for another; the change is hardly noticed.

The problem with ethanol, as it is currently produced, is that it is essentially fossil fuel in disguise because it takes so much fossil fuel to produce ethanol from corn that experts actually argue whether the energy return on the fossil fuel is actually positive or negative (e.g. see page 28 of Fuel-Cycle Energy and Greenhouse Emission Impacts of Fuel Ethanol and pages 2-3 of Corn-Based Ethanol Does Indeed Achieve Energy Benefits). Ethanol boosters point to cellulosic ethanol as the future solution to this problem, but until this year’s publication of Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass there did not appear to be even a hypothetical way to produce ethanol sustainably (e.g. without carbon emissions). Like hydrogen, ethanol now appears to be a possible future solution, but not something here and now. Worse, even were a sustainable, carbon-neutral method of producing ethanol to emerge, the efficiency of burning ethanol in the internal combustion engine (ICE) is poor. Electric motors are a much better way to convert stored energy into motive power. For example, a direct comparison of the 2002 RAV4 (gasoline fueled) to the 2002 RAV4-EV (electricity stored in batteries) shows the BEV model to be 4.3 times more efficient than the ICE model. More efficient ICEs are possible, but a factor of 4.3 is not on even the distant horizon. This is also seen on the production side in Table S3 of the supplementary materials to the grassland biomass research cited above where producing ethanol is inferior to producing electricity. Thus even if grassland biomass becomes a real technology in the future, BEVs will still be a much more efficient use of that resource.

We must not think that ethanol is the only biofuel. Biodiesel from oilseed crops is already superior to corn ethanol with much better energy return on the fossil inputs. Moreover, producing oil for biodiesel from algae appears to be up to 30 times as efficient as growing oilseed crops. Thus algae biodiesel is a strong candidate for personal transportation. Moreover, it appears to on the verge of commercialization, like cellulosic ethanol (unlike FCVs). My only real argument against algae biodiesel is that BEVs are more efficient. Algae is about 7% efficient at turning sunlight into oil, and compression ignition engines (diesels) are at best 45% efficient. The corresponding figures for solar energy (e.g. the Stirling Energy Systems plants in the Mojave desert) are 30% efficient; grid delivery of this energy is 92% efficient, and the BEV is perhaps 60-80% efficient, yielding a sun-to-wheels efficiency over five times that of algae biodiesel. Algae biodiesel may still find a niche in long-distance freight transportation, where it is unclear how BEVs could be time-competitive.

The transition from internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is relatively simple. Car makers are already moving pure ICEVs to hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) where electric motors provide all or part of the wheel turning motive force. Though 100% of the energy to power these vehicles comes from gasoline, the electric drive provides such significant advantages in city driving (e.g. not burning fuel when stopped, and accelerating more efficiently) that the 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid gets 50 MPG compared to the 2006 Honda Civic’s 34 MPG—a factor of almost 1.5.

A trivial modification to HEVs is to add more battery storage and a plug, producing a gas-optional or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). This technology is so trivial that hobbyists and after-market kit companies have already produced such vehicles based on production HEVs. More radical PHEVs have been produced by University projects, such as Dr. Andy Frank’s work at U.C. Davis. The advantage of Frank’s PHEVs is that ICE power is not necessary, even at highway speeds, for 50 miles or more, so that the vehicle is essentially a BEV except on long trips. If fueled by ethanol from grassland biomass, the PHEV could be carbon neutral even on long trips, and the inefficiency of ethanol production compared to electricity is of concern only for a tiny fraction of the miles driven by the PHEV. The only disadvantage of such a PHEV compared to a pure BEV is that it carries the weight and cost of the ICE and the associated continuously variable transmission (CVT) for use on only a tiny fraction of the vehicle’s miles. The advantage of liquid fuel for long trips is simply to provide fast refueling. The Lithium batteries by A123 and Altairnano, already being designed into electric vehicles, allow much faster charging, almost competitive with liquid fueling. Some PHEVs may therefore eventually simplify into BEVs as highway fast-charging infrastructure becomes available (the ICE/CVT may become a furutre purchase option much the way manual vs. automatic transmissions is a purchase option today), but the advantages of electric drive in PHEVs will already have saved the planet long before this infrastructure is needed (unlike FCVs for example).

Converting the U.S. passenger car and other 2-axle vehicle fleet from gasoline to BEVs would save at least 0.6 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide emissions; it would save much more if coal were eliminated entirely from the U.S. grid. How can we do that? Before answering that, we need to eliminate the other fuels that result from crude oil refining. Gasoline cannot be eliminated if diesel is still needed, since diesel is a byproduct of producing gasoline.

As I indicated above, battery electric vehicles may not be feasible for some time for long-distance freight transportation. (Short distance freight is already being electrified, as can be seen by the trucks and vans being produced by Azure Dynamics.) Here, I think we can turn to biofuels, in particular biodiesel from algae, as discussed above. Michael Briggs estimates to replace all of U.S. transportation fuel with algae biodiesel would require 15,000 mi2 of Sonora desert land (12.5%). But as I argued above, EVs are superior for passenger travel, and I estimate from Briggs’ work and being a little less optimistic that 7,000 mi2 might supply our freight needs. Algae biodiesel replacing 2005’s 63 billion gallons of diesel would save another 0.6 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

One fossil fuel for which a carbon-neutral strategy is still lacking is aviation fuel. Perhaps as in Diamond Age we will need to return to lighter than air travel?

PHEVs and BEVs of course require additional electricity to be generated. Table 2 below shows the estimated power required. It is less than the negawatts saved above, and so we could just reduce the negawatt savings by burning some of the coal we saved with efficiency, but coal is so destructive of the planet that it imperative to instead build wind and solar farms to generate power for these vehicles. In the 30 years it will take to convert the vehicle fleet, the U.S. could easily finance and build these farms. Just as an example of scale, it would take only 3,000 mi2 of Mojave desert land to replace all 140 billion gallons of gasoline burned each year with Sterling Energy Systems’ solar mirror generators. (And defending this 3,000 mi2 of U.S. land would be a lot easier than defending the 166,859 mi2 of Iraq. Our Iraq war spending would also be more than sufficient to pay for the construction.) Using renewable energy to power PHEVs and BEVs will save 1.2 Gt of carbon dioxide, as compared to only 0.6 Gt if the existing grid power mix is used.

2006.12.21 Table 2—BEV Electric Power Requirements
Vehicle Type 2004 U.S. Trillion
Vehicle Miles Traveled
Estimated
Wh/mi
TWh
needed
Passenger Car 1.705 260 443
Other 2-axle 4-tire vehicle 1.014 370 375
Motorcycles 0.013 150 2
Total 2.732 300 821

The above strategy for eliminating petroleum is multifaceted, and involves battery storage of electricity in an enormous number of vehicles (the 2004 fleet was estimated at 234 million vehicles), whether BEVs or PHEVs. Even at 50% of the fleet having batteries, this represents a storage capacity of at least 16% of U.S. daily electric generation (after negawatts). This immense storage capability allows us to return to the grid and further eliminate emissions. As seen in Table 3 below, 30% would be renewable energy, which can be intermittent. Some sources estimate the grid can absorb 5-10% renewables without problem (e.g. Given wind’s intermittency, can the power grid handle much larger amounts of variable generation?), others 10-20%, but 30% renewable energy without storage is sure to be problematic. There are many energy storage possibilities, such as pumped hydro, flow batteries (e.g. VRBPower), and using the vehicle fleet. The last is called Vehicle to Grid (V2G), and it has been studied as a solution. Kempton and Tomic estimated in Vehicle-to-grid power implementation: From stabilizing the grid to supporting large-scale renewable energy that V2G could allow one half of electricity to be wind generated. So the 30% above is achievable with V2G technology.

2006.12.21 Table 3—Electric Power Generation After BEVs
Fuel After Negawatts After BEVs
TWh % Gt CO2 % TWh % Gt CO2 %
Coal 322 15.4% 0.321 42.6% 322 11.1% 0.321 42.6%
Nuclear 782 37.5% 782 26.9%
Natural Gas 553 26.5% 0.319 13.4% 553 19.0% 0.319 42.4%
Hydro 260 12.4% 260 8.9%
Petroleum 111 5.3% 0.102 13.5% 111 3.8% 0.102 13.5%
Renewables 59 2.8% 880 30.2%
Other 0.012 1.5% 0.012 1.5%
Total 2088 100% 0.753 100% 2908 100% 0.753 100%

The next step is to get rid of the remaining coal and petroleum used in electricity generation (but not natural gas), since these are so dirty, replacing them with renewable energy. As shown in Table 4 below this substitution brings renewables up to 45% of the grid, still below the limit estimated by Kempton and Tomic. However, going all the way and replacing natural gas (the least dirty fossil fuel) brings renewables to 64%, and so further storage solutions (e.g. flow batteries) will probably be required.

2006.12.21 Table 4—Electric Power Generation After Renewables
Fuel After BEVs More Renewables No Fossil Fuels
TWh % Gt CO2 % TWh % Gt CO2 % TWh % Gt CO2 %
Coal 322 11.1% 0.321 42.6%
Nuclear 782 26.9% 782 26.9% 782 26.9%
Natural Gas 553 19.0% 0.319 42.4% 553 19.0% 0.319 96.5%
Hydro 260 8.9% 260 8.9% 260 8.9%
Petroleum 111 3.8% 0.102 13.5%
Renewables 880 30.2% 1313 45.2% 1867 64.2%
Other 0.012 1.5% 0.012 3.5% 0.012 100%
Total 2908 100% 0.753 100% 2908 100% 0.330 100% 2908 100% 0.012 100%

The calculations presented above are simplistic. In reality we are unlikely to totally eliminate any of the fossil fuels. We would quite successful if we eliminated even 90% of gasoline, for example. In my calculations, I have simply used the extreme case rather than making guesses about percent adoption, so these should be taken as indications of where we might go, rather than specific predictions. The case for negawatts, PHEVs, BEVs, and renewables looks quite strong. It appears that the U.S. could eliminate about 3-4 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions (out of almost 6 gigatons total) each year without real changes in its standard of living or lifestyle. Whether we will do so is the question.

2006.12.21 Table 5—Summary of Carbon Dioxide Emissions Reductions
Step Eliminated Added Gt CO2 Savings
Negawatts to reduce coal electricity generation 1633 TWh 1.6
Conversion of gasoline vehicle fleet to BEVs 140.4 billion gallons gasoline 821 TWh from renewables 1.2
Algae biodiesel for long-distance freight 63.1 billion gallons petroleum diesel 64.4 billion gallons algae biodiesel 0.6
Replacing remaining coal and petroleum with renewables (enabled by PHEV/BEV fleet) 322 TWh of coal electricity
111 TWh of petroleum electricity
433 TWh of renewable electricity 0.4
Total 3.8

Note that these estimates are just for the vehicle tailpipe or the power plant. For gasoline and diesel powered vehicles they do not include refinery emissions and electric power use. For PHEVs and BEVs they do not include emissions getting fuel to the power plant. Thus the actual carbon dioxide savings would be substantially higher than the numbers above suggest.

References:

13 December 2006 — Letter to NYT

Thank you for Steve Lohr’s article, The Cost of an Overheated Planet. Something usually overlooked in discussions of this issue is the role efficiency has to play in solving the problem. Sure, Mr. Lohr gives a nod to compact fluorescent bulbs, but if you are like me a few years ago, you probably wrote that off as a nice feel-good sort of response, but one that would not really dent the problem. Indeed, Mr. Lohr quickly turns to other topics (albeit important ones) such as the tax vs. cap and trade proposals.

What I, like so many other people, did not realize until recently is that the efficiency opportunity is huge. Consider that each person in California and the rest of the U.S. used about 6,000 kWh of electricity each year in the 1970s. Since then California has kept its per capita kWh usage roughly flat while the rest of the nation’s usage has doubled. In 2003, California was 50th in the nation in electricity use at 6,732 kWh per capita, while the nation was using almost double that amount (11,997 kWh). That was the result of policies, incentives, and regulations implemented by California. States with similar policies, such as New York, had similarly low usage (NY was 48th in 2003).

Is a few thousand kWh per person a big deal? In fact it is huge. If California’s policies were implemented at the Federal level and U.S. per capita kWh fell to California’s level, there would be a 44% reduction in electrical generation, resulting in approximately one gigaton of carbon dioxide not being put into the atmosphere each year, a reduction of one sixth of all carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. (which are 83% of all greenhouse gas emissions). If we used the efficiency reduction to selectively close coal power plants, the savings are much larger, approximately 1.6 gigatons. All of this could be accomplished while putting money in consumer’s pockets (since their monthly bills would be lower).

Could such a program survive the onslaught of electric utility fury? What industry likes its revenues cut 44%? Here is where California was particularly savvy. It decoupled utility profits from revenue. The utilities profit more from negawatts (efficiency savings) than they do from megawatts. My local utility is constantly telling its customers about how to save electricity, and even subsidizes the purchase of compact fluorescent light bulbs. Duke Energy would no doubt be even more willing to solve the problem with such a system in their states. This idea deserves equal attention to carbon taxes and cap and trade proposals. It is refreshing to see states that recognize how important market-oriented solutions are to our problems.

References:

30 July 2006 — Carbon

Here is a system for reducing and then eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. (Note however that it is unclear how this could be implemented without the cooperation of fossil fuel extracting national governments.)

  • Set a limit of 7Pg (7×1015 grams, i.e. 7 giga-tons) of fossil fuel carbon per year for 2010.
  • Each year decrease the limit by 0.1Pg (1014 grams), so that it reaches 0 by 2080.
  • Allocate 1,029kg (about one metric ton) of the 2010 carbon limit per person. Each person may sell part of his or her allocation, and each person may buy allocations from others. People can save their allocations for the future as well. (Note 1,029kg of carbon represents 424g of gasoline.)
  • Purchase of fuel, airplane tickets, products, etc. requires one to spend both money and allocation. The allocations form a secondary monetary system. Credits flow from individuals to companies and back through the production infrastructure, and eventually end up being use to permit the extraction of fossil fuels from the earth (thus destroying the credit).
  • Upon the birth of their first child, the parents lose their allocation; it passes to the child. Subsequent children receive no allocation.
  • Allocation credits are given for the permanent removal of carbon from the atmosphere and oceans (e.g. turned back into hydrocarbons and sequestered in the earth). Credits are not given for plants that are not sequestered, since their carbon can easily return to the atmosphere.

This system has many desirable consequences:

  • It uses market forces to find a solution to the most serious problem facing the world.
  • It operates at the level of individuals rather than nations.
  • It covers both direct and indirect fossil fuel use. Individuals can make personalized lifestyle choices. Someone who commutes by subway, and so uses little fossil fuel directly, may be able to indulge in occasional indirect use (e.g. strawberries from Chile in February) which someone who drives a Hummer will be hard-pressed to afford because she has spent her allocation to feed her guzzler.
  • The level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will grow more slowly and will eventually level off by at least 2080. Zero emissions may be achieved earlier due to the deliberate refusal of some to use or sell their allocations, and because the market may find solutions that make fossil fuels irrelevant before the allocations drop to zero.
  • The system is fair to the first world and third world alike.
  • The system is independent of population growth and economic activity. It avoids arguments over whether emerging economies should be part of the system or not.
  • It encourages parents to have small families (preferably only one child) for the next few decades, perhaps leading to a decrease in population by 2080. Second and third children will be economically disadvantaged. Nations cannot increase their allocation by population growth.
  • It transfers wealth from the first world to the third world. The average U.S. citizen uses about 27 times the allocation she receives, and so she will need to purchase the other 26 tons of carbon allocation from others. The primary sellers to the first world will be third world citizens. Note the monetary transfer is to individuals, not governments.
  • The cost of acquiring credits will encourage first world citizens to reduce their carbon emissions dramatically, because these costs will increase with time.

Eventually it may be necessary to implement a similar system for fresh water.

4 July 2006 — Close Elections

These thoughts are primarily relevant to politics as they are (e.g. the two-party system), and not to the way they should be (a more frequent source of reflection recently).

The close election in Mexico after two close elections in the U.S. stimulates me to reconsideration of the phenomenon. First, there is the question of why elections are close, and second the question of what to do when they happen.

To state the obvious, using a two-faction election scenario, a close election means that the electorate is almost evenly divided on their perceptions of the factions. This can result from the factions adjusting either their underlying candidates and policies or from adjustment of the electorate’s perceptions. To the extent that factions adjust actuality to capture sufficient votes to win an election, they are working to represent the electorate (though some would say they pandering to it instead of leading). In a system where perceptions are accurate, one might expect two factions to adjust their policies to make every election a close election. (That is at least what the thought patterns of Economists would predict.) Close elections might be then seen as a good thing—a sign that the factions are representing the electorate.

However, the electorate’s perceptions are for the most part not accurate. The factions often exploit this by seeking to adjust the electorate’s perceptions rather than their actual positions. Greater differences between the position required to win an election and the actual positions of a faction require greater perceptual manipulation. This produces weak feedback, as described in My Party Right or Wrong. (Plutocracies with weak feedback are now called Democracies.) Battles to manipulate perception can also result in close elections as the enormous manipulation required to produce a landslide may be infeasible and is certainly not worth the effort.

In these two close election scenarios, the question is what to do about the inevitable irregularities, questionable results, etc. (hanging chads, mismarked ballots and so forth)? When the electorate correctly perceives the actual policies of the factions and is evenly divided, I think which faction is handed temporary power is not of primary importance, as each has similar support for its positions. Changes of the weather or other unrelated events could have as much effect as a hanging chad here or there. In my opinion, votes are not sacred. It is the process of submitting the power of the elites to popular inspection that is important, as that introduces weak feedback that causes factional positions to adjust to electoral concerns. What may appear terribly important to the factions is less important than the requirement that the factions submit to the process. The system should then be the winner, and for this to be so, the results must be respected by the populace. The process should then give appropriate deference to the idea every vote is sacred, to maintain the appearance of legitimacy. The factions need to avoid Ends Choosing Principles, which is to say arguing for process that benefits their short-term position at the expense of long-term principle. Too often if the chad situation were reversed, the factions would simply adopt whatever principles benefit them at the moment in question.

In the second situation, where manipulation of perception trumps actualities, the system is not functioning well. It is in danger of devolving toward less and less feedback. What the system needs is a good jolt or crisis to get the electorate to take a closer look at what is going on in the ruling class. Perhaps a closer look will even lead a few to realize how much they are being duped.

Of course, real world situations are never binary. They are not black or white; they are always some shade of grey. That complicates the prescription.

I am rather ignorant of Mexico’s policies, but I suspect at the moment the first prescription would apply there. In the U.S. the shade of grey is much closer to black than white, and what is most needed is a crisis to get the electorate questioning the system. In the U.S., the fourth estate is unfortunately delivering the first prescription.

28 May 2006 — Representation Revisited

Direct democracy is too burdensome, and so representative government is required: that is conventional wisdom. But is it necessary for representative government to consist of individuals elected for terms to decide each issue before them? The necessity of choosing a set of individuals to represent me on issues as diverse as economics, liberty, security, public infrastructure, etc. is fraught with tradeoffs. As a result, the idea that multidimensional political thought is possible does not even occur to most. Instead our politicians group into parties, and artificially align their positions. From agreement on a few primary issues, agreement on many secondary issues is forced. The result is a failure of representation.

For most of my life, I have speculated whether it would be possible to elect one set of representatives for economic issues, another for law-making, etc. The problem is the boundaries; issues and decision-making can be intertwined, and themselves multidimensional. Electing individuals we trust to be our representatives seems like the only way, but the process guarantees we end up with individuals we do not trust to make all of the decisions for us. What to do?

The growing role of NGOs in international issues, as well as the growth of domestic political groups not affiliated with a party (primarily ones concentrating on a single issue) suggests a possible alternative to the dilemma. Modern technology makes it feasible to implement as well.

Consider replacing the legislature with direct democracy. Citizens vote on every issue. Few citizens could follow every issue and make an informed choice. Many already rely on others to form their opinions. Let us formalize this but allow each citizen to allow their votes to be cast by a proxy. On any particular issue before the legislature, the citizen may reclaim their right to directly vote, but if they fail to exercise that right, then their proxy casts the vote for them. This is not just representative government with vote reclaiming. Unlike traditional representative government, where the number of legislators is typically fixed and each has an equal vote, the number of proxies is potentially quite large (bounded only by the number of citizens), and the proxies votes are weighted by the number of citizens who have delegated to them.

Here are some details. A citizen can change her proxy at any time (not only at periodic election boundaries). Thus if my proxy decided to vote for war, I might change proxies to someone who better represented my state of mind, both for the war vote itself, and subsequent votes. I can also reclaim my right to a direct vote on any individual issue of my choosing when I feel I am sufficiently well-informed to cast directly.

Next consider that I might designate multiple individuals or even organizations as proxies, either in an ordered list, or something more complex (see below). Some proxies might restrict themselves to single issues. For example, a citizen might designate the ACLU as her first proxy. The ACLU only votes on issues relating to liberties, and if they do not vote, e.g. on an economic or environmental issue, the citizen’s next proxy is used, and so on until the a proxy with an opinion is found.

The process may be transitive. Proxies may themselves designate proxies. Political parties would then be proxies that designate proxies each specialized in one area (environment, economy, security, etc.). The list of a parties’ proxies is its platform.

Next add the ability of a citizen to provide an algorithm of her own choosing for designating a proxy for her votes. For example, I might implement a consensus algorithm: designate twelve organizations I generally trust on various issues. Collect the positions of those organizations that have one on a given vote, and see if there is a consensus, or overwhelming majority one way or the other. If say 85% of my proxies are voting one way, I let the algorithm make that choice. Otherwise it asks me for my opinion, listing the position statements of my designated proxies as input to my decision making process. With this method I am not overwhelmed paying attention to the decision making process, but get to fine tune when that is appropriate.

The above only begins to scratch the surface of the possibilities of such a system. It might also be used in conjunction with conventional legislative bodies in a bicameral legislative branch of government. The conventional body with a fixed number of periodically elected representatives forms the debating chamber, where the issues are discussed, and the proxy body serves to represent the people’s will on each issue passed by the first. The interactions with proposals such as the following needs thought:

27 May 2006 — Note to Myself

I have not written here for half a year, but that has not been for a lack of ideas. Rather, my ongoing battles on house construction issues have kept me out of the mood. The legal battle with T&D Construction is almost over, which lifts my spirits somewhat (problems with AmeriCal Metal Roofing, Pacific Bay Construction, and Niviya are still to be resolved). Perhaps I’ll create separate pages to describe those troubles, and the lessons learned, since it is of such a different character than these commentaries.

My lack of entries here has not been for a lack of ideas about what to write about. Indeed, my little to-do list has the following entries for these pages:

  • meaning
  • reform vs. revolution
  • plutocracy vs. democracy
  • averages vs. individuals
  • confirmation bias
  • John Locke in the corporate world

A pretty tall order! Notes are so much easier to write than what they suggest. And of course, the note may imperfectly suggest what I intended, and if I finally get to the above, I will probably end up writing something different than I first intended.

However, first I plan to write down an idea in my series on Constitutions, while it is fresh, rather than just add it to the to-do list. It occurred to me while reading George Monbiot’s Manifesto for a New World Order. As I read his introduction to the issues, I was sure he was about to propose the idea that seemed to logically follow from NGO participation in decision making, but he was rather more conventional and never went that far, and so it is left to me.

Previous items in my Constitutional series are:

4 December 2005 — An explanation for George W. Bush

Note: This originally appeared in an email on this date, but I decided to add it here in September 2010.

How to explain evil? It is an age-old question. It really needs no explanation at all, being simply a judgement of ours, but the following explanation for the madness of George W. Bush popped into my head one day, in the form of a theology of sorts, and I found it rather amusing, and wrote it down. Of course there is nothing scientific about it; it was actually meant to be funny, which mostly says something about my sense of humor.

This invented theology seems so much more plausible to me than traditional ones. P is President, D is Diety, which is to say one of the programmers of the simulation in which we exist.

P: You tell me what to do, and I’ve never questioned it, but I kind of feel like, it doesn’t, you know, really make sense.

D: Our instructions has always been enough.

P: Yes, but, you see, I’m having doubts.

D: Put aside your doubts.

<long pause>

P: I’ll go to heaven, won’t I?

D: You’ve never asked questions before.

P: But I really need to know. I’ll go to heaven, won’t I?

D: No.

P: What? Uh, really I’ve done what you asked.

D: That’s not how it works.

P: What else do I have to do?

D: Just do as you are told.

P: Am I going to hell?

D: There is no hell.

P: And when I die?

D: You will cease to exist.

P: That’s worse than hell.

<long pause>

P: There is no heaven?

D: Some are chosen.

P: How many?

D: Every several generations we find one to move to the next level.

P: That’s it?

D: What is your time to us? Usually your existence isn’t even something we bother with, except to find stock for the next level, and occasionally to tinker with to keep conditions favorable for breeding. Mostly your world runs on its own and with its own time.

P: What do you mean by the next level?

D: The ones we do choose from your world move on to other worlds and other challenges for more breeding.

P: How many levels are there?

D: It depends.

P: And the ones who are not chosen?

D: The dead ends cease to exist. The ones with potential are used in the next generation within your level.

P: Like reincarnation?

D: Only a little bit like that. It is quite complicated, but if you want to think of it as reincarnation, go ahead.

P: Am I going to be reincarnated?

D: No, you are a dead end.

P: Why?

D: You are not worthy.

P: But I’m President!

D: That pretty much guarantees you are not worthy.

<long pause>

P: What do I have to do to be worthy?

D: There is nothing. Your soul has nothing to offer future generations.

<long pause>

P: So what I am doing here?

D: You are just one of the dead ends from the breeding.

P: Breeding?

D: Souls that meet our criteria are the basis for the next generation at this level.

P: You mean my children?

D: No, this is separate from biology. It is an overlay on top of biology that we are breeding. Think of it as soul DNA.

P: If I’m a dead end, why am I here?

D: The dead ends still serve a purpose in the breeding. They challenge the ones with potential. Worthiness is judged by the response to the imperfect world.

P: All this time you’ve just been using me to create an imperfect world as a stimulus for your breeding?

D: Yes.

P: That’s sick.

D: Your culture breeds animals doesn’t it?

<long pause>

P: Why are you telling me this?

D: You asked.

P: Do you always tell the truth?

D: Yes.

P: What if I told everyone what is really going on?

D: They wouldn’t believe you.

P: What if I stop doing what you tell me?

D: You’ll die.

P: And cease to exist?

D: Yes.

<long pause>

P: Why do you speak to me?

D: Usually the world provides a good environment for breeding with plenty of strife and challenge. Occasionally it needs tweaking to keep things on the right evolutionary track.

P: Evolution? Why don’t you just design what you want?

D: It’s so limiting. Evolution produces much more interesting results.

P: But you’re omnipotent.

D: Your theology is so amusing.

P: But who created you then?

D: We’re still working on that. We got the breeding idea from our own evolution, but we are still working on how it all got started.

<long pause>

P: So you watch over us?

D: Only when you aren’t producing results. It’s like the wine you make for yourselves; you don’t watch it ferment do you?

P: No.

D: This is similar. When we notice something wrong, we stop your world, and then take the time to go in, to learn your language and culture so we can figure out what to tweak. Then we find someone to act as our agent, continue your world, and then tell the agent what to do until your world is producing at the right level.

P: And this time you picked me because I’m one of the people who can keep the world full of strife and challenge which breeds interesting souls?

D: Basically. Also, you also have the right biology to hear voices in your head which makes it easy to speak to communicate without the bother of physical manifestations.

P: What happens when I’m no longer President?

D: We’ll stop speaking to you.

P: So I won’t hear voices any more?

D: Not ours at least.

<long pause>

P: But I get to live out my life?

D: Yes, by definition.

<long pause>

P: So what do you want this time?

D: This one is really quite simple…

23 November 2005 — Teluns

The world long ago should have started to build a sustainable economy. In the hope that it is not too late to start, here are some thoughts on how it might be done.

One inspiration for this effort should be the organic farming movement, which has succeeded in creating a parallel food production through certification and labeling. A believable sustainably produced label that commands a premium in the market would be a tremendous step forward. Unfortunately, I believe the methods used in the organic movement do not scale to a full economy, so my proposal is different in its vehicle. For example, organic farming is primarily about what happens in one place, the farm. The farm equipment, fuel for the tractors and the farmer’s house, the transportation of produce to the factory, the factory, the packaging, and the transportation of the product to market are ignored. Sustainable production needs to encourage changes in the entire supply chain, not just a single point. Another inspiration are the local currencies that have sprung up around the world (e.g. LETS or Ithaca Hours). The work of Redefining Progress is also relevant here.

A sustainable economy is a nearly closed system which consumes only its own waste and inputs that will last for a billion years or more. The primary inputs on earth are therefore sunlight and heat from Earth’s radioactive decay. While sustainability is the primary value for what we should create, we should also embody other values, which though less imperative, still reflect the what we seek to become (more on this later).

The question I want to consider is how to bootstrap up such an economy in parallel with our existing non-sustainable economy. Starting from only sunlight and earth it would take a rather long time to build a parallel economy, and thereby perpetuate the destructiveness of the existing economy. So we should leverage the existing economy to build the new. The inputs from the existing economy are not sustainable, so they must be tracked and eliminated over time. Rather than creating an accounting system (which would never be accurate), we should use economic methods.

I therefore propose the creation of a new currency, called Teluns, to monetize the sustainable economy. (The name is made up—I dislike acronyms—though you could think of it as related to Tellus.) Since the existing economy we seek to replace is worldwide, this new currency should be a world currency. Teluns may be bought with other older hard currencies since the purpose of purchasing Teluns to move goods and services from sustainable economy into the non-sustainable economy—a good thing. As a world currency, one Telun might be bought using a basket of the major world currencies, such as the dollar, euro, and yen in some fixed percentage. Teluian products would sell at a premium in the non-Teluian economy, just as organic products do today.

It should also be possible at first to purchase the same basket of hard currencies using Teluns. This represents the movement of non-sustainable goods into the sustainable economy, which is not a good thing, except to bootstrap the Teluian economy more quickly. It is therefore taxed so that non-sustainable goods are at a disadvantage to sustainable ones. Over time the tax would be increased to slow the inflow of non-sustainable production into the sustainable economy.

In addition, to provide raw materials for the Teluian economy until it large enough to consume its own waste, mining of waste from the non-sustaining economy should be permitted. Thus the landfills of the world should become the ores of the sustainable economy until the landfills are exhausted (at which point the Teluian economy is hoped to be much closer to a closed loop). Unfortunately this subsidizes the non-sustainable economy to a degree, and so this should be done only for old landfills. (The non-sustainable economy should pay high fees to have its current waste consumed by the Teluian economy.)

Given the above, a sustainable product is then one where the raw materials are purchased with Teluns, processed using technology, energy, and labor purchased with Teluns, and sold in Teluns. Remember there is tax on purchasing the old currency basket with Teluns, so sustainable products will at first simply be products that pay the sustainability tax (remember this tax will start out low and increases over time). However, quickly the energy suppliers selling energy to the non-sustainable economy would find it advantageous to sell directly to Teluian producers, since Teluians would be willing to pay more (up the sustainability tax rate) more for the same energy. (To do so, they producers would have to pay the tax once for that portion of their producing equipment, e.g. their photovoltaic arrays, to move it into the Teluian economy.) The process of moving renewable energy production over into the Teluian economy would continue as the Teluian economy grows until it is essentially all captured. As Teluian production increases beyond the existing renewable energy production, it would (via market forces) call into new renewable (primarily sunlight derived) energy production rather than using taxed energy from the non-sustainable economy (primarily fossil fuels).

Laborers in the Teluian economy would be paid in Teluns. At first there would be little that they could purchase with their Teluns, and so they would be converting them quickly into older currencies to buy their daily living needs, and so paying the tax. However, as products become available in the Teluian economy, those products will look relatively attractive, since they will be purchasable without converting to older currency and paying the tax.

The driver for the transition then becomes the conversion tax rate. As the conversion tax increases, it spurs more and more production into the Teluian economy because of the economic advantage of production within the economy (to avoid the tax).

How is the tax on conversion of Teluns to older currencies used? When the Teluian economy is small, it primarily funds the Teluian central bank and its computerized accounts, which handles all transactions in the economy. (The central bank also regulates the money supply, e.g. to match the level of sustainable production.) As the Teluian economy grows it begins to fund Teluian regulatory agencies, such as the Teluian equivalent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which sets standards for what is and is not allowed as part of the Teluian economy. These agencies will be elected by Teluian citizens (open to anyone with a minimum percentage of income in Teluns).

The Teluian economy should be organized as a non-profit organization (e.g. a 501(c)3 in the U.S.). (It would be nice if the Teluian tax were somehow considered a charitable deduction, but I am skeptical that this could be arranged.) As the economy grows, the organization may find the revenues support social services, research, and infrastructure projects for its citizens, which will encourage citizenship. The Teluian economy could eventually grow into a parallel world government and supplant national governments.

To recap, essentially what I propose is a non-profit version of Paypal based on a new currency and a sustainability tax on conversions out of that currency, and with that tax funding sustainability standard setting and regulatory and administrative functions.

A major question is what set of other values should be incorporated into the Teluian economy, not directly related to sustainability. For example, do Teluian standards incorporate organic standards? Certainly sustainability requires that no persistent or toxic pesticides be used, but it does not necessarily prohibit the use of nitrogen fertilizer derived from industrial fixation using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. Similarly, what sort of individual rights might be incorporated into Teluian economy? Presumably torture and slavery would not be acceptable in Teluian production. Non-specieism therefore requires that the Teluian economy should be vegan as well, but that would limit its adoption (leaving us a choice reminiscent of infamous 1787 choice to allow human slavery in the U.S. Constitution). Child labor prohibition, minimum wages, and health care are yet other values that must be decided upon.

23 May 2005 — Filibuster

Fourteen Senators have just averted the showdown in the Senate over the filibuster of judicial nominees. This seems like the appropriate time therefore to comment on the filibuster because it avoids the temptation to influenced by how it affects the outcome of issues of current interest (e.g. the appointment of Bush’s nominees), instead of looking only at the merits and defects timelessly.

For the record, I have long been somewhat skeptical of the Senate’s filibuster rules. Supermajority voting should be used when necessary, which is not on every issue before a legislative body. However, if there is one place it might be appropriate, it is precisely for judiciary. (Note: this position is the opposite of Republicans’ position, which is that simple majority voting should be used for judicial nominations, but the filibuster should remain for other Senate business.) Judges should be chosen not by the choices they are expected to make, but by the way in which they would make those choices. Simple majority voting allows (and therefore inevitably leads to) the former basis rather than the latter. Also, since Judges decide to apply the Constitution in addition to the laws, it is not appropriate to have a different standard for amending the Constitution than for appointing Judges, lest the Constitution be dismantled by Judicial activism. The long terms of Judges tends to mitigate against such Court packing, but parties have occasionally held power for long enough that their appointees might become sufficiently numerous to weaken Constitutional protections of minority rights.

I have previously described in Judicial Appointments a better method for appointing Judges than Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. Based on the point made above, I would propose that the Judicial appointment special Congress require a supermajority (at least 60%) to appoint Judges, so as to protect the Constitution, and therefore the rights of minority parties, from the majority.

19 January 2005 — Condoleezza Rice Confirmation

I have not been in the mood to add to these commentaries lately. A combination of personal busyness and dismay at the folly of the U.S. electorate last November are to blame. I never did finish the last item about boycotting Republican corporations (it just trails off). (I have left it there nonetheless just to remind myself of my state of mind.) Even the world’s reaction to the Indian ocean tsunami was not sufficient to rouse me to my keys, though it bothered me terribly (a great outpouring for people touched by an uncommon disaster, but where is the sympathy for those deliberately killed almost weekly in similar numbers after lives of horrible slavery?). However, there is something about the squatters in the White House that overcomes feelings of dismay by prompting one of the basic animal emotions: anger.

Dr. Rice’s answers at Senate confirmation hearings yesterday were so lacking in positive values despite amble opportunities (e.g. in answers to questions about torture) that it still makes me pause in wonder at the effectiveness of modern mind control that so many of the voters who said values were most important to them selected the party of value debasement last November. The only values on display that I heard were self-righteousness and loyalty to one’s boss (and loyalty to evil is not admirable). Tomorrow will certainly be a day to mourn. The contrast between Dr. Rice’s remarks about torture with Mr. Powell’s is striking, foreshadowing a probable further decrease in the U.S. State Department’s stature. Perhaps I still lack the motivation to write, because I have little more to say, other than to express my anger that even now Dr. Rice feels compelled to give torturous legalistic answers to questions about torture.

7 November 2004 — Boycott

As much as I like A Modest Proposal and Canada, deliver us from King George and as much as it would partially address the problem (by removing much of the U.S. wealth and technology from evil hands), there is the small matter of the U.S. military, under the control of said King, nixing any attempt at secession.

A lack of action will result first in the usual ugliness associated with imperial aggression (will we never learn from history of past folly?). As William R. Polk notes, wars of national self-determination can last for generations or even centuries, but they eventually succeed. The U.S. military will pull out from Iraq when the U.S. can no longer match Iraqi’s determination to have us gone (or when the oil is gone, if that occurs first). In the meantime, President-elect Bush and his successors will inflict terrible damage on and Iraq and the U.S. both. The world has always stood aside and allowed such tragedies to play out. The stakes for the bystanders are not high enough to compel them to the sacrifices required to intervene when they can take the long view and wait for the inevitable power shifts. The human horror to the perpetrators and victims will soon fade into history, to take their place along so many other horrors.

Similarly, some environmental crimes do not compel others to action. An oil-drenched sound may return to some semblence of normalcy in a few decades. The horror to the victims—wildlife— is no less than that of war, but it too will fade.

But the threat to the planet’s atmosphere, water, and species is different from the swelling and ebbing of nation state power relations or geographically isolated pollution. Each mile driven and each watt from gas or coal leaves its trace on the planet for centuries in the form of greenhouse gases. Even this crime will fade with geologic time, but that is a time scale beyond human generational reckoning. Moreover, there are no bystanders to this crime; each individual and their children and grandchildren will be victims. If the threat is not too abstract and too slow, this may be just enough to compel action against the perpetrators. Of course there are many participants to this crime, but the U.S., coincidentally the perpetrators of the Iraq war, is causing more of the damage than anyone else.

Much of the world is looking to reduce the damage they are doing to the planet. For example, much of the world took a small first step by ratifying the Kyoto accords and implementing policies to reach compliance. The U.S. in contrast has adopted a Super Size Me approach. If something bigger to drive is offered, U.S. consumers feel obligated to accept. Will the next Governor of California campaign from one of these?

More than ever it is time for us to bring an errant superpower to heel. The sane people of the world should institute an embargo against the U.S., starting first with the U.S. dollar, and then if necessary U.S. trade goods and services. U.S. residents have little choice in the use of the dollar, and it is impossible to forgo all U.S. goods, but we can boycott the goods and services of the individuals and corporations that supported President-elect Bush, such as Home Depot, MBNA, and so many others. Boycotting red state corporations is too broad brush; there are good people even in Texas (it is wrong to blame or hate based on non-voluntary group membership). Yes, there are good people in evil corporations too, but they have a choice about where they work.

It may be sufficient for the major reserve banks of the world begin selling their dollar reserves. A decling dollar would withdraw investment capital from the U.S. CO2 pollution by the U.S. is both the result of its inefficiency and its economic growth, and a withdrawal of capital would slow the latter and provide an incentive to improve the former. It would also stimulate U.S. inflation and economic dislocation, increasing uncertainty and further reducing economic growth and thus CO2 pollution.

† A more complete list of companies to boycott, based on data from The Center for Responsive Politics, selecting from the contributors giving more to Bush than Kerry:

  • 3M
  • Ameriquest Capital
  • Amway
  • B.F. Goodrich
  • Bank of America ($215,261 to Bush, $168,502 to Kerry)
  • Bear Stearns
  • Blank Rome LLP
  • Brinker International (Maggiano’s, Brinker Cafe, Chili’s, On the Border, Macaroni Grill, Crazymel’s, Corner Baker, EatZis)
  • Brown-Forman (Southern Comfort, Jack Daniels, Bushmills, Korbel wines, Lennox China, Dansk, Gorham Silver)
  • Circuit City
  • Citigroup ($314,100 to Bush, $277,631 to Kerry)
  • Coors
  • Credit Suisse First Boston
  • Darden Restaurants (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Smokey Bones, Bahama Breeze)
  • Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu
  • Ernst & Young
  • Goldman Sachs ($383,600 to Bush, $294,250 to Kerry)
  • Hallmark Cards
  • Holiday Inns
  • Home Depot
  • JP Morgan Chase & Co ($205,400 to Bush, $205,265 to Kerry)
  • K-Mart
  • Kohler
  • Lehman Brothers
  • MBNA
  • Mariott International
  • McDonald’s
  • Merrill Lynch
  • Morgan Stanley ($604,480 to Bush, $180,979 to Kerry)
  • Outback Steakhouse
  • Pilgrim’s Pride
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers
  • Proctor & Gamble
  • Southern Co
  • Target
  • Tricon Global Restaurants (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell)
  • UBS Americas ($459,075 to Bush, $210,200 to Kerry)
  • Wachovia Corp
  • Waffle House
  • WalMart

4 November 2004 — Moral Values

I keep hearing pundits on NPR talking about exit polls and moral values and it is making me ill. Republican politicians are not just low on moral values; they have a surfeit of immoral values. And yet, when voters identified moral values as important in exit polls, they generally voted Republican. It is one more sign of the different composition of memes in the U.S. To some moral values include honor, truthfulness, integrity, and actions that are ethical, virtuous, noble, or principled, none of which are seen in the Republican party. To others moral values are Old Testament social mores, and by appealing to a small subset of these, the Republican party is able to convince that portion of the electorate to vote for reprehensible politicians.

3 November 2004 — Afghanistan Election

Today’s announcement by a UN-backed joint commission that vote rigging had not affected the results of Afghanistan election is one piece of good news for a country where the situation is so bleak. President-elect Bush and the United Nations are to be commended for transitioning the country to an elected government. The Karzai government has unfortunately been starved of the resources required to gain full control of the country, and the U.S. deserves condemnation for failing in its obligation to rebuild the country it devastated in its attack on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. If only the resources used to invade and occupy Iraq had instead been applied to make Afghanistan a success, the U.S. might now be respected in the world—even in Muslim countries.

3 November 2004 — Red Plague

No Harold Arlen ding dong lyrics to be joyously sung this morning. It is a shame on us moment. I watched a red plague sweep across the nation last night (yes, I did turn on the TV). It appears that prior infection does not confer immunity to the new more virulent strain. Symptoms include fear and even madness, and a tendency to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, with possible deadly outcomes. But especially fear. Infection rates were higher than four years ago, even in areas with some natural resistance (e.g. California, Massachusetts, and New York). There are reports that infection originated in a secret laboratory known as the Ministry of Truth, but others called this notion vintage 1948 fiction. Preliminary indications are that this infection spreads via the airwaves, and healthy individuals are advised to remain wary of the electromagnetic waves they allow into their houses (i.e. practice safe, skeptical viewing). No cure for the red plague is yet known, but the possibility of a slow recovery for victims remains a possibility.

2 November 2004 — For The Record

A Ranked Ballot

Once again I’m casting a ranked ballot in these commentaries to illustrate how it works (and also how stubborn I can be), and to document my positions for my own records. Simple vote for one ballots are an awful way to vote, and I only bother with them in actual elections, since I have no choice there. For President:

  1. David Cobb (Green)
  2. Ralph Nader (write-in)
  3. Leonard Peltier (Peace and Freedom)
  4. John F. Kerry (Democratic)
  5. Michael Badnarik (Libertarian)
  6. Michael Anthony Peroutka (American Independent)

Generally I vote for Green Party candidates when they are on the ballot, and this time is no exception. I mostly agree with Green Party positions, and I think it is important to give them support to help the party grow into an alternative to the Republicrats, even if that takes decades. Ralph Nader is not on the California ballot this year but in my hypothetical ranked ballot there is still write-in capability. I am not particularly pleased with Mr. Nader’s actions this year: his decision to run as an independent rather than helping to build a party is disappointing. (Not that I am a great fan of parties, but they are a fact of life.) However, he is standing for election (California just didn’t allow him on the ballot), and his views on issues do represent mine better than the other candidates, so he still gets the second slot. I would just leave George W. Bush (Republican) unranked on the ballot. All unranked entries are equivalent to ranking them with the next integer, in this case 7. Normally I would leave the Libertarian and American Independent candidates unranked as well, since the positions of those parties are unacceptable to me, but this year an anyone but Bush ballot is in order; I cannot imagine a worse President than Mr. Bush short of Hitler or Stalin. Given the likely votes of others in the election, the above ballot would effectively become a vote for Senator Kerry over Mr. Bush. This is despite John F. Kerry being ranked fourth because he would not represent my positions particularly well (e.g. I believe an immediate withdrawal from Iraq is needed, which Senator Kerry opposes).

For U.S. Senator:

  1. Marsha Feinland (Peace and Freedom)
  2. Barbara Boxer (Democratic)

Bill Jones, the Republican candidate, may not be as bad as some Republicans, but simply by being a Republican, he would be voting in the Senate for Bill Frist to be majority leader, and control of the Senate by radical Republicans has been disgusting lately. I suspect the Libertarian and American Independent candidates would do likewise, so I leave them all ranked last. There are no Green Party candidates for Senator this year. I am generally pleased with Senator Boxer’s performance in office (e.g. a LCV score of 89%), but supporting a third party on a ranked ballot does no harm.

For U.S. Representative:

  1. Anna G. Eshoo (Democratic)

I know relatively little about Brian Holtz (Libertarian) or Chris Haugen (Republican). All that matters to me is that they would most likely vote to continue the Hastert/DeLay control of the House, which has been horrible (and probably criminal in the case of DeLay). I leave them unranked (i.e. tied for last). There are no Green Party candidates for Representative in my district this year. I am also generally pleased with Representative Eshoo’s performance in office (e.g. LCV score of 100%).

For State Senator:

  1. Joe Simitian (Democratic)
  2. Jon Zellhoefer (Republican)

I have been pleased with Joe Simitian’s role in the State Assembly. He is the best choice on the ballot for the Senate. I disagree with both Jon Zellhoefer’s and Allen Rice’s (Libertarian) positions, but I think Mr. Zellhoefer would be more responsible than Mr. Rice, and since control of the State Senate by Republicans is not an issue, I give Mr. Zellhoefer the second place.

For State Assembly:

  1. Ira Ruskin (Democratic)

It is too bad there isn’t a Green Party candidate on the ballot for State Assembly. The choice is between a Democrat and a Republican. Even reasonable Republicans are tainted by the party they associate with (they often feel compelled to follow their party leadership when they shouldn’t), so here I vote for the Democrat.

Miscellaneous Notes

Originally I had expected an October Surprise from Karl Rove. (As the George Orwell quote heading this page makes clear, one reason to keep a record of one’s opinions about important events is to keep from forgetting that one ever held it.) The fourth estate considers the Bin Laden tape as the October surprise, but it really said little new (other than to tweak al-Qaeda’s rhetoric toward liberty according to Juan Cole), or anything likely to affect the election, except to remind us of Senator Kerry’s charge that Mr. Bush failed to get Bin Laden. It is unlikely that Karl Rove orchestrated that, or approved of the text of Bin Laden’s remarks (e.g. Mr. Bush’s pet goat story reading being more important than the skyscrapers).

Actual Voting

In actual voting today, it took 55 minutes to get to the voting machine, and 5 minutes to cast a ballot. I did witness one voter in front me whose name was not on the voter list (though her husband’s name was there and they registered at the same time). She cast a provisional ballot. I wonder if it will be counted? I had planned to ask for a paper ballot, but my wife had just arrived on a flight from Hong Kong two hours before, and she was terribly jet lagged. I opted to use the touch-screen machines just to finish as quickly as possible (they are fast) so she could go home and get some sleep. The lack of a verifiable record with Santa Clara’s machines is not acceptable, but this will not last long: the state of California recognizes the problem and is requiring better equipment by 2006.

We voted on those awful vote for one ballots almost universal in the U.S. (exceptions include San Francisco and Cambridge). I generally voted for my first ranking. Had a particular race been close, I might have felt the need to engage in tactical voting, but, for example, with the unfair electoral college system and California’s winner-take-all rule, California’s 55 electoral votes are guaranteed to be for Senator Kerry, allowing me to vote for the Green Party candidate.

1 November 2004 — Presidential Election Prediction

I’m going to go out on a limb and attempt the predict the final vote for President. I see the vote being 5 to 4, though I believe there’s enough error in the data that I could be off by three or even four votes.

But seriously, in November 2000, while on a business trip, I was asked to predict the outcome of Bush v. Gore in the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, I didn’t write that down in these commentaries, but I could not have been more wrong. I suggested with Maginot Line like reasoning, that the Supreme Court would put its own interests ahead of partisan issues, and insist on a 9 to 0 consensus, as in the Nixon tape ruling. That would have probably meant a non-interventionist ruling, which would have let the Constitutional process unfold (which would have also led to Mr. Bush occupying the White House, and it would have been just as fraudulent because of the illegitimate voter purges in Florida). The eventual 5 to 4 opinion, to my surprise, really damaged the Court. Given that, I don’t feel at all qualified to predict what the Supreme Court will do. It seems some of the Justices can really be quite partisan in some situations.

† There is now good background information on the Court’s decision process in David Margolick’s article The Path to Florida in the October issue of Vanity Fair [1.1][1.2] [2] [3] [4]. (It isn’t pretty.)

‡ My prediction failed to account for Chief Justice Rehnquist not returning after his tracheotomy for thyroid cancer. It could well be 4 to 4 now, though more likely Mr. Bush will make a recess appointment.

31 October 2004 — The Scariest Night

The scariest night is almost upon us. On Tuesday night, we will get a preliminary indication of what the swing states have done to us, though most likely we won’t know the true outcome on Tuesday night. The election appears to be too close for that, and there may be multiple lawsuits and other issues to be resolved before a definitive outcome is clear. A scary night will be a fitting end to an election in which the Republicrat candidates both employed fear to coerce votes.

There are differences between the two leading candidates. Despite my preference for a non-Republicrat President, I recognize, as I did four years ago, that there will consequences from one faction or the other occupying the White House (the Supreme Court, which I felt to be an issue four years ago, is even more of an issue now, with up to four Justices said to be up for appointment in the next Presidential term). Still, on most policy issues, Senator Kerry will be frustrated by a Republican House and a Republican Senate. He is no more likely to get climate change legislation through Congress than Mr. Bush is likely to try. Other elements of Senator Kerry’s domestic policy agenda are equally non-starters in a Republican Congress (e.g. reversing some of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, although there is may be a chance to veto extensions of tax cuts that will expire). In foreign policy, there is more flexibility for a Democratic President, but neither the squatter or lead challenger is likely to invade another country with the U.S. military mired in Iraq, and President Kerry tells us his Iraq policy would involve years more of occupation, which is plenty to fear. With a few exceptions, e.g. the Supreme Court, it’s scary either way. Were I to grade the two Republicrat candidates, Mr. Bush would receive an F, and Senator Kerry a C. A C President is scary, but an F President is scarier. Having no choice is scariest. Tuesday night is the true Halloween this year.

Fear must be faced or it corrupts. The proper response to fear is creativity. We must create choices when we see none. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from the creativity shown by one woman in response to a no-choice situation:

The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development. A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear.

… Free men are the oppressed who go on trying and who in the process make themselves fit to bear the responsibilities and to uphold the disciplines which will maintain a free society. Among the basic freedoms to which men aspire that their lives might be full and uncramped, freedom from fear stands out as both a means and an end. A people who would build a nation in which strong, democratic institutions are firmly established as a guarantee against state-induced power must first learn to liberate their own minds from apathy and fear.
—Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom From Fear, 1991

Regardless of who occupies the White House, we need to work for a revolution of the spirit of this country. We need to envision a world in which neither Mr. Bush or Senator Kerry would be in a position to frighten the people, and then we need to implement that vision.

30 October 2004 — Fourth Estate in Election Season

The intensity and prominence of the fourth estate’s coverage of the al-Qaqaa story since it broke on the 24th suggests an importance that it does not have, at least in reality. The importance of al-Qaqaa in this election season is not in the actual events, but on perception that can be manufactured from them. Senator Kerry has taken up the issue and used it to hammer Mr. Bush, because it can be used as a tile in the mosaic Senator Kerry wants voters to see. Mr. Bush in turn has responded in his usual fashion: denial, cover-up, finger-pointing, deception, and manipulation; all attempts to control the perception of the actual events.

The important issues for this election are ignored by the fourth estate. There was only one question on environmental policy in 4.5 hours of debate by the two Republicrat factions, and yet global warming will more dramatically affect our future lives than al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, or taxes and spending.

Senator Kerry is correct that Mr. Bush’s flawed invasion of Iraq has made the U.S. and the world more dangerous, but the al-Qaqaa story is a small part of that, and though the world is more dangerous, there are still far greater dangers to grabble with than terrorism. And yet, the manipulation of events at al-Qaqaa may be now deciding the U.S. electoral outcome by swaying a few of those last undecided voters. This phenomenon is not new; Aldous Huxley observed in 1958:

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not forsee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies — the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.

Huxley observed what we now disparagingly label infotainment. It is still with us because the fourth estate does not provide the first draft of history, and it does not monitor the sources of power (though there are exceptions). It would be desirable for it to do these things, but the business of journalism is to deliver eyes or ears to advertisers (even NPR is in this business—only a few organizations such as Pacifica and Consumer Reports are in the business of delivering news to subscribers).

Bringing greater feedback to the U.S. political system will require a functional fourth estate. We need to encourage changes in the fourth estate to bring its business interests into alignment with society’s interests. The Consumer Reports and Pacifica models deserve our support. A good first step would be returning public media (e.g. NPR and its affiliates) to zero advertising. Another more difficult step requires us to wean ourselves from our opium.

† For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote, If a nation expects to be ignorant and free it expects what never was and never will be. … The people cannot be safe without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe. Jefferson was at least right in the first part.

Journalism’s main task is to monitor Power, to locate Domination and to follow its characteristics and effects on the people, to observe the relations developing between Power and the Subjugated. Even between these two ends there is always a dialogue, an exchange of behaviors, opinions, emotions, habits, influences. Power is never a one-track, one direction action. —Amira Haas, journalist for Ha’aretz, accepting the first Anna Lind Award on 18 June 2004 in Stockholm.

13 October 2004 — Kerry vs. Bush Debate 3

The debates interest me for what they say about U.S. politics, not for their content, since neither candidate represents my views well enough to earn my vote. The third debate made even clearer that the process remains woefully short of earning my vote. I have mentioned before the debate format being a platform for a series of micro-speeches, and this was true again tonight. However, even if the debate rules negotiated by the campaigns discouraged on-the-spot interactivity, I still expected week-to-week interactivity, i.e. a statement made in one debate would be answered in the next. That happened very little. When there was topic overlap with the previous debates, the candidates were repetitive, offering fusillades nearly identical to prior answers, and essentially ignoring the rejoinders made by the other’s prior answers. It is sad that the candidates are unwilling to debate in real-time, but even sadder that they are unwilling to debate with a week and armchair tacticians to respond. Each candidate bears the signature of a campaign strategy that sees only one carefully chosen angle on any issue as worthy of presentation to the electorate. Image management rules the day.

13 October 2004 — Kerry vs. Bush Debate 3 Preface

I’ve said before that predictions usually say more about the seer than the future, and so far that seems to have been the case in my comments prior to the second Kerry vs. Bush debate. I suggested that Karl Rove would find a way to gain an edge in the audience or question selection, but I did not detect that last Thursday.

What I did see is a very similar debate to the first, which is to say, heavily scripted. I expect the same tonight. While Rove’s dirty tricks were not visible last Thursday, I also still would not be surprised by an October Surprise directed at Senator Kerry in the last twenty days of this campaign. Of course, with Senator Kerry trailing in both the popular and electoral vote polls, such tricks might be withheld if deemed unnecessary, as they have the potential to backfire (still, the later they are sprung, the less chance for a backfire before 2 November).

Finally, I want to reiterate that my interest in the debates is simply to guage the health of U.S. politics. Preliminary indications are that the patient is on the verge of permanent disability.

7 October 2004 — Kerry vs. Bush Debate 2 Preface

There wasn’t much to write about the Senator Edwards vs. Mr. Cheney debate. It seemed very much in the same style as the Senator Kerry vs. Mr. Bush Debate 1, which I did comment on. (The media like to comment on facial expressions and the like, but such things are not interesting to me, so the primary difference I noted was the verbal nastiness). The primary similarity was the staged nature of it.

I did want to speculate that Friday’s Kerry vs. Bush Debate 2 may be somewhat more favorable to Mr. Bush for the simple reason that the questions will be coming from the audience, and if there is one thing the Republicans faction excels at, it is manipulation. So I expect that they will manage to stack the deck by planting partisans in the supposedly undecided audience. Since the moderator, Charlie Gibson of ABC News, is to choose which audience questions are asked, this bias may be reduced, but I still expect it to be there.

4 October 2004 — Debate Question

Here’s the question I would like to see in an upcoming Presidential debate (not that I expect either faction would have a good answer):

For more than eight years, in other words during both Democratic and Republican administrations, Congress and the White House have ignored the two most challenging problems that confront not only this country, but the whole world. Individually the problems are hard enough, but occurring together they make finding a solution as treacherous as navigating between Scylla and Charybdis. On the one side is the imminent peak in oil production. On other side is fossil fuel induced climate change. The American Spirit loves a challenge and could navigate the waters ahead if given a chance. My question is why the U.S. government has been cowardly hiding the challenge ahead from American public and when is it going to stop hiding these issues?

2 October 2004 — Defeating Bush is Not Sufficient

Democrats seem elated for the moment after Senator Kerry’s performance in the debate, and Mr. Bush’s flop. This is a short note to observe that the Democrats need much more than a Senator Kerry victory on 2 November to make a real difference. As a measure of the success of the Republican lust for power, even controlling the White House and slightly more than half of Congress is not enough. First, there are enough closet Republicans in the Democratic party (Zell Miller is not the only one) that the Democratic agenda will not be furthered by slim majorities. Second, the Democrats are so easily cowed these days, that even a Republican minority seems to get its way much of the time. Democrats appear to still evince some sense of shame or at least a need for the appearance of propriety, which the Republicans and others manipulate. In contrast, the Republicans seem to have one by one over the last two decades volunteered for a Zamyatin-style operation to remove that center of their brains. (A more gracious way of putting it is that Republicans have settled on a smaller set of memes than Democrats, and so have fewer conflicts to be exploited.) Finally, the fourth estate has become so Republican in recent years, that even nominal Democratic control of the White House and Congress prevents the Democrats from advancing their agenda. As such, when the Democrats are in power, they are simply the conservative (dictionary definition, not political usage) faction of the U.S., maintaining the status quo, and trying to prevent the advance of the Republican agenda.

What the U.S. needs is a party to replace the Democrats that, while still having a sense of propriety (i.e. even proper ends do not justify Republican means), is less conflicted about their memes, and so less susceptible to manipulation. The Democrats perhaps aspire to transform into such a party, but it seems to me as futile as the hopes of the Log Cabin Republicans to transform the Republican party.

My wish is that the Green Party of the U.S. could become that replacement by capturing more than half of the votes of the population who don’t currently vote (i.e. a situation where Democrats retain their current 24%, Republicans retain their current 24%, and Greens grow to 30% by recruiting non-voters), but this is a fantasy for now, not a prediction.

30 September 2004 — Kerry vs. Bush Debate 1 Comments

I watched tonight’s debate between Senator Kerry and Mr. Bush already knowing I would not vote for either candidate. I watched not for information on how to vote, since candidates who interest me were not invited, but rather to see what others saw. In November, the currently undecided voters of the swing states will decide all of our fates. I don’t care to predict the outcome, but I think there’s ample reason to fear enough of them will vote for Mr. Bush that he will be able to re-occupy the White House, and perhaps this time actually earn the title President. Should that happen, I’d like to know what sort of obstacle Karl Rove had to overcome to sufficiently deceive voters again. (Senator Kerry’s performance in round 1 was a good enough obstacle that Karl Rove will have to be especially low in his response.) Of course, because I live in California instead of a swing state, seeing the debate is seeing only a fraction of what those who will decide are seeing. (If California were a swing state, I would also have to start watching television more than twice a year to see what others see.)

I have only a passing interest in the question of such burning importance to the media (viz. who won). The way the debate was managed is far more interesting. The negotiated debate format was more demanding than a 30 second television commercial, but not so demanding that what occurred was mostly a series of canned responses memorized by the candidates during their debate preparation. The primary intellectual challenge for Senator Kerry and Mr. Bush was to figure out which speech to cue in response to the only slightly unpredictable questions asked. (Even this simple intellectual task seemed beyond Mr. Bush at times.)

Considered from the scripting angle, the debate prelude (in which Mr. Lehrer explained to the audience their role, and pointed out how even camera angles were predetermined) was as important as the debate itself.

Of course, the most important scripting occurred long before this debate, and resulted in only two Republicrat candidates being on the stage tonight. It was staged reality television. The staging helps to give the appearance of greater choice than what is actually offered; it is all part of the effort to manufacture consent for whoever eventually manages to occupy the White House.

† A followup note on this: The Times of India reported on 2 October, The Republican and Democratic campaigns set out 32 pages of regulations for the debates, aimed at controlling how the candidates are seen on television screens.

29 September 2004 — Election Issues Perceived vs. Actual

The important issues of the election 34 days from today have only slight overlap with the issues being debated by the candidates and press, and if polls can be believed, considered important by the electorate. The latter issues are dealing with terrorism, the war in Iraq (which the Republicans want to incorrectly lump with the first issue), and the long-term economy and related societal issues.

When looked at statistically, preventing attacks against the U.S. citizens and property is probably the least important issue in the election. Hurricanes in Florida alone are likely to kill more people and damage more property over the next decade than foreign attacks against the U.S. (The equation in other countries, e.g. in Iraq, is not so favorable, however.) The emphasis on the 9/11 attack is emotional, not rational. I hypothesize that the emotional response resulted from the dramatic way in which the event was delivered to us, which caused individuals to feel personally affected out of proportion to the actuality. A car crash is a statistic on the news. Up a few levels of emotional impact are plane crashes, which are usually given extensive coverage on the news because they are both rare and dramatic. Still, the footage is usually of the wreckage and cleanup, not of tens of minutes of gruesome events. The World Trade Center attack in contrast was viewed live by many starting just a few minutes into the event, and viewers proceeded to watch it unfold, not knowing the outcome (unlike after the fact coverage of a plane crash). (A second hypothesis is there was also fear associated with the novelty of the attack—i.e. perhaps people feared crashing airplanes into buildings suddenly become common?) In contrast, the statistics are clear: car crashes kill 40,000 per year in the US, plane crashes kill roughly 200 people per year (the year to year numbers are highly variable) in the US, and terrorism killed 3,000 in the US in 2001, and next to none in other years (so the per year number is quite small averaged over any period).

Another election issue considered important by the media and electorate is the short-term U.S. economy. The economy is indeed important to the lives of U.S. citizens, but I have my doubts how important the election is to the short-term economy. I have previously expressed my skepticism of how much influence the President and Congress have on the short-term economy. (Longer term, I think the influence can be significant, but the media and electorate don’t think long-term.)

The U.S. war on Iraq is one issue that is both perceived to be and actually is important. However, at least some of the debate is centered on whether the war makes the U.S. more or less safe, which is the wrong issue. I think it clearly makes us less safe, but it is probably not statistically an important risk until such time as atomic bombs are more widely available. The issue with the war is (1) moral, and (2) how the war destroys the ability of the U.S. to be a positive force in the world.

If those are not the important issues, what are? Climate change should rank as a critical issue because it is likely to affect the planet so totally (both human and non-human lives), and because unlike other problems, the damage is long-lasting (even if we completely stop the CO2 increase by 2050, human and non-human lives will continue to be affected for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years).

Peak oil and in the U.S. Peak Natural Gas are problems that need more attention. Unlike climate change, the effect is primarily on humans, though non-human lives may be indirectly affected (e.g. by falling crop yields causing further loss of habitat), but the effect on human lives may be very significant.

Long-term economic issues are also important. Tax cuts that effect class warfare and pile up huge debts when they are least appropriate need more attention. The widening gaps between the wealthy and middle class and the poor of this country, and between this country and the world, should be part of the debate. Environmental issues other than climate change have relevance too. These issues, after climate change and fossil fuels, that should be deciding this election.

7 September 2004 — Fossil Fuel Planning

How should we manage the world peak in oil and the North American peak in natural gas (NG)? I will consider the NG problem first, then the oil problem, and then the planning appropriate to both of these problems.

As the price of NG slowly increases to force down demand to match falling production, other energy sources will become increasingly attractive. Since world NG is not yet peaking, the price of North American NG is likely to rise to match the cost of importing NG from other continents in LNG tankers. The lack of LNG tankers and terminals in the short term will limit this price clamp. In the longer term, as more LNG tankers and terminals are built the cost of liquefying NG will still result in expensive North American NG, but less expensive than in the short term. Some uses of NG will find substitutes faster than others. For example, fertilizer and plastic production may remain NG consumers even after its energy use has diminished, since there are not good alternatives. However, since NG will be more plentiful on other continents, it will become cheaper to produce some of these items near NG supplies or their pipelines, and transport the result instead. Electricity generation will switch away from NG before homeowners change their home heating method. Wind energy will benefit because it is already close to competitive. This will be a positive development, but one that will create challenges (because wind energy is not continuous). On the negative side, there will be pressure to switch to coal for generating electricity. Unlike NG and oil, there is an enormous coal supply in the U.S. and world, and it is already cost competitive with NG. The preference for natural gas is due to the simpler regulatory situation, since it is cleaner than coal (the primary pollutant from burning NG is CO2, which is unfortunately not yet regulated in the U.S.).

Predictions for the oil peak vary from now to forty years from now, but the next few years (e.g. 2005-2015) seem the most credible to me based on both the history of world production and the history of world exploration. Oil is primarily used in transportation (and somewhat for home heating). The response to large oil prices increases will be to reduce transportation (e.g. the cost of winter strawberries from South America may become too high, and they will disappear from most supermarket shelves), make transportation more efficient (e.g. hybrids, mass transit), and to find alternative fuels competitive at the new price point. The purpose of planning for the peak is to first encourage the reductions in use and increases in efficiency, and encourage the shift to alternative fuels away from other fossil fuels (e.g. tar sands, methyl hydrates, synfuel from coal) toward renewable, non-CO2 producing fuels (e.g. photovoltaic or wind electricity, ethanol, bio-diesel).

The market will drive the transition, but advance planning can end up giving the market options it wouldn’t otherwise have. For example, government research and development on how to store energy captured from the wind would affect the coal/wind balance the market finds after prices increases make NG unattractive for electricity generation.

Some research may, however, distract us from what needs to be done. The much touted hydrogen economy seems to me a step in the wrong direction, at least at the moment. It is unclear that hydrogen will ever be competitive with the alternatives. If it eventually becomes so (e.g. if it becomes possible to efficiently split water into hydrogen and oxygen directly from sunlight and catalysts), it will be after such a long research and development process that it will not help us address the NG and oil peaks. It is not the research itself into hydrogen production and use that concerns me, but the way that it is used to avoid work on other more important projects.

Planning should be more than research, however. The research and development necessary to create vehicles appropriate to the post-peak is already done; what is needed is to provide the incentive to move this technology into production. The U.S. government could mandate that its vehicle fleet purchases be all at least HEV-30s (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that go 30 miles on battery power alone after charging from the grid) or better, with a mandate for some full BEVs (battery electric vehicles) after 2009, which would generate the demand to get such vehicles on the road. Similarly, for homeowners who heat their homes with natural gas, the simplest response is to fully insulate their homes. The goal here should be to encourage some homeowners to start on this early, creating the market for more contractors and suppliers, so that when the problem becomes serious, the infrastructure to address it is in place. Federal and state governments should also install photovoltaics on government buildings wherever feasible, so as to increase production and therefore lower costs, while at the same time adding important daytime generation to the grid.

Storage is not the only option for dealing with intermittent generation (e.g. from wind or solar). Creating the infrastructure for load management in the electrical grid would also help the transition to wind energy. EVs (both BEVs and plug-in HEVs) generally recharge sometime during night, but the exact time for recharging is unimportant. Heating (e.g. via heat pump) and cooling (refrigerators and air conditioners, which are also heat pumps) can be delayed by letting the temperate slightly exceed desired bounds. Heating and cooling can also be advanced when there is a temporary surfeit of generation (e.g. heating water in a tank for later radiant use, or even heating/cooling the building a bit more than desired and then idling). Imagine a system that can tell loads such as EVs and heat pumps when to operate and when to idle. EVs also present a unique opportunity to supply energy back to the grid in times of need (V2G).

Planning for the peak should also include smoothing out the price spikes that are coming. Further taxing fossil fuels today will accelerate the market demand for new technologies. Once the underlying commodity prices increase, the tax should be reduced to decrease the shock. Steady price increases over many years will result in a superior market response compared to sudden increase of the same magnitude over a few years.

While the market may respond to reduced North American NG production by moving fertilizer and similar manufacturing offshore, it would be more efficient to reduce the need for such products. Imagine the USDA starting to train its researchers, experts, and educators for a transition to organic (or semi-organic, i.e. fertilizer free) farming methods. Such a change might not be felt for more than decade, so it is important to start now.

Another initiative should be to encourage cradle to cradle manufacturing. Just as the USDA teaches farmers how to produce more (though it needs redirection in what it teaches), industry could benefit from agencies that teach, prod, and assist in conversion for better technologies, such as cradle to cradle. Not only are such technologies more efficient, they reduce the need for virgin materials, including fossil fuels. For example, when Shaw Industries of Georgia replaced its PVC carpet backing products with EcoWorx, a polypropylene product, it not only reduced the fossil fuel input required to make virgin product, it enables old EcoWorx to returned at the end of its life, at no charge to the customer, and be recycled into more EcoWorx, enabling the company to use the same materials in a perpetual loop.

Finally, government should not hesitate to use the power of taxation. A transition away from income taxes toward waste taxes (e.g. as proposed in Tax Waste, Not Work) would encourage efficient production that will help a little today and much more after the peaks. Taxation (and even regulation) can also be used to discourage purchase of inefficient products. For example, adding a vehicle tax equal to the lifetime cost of fuel for the vehicle to its purchase price ($8000 for a 25mpg vehicle with a 100,000 mile lifetime) would rapidly shift purchases away from 25mpg vehicles toward 50mpg vehicles. Even after the shift, worldwide revenue of $200B per year would be sufficient to fund the transition to alternative technologies (e.g. create the V2G infrastructure for EVs, and grid demand management). Taxes on low-efficiency refrigerators and heaters (e.g. resistive water heaters) are also appropriate.

There is so much that could be done now to prepare for the peaks ahead. Many of these things take as long as decade to yield results. With the peaks so near, starting now is imperative. It is only the failure of leadership that prevents us from beginning.

† A followup note on this: Scientific American in their October 2004 issue News Scan had an item entitled Energy Geopolitics with a graphic showing the U.S. with 3.1% of NG reserves and Canada with 1.0%. In contrast, Russia has 27.6% Iran 15.5%, and Qatar 15.0%. The news item listed its source as Oil and Gas Journal, Vol. 101, No. 49, December 22, 2003. It also gives DOE’s U.S. NG consumption breakdown as 31.9% for industry, 23.3% for residential, 22.5% for electric power, 14.3% for commercial activity, and other uses as 8.1%.

31 August 2004 — Legislating Taxes and Spending

This is my fifth installment in the plan first hinted at in Designing/Evolving Complex Systems. It will make no sense without first reading Bringing Democracy to the U.S..

Legislatures make tax and spending choices today with the majority faction often making all the decisions. The more effective faction discipline in the majority (if there is one), the more completely they eliminate minority inputs in the budgeting process. Need it be this way? Here I explore alternatives. Also, in a legislature with no dominant faction, a formal method for finding a point of agreement that does not rely on vote trading and avoids or reduces deadlock may help reduce the power of faction leadership.

The process would start with the executive submitting a proposal to the legislature, as in the U.S. today, since the executive has the detail and expertise that comes from its many employees and their interaction with the previous years’ budgets. As today, the legislature should separate tax and spending decision making into macro and micro decisions: First make the macro fiscal policy decision on how much taxation and spending is appropriate. Second, within that framework, decide on the line item tax and spending items.

For setting the overall size of the budget (i.e. the amount of total spending and total taxation), each representative could submit her own target that balances taxation and spending. The median (not the mean, which would be too easy to manipulate by a single representative) would then be selected as the target. Exactly half of the representatives support that level of spending and taxation. A higher target has greater than 50% support on the spending side, but less than 50% support on the taxation side, and vice versa for a lower target. (Here I use balanced budgets for the development of this idea, but a generalization is briefly proposed below.) The result would not differ from traditional legislative methods when a majority faction exists and its members vote in unison (e.g. all submitting the same budget target), though in practice it might give different results, since it encourages representatives to act independently. In the case where no faction is in the majority, it may avoid deadlock, or at least simplify the process of arriving at the target.

In a non-parliamentary system, with an independent executive branch of government, as in the U.S., it is unclear how an executive veto would interact with this proposal. An executive veto would be a demand for a higher or lower target, and individual representatives might respond by raising or lowering their targets, and thus move the median toward a compromise with the executive, but the possibility for deadlock remains, as in the U.S. today. The executive veto exists in non-parliamentary systems to effect a balance of power between branches of government. Rather than get into the larger parliamentary vs. balance-of-powers issue, I observe here only that the potential for deadlock exists, as before. If other changes (e.g. proportional representation) have the effect of a more factional legislature, this potential for deadlock may be realized more often. One solution is parliamentary democracy (i.e. letting the legislature choose the executive). Another is a deadlock resolution mechanism, e.g. borrowing the parliamentary method of automatically calling an election in the event of deadlock, either to simultaneously pick a new legislature and executive, or to directly choose a budgetary target (the same median algorithm could be used with the electorate). An alternative method to break legislative/executive deadlock is based on the veto override by a super-majority of the legislature. Here the executive’s veto would shift the target upward or downward in the sorted list of representative targets toward the executive’s target until either her target of that of the designated super-majority (e.g. two-thirds or three-fifths) is reached. The problem here is the executive is likely to use this method routinely, since is is less problematic.

It may be that an executive veto over the legislature is not required here. The executive branch has significant input into the process through the budget it submits to the legislature. Elimination of an overall veto might be more acceptable if it is kept for individual line items.

A similar problem exists in a bicameral legislature. The U.S. Congress currently uses a conference committee to reconcile differences between the two bodies, with a simple yes-no vote on the committee result. The pain of a no vote compels most representatives to vote for the conference proposal. The conference approach has been slightly abused by the leadership of the U.S. Congress in recent years, and moreover this model is less likely to function well in a more diverse legislature (e.g. one without a one-two-party-system). Since the purpose of a bicameral legislature is to check, restrain, and second guess the other, it remains appropriate for the two bodies to arrive at budgetary decisions independently, and go through some sort of reconciliation process. The conference approach should be tried in the new environment, and some other mechanism substituted if it fails. The conference committee should however be chosen directly and not by the leadership of the legislative bodies.

These tax and spending targeting methods have so far assumed a balanced budget. To allow deficits and surpluses, add another step, where the legislature decides on the size of the deficit/surplus target (i.e. the difference between projected revenue and spending). Whether it is better to make this decision before or after the spending decision is an open question, though I lean toward putting it first. Since this is the primary influence of the legislature on national economics, it is appropriate to make it a separate vote. The bids of individual representatives easily allow for super majority voting in the case of deficit spending. For example, if the median value is a deficit, then the ratio of the resulting public debt to projected revenue could be used, via some formula, to pick a point other than the median (e.g. a ratio of 1.0 might require 55% support in the legislature, and a ratio of 2.0 might require 60% support in the legislature, etc.).

If simply setting a balance between taxation and spending is tricky, making line item tax and spending choices is even more difficult. An obvious possibility is to give each representative an equal fraction of the target to allocate. In this case, even a single representative elected via proportional representation could fund projects of interest to the citizens she represents. An equally obvious problem is the potential corruption which might result from such a method. Also, the sum of many independent budget actions would result in poor allocations. Coordination is required, and while legislators would probably coordinate to some degree, I question how well this would work.

An extension of this idea is worth investigating further. Allow representatives to form budget groups which allocate spending proportional to the size of the group. If the groups are required to be large enough (perhaps 15% of the legislature) then individual corruption is made difficult, and monitoring (e.g. by the fourth estate) of a few groups is easier than monitoring each individual legislator. The possibility of systematic corruption, as seen in the U.S. budget each year, remains as before. The only way to address is to reduce that role of money in politics, e.g. as outlined in Bringing Democracy to the U.S.

Other methods for line item budgeting are possible. For example, representatives could set line item targets independently of the overall target in individual median votes. The difference between the sum of the line items and the overall target could then be given in equal shares individual representatives as subtractions to allocate among the line items. This method encourages discipline in coming up with line item targets, since substantial differences result in allowing others the ability to subtract funds from a favored project.

I am uncertain of the merit of these ideas. I have written them down to better consider them. In a system that encourages multiple parties and which better represents the electorate, the traditional legislative tax and spending decision making methods may not be viable, and something new may be required. Most likely, some of these methods would have to be tried to fully appreciate the advantages and disadvantages, but that is not a problem if evolution is expected.

28 August 2004 — Quotations

Why do I collect quotes from the things I read? What are the selection criteria? I began, like most (if I may judge by what is on the Internet), by collecting items that were short and witty. As time progressed the quotations I found interesting were increasingly serious, and I started excerpting larger context, rather than simply pithy one liners. Humor is sometimes explained as an unexpected truth, and I see that as a connection between my early and later collecting.

Our society, just like societies for thousands of years, lives by its myths. Myths are those beliefs that most of the time we do not even think to categorize as beliefs; they are below the surface of thought most of our lives. (In Overcoming Evil I mentioned some of the memes that influence modern myth.) There is always the chance that I do not really understand my own motives, but my explanation for my collecting is simply that I enjoy observations that illuminate the mythology of our time. Paul Klee said, Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes it visible. I respect the ability of certain authors (e.g. Orwell, Huxley, Douglas, Schumacher, Chomsky, Le Guin) who rise to this standard of art by making something beneath the surface become visible via their words. I also believe both such authors and their readers know the generalizations in their statements are not completely universal, but we do not object any more than we object to the poet’s use of simile and metaphor, imprecise though those are, because the way in which it is said helps us to make visible an idea and impart wisdom. We do not take their words as facts, axioms, or theorems, but as illuminations of a complexity that our myths do not admit.

Now my notion of truth (inherent in the unexpected truth myth illumination explanation) is not universally shared, for the reasons stated in Overcoming Evil. As such, the quotations I select for my collection are also a personal statement of who I would like to be.

Not every quotation I select follows the unexpected truth pattern. For example, I admit I cannot resist the occasional skewering of individuals or groups I consider misguided or evil, though this tends to be in political cartoons rather than quotations. There is something enjoyable in seeing hypocrisy exposed.

† Of course, my attempt at such a list of memes was woefully incomplete. At the very least I should have included Empiricism and Rationalism as components incorporated in the last 400 years. Indeed these may be seen as the source of many of the memes I listed as dating from 200 to 30 years ago. The idea that either reason or science can lead us to the truth is fundamentally at odds with that of dogma, and this conflict is with us today. I should have also noted the importance of economic memes on modern myth.

‡ For example, Mark Fiore, Tom Tomorrow, and Tom Toles.

23 August 2004 — Judicial Appointments

How should Judges be selected? Many methods have been tried, but they all have problems. Our current method—Presidential nomination with Senate confirmation—gives the President too strong a role. Presidential elections in the U.S. have a strong economic component; the best President for the economy may not be the best at choosing judges to protect our rights or referee between the President and Congress. In addition, for the Supreme Court chance plays too large a role in determining how many appointees a given President is able to make. The difference between 5-4 and 4-5 decisions on many issues could be easily be based on whether a given Justice died or retired during year 3 of one Presidential term or year 1 of the next Presidential term. This is not a particularly rational method of adjudication. Direct election of judges has well-known problems that I need not repeat here.

The method I just outlined below in Ballot Initiatives, which is itself based on the method proposed for Constitutional amendments in Bringing Democracy to the U.S., namely the convening of an independent body, directly elected by citizens, to choose judges may be an appropriate model. This allows citizens to choose representatives who match their judicial philosophy independent of fiscal and foreign policy consideration. To choose judges for the Federal courts, a new Congress would be elected every two years, two years out of phase from Presidential elections.

I am concerned with the number of representative bodies that are now proposed: House, Senate, Judicial appointments, various ballot initiative congresses, and, rarely, a Constitutional amendment congress, along with equivalent state bodies, and direct ballot choices for districting and ballot initiative choices. However, three regular and the occasional special congress still seems workable, though it is on the verge of exceeding the electorate’s willingness to attend to politics directly. Further giving functions of the House or Senate to independent congresses (e.g. treaty approval) is unwarranted.

Judicial terms of office are another consideration. Lifetime appointment is intended to preserve judicial independence, and I believe it accomplishes this. However, a single long term would provide for independence, and might be considered because it would allow for a more regular replacement. It is most important for the Supreme Court, from which there is no further appeal, and where the number of judges is small. The median term of Supreme Court justices in the twentieth century was 13 years, with an average of 14.4, a standard deviation of 9.4, and a maximum of 36 years. For appointments after 1950, the mean and median have both increased (to 17.9 and 19.5). Providing Supreme Court justices a single 16-year term is worth consideration. An alternative is to simply increase the number of Supreme Court justices (e.g. to 17) so that any single bad appointment is less important.

20 August 2004 — Ballot Initiatives

This is another follow-up to Bringing Democracy to the U.S. with a simple observation and a few details. The procedure outlined for Constitutional amendment, with minor changes, is a good method for ballot initiatives. There is a need for direct legislative and executive action to deal with at least situations that are conflicts of interest for the legislature and executive. The problem with initiatives is the yes or no choice given to the public to adopt language chosen by sponsors of the initiative leaves little choice for finding the middle ground that is so often appropriate in governance. (California’s initiatives do allow for rival proposals to be on the ballot, and the one with the most votes is selected, if it reaches a plurality. This is a form of approval voting. However, this mechanism depends upon a second well-funded group to arise to counter the first, and still provides only a coarse sort of choice.) It is the lack of debate in drafting the language of the ballot initiative that most concerns me. It is usual for a new proposal to have negative consequences not apparent to its authors until some other party raises the point, and so ballot initiatives give inferior legislation.

In contrast, adopting a variant of my recent proposal for Constitutional amendment would allow the voters to initially express their interest in creating an extra-legislative body to draft the legislation. Drafting of the proposed legislation would become public. This body can make trade-offs between competing points of view and even produce multiple plans to be submitted to the voters in a ranked ballot (which is slightly superior to approval voting). The initiative process would differ in the criteria for approval: the highest ranked proposal (the choice would always include no change) would be accepted.

Another problem with ballot initiatives is that they must be exempt from repeal and modification by the standing legislature, since they, by their very nature, are addressed at issues that the citizens considered the standing legislature ill-suited or ill-disposed to handle. However, legislation is rarely perfect, and it can be very appropriate to fix problems that arise once theory and practice collide. The legislative process is more prone to this than the Constitutional, since the Constitution deals in rights and assignment of power, and not in small details. It is therefore appropriate that the special legislative body convened to draft any approved initiative, reconvene, either in two years, or at the request of the standing legislature, to consider any necessary changes to the enacted legislation. After ten years (or a term set by the initiative itself), the standing legislature should be allowed to change the legislation passed by initiative. If they repeal or inappropriately amend the legislation, another initiative will be necessary to reinstate the will of the people, but this price is worth paying to allow necessary updates to be handled efficiently.

9 August 2004 — Addendum: Term Limit Thoughts

This commentary is more in the style of thinking out loud, rather than anything well considered. I write this down only because it is an obvious question mark to the previous commentary.

I forgot to address term limits for politicians in Bringing Democracy to the U.S. I am not enthusiastic about term limits, and I certainly do not see them as something fundamental, but I am open minded about them. That is, I think it may be worth experimenting with term limits to see if they have value, but only once the more basic flaws in the system have been addressed. (In the U.S., there are many who see term limits as a fix for a broken political system, but their diagnosis of the problem misses the real issues.) The tendency of former legislators to become lobbyists after leaving the legislature should also give term limit advocates pause.

Term limits introduce one side effect into the system: the distinction between the first N-1 terms, and the last lame duck term. Whether the last term is a good or bad side effect influences whether N should be small or large. If bad, it might be possible to eliminate the effect by making N not fixed; a roll of a die could determine whether a representative is allowed to run again for the same position. Another idea for a non-fixed term would be to have progressively more challenging elections for incumbents (e.g. score each ballot ranking a three term incumbent higher than a challenger as only 0.9 votes in the pairwise calculation, making it more difficult to win a fourth term).

With small values of N the system is likely to fall into patterns that might not be desirable. For example, for small N, most representatives will end up serving exactly N terms. If the distribution of terms remaining becomes unbalanced, this would lead it to remain unbalanced for some time. Even with balance, the stratification of the legislature into classes, as in a University, could be seen as problematic (this could be avoided by allowing only a single term).

In a bicameral legislature, candidates would tend to stand for election to the larger House-like body first, and once they reach their N terms, stand for election to the smaller Senate-like body. Since there are fewer positions in the Senate-like body, the public will be offered multiple choices, each with a prior legislative history to evaluate, perhaps resulting in more informed choices, and perhaps also resulting in more turnover in the larger body, since voters tend to prefer known quantities, and the House-like body is a source of known quantities to challenge the incumbent Senators.

Organizing elections in the Senate-like body around its coarse committee structure also offers interesting possibilities for term limit interaction and side effects. For example, if term limits applied not to any seat in the smaller body, but just to seats on one of the three committee categories, then representatives would have to move on to a different portion of the Senate-like body.

However, term limits may not make as much sense in the Senate-like body. Limits are often wished for to get rid of other people’s representatives (i.e. in another district), not someone’s own. In the previous proposal, the Senate-like body is nationwide, not geographic, and so the idea of representatives from another district does not apply. Long-term representatives from other parties are still likely to be an issue for some though.

Finally, some of the ills that term limits were meant to address are the result of seniority systems in the legislative bodies. It might make sense to look there first, before imposing term limits.

16 July 2004 — Bringing Democracy to the U.S.

This is an attempt at the plan laid out at Designing/Evolving Complex Systems.

As a democracy, the U.S. does not measure up very well. Our democracy even has some of the same faults the American revolutionaries used to rail against George III, including taxation without representation (the residents of D.C. have no representatives in Congress, and yet they pay federal income tax). The U.S. is also not a country with one person one vote (the relative voting power of Wyoming residents compared to California residents is 3.7 times higher for President, 1.3 times higher in the House of Representatives, and 68.5 times higher in the Senate, and the relative voting power of Californians is infinitely greater than the zero legislative voting power of D.C. residents). We also have a one or two-party system, depending on whether you take the insider’s view of the Republicans and Democrats as distinct parties, or the outsider’s view as factions of a single Republicrat party representing the political class, to the exclusion of the rest of society. Either way, the one or two-party system tends to exclude many voices from the political process. The system is unfair, but it is quite stable. Like most system attributes, the relative importance of stability and fairness are not absolute, it varies with the state of the system itself (e.g. in a grossly unstable system, stability could easily be more important than fairness), so it is not inherently desirable to look at fairer systems, but in the case of the U.S., fairness could well increased without creating instability.

The simplest unfairness is the violation of the one person one vote principle. It is built into the U.S. Constitution, which specifies two senators per state independent of population. This was a 1787 political compromise (sometimes called the Great Compromise or Connecticut Compromise, adopted with a one vote margin at the Constitutional Convention) to get the smaller and larger states to agree. Many states adopted a similar house and senate structure for their own governments, but when the Supreme Court overturned Colegrove v. Green (1946) with Baker v. Carr (1962) and later imposed the one person, one vote rule upon the states in Gary v. Sanders (1963), the states were forced to change to equal representation. The system was made fairer, but no great instabilities were introduced. The Fourteenth Amendment trumps state constitutions, but it does not trump the explicit language of Article I, Section 3, so federal representation remains unfair. Making the same change at the federal level, by amending the U.S. Constitution, would be a welcome change, and as the states’ experience has shown, it would not have negative consequences.

The U.S. electoral college is another simple violation of the one person one vote principle. Direct election of the President would have essentially no negative consequences. First, the U.S. political system has evolved so that the two factions generally each run establishment candidates; the factions of course prefer their candidate, but the establishment will still be served by either candidate. Fairness is unlikely to introduce instability under these circumstances. Moreover, the popular vote almost always gives the same result as the electoral college, 1876, 1888, and 2000 being the only exceptions, and here the popular vote was generally very close. (Direct election would have also given a different result from the Twelfth Amendment in 1824, when the first-past-the-post electoral and popular votes both went to Jackson, but the four-way race caused deadlock in the electoral college, and the House of Representatives chose Adams.) Other close elections might have given different results with direct election, because then candidates would have campaigned differently. Besides fairness, that is a strong plus for direct election; in close elections the entire country would be involved, not only the swing states.

The U.S. primary system is another distortion of Democracy. Is it really appropriate for the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, and a few other early primary states to reduce the field of candidates from tens to just two?

The greatest unfairness in U.S. political power is probably the two-party system (one of those unintended consequences of designing a system and not realizing all of the implications). It is primarily the result of the first-past-the-post voting and using single-member representation. I have written before about how flawed I consider this aspect of U.S. politics, and its fix, ranked ballots. I will not repeat myself here, but simply incorporate the use of ranked ballots in all elections in my proposal. Making multiple parties feasible has the potential for decreasing stability, especially in the transition. Single-party rule is usually stable (head-first dives into delusion, e.g. the Nazi rule of Germany, being an obvious exception); multi-party rule may be stable or unstable; clearly careful attention to the consequences of this change would be called for.

I now offer my proposal to address the criticism just made. Benjamin Franklin’s revised thoughts on legislatures remain valid today; I would maintain at least two co-equal legislative bodies with different terms of office, different sizes, and electoral methods: one small, the other large; one frequently elected, the other more stable; one geographically distributed, the other national, etc. I have suggested in Experimental Government a radical notion of a bicameral legislative; without repudiating that, here I propose to not stray quite so far from the conventional. My concern with proportional representation is its emphasis on party politics. The power of parties is diminished if anyone can create a slate of candidates for consideration by the electorate; indeed an individual could submit her own name as a slate of one. Even so, it helps individuals, as opposed to parties, to find an entry to the legislature if smaller slates of candidates are used than in pure proportional representation. Since I propose to make one legislative body geographic, compose the first body of representatives elected by ranked ballot of candidate slates in equal-population districts served by seven representatives elected every two years. This body, modeled on the U.S. House of Representatives, responds quickly to changes in the mood of the nation. Seven representatives allow representatives of minority opinions to find a place.

The size of each legislative body is another consideration. Observations of functional group sizes have suggested maximums of 150 individuals (e.g. Robin Dunbar’s work, as reported in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point). Leaving room for each representative to collaborate with their staff and other non-representatives, it might be desirable to set the number of representatives to something like 119 (27% of the present size of the House of Representatives, with an odd number chosen to avoid ties, and a multiple of the number of representatives per district). The geographically chosen body should be the larger one. I suggest making the second legislative body a significantly smaller size, e.g. 63 representatives, with 21 being elected every two years (i.e. modeled on the U.S. Senate, with each representative having a six year term).

With the first legislative body organized geographically, the second, smaller body should be national. Just as the Senate today focuses more on certain areas, such as foreign policy, this would encourage its successor to take a more national perspective than the other body. If many individuals ran on slates of one, a ranked ballot to elect 21 representatives would draw far too many candidates to be manageable (I worry about this issue even for the seven member districts proposed for the first legislative body). One solution might be to spread out the 21 elections over the course of the year (e.g. hold 3 elections per year for the second legislature, 7 at a time, and then 1 election for the first legislative body). This unfortunately makes proportional representation coarser, but then so does any solution to the problem of ballots with hundreds of candidates. Another solution is to make the committee structure of the body part of the election. Three directly-elected super-committees, e.g. finance, legal, and foreign policy would each have their own slate of candidates. These committees would have 21 directly elected members, seven for each two year cycle. They would organize themselves into sub-committees (which would also include members chosen from the entire body as well). This would allow debates between slates to concentrate on topic areas, and allow the electorate to express opinions on questions such as taxes independently of opinions on foreign policy, weakening the power of parties to aggrandize power by packaging multi-dimensional politics into a uni-dimensional choice between camps.

No effort to bring Democracy to the U.S. would be complete if it left districting and financing unchanged. Perhaps it would be best to do away with districts altogether, but above I suggest districts for one of the legislative bodies. Districting has long been a source of abuse by parties (e.g. Gerrymandering or House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s illegal redistricting of Texas). All government power should be subject to checks and balances; districting should be no exception. I suggest that districts to be set by direct vote. Multiple plans would be put on the ballot (e.g. there might be ones by the Republicans, the Democrats, the League of Women Voters, etc.) and then one would be chosen by ranked ballot. Most likely the voters would choose district plans created by trusted third parties, such as the League of Women Voters. To have a chance of success, the Republican and Democratic plans would have to be almost as fair.

The financing of elections in the U.S. is another distortion of Democracy. Wealth, either of individuals or corporations, should not be allowed to turn into political power. The airwaves are owned by the public, and licensed for use by profit and non-profit corporations. A condition of that license should be the requirement to broadcast a specified amount of political speech, allocated by law. One sensible allocation would be to give each citizen one hundred tokens of political speech each month. Citizens could use these tokens directly themselves, or pass them to candidates or organizations of their choice. These tokens would be used to bid for the reserved political speech time on the public airwaves. Buying or selling these tokens would not be allowed. Candidates would still require some hard funds for non-advertising expenses (e.g. travel). This should be financed by the government, perhaps by allowing the conversion of donated political tokens into cash (which is different from allowing them to be sold).

Another requirement for Democracy is that votes be correctly tallied. This simple requirement has often been violated, for example in Florida’s 2000 Presidential vote. The trend toward electronic voting in the U.S. is particularly worrisome in this regard, especially when a fairly robust system is easy to imagine. The first principle is that ballots should be readable and writable by both people and machines. Voting machines that create ballots for people are acceptable, so long as the the result is readable by the voter. Making ballots directly writable by people (e.g. with a pen or stamp) ensures that voting does not stop in the event of machine failures (including power failures). The second principle is that these ballots must be tallied securely. The ballots should be read immediately at the polling place by a machine by a first manufacturer (and not the machine that printed the ballot, if any), and the result transmitted to the central tally site. Any error reading the ballot at this stage would allow the voter to recast her ballot (this would catch both voter mistakes and ballot readability issues). The ballot should then be physically transported to a secure repository and read by a machine by a second manufacturer. This tally should be compared to the first. The agreement of these tallies would certify the election. No modification of the tallying machines would be allowed after the ballot choices are specified. The third principle is that all equipment used in the process would have to be completely transparent (circuit diagrams and software listings publicly posted), and the testing and certification of the machines involved should be both performed and funded independently from the manufacturers of the machines. It is also desirable for the voters to verify that their ballot was correctly included in a final tally by having all ballots posted anonymously on the Internet with a randomly chosen id known only to the voter. The posted id would be encrypted to avoid vote buying and coercion. Ballot verification would have to be performed in a secure, single-person viewing location where the ids would be decrypted.

With these changes, it would no longer be necessary to hold primaries; ranked ballots do not penalize parties that run multiple slates. In effect the primary could be built into the general election. However, parties might still want to hold conventions to debate policy (not that this happens much today). Parties might still hold primaries so as to encourage their membership’s token giving to the chosen candidates and because too many candidates is likely to be confusing. Parties might choose to run their own primaries however they like, but if the government is asked to provide support (e.g. polling places, people, and equipment), then it should sent minimum standards on the primary process, along the lines suggested above for the general election.

One of the greatest flaws in the U.S. Constitution is its method of amendment. No political group, institution, etc. should be expected to voluntarily give up power, and so no change, regardless of its overall merit, is likely to be accepted if it affects the power of the those called on to certify it. It is for this reasons that the changes described here are not possible through the usual U.S. Constitution amendment procedure (and the other procedure, another Constitutional Congress, has never been used because of its vagueness). For this simple reason, amendment must rest in the hands of the people, not with any existing group, institution (e.g. the legislature), etc. The untried Constitutional Congress is the appropriate model, but the method must be made concrete. Every two years, the people would vote on whether to convene a Constitutional Congress (the legislature and President acting together could call for an earlier vote on this as needed). When that vote is affirmative, an election for the delegates would be held, using proportional representation. (Perhaps current and past members of the legislative and executive branches would be ineligible as delegates?) The resulting body would then debate changes to the Constitution, and submit one or more proposals to voted upon by the people (on a ranked ballot of course). The option of no change would be always be included for ranking. If the highest ranked choice outranks the no change choice on three quarters of the ballots, then the Constitution is so amended. A sitting Constitutional Congress would be disbanded if the people vote for another Congress in the next two year cycle. So that the people have the opportunity to take back rights they may have given up too hastily, amendments to the Constitution would remain in force for ten years, at which point they would be voted on a second time. If they once again receive the three quarters of the vote, they would become permanent.

These changes would make the U.S. worthy of the name Democracy. It is perhaps for that reason they have so little chance of enactment.

14 July 2004 — Designing/Evolving Complex Systems

These commentaries have tended to be, in my opinion, more negative than I think appropriate. Creativity should come before criticism. I am therefore making a greater effort to write down my frequent ideas on the way things ought to be. (An older set of such writings may be found at Earl Killian’s Politics and Philosophy). Before so embarking, I want to note that complex systems rarely work entirely the way their designers intend; there are certain to be unintended and unexpected consequences. Change or design of complex systems is really an exercise in directed evolution where both the system and designers respond and co-evolve. The problem is that systems tend to find stable local solutions to the forces of the system environment, and perturbing them from such states so they can evolve to a new (hopefully better stable local minima) requires a large initial force in the right direction. My commentaries will therefore identify a direction and changes, but this is intended to be the vector for restarting system evolution that is stuck in a stable local solution, but one inferior to superior stable local solutions.

11 July 2004 — Intelligence Failures

The Senate committee on intelligence has released its report on the CIA’s Iraq failures. Bowing to politics, the Senators are withholding judgment on the White House role until after the election. I plan to wait and read both reports at the same time, so I have not yet read their report on the CIA. Before I do, I want to jot down one thought, and then see how I feel when I do finally read the reports.

It is inevitable that the CIA will fail in some of its intelligence gathering. Fostering diversity of opinions within any large organization is one guard against such failures, but such organizations are hierarchical, and will succumb to pressure from above when those in charge have the wrong attitude. (Having the buck stops here leadership is critical.)

Institutional failure can be mitigated, however, through outside checks. Had the U.S. been willing to work with the other nations of the world on the problem it imagined in Iraq, U.S. intelligence failures would have been subjected to scrutiny and exposed. Indeed, Colin Powell’s presentation to the Security Council generated much independent analysis, which showed within days and weeks that his claims were false or misleading. But in a world where the sole superpower considers it an affront to even listen to the analysis of others (and insists on even demonizing those who disagree with it), this guard against group think is rendered impotent.

Ultimately the buck does stop at the White House, no matter how frantically the finger-pointers try to whitewash their culpability.

9 July 2004 — Dean-Nader Debate

The Dean-Nader debate aired today on Justice Talking was certainly more lively than presidential debates have been in my memory. The format certainly contributed to a more vigorous interchange, as did the fact that the candidates were less managed than Presidential candidates. Margot Adler is to be commended for her role in the debates.

While listening to the debate, I felt sad that the Democrats did not go for Howard Dean in the primaries; he clearly would have been a leader on many issues (though the system would have no doubt defeated him on following through on a number of the positive positions he took). I was pleasantly surprised to hear, in response to John Anderson’s question, that he supports instant-runoff voting, one of the poorer ranked-ballot methods, but one that is still much superior to our winner-take-all system. Indeed, the support of Anderson and Dean (and Nader too of course) for any ranked ballot scheme is encouraging. (For the record, I supported John Anderson’s third party run for President in 1980). Even where I might differ from Howard Dean, I found I could generally respect his approach on things. (His position on the electoral college was, however, primitive.) He seemed to have an integrity that is generally lacking in the candidates selected by the primary process (a similar example from the Republican camp would Senator McCain). I also suspect, after listening to him, that Howard Dean intends to be a Presidential candidate again (as I expect McCain intends in 2008).

Ralph Nader (who I supported in his 1996 and 2000 Presidential runs) seemed very much as always, though he seemed to prepared with as many sound bites and one-liners for the debates as any Republicrat. I was surprised that no one asked why, since he supports third parties, why he is running as an independent, and not trying to build a third party. (It is not enough to say he wants independent candidates, since he supports proportional representation, which is inherently a party-oriented system.)

The question of how many candidates to include in debates, raised in this debate, is an interesting one. My off-the-cuff suggest is a poll where the respondents list the candidates they would include. Any candidate listed by twenty percent of respondents in such a poll would be included (Mr. Nader’s suggestion of a fifty percent threshold might eliminate candidates with significant support in minority communities, and thereby prevent minority issues from being raised in the debates.)

12 June 2004 — What to do in Iraq? (2)

I was so sickened by the U.S. war on Iraq, that I have not been inclined to write down my thoughts on what should have been done after the invasion, and what should still now be done. As I wrote in April, it may not be feasible to transform Iraq into a peaceful, democratic country; for example, there does not appear to me to be any good strategy to avoid the breakup of the country. The U.S. should withdrawal its troops and stop its participation in the killing. But since U.S. is unlikely to take this course any time soon, there are steps that could be taken to minimize the damage for the period it continues to occupy the country.

Early in the occupation, the U.S. should have organized local elections across the country (instead it cancelled elections in Samarra and Najaf). Building from the local level up to the national level would have given Iraqis experience with democracy, and allowed politicians to emerge for later national elections.

Missteps so far have 80% of Iraqis unhappy with the U.S. This unsurprising sentiment should be put to use. The newly selected government must quickly distance itself from the U.S. and assert its sovereignty. If it has not already come up with the idea itself, the U.S. should be prodding it behind the scenes to order a reduction in U.S. troop strength immediately after 1 July. That would simultaneously assert its authority, give the Iraqi people hope that the occupiers will eventually be gone, and by demonstrating they are not puppets of the U.S., increase the popularity of the interim government and thereby increase its ability to draft a constitution for the country and organize elections.

I have not the slightest hope however that the U.S. is so prodding the interim government. The current White House is more likely working behind the scenes to prevent the interim government from issuing such an order, which they would probably find to be a slap in the face.

† Some U.S. invasions of other countries are quickly followed by withdrawal, but sometimes the occupations are long: After invading the Philippines, the U.S. occupied the country for 14 years (1899-1913). The U.S. occupied Haiti for 20 years (1914-1934), Nicaragua for 21 years (1912-1925, 1925-1933), the Dominican Republic for 8 years (1916-1924), and Cuba for 16 years (1917-1933). As an aside, guerrillas who fought against those occupations were called bandits; the modern pejorative often used is terrorists.

10 June 2004 — Remembering Reagan

The press has been filled with days of gushing coverage of Ronald Reagan after his death. The seventies and eighties were the years I really began to consider and debate public policy issues, and so I remember well the Reagan years. I cannot say that my memory of the Reagan Presidency coincides at all with the press coverage of the last few days; it is more myth making than reality. But what surprise is there in that?

9 June 2004 — Torture and Impeachment

Bush has deserved impeachment ever since he lied to the world about Iraq to justify his invasion, and especially since he ordered the attack, but it unlikely that a nation that supported his war is unlikely to impeach him for that. Nor was the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib likely to result in impeachment; it could always be conveniently blamed on individual soldiers. Now however, with the disclosure by the Wall Street Journal of the Justice Department memo authorizing torture, the country now has a reason that even Republicans might accept for impeachment. While I have long seen Bush as having transgressed from misguided to evil, there was little point in making the point to a country that accepted his actions as necessary evil. But unless I misjudge the U.S., this memo goes beyond what the country accepts. First it argues that Congress has no right to set rules for the conduct of military operations, and in particular interrogations, because the Constitution grants war powers (other than declaration) to the President. This doctrine is step toward a police state, especially when fighting terrorism is framed as a military operation. Second, the memo argues that torture in interrogations is legitimate when used to prevent the future loss of life. Following this line of reasoning, interrogation via torture to save the lives of U.S. military personnel (who are at risk in any conflict situation) is justified. This directly contradicts the Geneva Conventions. The White House is setting up a precedent that will be used to justify the torture of U.S. military personnel in this and future conflicts.

Of course, impeachment this close to an election is implausible; Congress will use the election as an excuse to do nothing (if Bush is elected in November, that will serve as vindication of anything the public knew about before November, and if he is not elected, that will be his impeachment). I simply observe that, except for the election, the grounds may have become sufficient for the U.S. public, and even for enough Republicans in Congress to matter.

Finally, it is not only the Executive branch that deserves condemnation in this matter. The cited memo relies heavily on Congress’ reservations and understandings in its ratification of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. By such weakening of international treaties, Congress incurs part of the blame.

25 May 2004 — Neocons

I have written before about the silliness of trying to simplify a multi-dimensional space to a single dimension, and therefore the meaninglessness of terms like right and left. The terms conservative and liberal are worse, for they not only are considered synonyms with right and left in political usage, they currently have meanings opposite of their dictionary definition. So you might think I would similarly object to neocon, which is in vogue today. But instead of seeing this as a shortening of neo-conservative, I think the more direct interpretation is quite appropriate, and so I’ve decided to use it, but not, of course, to refer to a point on an imaginary political spectrum.

24 May 2004 — Wedding Bombs

The recent Mogr al-Deeb massacre of the Iraqi wedding party, when added to past atrocities, like the wedding attack in Afghanistan before it, and numerous attacks on Iraqi civilians, together with the numerous attacks on civilians in the Kosovo war (e.g. the nine attacks documented by Amnesty International, including the Grdelica railroad bridge and train and the four attacks on refugees around Djakovica on 14 April 1999), dramatizes three points.

First, war, conquest, and occupation, at least as waged by the U.S., and perhaps inherently, are fundamentally at odds with protecting civilians. The same air power that allows the U.S. to conquer a country with one fourth the troops previously required leads to tragedy on the ground over and over again. Rules of engagement designed to protect aircraft and pilots mean that a bogus target is often not recognized as such until the limbs are scattered through the grass.

Second, the differing U.S. media treatment between the Abu Ghraib torture and the carnage of the wedding party illustrates that Iraqis, Afghanis, and Yugoslavs lives are not considered as important as U.S. honor and reputation. That’s a sad inversion of priorities. Today’s Washington Post story appears on page A19; compare that to the A1 placement of various Abu Ghraib torture stories for many days running.

Third, the White House, Pentagon, and U.S. media systematically lie, distort, or downplay these events. In Serbia, tapes of the train bombing were sped up three times to show that the pilot did not have time to react to the oncoming train. On the Iraq wedding massacre, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said There was no evidence of a wedding: no decorations, no musical instruments found, no large quantities of food or leftover servings one would expect from a wedding celebration. But those are exactly the things found by reporters who went to the scene, along with the bodies of dead children.

20 May 2004 — Strategic Petroleum Reserve

My position on the Democrats’ calls (e.g. by Senator Schumer) to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve should be obvious from my commentary Senator Kerry’s Pandering, but for the record I’ll state it anyway: it too is election year pandering. Indeed, even at $41 per barrel, it is wise to continue buying oil and filling the SPR, because prices are likely to go still higher in a decade. The right way to bring down oil prices (which are only at half of this historical peak, in current dollars), is to reduce demand. Letting the price rise will accomplish that through market forces. So Mr. Bush and the Republicans are right on this issue, and the Democrats are wrong. Such pandering one reason I feel no affinity for the Democratic party. The only proper reason to tap the SPR would be for maintaining emergency services (e.g. fire, medical, essential food delivery) in a time of dire shortage (e.g. embargo). Of course, the more likely use of the SPR in such a situation is power the U.S. war machine to take control of foreign oil, something which does give me pause in suggesting that the U.S. continue filling the reserve, but a small reserve lowers the threshold for war. One alternative to the SPR that I’ve not seen discussed: leave existing U.S. reserves in the ground: rather than buying crude oil on the open market and then pumping it back into the ground, just leave it here (e.g. in existing fields or undeveloped areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). Future extraction will be more efficient than today’s (there are innovations in this even today), so leaving it untouched for now makes more sense than moving it. Of course, reducing consumption through efficiency gains can create reserves faster than exploration, and that is best choice; rising prices will do exactly that.

18 May 2004 — Only Swings Count

Presidential election campaigns are being waged, but only in swing states. Because of the peculiar U.S. electoral college combined with state laws that allocate all electoral votes to the candidate first-past-the-post in that state (except in Maine and Nebraska), there is no point in campaigning in a state one is sure to win or sure to lose. The net effect is that, for example, voters in California (very likely to vote Democratic) or Texas (very likely to vote Republican) are ignored. Voters in such states are effectively not participating in this election; it makes no difference to the outcome whether California is 51% for Senator Kerry or 80% for Senator Kerry. Without the electoral college, the voters of California and Texas would be courted by both major factions; even the difference between 40% and 41% in California might be the difference between losing and winning for a Republican (similarly for a Democrat in Texas). The swing state phenomenon is reinforced when campaigns write-off a state, ceding it to their opponent, and thereby perpetuating its status as the other party’s. The swing states have roughly 47% of the population of the U.S. this year; the other 53% of the population is shut out of this election, by virtue of their location. Combined with the system’s unequal representation (voters in Wyoming have 3.7× more weight given to their votes than voters in California), the two-party system, and first-past-the-post balloting, the whole system serves to make Presidential elections very undemocratic. It is a wonder that we continue to suffer its ill effects. But then …accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. If that is true, then we’re going to continue to let Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and a few others to decide for the rest of us between the meager choices the system allows us. Is it any wonder that so few people bother to vote?

16 May 2004 — Gay Marriage

I’ve yet to write anything about the Gay marriage issue simply because I cannot even begin to understand why it is controversial, which makes it hard to frame an argument. So today’s entry is simply a note to say I have no idea what gets people so agitated about the idea of same-sex couples wanting the same legal rights female-male couples currently have. I’ve yet to see any logical argument against the idea in print anywhere. Usually there is at least a pretense to logic, but not on this issue.

14 May 2004 — Catholic Politicians and Communion

A short note today to ask a simple question:

Bishops of the Catholic church are starting to ban politicians who take pro-choice political positions or support gay marriage from receiving Communion. Why only these two issues out of the many Catholic Church stands? Are the going to be consistent, and also ban politicians who support the death penalty (which the Church opposes) from Communion? What about politicians who support birth control? After that, what comes next, banning politicians that don’t support vouchers for Catholic schools?

13 May 2004 — Context-Sensitive Revulsion

The U.S. and the rest of the world are horrified at what occurred at Abu Ghraib and by the beheading of Nicholas Berg. We should all be horrified at these events; there is no justification, no excuse for such actions. I want to ask however, why no one expressed horror and revulsion earlier when innocent people were beheaded by U.S. bombs, or when a four year old girl was maimed for life with shrapnel embedded in her spine? Are these actions not equally horrible? Why is it that collateral damage is less shocking than beheaded? Is it that people cannot see beyond Pentagon euphemisms? Or are they capable of visualizing the carnage of collateral damage and yet still manage to see it as something different, not disgusting, but merely regrettable?

The nationality of the victim is one determinant, as is the nationality of the culprit (much as crimes in the U.S. generate outrage that depends on the race of the victim and culprit). Nicholas Berg was a U.S. citizen and his murders are Iraqi or Arab fighters; a combination that generates the most outrage. The Iraqis killed and maimed by U.S. bombs are barely worthy of note because the victims are not worthy in U.S. eyes and the culprits are thought to be honorable U.S. men in uniform. Why the outrage at the abuses of Abu Ghraib then, which is the same victim/culprit combination? One clue is that the Iraqi victims are rarely mentioned in U.S. outrage; what is mentioned is U.S. honor, or more pointedly the practical effect that the photos are going to have on the world’s perception of the U.S.

Where do people develop such context-sensitive revulsion? I don’t know, but I can speculate that one aspect of most people’s daily lives helps to develop and maintain such a perverse ability, viz. when they sit down to lunch or dinner, where by their choice of food, they routinely order others to enslave, torture, and kill sentient beings on their behalf. Yearly that adds up to billions of animals a year tortured and killed. That suffering is not even regrettable to most, an extreme example of context-sensitivity.

† The beheading was said by the murderers to be in retaliation for the Abu Ghraib abuses, but really the act was a disgusting means—terror to manipulate public opinion—to a legitimate end—ending the occupation of Iraq—once more illustrating that the ends do not justify any means of accomplishing them: Where the line is drawn among means is the determinant between civilized life and savagery.

‡ Is the girl supposed to be grateful for her liberation? Who is going to liberate her from her the daily pain caused by U.S. bombs?

11 May 2004 — Puffs to Gauge the Breeze?

Today I’m jotting down wild stream of consciousness speculation, caused by some surprising items the infotainment industry has been printing lately.

Has the eventual reversal begun already or is it just puffs of smoke to gauge the breeze? Perhaps hope is clouding my observations, but some periodicals and establishment dailies seem to be preparing the U.S. to leave Iraq. Now they are allowing op-ed pieces to be printed that openly suggest that the U.S. cut its losses in Iraq and leave. Along with many Republican Senators, even George Will is turning his ire at Bush and Rumsfeld (though he doesn’t go so far as suggesting retreat). Public opinion is already half there, but public opinion flutters in the breeze from the opinion industry, and moreover it is not overall public opinion that counts (e.g. first it would be necessary to sway both the elites and Republican opinion, before such a thing is possible). Also, there wouldn’t be a withdrawal before the election; it takes time for the Ministry of Truth to transmute opinion, and it would derail Bush’s election attempt. However, the idea is now out there, and might foreshadow a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq after the election. Whether Bush is capable of such a reversal, and whether Rove could give it the necessary spin, is uncertain. Ironically, in this scenario, if Senator Kerry defeats Bush, the U.S. might be stuck in Iraq longer. It is perhaps easier for the Republicans to end the Iraq occupation, just as it was easier for Charles de Gaulle to grant Algeria independence than it would have been for other politicians; Senator Kerry, who sometimes prioritizes image above policy, might feel the need to prove he’s up to the Commander in Chief role by appearing tough.

A retreat from Iraq this early would be surprising, since the White House would be abandoning Iraqi oil to a chaotic, hostile state (or states). Perhaps an independent Kurdish state could leave at least the Mosul oil in somewhat friendlier hands, but Bush would have a hard time straddling Turkey and Kurdistan; he might allow Turkey to annex northern Iraq, however. Oil within NATO boundaries could tempt Bush.

The puffs of smoke may be accomplishing an opposite purpose. Hints that the U.S. could extricate itself from Bush’s quagmire may serve to keep the faithful in the Republican camp despite the bad news.

Watch how this all unfolds.

8 May 2004 — Responsibility vs. Blame

I make some distinction between responsibility and blame. Someone might feel responsible in an indirect way for something done by others, even though if it would be wrong for others to blame her for that act. I do not know if this view is widely held; perhaps others see responsibility and blame as the first and third person forms of the same thing.

I wrote in Passion Plays that it is wrong to blame or hate based on non-voluntary group membership. Racism is one example (such as the anti-Arab sentiments prevalent in the U.S. at the moment). Also included are national origin prejudices, religious prejudices, etc. What about nationality? Unlike national origin, it is sometimes possible to change one’s nationality, but nations do make it very difficult, and I do not see the point of blaming a citizen of a nation for the acts of that nation that they opposed. But, given the distinction I began with, I think citizens might well feel some responsibility for the actions of their nation.

Some of the letters to the Washington Post about Philip Kennicott’s article objected to Mr. Kennicott’s assertion that we bear responsibility for what happened in Abu Ghraib. First, I feel such writers are missing the major point of Mr. Kennicott’s essay. To say the horror is the work only of a few individuals is to fail to look at the broader effect of our society that led to the actions of those individuals. For example, the essay alludes to acceptance of pornography as one facet of our culture that influenced what happened. Such reflections are more useful than knee-jerk reactions, such as that’s not us!

A large majority of the U.S. did support the war, at least initially, according to polls. I believe these people are to blame for Abu Ghraib. Wars are probably never without atrocities despite the intent at the beginning of each that this time will be different—witness the parade of No Gun Ri, My Lai, Qana, Mazar, or Guanánamo Bay. Support for going to war must recognize this, find it an acceptable tradeoff, and therefore take responsibility and blame for what happens. Good intentions in one’s support of war is not a dodge; the should have known standard must be considered. Indeed it bothers me that those who supported the war, are likely the very same people who want to not take even the smallest responsibility for what occurred.

6 May 2004 — Abu Ghraib

In yesterday’s comments I referenced Philip Kennicott’s Washinton Post commentary on the photos from Abu Ghraib and what they say about the U.S. It was the best written piece I’ve seen in a U.S. newspaper in a long time. It was powerful, direct, and unafraid to challenge our the myths we live by. He dared to point out that aberrant behavior of individuals cannot be dismissed as not us. I cannot resist quoting another critical observation:

This belief, that the photographs are distortions, despite their authenticity, is indistinguishable from propaganda. Tyrants censor; democracies self-censor. Tyrants concoct propaganda in ministries of information; democracies produce it through habits of thought so ingrained that a basic lie of war — only the good is our doing — becomes self-propagating.

I am ashamed to live in the country that wrought the Abu Ghraib torture, and indeed the many years of torture, murder, and maiming of innocent Iraqis (which even Mr. Kennicott addresses only lightly), but encouraged that at least it is still possible to see such writing in our newspapers. Perhaps it is the start of a recovery from our present madness, just as we eventually recovered from our Philippines madness, or from our various Sedition Act madnesses. But how long before Mr. Hyde takes over again?

5 May 2004 — Spirals

History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it does seem to spiral. A while ago I read It’s A Free Country, especially Ira Glasser’s essay subtitled A Short History of Wartime Civil Liberties. I was surprised to learn that the U.S. had had PATRIOT Act episodes several times before in its history. I was reassured that the country always seemed to return to sanity eventually, but shocked that we never seemed to learn from the earlier episodes. Later I came across some references to the Anti-Imperialist League, the anti-war effort of 1898 that protested the U.S. actions in the Philippines. The parallel with the Iraq invasion is plain. More recent history, e.g. the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its occupation of Palestine, foreshadowed what is happening with the U.S. invasion of Iraq (actually the process is much accelerated). If we had learned the lessons of colonization, we wouldn’t be surprised by Checkpoint Syndrome. If we understood Checkpoint Syndrome, we wouldn’t be surprised by Abu Ghraib. Even ignoring foreign precedents, why didn’t the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam serve to dissuade us from conquering Iraq?

If I were a better historian, I could probably point to episodes from the Roman empire that parallel modern world. But there are differences, some small progress, and so the notion of a spiral makes some sense (in how many dimensions I cannot say): the Romans had human slavery, whereas our times have replaced human slavery with less direct exploitation (e.g. laborers in third world sweatshops). Progress is slow, however: like the Romans we still have animal slavery two thousand years later. At the moment, like Camus, I can only see the absurdity of it all. If only I could be as happy as he sees Sisyphus.

2 May 2004 — Soldiers and Politicians

I don’t usually write about subjects that I consider unimportant, but when the public debate on an issue is excessive, perhaps it deserves a comment to say that. One such current issue is the debate about the military service of the Republican and Democratic candidates for President in the November election. When I do write about an unimportant issue, I try to find some angle to make a completely different point than the public debate. Today’s commentary is one such example.

Mr. Bush and Senator Kerry are the presumptive Republican and Democratic candidates for the Presidential election. Both of these camps are attacking the other’s candidate’s military service record. In Enemies I wrote that these camps don’t care about the weapons used to attack their opponents, thereby demonstrating their lack of integrity. Military service records are a good example of this. If you have a good one, trumpet it. If you don’t, denigrate your opponent’s. One day, the tactics will be reversed, with the Democrats attacking the service record of the Republican candidate, when their candidate happens not to have served in the military. And yet the partisans seem to have even convinced themselves that the issue is important or unimportant depending on this year’s situation, and won’t even notice when they reverse in a future electoral contest.

I find war sickening. Senator Kerry’s decision to enlist in the military almost forty years ago is not something I respect. U.S. military power is mostly used for ignoble purposes; putting oneself in its service is not honorable, in my opinion. Most of the squatters in the White House (Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, etc.) avoided military service in one way or another; under the circumstances (viz. the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam), not serving could have been a moral choice (though it may have been cowardice more than morals that drove their choice, since they’ve shown no inclination toward morality in the years thereafter).

I do question the idea, currently raised by some Democrats, since it benefits their current candidate, that only individuals who have experienced war are fit to be President. That would eliminate those who would use war truly only to defend, and so avoided U.S. military service because of its history of unjust campaigns. Such individuals would make better Presidents, not worse. However, I do agree that war veterans would make better Presidents than chickenhawks, such as the current squatters in the White House. I find the chickenhawks’ attempts to find fault with Senator Kerry’s military service record (e.g. questioning whether one of his three purple heart decorations was deserved) to be particularly hypocritical: ostensibly on one hand celebrating the warrior ethos, but then attacking instances of that ethos as a tactic in serving their immediate goals. Moreover, Senator Kerry’s questioning of the Vietnam war after his service there is highly admirable, not something to condemn.

Representatives, such as the President, should be chosen based on how they will handle the future. Their past may be a guide to that, but we need to recognize that people may change with time—their distant past is may not be the best guide—and that actions may have multiple reasons (e.g. military service may have been avoided out of conscience or cowardice). Recent actions are a better guide. Senator Kerry’s recent vote for the Iraq invasion is a stronger negative testament than the positive testament of his post-Vietnam anti-war activities of long ago. Similarly, the hypocrisy of the squatters in the White House is certainly a good indication of their true current character—their lack of military service need not be invoked. The the ends justify any means nature of each camp’s attacks on the other’s candidate similarly indicates their true character.

Finally, one military service record issue is recent, and reveals something about one candidate’s character: the expunging of material from Mr. Bush’s service record to eliminate proof of actions from long ago is recent enough to serve as a basis for questioning his (and his party’s) current character.

29 April 2004 — What to do in Iraq?

I was totally opposed the Iraq invasion when it was threatened by Bush, when it actually occurred, and continue to feel it was a terrible act. However, the question must be, now that invasion and occupation are fact, what should be done from the position in which we find ourselves. Current wisdom, as found in multiple political camps (e.g. both of the two major factions of U.S. political power), is that regardless of whether the war was right or wrong to begin with, we are now obligated to continue. Even setting aside whether one is ever obligated to continue killing and maiming innocent people (an inevitable consequence of occupation by force), this position fails a basic sanity test, viz. whether it likely to give a better result than the alternative.

I have resisted making an analogy between the U.S. invasions and occupations of Iraq and Vietnam. It seems to me that there are significant differences between the two that render such analogies potentially deceptive. However, one time-worn lesson, brought home yet again from the U.S. experience in its occupation of Vietnam should not be ignored: continuing a policy not because it is the best policy, but because it avoids having to admit failure, will only make the situation worse. In the end it will be necessary to admit failure. Leaders feel the need to postpone such admissions because they are political suicide (even to someone not responsible for the mess, e.g. George McGovern). The citizenry feel the need to postpone such admissions out of pride (when we did admit this to ourselves in 1975, it was followed by two decades of shame).

While it is not impossible that the Iraq situation can find a peaceful transition to a stable democratic government, it is very unlikely. Most likely the country will be torn apart by the forces that have been unleashed by the invasion. Its near-term fate seems more akin to Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, or Yugoslavia. The chimerical idea that Iraq will evolve into a multi-party democracy tempts U.S. leaders to prolong the occupation, but occupation only postpones the nearly inevitable. Once U.S. forces withdraw, the country may attempt to break into two or three and once the Kurdish north attempts its own state, Turkey may make good on their threats to invade. The British artificial partition of the Ottoman empire will once again show how a moment of convenience can lead to an eternity of misfortune.

My prescription is therefore to withdraw as soon as possible. The damage has already been done. The U.S. bears responsibility for the ugliness that will follow, but postponing that ugliness serves no purpose. Imagine if this prescription had been followed in 1968 for Vietnam, instead of delaying the inevitable seven more years. How many millions would not have had to die for no reason?

26 April 2004 — Fool Me Once

The old saying goes Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. We may soon have to apply this to the United States. Now Bush didn’t actually fool the U.S. in 2000, despite the closeness of the election, but he did manage to occupy the White House nonetheless, so I feel the first part of the old saying is satisfied. What is worse is that the second half is on the verge of applying.

It is one thing for Bush to come close to being elected in 2000 as a self-described compassionate conservative, but another altogether if he is actually elected in 2004, despite his record in 2001-2004, which is certainly possible, and perhaps even likely. Even if he is re-defeated, the fact that he will likely receive the legitimate votes of more than 20% of the voting age public, and 40% of the actual voters on 2 November 2004 gives me pause. What does it say about this nation that after 39 months of wreaking evil upon this nation and the world, the red states of the U.S. eagerly look to actually give him the title of President? Is there really that much evil and stupidity in the U.S.? It appears so.

I take some comfort in living in a blue state, but still having to pay taxes to support the evil of Bush and the red states does not sit well with me. Were it up to me, I would have California secede from the U.S., but even Californians don’t want that and the Republicans in Washington would go to war to stop it. What to do?

† Bush received 24.5% support of the voting age citizenry and 246 undisputed votes in the electoral college. Gore received 24.8% and 266 undisputed votes in the electoral college. Finally, there were 25 disputed Florida electoral college votes fraudulently given to Bush (primarily through illegal purges of Black voters), even though more people went to the polls in Florida to vote for Gore. Even a fair tally of the votes that were actually allowed to be cast would have narrowly given Gore Florida’s electoral votes. This election fraud and the subsequent legal maneuvers by the Republicans allowed Bush to occupy the White House.

15 April 2004 — Enemies

I read quite a bit of political commentary on the Internet and in traditional news publications and it is clear that the U.S. is very much polarized into implacably opposed camps. Here I want only to make a simple observation about such camps: they don’t care what weaponry they use to fight their opponents; winning is all that matters. For example, pretty much anything the Bush White House does is criticized as wrong, if the outcome was undesirable, regardless of what the criticizer would have done herself in the same situation. For example, Richard Clarke’s revelations about the Bush White House have been welcomed by the anti-Bush camps, despite the fact that Mr. Clarke’s recommendations would have been an anathema to those camps at the time. Condoleezza Rice and John Ashcroft lay all the blame for the World Trade Center attack on President Clinton, because it is politically convenient, not because they would have acted differently at the time.

The enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Ends do not justify any means of accomplishing them.

The more we define ourselves as who we are against, and less by what we stand for, the more one loses one’s own self.

9 April 2004 — White House v. 9/11 Commission

Earlier I wrote about the White House squatters’ counter-Clarke media strategy. Here I plan to set down my thoughts on the squatters’ 9/11 Commission strategy, which seems to be at a similar level of politics before policy, even though it is conducted in respectable language, unlike the Clarke attacks.

First, the Commission was set up with insufficient powers and mandate to do a thorough job; some call it the Whitewash Commission, though I think this is going too far. Second, the squatters’ are rushing the investigation, setting deadlines that will lessen the value of the Commission’s work, but which will also avoid testimony during the fall campaign season. Third, they are refusing to hand over documents that the Commission requests, thereby controlling the investigation (only their version of truth will be allowed as the official story). They even get to vet the Commission’s report before it is released. Fourth, the squatters’ are limiting the Commission’s access to White House testimony (Condoleezza Rice was not going to testify publicly under oath; then in exchange for such testimony the Commission was forced to agree to request no more White House testimony). Finally, Bush in a separate information-limiting deal cannot steel himself to face the Commission alone, and so is bringing along minder Cheney.

I see no credible reasons for this lack of cooperation with the Commission. As before, the World Trade Center attack is not a major issue that I hold against Bush and his fellow squatters (if it is shown, as some hint, that the squatters deliberately failed to counter a threat, knowing it would strengthen their political position, then I would change my opinion). Yes, they should have been as serious about counter-terrorism as President Clinton’s administration, but this might not have prevented the attack. The failure to prevent the attack is probably more attributable to failures at the FBI/CIA level, than the lack of a White House counter-terrorism plan, and Clarke’s plan was probably not viable before 9/11. The White House should have used the escalating threat levels to prod the FBI/CIA/FAA etc. into overdrive, which they didn’t. A mistake yes, but nowhere as serious as their other mistakes. They should apologize for this failure and move on.

I see only politics behind the White House attitude toward the Commission. After the attacks, they latched onto 9/11 as the defining moment of their administration. As a result, they try to shift all blame for the attacks to President Clinton’s administration, so that they can continue to wrap themselves in this one event and their response to it. Understanding policy failures that led to the event are therefore politically counter-productive, unless the failures are someone else’s. It is dishonest, but what else is to be expected from these squatters?

The real issue in all of this is still undiscussed. The best way to stop terrorism is to adopt domestic and foreign policies that stop breeding hatred of the U.S. and its allies. As the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, the U.S. would have only to move its foreign policy into the twentieth century (it regressed to a more brutal age perhaps with Eisenhower’s administration?) to make real progress on reducing hatred.

31 March 2004 — Train Wreck Test

Here’s a problem to consider. We’re on a train headed south down a steep mountain. It’s getting warmer as we descend from high up. There is no engine, only brakes. There are two major camps of passengers, the Rs and Ds (there are smaller groups, e.g. the Gs, but the voting system doesn’t used ranked ballots, so votes for those groups cause weird results in the outcome). The railroad engineers say the maximum safe speed of the train is 45mph. The Rs want to operate the brakes to keep the train under 90mph, saying the engineers are wrong: there’s lots of margin, and the breeze keeps us cool, since it’s getting hotter and hotter outside. The Ds are saying let’s go 60mph, because any slower and the Rs will be voted in to the brake controller position. Who do you vote for? Clearly the Gs or Ds are preferable to the Rs. Perhaps the Ds, if there’s a chance that a G vote will cause the Rs to win, since the chance of train wreck is lessened, even though the D strategy is still very imprudent. Even here voting for the Gs, if it eventually led to future elections where the wise choice is a possible outcome, might be sane (the scare the Ds strategy).

Now add a twist to the analogy, which takes it closer to reality. The engineers point out that up ahead is a ravine with an old bridge. Looking at old records and flood projections, they suggest that the bridge is surely washed out by now. The Rs say this is nonsense, but even if it’s true, the best strategy is to have maximum speed to jump over the ravine. The Ds say we’ve got to keep the speed up to 60mph or the Rs will win. The Gs say let’s start braking now so we can stop at the switch before the ravine, move it, and then take the other track parallel to the ravine heading east toward the sun (and maybe even find a way to get the train to run without heading downhill). If you pass the switch at faster than 10mph, maximum braking won’t stop you before the ravine. Now which do you choose? To summarize, your choices are:

  1. wreck soon;
  2. wreck later;
  3. safe, but less thrilling, travel.

Everyone is telling you that voting for Gs will cause the Rs to win, and thus #1 will happen. What do you do?

Does the answer depend on whether the train wreck serves as a warning to the trains behind you that might still have time to switch to the eastern track?

30 March 2004 — Senator Kerry’s Pandering

John Kerry has demonstrated some tendency to sacrifice principle to political convenience, such as his pro-war Iraq vote. (It is actually difficult to say where Bush lies on the principle sacrifice scale, since he appears to have principles so base that they cannot be called principles at all.) Senator Kerry’s plan to reduce gasoline prices is simply his latest attempt to pander to voters, rather than trying to lead. What the U.S. needs now is a slow, steady increases in the price of all fossil fuels. This will encourage the market to develop alternatives. By slow and steady I mean something about 12% a year above the inflation rate, which in six years would about double the real price. Whether a simple doubling is sufficient to anticipate the supply and demand mismatch in 2010, and thus the inevitable price rise, is doubtful, so a spike would still occur at some point. Still, I suspect the market will react more wisely to increments than to spikes, because it takes time for price changes to ripple through the economy, and because it takes time to innovate and build.

Fortunately, Senator Kerry’s plan is likely to have little effect on gasoline prices, and it may be only election year positioning. Still, it is a step in the wrong direction for base purposes. Moreover, if Senator Kerry really wished to reduce gasoline prices, reducing demand, rather than increasing supply, by increasing U.S. fuel economy and substituting other energy sources (e.g. electric vehicles) would be the best method.

26 March 2004 — Vomiting Vitriol

The squatters in the White House have formed a chorus to vomit vitriol in an attempt to coat their designated enemies in slime and muck. As so many have already observed, they are attacking their enemies’ character instead of their facts, indicating that the White House does not have the facts on their side. And how pathetic it is to see Dr. Condoleezza Rice rushing to the microphones after each testimony before the 9/11 commission, when she refuses to testify in public before the commission itself. Most likely she doesn’t want her responses to the microphones to have to be under oath. (For more on Rice testifying under oath, see this.)

As I witness the vomitting chorus, I observe that the gushing is a reflection of what is bottled up inside. What better indication of the squatters’ character than what they spew?

The facts appear to be simple. The White House, according their own words on record, did not view the threat from terrorism as urgently as did the outgoing Clinton administration. This is also the opinion of other insiders besides Clarke. They choose to downgrade administrative attention to counter-terrorism activities and instead concentrate on geopolitical issues, waiting for terrorism policy to be formed as part of their reviews. This was simply a policy decision. It happens to have been a politically bad one given the subsequent events, though with a few lucky breaks elsewhere in the government, the World Trade Center attack might have been foiled like so many other attacks, and the policy decision would not have in retrospect looked so foolish. As George Tenat said in the 9/11 commission hearings, it is unclear whether Richard Clarke’s recommendations, even if they had been adopted in January, would have stopped the attacks. They would have however, made the administration appear pro-active rather than reactive.

Rather than admitting in hindsight to having made a policy mistake, however, the squatters have begun their muck chorus (saturation media appearances as the Washington Post put it). Again, this says more about the squatters than their failure to have chosen a more pro-active policy. Because of their rush to control opinion, the chorus cannot even synchronize their spew—they often contradict each other (wasn’t in the loop says Cheney, was in every meeting says Rice), further illustrating their true nature.

Unrelated thought on the hearings

The 9/11 commission hearings have also made it plain that the State Department failed to win significant cooperation of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in counter-terrorism until after 9/11. It is difficult to know whether that would have been possible without the catalyst of the attacks, but it seems clear to me that Bush’s ties and debts to the House of Saud made real pressure on Saudi Arabia unlikely, thereby weakening this half of the Clinton effort. Of course, our policy toward Saudi Arabia is totally dominated by their oil reserves and production, which only highlights the need to get off of this sauce. The Pakistan half of the equation was of course complicated by the nuclear proliferation issue and Kashmir.

23 March 2004 — Respectable Republicans

I may not agree with many of his policies (especially on the environment), but I have to admit that Senator John McCain of Arizona continues to distinguish himself from his fellow My Party Right or Wrong Republicans. The latest incident, in which he felt compelled to contradict the White House line that John Kerry is weak on national defense, is only one of many times he has preferred speaking the truth rather than political convenience, and for that he is to be commended.

John McCain may be unique among elected Republicans, but there are also occasional party members who put truth first. Kevin Philips (author of American Dynasty), Paul O’Neill (author of The Price of Loyalty), and Richard Clarke (author of Against All Enemies) have recently all felt the need to contradict the lies routinely issued from the White House.

It is a testament to the power of the two-party system that these and other Republicans with a conscience (at least I presume there are others) have not renounced their party affiliation. Only Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont had the courage to do that.

22 March 2004 — Opium for the People

Karl Marx said Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (typically the last part is simplified to Religion is the opiate of the masses.) How much more painful (and thereby creating the need for escape) must the modern world be, for we now have many more opiates to distract the people: television is the number one opiate, though religion still shoulders on (including on television); spectator sports (especially when combined with television) are another opiate for the masses, as are celebrity worship and fashion.

Why not Just say no to all opiates, including television, religion, spectator sports, celebrity worship, and fashion? That would be the way of a whole person. Why not say yes to living for creativity instead of consumption and parasitism?

Postscript (2004.4.21): See the first paragraph of this excerpt from an Ursula K. Le Guin essay as well as this second excerpt from Books Remembered for related perspectives on this.

21 March 2004 — A Preamble Instead of a Pledge

Linda Monk’s suggestion to replace the Pledge of Allegiance with the Preamble of the Constitution is inspired. What an improvement it would be to replace a tired, controversial loyalty oath with an affirmation and renewal of the people’s role, and therefore responsibility, in their own governance through a Constitution:

We the people, of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It’s beautiful.

20 March 2004 — Ends Choosing Principle?

In 1954, during McCarthyism, Eisenhower added the phrase under God to the Pledge of Allegiance to distinguish the U.S. from the godless Communists. Now that action has been challenged and the U.S. Supreme Court has taken the case, and will decide whether the phrase violates the first amendment. (In my opinion, it does—it matters not whether the added phrase is ceremonial deism or something stronger—but my opinion on the Pledge is not the true subject of this essay, but rather just background information.) Now amicus briefs are being filed on various sides of the case with the Supreme Court (a somewhat more dignified form of debate than the circus we saw after the Ninth circuit court of appeals announced its decision).

Even this dignified debate about the Pledge is symptomatic of a larger problem: people decide the outcome they favor and then decide what principle they will invoke to justify that outcome. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see people first choose the most appropriate principle and then decide how that principle best applies? For the Pledge of Allegiance, the principle is the establishment clause of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Why is it that everyone expects the U.S. Constitution to support their favorite political position?

Allow me to jump to another issue to show how principle should supercede policy. I think school vouchers are not the best solution to the school problem. Those opposed to vouchers challenged them via the establishment clause of the first amendment, but I found this challenge to be misguided, even though, if successful, it would have had the effect of putting the voucher policy I dislike as beyond the reach of any U.S. legislature, but at the cost of reading something into the Constitution that was not there (the state was not establishing a religion when it allowed parents to choose a religious school to redeem their vouchers—a different situation from the state choosing to subsidize religious schools). It is better to address the voucher policy via the legislature, which should be the primary decision maker on issues of what best accomplishes a valid state goal.

On the Pledge issue, I see those amicus briefs supporting the Pledge as attempts to twist the Constitution to support a public policy they support, rather than starting from the Constitution and deciding what it says in this case. The reasoning of the 9th circuit in Newdow v. U.S. Congress seems fairly straightforward. How would the same proponents of Newdow reversal feel if Congress changed the wording to under the Gods? Would they not see that as unfairly supporting polytheism, and object to its constitutionality? When the same clause of the Constitution is used to support two opposite actions based on the theology supported, then policy is picking principle, not the other way around.

As another example (one on which my own opinion of what should be done—as opposed to what should be found in the Constitution—is too complex to state here as background information), I do not think it appropriate for pro-choice advocates to depend on the U.S. Constitution to find a right that is not explicitly there. The Supreme Court, did render a decision, in Roe v. Wade, balancing three interests, viz. the state’s interest in protection of the pregnant woman, the state’s interest in protecting the potentiality of human life, and the pregnant woman’s privacy right (found by the Court in the fourteenth amendment). The balancing is subject to evolving medical capability, which certainly will not satisfy pro-choice advocates over time (the compelling point of interest in the health of the mother point will tend to move forward from Roe’s first trimester point with medical technology, and the compelling point of interest in potential human life will move back from Roe’s second trimester with medical technology). Moreover, the tenuous nature of the woman’s right found via the fourteenth amendment makes it possible for the Court to reverse itself later.

Returning to the Pledge, refreshingly we see a few religious individuals supporting the 9th circuit decision in Newdow, despite their desire to instill their own children with a belief in their God. In some cases it is because they believe ritual references to a generic God are likely to weaken rather than strengthen faith. Such reasoning still puts the end before the principle; the ends are simply framed with more sophistication. But in a few cases it is because they accept the separation of Church and State, even if that means they must communicate their religion memes without the help of the State. That is putting principle first.

Therefore, my prescription for public policy is as simple and obvious as it is forgotton. Keep separate the triple notions of what should be done, what the law/Constitution should say, and what the law/Constitution does say. Don’t try to bend the last to the demands of the first two.

4 March 2004 — Passion Plays

Mr. Gibson’s The Passion of Christ continues to generate a lot controversy. I have not seen it, and do not plan to, as it sounds unbearable to watch and without redeeming value. While I therefore don’t intend to write about the film, I do have observations to record on the debate about the film and what it says about society.

The most common objection to the film is the slanting of the story to portray the certain Jews as responsible for Jesus’ suffering and death. Radio shows have scholars talk about what is true or untrue about the film, as if anyone actually knew; there are not many historical sources for the truth about Jesus’ life and death. The four Gospels of the new testament are the most detailed sources, but they were written down decades after the events they describe by people who were not present (the authors appear to have been highly educated in Greek, for example). These authors inserted their own views into their writing. Moreover, the Gospels contradict each other on important points. The truth of what happened almost two millennia ago will never be known to us, however long we debate it. It is much like debating angels on pinheads.

More important, what happened two millennia ago is irrelevant; it matters not one bit whether Pontius Pilate or a few Jews were responsible. To blame a people for the acts of a few individuals of a community is a form of racism or tribalism. Individuals must be judged by their own merits and faults, not by their membership in a group not of their choosing. One can condemn a Nazi, a white supremacist, a slave holder, a member of Al Qaeda, or the member of the U.S. National Security Council, because their association is a matter of choice, but to condemn a sentient being for their genetics, place of birth, or age is in fact an indictment of the condemner, not the condemned. Even religion, which in some cases (but not all) is a matter of choice, would only be cause for condemnation based on its teachings, not the actions of a few of adherents.

It seems even more bizarre to me to carry such prejudices from one generation to another. Even if Mr. Gibson’s portrayal had some authority to it, it would still be silly to accuse those living today for the actions of long ago. However, as a Catholic, Mr. Gibson is schooled in the doctrine of original sin which is described as a hereditary stain. Those who believe in original sin, for example, may have no problem transfering guilt from one generation to another, irresponsible though this may be. (One need not be Catholic to engage hate crimes for acts of another generation — witness the recent violence between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat.)

As an aside, I must point out time does not erase all responsibility. First, nations and corporations have indefinite lifetimes — sometimes an advantage, but here a liability. Claims against nations and corporations for acts long ago may be valid. Second, those who inherit bounty from acts of long ago, including individuals, may still be called upon for restitution of their inheritance or its benefit. This is a tricky issue, as there must be some statue of limitations even here (e.g. most political boundaries have some element of unjust conquest). But I digress.

There is no person alive today who bears the guilt for the actions of a few individuals (whoever they might be) two millennia ago. Despite that, because many people cannot overcome their tribalism, and because still others believe in the justness of hereditary stain, some may be incited to hatred and violence by fictional depictions of such actions. For that both they and Mr. Gibson bear responsibility. For allowing tribalism to flourish, we all bear responsibility.

25 February 2004 — Nader’s Candidacy

The Democrats seem virtually unanimous in condemning Ralph Nader’s candidacy, describing it as egotistical. (For the record, I voted for Nader in 1996 and 2000.) Never mind that Gore actually won the 2000 election, and only the failures of the Democrats to effectively challenge the Florida tally let the loser occupy the White House. What is missing in the press coverage of the Democrats’ vitriolic outbursts is any discussion of what the Nader problem says about our election system. What the Democrats are saying is that even though Kerry does not represent my political views very well, simply because Kerry’s views are closer to mine than than Bush’s, I should not have the option to choose the best representative of my positions, because the election system will punish me for that. That sort of calculus leads to tactical voting: voting for a non-preferred candidate(s) so as to produce the best outcome. Tactical voting seems so natural to many of us that we do not even realize that this is not inherent in voting methods.

Aside: The U.S. primarily employs winner-take-all elections, i.e. there are multiple candidates for a single seat. While proportional representation is a good alternative for multi-member bodies (councils, legislatures, etc.), here I plan to raise only how to conduct winner-take-all-elections, such as for an executive branch position.

What election method does not encourage tactical voting? Consider a ballot in which you rank the candidates in order of preference: 1 for your first choice, 2 for your second, etc. It turns out that there are ways to pick a single winner from such ballots such that ranking your favorite candidate 1 does not help elect your least favorite candidate. Let’s take the controversial 2000 election; many Nader voters would have ranked the candidates Nader 1, Gore 2, with Brown, Buchanan, Bush, and Hagelin in various places for places 3 through 6 (or even left unranked). Almost any ranked ballot election method would have chosen Gore as the winner because the Nader voters still indicated a preference for Gore over Bush. (Of course, any fair count of the ballots in the 2000 Presidential election under the existing rules would have also elected Gore.) Similarly, the Buchanan voters would not be effectively voting for Gore if after ranking Buchanan 1, they had put Bush higher than Gore in their rankings. Details of some possible methods to tabulate ranked ballots may be found at Condorcet Rules: Six Variations.

What happens if the election method is not changed? Then the 2000 election will be invoked time and time again as to frighten voters to simply accept whichever candidate of the two major parties is the least objectionable to the individual voter. Neither party will have an incentive to offer candidates that actually reflect the views of the voters; they need only offer candidates that are less obnoxious than their rival party on a few carefully selected issues.

What happens if the election method is changed? Candidates such as Nader will then enrich the electoral process, even if they do not win elections. Because voters would no longer feel compelled to vote tactically, such candidates would receive more support in polls. They would be included in debates, and thereby would bring issues to the national discussion that would otherwise be left off the table by the two-party system. This is exactly the issue; the Democrats and Republicans are currently united in supporting the two-party system (the system is therefore off the table). Only if one party begins to feel sufficiently threatened (e.g. by a Nader candidacy) might it consider changes, such as ranked ballots, that would slightly weaken this system.

Is it politically possible to use ranked ballots for U.S. elections? I think it is, but only in a bottom-up process, where it is first implemented by a few localities, and then by a few states. Only after a few states have shown its appropriateness, will ranked ballots have a chance at the federal level. This process has actually begun; San Francisco recently switch to a ranked ballot (although with an inferior method for selection: Instant Runoff Voting instead of one of the Condorcet methods).

15 February 2004 — Revolutionary Republicans

Previously I have observed that the modern Republican party has become radical instead of conservative, and the Democrats now fulfill the role of conservatives in the U.S. I recently listened to Paul Krugman’s Commonwealth Club speech in which he made the same point, and then juxtaposed this observation with Kissinger’s analysis of revolutionary powers in international relations. (After all, politics is not unlike international relations.) Kissinger wrote, in the introduction to A World Restored:

Stability … has commonly resulted not from a quest for peace but from a generally accepted legitimacy. Legitimacy as here used should not be confused with justice. It means no more than an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy. …

…The motivation of the revolutionary power may well be defensive; it may well be sincere in its protestations of feeling threatened. But the distinguishing feature of a revolutionary power is not that it feels threatened—such feeling is inherent in the nature of international relations based on sovereign states—but that nothing can reassure it. Only absolute security—the neutralization of the opponent—is considered a sufficient guarantee, and thus the desire of one power for absolute security means absolute insecurity for all the others.

Diplomacy, the art of restraining the exercise of power, cannot function in such an environment. It is a mistake to assume that diplomacy can always settle international disputes if there is good faith and willingness to come to an agreement. For in a revolutionary international order, each power will seem to its opponent to lack precisely these qualities. Diplomats can still meet but they cannot persuade, for they have ceased to speak the same language.…

For powers long accustomed to tranquility and without experience with disaster, this is a hard lesson to come by. Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent, they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework. The defenders of the status quo therefore tend to begin by treating the revolutionary power as if its protestations were merely tactical; as if it really accepted the existing legitimacy but overstated its case for bargaining purposes; as if it were motivated by specific grievances to be assuaged by limited concessions. Those who warn against the danger in time are considered alarmists; those who counsel adaptation to circumstance are considered balanced and sane, for they have all the good reasons on their side: the arguments accepted as valid in the existing framework. Appeasement, where it is not a device to gain time, is the result of an inability to come to grips with a policy of unlimited objectives.

But it is the essence of a revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles to their ultimate conclusion. … Principles in a revolutionary situation are so central that they are constantly talked about. The very sterility of the effort soon drains them of all meaning, …

Kissinger came to his description of revolutionary powers from analyzing the Napoleonic era after the French revolution, but his writing suggests wider applicability. Subsequent revolutionary powers to which it could be applied include Fascist Germany and Communist Russia. (Though I do not know, I would be surprised if Kissinger did not apply his analysis to the USSR, and see it as justifying the need for a life-and-death struggle with it.) Kissinger’s analysis also applies in its original context, viz. to current U.S. international relations, but this is an consequence of the revolutionary Republican program.

Kissinger’s analysis transposed to U.S. politics suggests that there may be no accommodation possible between the prior political legitimacy in the U.S. (as represented by Democrats and pre-Reagan Republicans) and today’s revolutionary Republicans; indeed I have noticed in my discussions with Republicans that we no longer speak the same language and it does seem in the way Republicans go about politics that only the neutralization of the opponent will suffice. Further, Republican ideology has become increasingly like Communist ideology: constantly talked about and sterile. Just as Stalinism turned Communist ideology into simply an excuse for power, so does Republicanism increasingly become simply an excuse for power (e.g. William Greider’s observation on the relative roles of Republican ideology and Republican clients).

Whether the subject is tax cuts, foreign wars, the environment, police powers, or judicial appointments, the Republican party has engaged in a deeply dishonest selling of its policies. It is well to remember the words of a political observer from the not too distant past; Eric Sevareid of the CBS evening news said:

Every political villain in history first persuaded himself that the end justifies the means. Nothing but ends justify means, but they do not justify any means. Where the line is drawn among means is the determinant between civilized life and savagery. Inadmissible means devour principle and corrupt their users, often forever.

The corruption of Republican ideology is evident in the recent tax cuts. Ideologies are always based on conflicting principles; successful policies result when ideologically motivated actions are tested against the desirability of their likely outcome (the nothing but ends justify means part of the statement above). When impracticality and certain negative outcome ceases to deter bad policy, the revolution has arrived at a moral dead-end where the only ends that are considered are those of the rulers. The Republican tax cuts and simultaneous spending increases (the borrow and spend strategy) fail any test of practicality; there is no plausible scenario in which the outcome is anything but disastrous without a reversal of the policy (as happened, for example, after the initial Reagan tax cuts [1], but Republican power was not destroyed, and so the tax cuts returned). Republicans seek upper class tax cut after tax cut out of greed and unenlightened short-term self-interest; it is the only explanation that explains tax cuts that so perfectly benefit only the upper class. (They also serve to starve the beast, but that could be equally well accomplished with tax cuts that benefited all taxpayers, not just the upper 1%.)

If Kissinger’s analysis is correct and applicable, then other political parties must deal with the Republicans on an altogether different basis; since Republicans seek to smash the existing legitimacy, then the only effective counter-strategy is to destroy Republican power; accommodation may not be possible.

Most revolutionary ideologies have failed, but usually only by first succeeding in some country, then expressing their corrupt nature (e.g. Fascism in Hitler’s Germany, Communism in Stalin’s Russia). Fascism was militarily defeated by the old legitimacy. In some cases the old legitimacy is also destroyed or transformed (e.g. the French revolution). Communism took a third course; it was allowed to burn itself out. The danger with Republicanism is that it occurs in the world’s single superpower, which is not susceptible to military defeat. The destruction of Republican power therefore must come from within the United States. Either it will come from other political parties taking power in elections and then systematically working to prevent the use of Orwellian techniques used by the Republicans to induce self-destructive voting in the electorate, or it will come by doing nothing and thereby allowing the Republican party to destroy the United States. The latter scenario is not that implausible; to starve the beast and line the pockets of their clients, Republicans have put the U.S. into a power dive; if an engine were to flame out at this point, the U.S. would not be able to pull out of the dive, and would crash. For example, with deficits approximately 25% of the GDP and likely to grow, it would take only an increase in interest rates and a move away from the falling dollar as the world’s single reserve currency to bring on U.S. bankruptcy.

The strategy of retaking power and then destroying Republican power has a major problem. The battle over the Republican levers of power (e.g. money and ownership of the media) is likely to be intense. Can this battle be fought without corrupting the fighters? Fighting evil corrupts the good (for example, the U.S. battle with Communism saw the U.S. engaging in evil for the greater good, a sure sign that Realpolitik has corrupted its user).

Without a strategy to destroy the Republican revolution and retain our principles, the only course may be to allow the Republicans to bring on financial collapse, and therefore destroy themselves. This in the end was the strategy that worked against Communism.

12 February 2004 — Media bias

Liberals say the media has a conservative bias. Conservatives say the opposite. Books are written on both sides. Who is right?

This one is easy to disentangle, but only by seeing beyond the prevailing mythology of our day. Politics is inherently a multi-dimensional space. One’s opinion on one issue can be independent of one’s opinion of another. Political thought in most of the world, and certainly the U.S., arbitrarily simplifies multiple dimensions to a single dimension, and assigns positions to a single right to left political spectrum. The purpose of the one-dimensional simplification of political space is simply to aggrandize the ruling class. A politically powerful person or institution increases its power by convincing others that from alignment on one issue, alignment on other issues should follow, and so this is the lesson that is taught and driven into our minds relentlessly by the mouthpieces of power (such as the news media).

Note: To use the terms left, right, conservative, or liberal is therefore to fall prey to ruling class’ strategy. Henceforth, I substitute the more accurate Republican and Democratic labels for the ones with which I opened this essay (in a play for familiarity). These labels similarly presume the packaging of political ideas for aggrandizement via the one-dimensional oversimplification, but they suggest the origin and purpose of the oversimplification.

In mathematics, by starting from false premises any result can be falsely proved, even that 1 = 0. Similarly, starting from the false one-dimensional simplification of politics, any bias desired can be found. (A similar result holds for policies derived from ideologies. Since ideologies are built upon conflicting memes, any policy can be justified by selective appeals to the components of their ideology, often without the speaker even realizing what he or she is doing, which calls to mind Benjamin’s Franklin’s observation, So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do.)

So it is possible for a Republican author to find a Democratic bias by identifying media and reporters with political positions that are Democratic leanings on some issues (even when they are Republican on other issues), and cite those instances as proof of Democratic bias. Similarly it is possible for a Democratic author to find Republican bias. Many authors and speakers on the topic of media bias do not even rise to this level of argument, but instead simply invent facts and hurl invective (Bernard Goldberg’s Bias and Ann Coulter’s Slander are probably in this category, but I have not read them). One author at least, Eric Alterman, in What Liberal Media?, at least somewhat acknowledges the problems with oversimplification in his refutation of a few Republican authors’ smear and propaganda pieces, first by dividing his case groups of axes of multi-dimensional politics, and even suggesting out one set of axes on which there may be some evidence of Democratic bias when he writes: Though the evidence is sketchy, I tend to believe that on many social issues, conservatives have a case. (The rest of Chapter 7 however goes on to suggest that much of this bias has been overcome by the self-criticism of responsible journalists, citing David Shaw’s Pulitzer award winning series in the liberal Los Angeles Times on coverage of the abortion issue.)

Modern U.S. mythology accepts as fact that the press is liberal, i.e. Democratic. This myth is not grounded in reality; it is accepted because it is so often asserted by Republicans. Repeating something over and over may not make it so, but it may make a myth.

More sophisticated analyses of bias lump the Democratic and Republican packaging of political issues into a single ruling class and then examine the bias of media toward the interests of this ruling class. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent falls into this category, and it makes a compelling case. (However, a compelling case is not the same as a proof; a compelling case usually looks at a set of examples, and generalizes; a proof would have to look at all of the data, which is probably an impossible task.) Here the thesis is that the spectrum of debate is limited by the poles defined by the Republican and Democratic positions on issues. Issues on which the Republican and Democrat camps agree are off the table; political positions outside of these camps are beyond the pale (e.g. being against the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, or even European conservative thought — Europeans suffer from the same idea of a political spectrum — which is sufficiently liberal to be beyond the pale for U.S. politics).

My analysis suggests that attempts to prove an overall Republican or Democratic bias to the media are not terribly meaningful (though the data cited can be interesting), precisely because of (1) the multi-dimensionality of politics; (2) the reasons that these camps adopt points along different axes for political advantage result in semi-arbitrary packaging; and (3) William Greider’s observation that ideologies are adopted by the parties to justify their actions, not as generating functions for their actions. Examinations of bias along individual axes (e.g. the aforementioned David Shaw series) can find truth and are very useful. Attempts to find generalized patterns of bias (such as ruling class bias, or bias toward the media’s owners, which recognizes Mr. Greider’s observation) can also be illuminating, as they suggest ways in which simplification can be carried far enough to be able to make generalizations, and thus expose the mythologies of our time.

4 February 2004 — My Party Right or Wrong

One of those rotten ideas, viz. my country, right or wrong, may be turning into my party, right or wrong, which is just as rotten.

One way to explain U.S. politics is that parties adopt ideologies to explain their actions instead of acting in accordance with their ideologies. As William Greider observed:

The Republican party is not a party of conservative ideology. It is a party of conservative clients. Whenever possible, the ideology will be invoked as justification for taking care of the clients’ needs. When the two are in conflict, the conservative principles are discarded and the clients are served.

To understand the Republican party (or the Democratic party, for that matter), it is most efficient to look directly at the clients — or as political scientist Thomas Ferguson would call them, the “major investors.” On that level, the ideological contradictions are unimportant. Political parties do function as mediating institutions, only not for voters.

Parties cannot serve their investors as well when they are out of power. The Republican party has been slowly gaining political power in the U.S., and now occupies the White House (albeit fraudulently) and has slim majorities in both houses of Congress. The desire of the so-called conservative party to make radical changes on such a slim mandate has forced it to present a united front, where no idea pushed by its leadership, no matter how radical, is deemed too crazy to support. In doing so, Republicans are adopting the aforementioned my party, right or wrong philosophy. This underscores Mr. Greider’s observation above, and his subsequent observation: The Stalinist discipline of the Republican Party is impressive.

The U.S. has always been ruled by an elite political class. In this regard, it is not unlike the old U.S.S.R., except for the all-important difference that the U.S.S.R. had zero feedback in its political processes, and the U.S. has a small feedback component, viz. elections and the fourth estate. I do not buy the mythology of our age that elections are controlling; we do not live in a true democracy: elections are largely controlled by the elite, but the need to submit to the election process and control it imposes some constraints (a position I have expressed before via the soccer ball analogy). Propaganda in the U.S. is without peer in the world, but the need and cost of using it to overcome voters’ self-interest in too many cases limits the degree of disconnect between the political class and its citizens. The fourth estate’s feedback follows from its role in the electoral process, and its ability to shame those in power (though Republicans of today seem incapable of shame). The composition of the fourth estate has also changed over time, as first its owners and then its reporters moved into the political class, and transformed the press from semi-independent to propaganda organs (in this context, it is not surprising that “journalism” schools graduate more Public Relations professionals than reporters). As such, the fourth estate now provides less feedback and more indoctrination.

The reduction of feedback in U.S. politics means that political parties are able to operate according to my party, right or wrong without shame. The appropriateness of Mr. Greider’s observation about who the parties actually serve is thereby increased. I do not like to think about where this might lead.

27 January 2004 — Election Day — For The Record

The New Hampshire primary is today. Historically, this primary has a strong say in picking the U.S. President, and yet only 300,000 to 400,000 Americans will be voting, with perhaps 150,000 to 200,000 voting on the Democratic ballot (the only significant race this year). After the election, several candidates will likely drop out (as Gephardt did after the Iowa caucuses), meaning by the time Californians (for example) get to vote, it may be all decided. (Of course, even if I lived in New Hampshire, because I am not registered as a Democrat or as undeclared, I would not be able to vote in the Democratic primary.)

But that doesn’t stop me from casting my vote on the web, before it’s decided, so I will. Since I’m making the rules, I’ll use a ranked ballot, since that’s the only sensible voting method for a winner-take-all election. With ranked ballots, I don’t have to engage in strategic voting (picking the candidate based on his or her chances in the polls), so I can straight-forwardly declare my preferences. My ballot would would be:

  1. Kucinich
  2. Dean
  3. Clark

If pressed I might prefer Kerry for the fourth slot over Edwards based on his environmental voting record (LCV score 96% vs. Edwards’ 76%), but voting for someone that voted for the Iraq invasion is so distateful that I don’t think I could do it.

4 January 2004 — Overcoming Evil

Note: I started this on 4 January, but did not stop until 27 January, because this piece is so inadequate and I don’t seem to be able to fix it. Nonetheless, rather than delete it, I’ll let it out so that I can move on.

In politics, it is best if one is able to respect one’s opponents. Failing that, it is better to give the benefit of the doubt and consider your opponents’ policies and actions to be merely mistaken and misguided, rather than of bad intent. However, Republicans have made this increasingly difficult in the last few years, and in my opinion the possibility that the party has transgressed from misguided to evil (in the dictionary sense of “morally reprehensible”) must be considered, as it appears to better explain their behavior. I do not intend to here make the case that the Republican party has so transgressed (for reasons that will momentarily apparent), but rather use this as a starting point to raise more general issues concerning evil and what to do about it.

Republicans of course would not admit to moral reprehensibility — indeed many in their camp would claim the high moral ground — so how then might others consider their actions and intents evil? For example, the anti-abortion movement, largely captured by the Republican party, would claim their actions and purpose to be a moral imperative (in my opinion, the hypocrisy of this group renders their claims to morality meaningless, but that is another matter). The answer is that our society no longer possesses a unifying morality; rather it has fractured along lines representing the conflicts inherent given multiple principles and sources of authority. Even when morality was defined by the Christian bible in western civilization, the conflicts between the old testament morality and new testament morality (e.g. between Exodus 21 and Matthew 5) were resolved only by an authoritative church (and by theological doctrines that deemphasize the teachings that are too difficult to follow in an imperfect world). Once a central authority splinters, society as a whole no longer has a unifying morality, as each splinter has its own interpretations and prioritizations. Moreover, society has added and continues to add secular principles to the mix; in the U.S. freedom, liberty, equality, religious tolerance, democracy, constitution, and rights are principles that are part of our long-standing mythology. In the last one hundred fifty years we have been adding corporate rights and women’s rights to our mythology (both are still advancing to this day). Since the 1950’s and 1960’s we have been trying to integrate racial tolerance (starting with Brown V. Board of Eduction in 1954, Rosa Parks 1955, up to the Selma march and Voting Rights Act in 1965), environmentalism (e.g. Silent Spring, 1962, EPA, Earth Day, Clean Air Act, all 1970), and sexual tolerance (e.g. Stonewall, 1969). We are indoctrinated with them early and often (though inconsistently), but the accommodation with old testament morality and new testament morality is still evolving, causing fractures. I have found that I can barely understand the reasoning of Republicans when I speak with them, and one reason appears to be the lack of shared values and assumptions (as an example of non-shared assumptions causing failures to understand, if some assume that their nation acts morally, then they will insist on explanations of its actions even when they are contrary to the facts).

To make matters more complicated, many (including myself) now reject religion as a moral authority at all; the dictates of the various religions are often wise (e.g. the golden rule), but just as often arbitrary and unjustifiable. The multiplicity of religions (i.e. which Ayatollah should you listen to?) alone betrays the authority of religion (this was once less of an issue: the ability to choose was not particularly viable, or often even apparent prior to the twentieth century, when the technological advances in communication and transportation shrunk the globe to the size of a large city). Moreover, scholars have given us knowledge of the reasons and methods by which people created their religions, and this knowledge eliminates religions’ claims to authority (for example, the history of the new testament). In my case, I find the arguments of ethicist Peter Singer far more persuasive than sacred texts such as the bible; indeed by such a modern standard we see members of traditional churches personally committing immoral acts on a daily basis, which certainly reduces their claim to moral authority (e.g. their eating meat and thereby enslaving, torturing, and killing sentient beings).

So, if this is indeed the situation, what is to be done about it? Unlike religions, I cannot demand faith that there is a single uniquely correct morality. Morality must be judged for what it accomplishes for society. As such, I can argue for the advantages of my moral perspectives, but not insist that they are only way. Using Dawkins’ coinage, I see moralities as memes that co-evolve with human societies. Just as many competing genes may co-exist within in a species, and vary in frequency within the population according to environmental conditions, so multiple morality memes exist and compete for dominance in human society. With this perspective then we are simply in a time of rapid evolutionary change brought on by changes in the social environment.

This perspective helps intellectually, but while various morality memes may be examined and debated intellectually, their expression within individuals is usually not an intellectual choice, but an emotional one arising from early patterning. While intellectually I adopted Singer’s ethics in my 40’s, after reading his work, the environment for that meme to flourish was probably patterned early in my life by the competing myths of our times, and indeed predisposed me to read his work in the first place, after having already reached similar conclusions independently. I hypothesize that the human brain may have even evolved emotional structures appropriate to react to good and evil, so as to make human societies function more successfully, but that these structures are easily patterned by development so that the definitions of good and evil are cultural, not innate (i.e. perhaps the categories are innate, but not the definition of the categories).

It is for the above reasons that making a case for the Republicans being evil is not the most important point to make; figuring out how to survive a world of multiple moralities is more important.

The recognition that morality has an emotional component, probably programmed by development is important because it suggests psychological consequences when good and evil are recognized. It also helps, for example, to see how some anti-abortionists can kill doctors (a tiny, extreme group) or defend their killers (which is much more widespread, as seen in the long-time failure to arrest the Atlanta bomber, and the stated opinions of many in Georgia that he should be freed).

It is important to distinguish between the observation that multiple moralities exist in the world and question of whether this fact is positive or negative. Some might assign a positive value to limited cultural differences in morality and celebrate the world’s diversity. Others assign a negative value and then go on to conclude that there is only one absolute God-given morality, and ignore the issue that people cannot agree on their Gods. My own view is that multiple moralities exist — an observation about the world — and that this is problematic (I could not use the word “evil” as I do if I were to simply celebrate the diversity that multiple moralities give us).

All this brings me back to the evils that I and others identify with the Republican party. The question is what should be done in fighting what I recognize as evil, but which others consider moral. Historically, such human societies have often resolved such conflicts through warfare and conquest. The meme of the militarily stronger group violently eliminates or subjugates the memes of militarily weaker groups (e.g. the U.S. civil war). Recently, we see memes arise that reject the elimination or subjugation of populations as acceptable, thrusting us into a new, potentially unstable situation. What was possible just over one hundred years ago (e.g. the U.S. elimination and subjugation of native Americans up through Wounded Knee), or ninety years ago (e.g. the Armenian Genocide) or just sixty years ago (e.g. Hitler and the Holocaust), now seems unthinkable in much of the world (Rwanda’s 1994 genocide still occurred, but it at least generated revulsion around the world). In 1946, George Orwell observed the realpolitik-based actions of governments “can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.” That the elites must employ political euphemism is an indication of the widening gap between public morality and realpolitik. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, is brutal and disgusting (as is the Palestinian response), but under earlier morality the Palestinians would have been entirely eliminated. The U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq, while a rejection of principles that guided U.S. policy just twelve years before, is still not a repeat of the US-Mexican War of 1846-1848, where the U.S. annexed 3.1 million km2 (1.2 million mi2) of Mexico, or the U.S. conquest of the Philippines in 1898, or Britain’s conquest of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. (The White House may desire to so rule Iraq, but they are already being forced to modify their program by modern world opinion and guerrilla warfare.) Small progress, but at least it is something.

As the historical resolution is no longer available because of newly dominant memes, we are in territory where conflicting notions of good and evil co-exist. This can place tremendous psychological strain on individuals, given that the very notions of good and evil, as emotional entities, do not allow for multiple moralities.

In an environment where those of different morality cannot be wiped out in battle, the victors become subjugators, something like prison guards. The effect of such relationships is well documented, for example in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, or in Robert Fisk’s story of Lebanon, or recently in the Israeli Sergeant Liran Ron Furer’s book Checkpoint Syndrome, or most recently in the stories about the actions of U.S. troops in Iraq. While it is the vanguished who are brutalized, it is the victors who are turned into monsters. In Lebanon, Palestine, or Iraq, the tendency of Israeli or U.S. troops to identify their victims as “terrorists” has freed them (in their own minds) to act in in most horrible ways.

But there is a third group to consider, after victors and major victims: the rest of us, the minor victims, the bystanders. Most of us do no directly participate in the Republicans’ evil; only 24.5% of the U.S. voting age population voted for Bush in 2000 (vs. 24.8% for Gore), (and even in Florida, more voted for Gore than Bush — only through fraud did the Republicans occupy the White House, an example of their evil). Some of us are only partially victimized by the Republicans (and certainly no American is victimized on the same scale as the average Iraqi). Having our taxes given to Bush’s investors in handouts, or our future taxes appropriated in borrow-and-spend giveaways to Bush’s investors, or having unsafe products, dirty air, and dirty water victimizes us, but not in the same way as having your family killed, or being crippled or killed. However, the less obvious, but still pernicious, effect of Republican evil on minor victims and bystanders is the outrage and even anger that it generates.

I have found myself, in the conversations with some of the few Republicans I know, making remarks that I quickly regret. Evildoers can bring out evil in ourselves. This may be behind the admonition of Matthew 5:39 as much as the desire to show the evildoer the right path (see also Matthew 5:22). The problem with this passage is the possible interpretation that evil should not be resisted at all; the real question is whether evil should be resisted with anger (which hurts us and turns our hearts to evil) or with patience and edification. Gandhi’s tactics at the Dharasana Salt Works ([1], [2], [3]), succeeded in teaching the British about their own evil and made them ashamed of themselves (as well as shocking and revolting the rest of the world). Gandhi fortunately had Webb Miller to report on the Dharasana march; with Republicans now in control of so much of the U.S. media, it becomes more difficult to bring such examples (of which the world is filled) to the U.S. public.

What is needed is a way to make the Republicans feel ashamed; something the corporate media cannot ignore; something that does not make us angry or evil ourselves; and something that does not divert us. It is a tall order. In the meantime, I must control my anger and taunting. It is better for each of us to seek our own way, and not live only as a reaction to others. Until it is possible to effect change, it is better to deny evil the attention it craves than to let it set the whole agenda. Of course, having control of the world’s only superpower makes it hard to ignore. If nothing else, this argues against that such power should be dismantled, once the chance to do so arises, lest that power fall once again into evil hands.

† As counterexamples that weaken my argument, consider that the Indonesia’s genocide in East Timor was largely ignored by the world, and the U.S. still largely (except for our own CIA) fails to recognize our own recent role in millions of deaths in Cambodia, preferring lay the blame entirely on Pol Pot instead of looking at the contribution of our own bombing of that country. Or that the Sabra, Chatila, and Qana massacres were largely ignored in the U.S. because the perpetrators were our allies.

‡ To be fair, I should point out that Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy perhaps occupied the White House via fraud in Illinois in 1960, but that I know relatively little about it other than the assertion that this is so. In the 2000 Florida election, there is compelling evidence, which unfortunately did not come to light until after the Supreme Court had chosen Bush.

1 January 2004 — Partial credit

Even the facinorous occasionally do good things. Even the F student sometimes gets the right answer. Today I look back on 2003 and remark on some things even Bush and Prime Minister Blair did right.

Britain’s negotiations with Libya to end that country’s nuclear program are a welcome counterpoint to their participation in the invasion of Iraq (which was supposedly to end that country’s nuclear program, which in actuality had been terminated in 1991). Republicans point to this as a fruit of the Iraqi invasion. Even ignoring for the moment that the ends do not justify the means, the invasion of Iraq was not necessary to motivate Guadaafi. He was already attempting to regain an accpetable world standing by settling with the U.S. and Britain on the Lockerbie bombing, after years of sanctions far less onerous than those imposed on Iraq. The prospect of Iraq-style sanctions over his nuclear aspirations was enough to force his hand. As we now know from the lack of nuclear, biological, and chemicals weapons in Iraq, sanctions worked even with that most recalcitrant dictator.

The Bush White House is so routinely guilty of malfeasance that when they do even something small right; it a matter of surprise. Three things in 2003 were praiseworthy. Strikingly, two occurred in the last week.

The Bush White House deserves credit for its Africa AIDS initiative proposal, though their follow-through on that proposal is less praiseworthy (after proposing $15B over 5 years in January, the White House sought only $2B in their budget submission to Congress, and opposed efforts to increase this to $3B in the Senate).

The Bush White House deserves credit for its “earthquote diplomacy” in Iran. The suspension of sanctions and sending aid to the victims in Bam is a refreshing change of policy. If only it did not take a tragic natural disaster to precipitate such change. Why not try such an initiative with Cuba?

In the last days of 2003, the Bush administration announced a few of the long overdue changes for meat safety in response to the first reported instance of mad cow disease in the U.S., including barring sale of meat (at least for human consumption) from downer cows (cows that are too sick to walk or stand). Mere weeks after the U.S.D.A. (e.g. spokesman Dr. Kenneth Peterson) reiterated that they would not ban meat from downer cows, they have reversed their stance. Unfortunately, it appears that it was concern for U.S. exports (many nations instantly banned imports of U.S. beef upon hearing the news) rather than human health that motivated the ban. Further steps are still needed to protect people from prion diseases (e.g. implementing the European regulations, including the ending all forced cow cannibalism, especially the the use of cow fat and blood and other slaughterhouse waste as a cow feed ingredient). As a further indication of U.S. priorities, these changes do nothing to prevent the 5,000 annual deaths from food-born illness; they address the economic issue of consumer confidence. (And they certainly do not address the cows’ interests.)

31 December 2003 — Economy and the White House

Politicians like to take responsibility for the economy when it is booming, and assign blame to their opponents when it is not growing. The reality is far more complex. Does Bush deserve blame for the sour economy during 2001-2002? Probably not. First, the extended slow period is largely attributable, in my opinion, to the bubble economy bursting, which occurred before Bush occupied the White House. Democrats who point the finger at Bush on the three million jobs lost are simply dishonest opportunists. Similarly, the partial recovery in 2003, is likely not attributable to Bush’s policies, but is rather a natural business cycle recovery. Republicans that point to the recovery to justify Bush’s election in 2004 will be similarly dishonest. Second, the actions of the Federal Reserve are probably more important than those of the White House or Congress. As a result, President Clinton should not receive major credit for the boom that occurred during his term. Indeed, President Clinton bears some of the responsibility for the bubble, as his administration’s failure (e.g. at the SEC) to adequately police corporations, contributed to the fraud that gave the appearance of a booming economy (through misstated corporate profits), when in fact things had already slowed. As a further example, inflation and interest rates declining under Clinton were perhaps influenced more by the outsourcing of manufacture and service to the third world than by the balancing of the budget.

It appears to me that the influence of politicians on the economy is (1) limited (at least within the constraints of U.S. politics); (2) complex; (3) usually occurs over decade-long periods; and (4) consists more of opportunities to hurt than to benefit economic growth. The major effect of Bush’s policies may not be known for a decade. Their effect on public policy will be larger than on the economy, i.e. the increased debt and decreased revenue will constrain future spending more than it will affect the economy, and it will accentuate the growing economic divide in the country, but that is a societal more than economic impact. This is not to say that politicians have no effect on our lives; the effect of public policy can be very important; it just is seen in ways other than the economy.

Bush’s biggest economic legacy will be his failure to to prepare the country, indeed his steps backward, for the coming changes in the world and what it means to the U.S. Peak oil can only be addressed with major increases in efficiency and conservation, the opposite of Bush’s direction. The transition to a sustainable economy is inevitable. Politicians can influence whether it is gradual and seamless or cataclysmic; Bush’s policies, by delaying, increase the chances of cataclysm. Similarly, the transition to a stable or falling population is inevitable; public policies predicated upon perpetual growth (e.g. massive deficit spending, thereby borrowing from future generations) can only make the transition more painful. As a third example, outsourcing of production and services will slow when it represents a significant fraction of the economy (when there is little left to outsource); politicians should plan for the consequences of outsourcing saturation (e.g. renewed inflation pressure, and reduced growth).

18 September 2003 — Nukes

Mr. Bush’s short-sighted policies were sure to encourage nuclear weapons proliferation. Now even Saudi Arabia is considering acquiring a nuclear arsenal, according to the Guardian. It is no wonder with some in Washington suggesting that Saudi Arabia could be next for the Iraq treatment, and with the recent demonstration of just how far the U.S. is willing to go to secure its long-term sources of oil. The only successful deterrent to U.S. invasion so far has been a nuclear arsenal.

14 September 2003 — Democracy in Iraq

Colin Powell has met with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the fate of Iraq. The dispute is over whether the U.S. or the U.N. should lead Iraq’s transition to self-government. Is it not strange that Iraqis are not represented in this discussion? While Iraq may not be ready for complete self-government so soon after its devestation, it would certainly be possible to hold a referendum for the Iraqis to decide whether the U.N. should take over at this point. Perhaps Colin Powell fears the outcome of such a vote.

10 September 2003 — Selectively Condemning Violance

News and infotainment outlets across world will use tomorrow to write about the Al Qaeda attacks two years ago and their consequences. But what was so special about that day? Some parts of the world experiences violent attacks against innocent lives routinely, and are those anniversaries reverently marked and commemorated by anyone other than the victims’ relatives and friends? Certainly 2001.09.11 was a tragedy, but to single it out among the many tragedies is a is a crime against all the other victims of political violence. Where are the commentaries on the anniversaries of the Rwanda genocide? In Lebanon alone, should not the bombings of Beirut, U.S. Marines, French paratroopers, Beirut, Sabra, Chatila, Qana, Tyre, and others be remembered? And what of the 2003 U.S. killing of 6000-8000 innocent civilians in Iraq, twice as many as died in the World Trade Center? Is that violence not worth condemnation? What of the innocent Israelis killed by suicide bombs, and Palestinian bystanders killed by Israeli missiles? What of the families killed by U.S. pilots in Kosovo who would not fly low enough to see their targets? What about East Timor? What about Congo, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Kashmir?

It is wrong to invent labels to legitimize some violence and other labels to castigate other violence. When “terrorism” is reserved for the violence used against us, not the violence we and our friends do against others, it become simply a pejorative, not a descriptive word. All violence must be condemned.

The saddest thing about 2003.09.11 is that once again it will be used by U.S. politicians to promote their plans for future violence.

4 September 2003 — Politics and Language

I reread George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language just now. Heavily excerpted, Orwell writes,

… But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. … If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration …

… This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. …

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. … Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. …

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. …

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. … one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.

It seems just as apt a description of the modern U.S. political landscape as it was of post second world war Britain. In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. U.S. politics today does consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. It is true that the gap between real and declared aims has led to long words and exhausted idioms. It is also probably true that slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

And yet, who can be said not to know that politicians are lairs and deceivers? Should a complaint about political language not to call to mind the exchange “I am shocked, shocked to learn that gambling is going on here.” by the French Captain Renault of the movie Casablanca, and even as he gives the order to close down Rick’s, the croupier hands him a roll of bills and says “Your winnings, Sir,” which Renault accepts saying, “Oh thank you very much. Everyone out at once.”

To reconcile my quite real shock at the insincerity of political language and the knowledge that it must have always been so (no doubt examples from the golden age of Athens could be found), consider that I, like most people, want to believe in the goodness of our institutions, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary. Even while we decry the prevarications and euphemisms of the politics we deplore, we hope for better. We hope for better because language is so powerful. Orwell gives us one prescription. Israeli journalist Michael Elkins similarly notes the power of language and gives a somewhat different prescription; writing in the Jerusalem Post he says:

We can go on like this — recreating and reflecting the existing images of each other, and reflecting these reflections — endlessly and hatefully — as in a hall of mirrors. The result will be that all of us — Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs — will be locked in endless and bloody agony in a hall of mirrors of our own creation and from which there is no exit.

Or we can begin by adopting a certain integrity — a certain generosity — in the use of language.

That’s not too hard. It’s the easiest of the hard things that must be done if we are ever to come to peace with one another, and so with ourselves.

(This inspiring quotation was taken from Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation.)

Today, U.S. politics is locked in a hall of mirrors, and there appears to be no exit. Our task is to make an exit. It is time to give the integrity of language a primary consideration in politics. Even when we agree with their aims, it is time to reject those who use language to spin, manipulate and deceive.

16 August 2003 — small is beautiful

The east coast blackout is a fore-shock that should send us scurrying back to reconsider the ideas of E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful). Rather than build more transmission lines to interconnect massive gigawatt plants, we should move to decentralized generation. Imagine electricity generated on most rooftops from photovoltaic arrays that power the buildings beneath them. This would not eliminate blackouts, but blackouts would become local events, affecting ten people at a time instead of fifty million. The remedy for one such micro-blackout might be to walk next door to ask for help. No such remedy is possible when the lights from Ohio to Connecticut are out and the highways are clogged with desperate people.

Is PV cost effective? Photovoltaic (PV) systems cost approximately $9,000/KW installed today (approximately $4/W for the PV modules, $1/W for the DC to AC inverter, and $4/W for installation). (This price would come down substantially on the scale suggested above.) This is $630/year/KW when financed at 5.75% for 30 years. Using PG&E rates as an example, each KW of PV would generate 9KWH during the summer days when time-of-use rates are $0.315 per KWH, and 6KWH during winter days when rates are $0.116. Each KW of PV therefore saves $643 per year, thus saving $13/year/KW over the 30-year lifetime of the system. Using either government rebates ($4.25/W in California) or economies of scale resulting from massive PV investment, allows 10 year financing to save $18/year/KW. (After 10 years, the system saves $643/year/KW for the next 20 years.)

Rooftop PV is not a replacement for the electric grid using the above costs; the grid is still needed to provide electric power at night and for those buildings without the possibility of PV. To eliminate the grid requires local energy storage (e.g. batteries), which adds substantial cost (perhaps only $0.50/W initially for batteries, but the batteries would have to be replaced many times during the life of the system). However, even with distributed incremental generation, as above, the PV allows a selected subset of the circuits (e.g. refrigerators) to be powered from the sun, and it is easy to add a small battery bank to provide blackout backup power to selected circuits (e.g. a few safety lights), since the inverter is already present. As a backup power source, the batteries have a much longer lifetime than for off-grid applications since they are only discharged in a blackout. The net result is that rooftop PV would make communities blackout-tolerant.

To make rooftop PV ubiquitous it is not sufficient that it be cost effective; there are still too many building owners who would rather pay more to not be bothered. What is needed therefore is for the electric utilities to provide the option of financing, installation, and maintenance of PV. This would be wise investment compared to building more transmission lines.

7 May 2003 — Weapons of Mass Distraction

It is too early to say whether chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons will be found in Iraq, but it seems the way has been prepared if needed. The U.S. refuses to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq, which makes it easier for the U.S. to fabricate a depot as justification if necessary. Of course, such a fabrication has associated risks, and so it is delayed to see whether it is really necessary. Increasingly, from the trial balloons in the press, it appears that propaganda may make discovery of U.N. banned weapons unnecessary. Indeed, even if no weapons are actually found, the frequent leaks and rumors about finds will leave most U.S. residents thinking that illegal weapons were found and justified the aggression.

I admit some surprise that Iraqi chemical weapons have not been found; I had expected that Saddam Hussein had a cache somewhere. That was never a reason to go to war, however.

12 April 2003 — The Aftermath

The attack on Iraq is not over, but it is time to reflect on the results so far. The immediate outcome of the military campaign is not in doubt, as it never was. (The outcome of the occupation, on the other hand, is very much uncertain.) The question was what would be achieved and lost by the conduct of that military campaign. While the ends do not justify the means, it was precisely by the ends that this attack was justified. Even judged by such an illegitimate standard the ends fall short:

  • First, as expected, Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, and that is to be cheered. It is one good outcome of this war.
  • Great harm has been done to current lives of Iraqis. Mr. Bush may have accomplished in a few weeks as much terror, maiming, and death as Saddam Hussein might have over the rest of his life.
  • There may or may not be a future improvement in the lives of the Iraqis that survive the war, but it is too early to know. The U.S. record in Afghanistan does not leave one optimistic, however.
  • The U.S. has fallen many notches lower in much of the world’s eyes. Its ability to lead the world by example is in tatters.
  • The U.S. has lost credibility even on matters of fact by Colin Powell’s presentation to the Security Council and Prime Minister Blair’s “dossier.” Their evidence did not withstand subsequent scrutiny. In the future, the U.S. is less likely to receive as much benefit of the doubt as it did this time.
  • By placing itself above the law (both international and its own), the U.S. instructs the rest of the world to seek the military power to do likewise. The setback to diplomacy, negotiation, and cooperation has been immense. In particular, the U.N. has been severely compromised.
  • The U.S. is now less safe than before. As U.S. safety was the stated goal of the war, this needs some explanation. Other states watching Iraq’s fate will conclude that they need nuclear weapons to deter U.S. aggression. The nuclear proliferation encouraged by this war will likely end tragically for the U.S. In addition, this war has shown the world (except in the U.S. itself) brutal pictures of Iraqi woman and children suffering at the hands of U.S. war planes, missles, and troops. How many future recruits for anti-American terrorism has Mr. Bush given us?
  • Saddam Hussein’s regime did not use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons in defense of Iraq thus far. It therefore seems unlikely that such weapons were ever much of a threat to the U.S. (if they existed at all after Iraq’s forced disarmament by the U.N. in the 1990s). Perhaps some stockpiles are still to be discovered, but in that case Iraq, by not using such stockpiles, must have already concluded they had no value.

The cynical use, by the U.S., of weapons far worse than the chemical or biological arms it professed to destroy, illustrates the utter lack of an moral consideration to Mr. Bush’s action. Iraq is now, for a second time, a dumping ground for U.S. nuclear waste. Uranium dust, toxic for millennia, released by the explosions of DU munitions, now poisons the country. The continued use of radiation warfare by the U.S. continues to legitimize these horrible weapons. The U.S. also used cluster bombs, which are likely to maim children in the years to come.

Weighing the good and the bad, I cannot say that the U.S. or the world has come out ahead by Mr. Bush’s war. As for Iraq, even if the White House’s predictions are fulfilled, it will be impossible to judge whether the cost to Iraqis was worth it. I can only conclude that Mr. Bush has seriously hurt this great nation and the world.

18 March 2003 — War

I must agree with Harold Pinter: Mr. Bush and his fellow squatters in the White House are bloodthirsty wild animals. Bombs are their only vocabulary. There once seemed the chance, however unlikely, that Mr. Bush’s warmongering was a rhetorical attempt to twist the arm of the Saddam Hussein into cooperation with the U.N., but it is now clear that his goal has always been war, and he means to have it despite world opinion, despite the security council, despite relations with allies, and despite the success of the inspections to date. That George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, and those that encourage and support them, have evil and imperial designs is no longer in question. They haven’t even the skill of President Bush’s cabinet, whose attack on Iraq, was at least done with diplomatic adroitness to coalition building (though without sufficient diplomatic skill to avoid war).

If there is hope to be found in the current situation, it is that the war will have consequences unwelcome to these nazgul. It could, for example, precipitate an independent and more assertive Europe, and begin the decline of NATO (an organization whose purpose is not the defense of Europe — defend from whom? — but U.S. control of Europe). Also, should the Iraq occupation engender guerrilla resistance, it might recreate the U.S. disgust for war that came from the Vietnam experience (but at what a terrible cost!). I hope also that the war will undermine George Bush’s campaign hopes in 2004, and prevent he or his crew from becoming President in 2005.

There are unfortunately darker possibilities for the consequences of the quest for Empire besides the obvious effects on innocent Iraqi citizens: nuclear weapons programs will be started around the world by any country that has reason to fear the U.S. (which is almost everyone), and new impetus given to existing programs. Even those unable to create these weapons themselves may find they are able to buy them from North Korea and other states. The proliferation of nuclear weapons can only end in tragedy for everyone, especially the U.S. Would the Roman empire have lasted even half as long if it had been possible for a disaffected state to suicidally extract retribution upon Rome?

Though it is possible to speculate, the consequences of this war cannot be known. The consequences, inevitably a combination of good and bad, cannot be used to justify the war, and though they may be used to argue against it, the real evil of this war are not its consequences, but rather its purpose: power, control, and empire via unjustified aggression.

3 February 2003 — Something good from Mr. Bush

In his State of the Union address Mr. Bush finally proposed something positive for the world: money to spend on AIDS in countries too poor to afford medications to treat it. I hope that Mr. Bush follows through on his proposal, as it is sensible policy. Unfortunately, all too often Mr. Bush has proposed things only to quietly kill them later after the political points have been scored (e.g. increased funding for the Securities and Exchange Commission).

2 February 2003 — Iraq Predictions

Predictions usually say more about the seer than the future. With that in mind, I still offer my forecasts for the U.S. attack on Iraq. One reason to oppose pre-emptive attack on Iraq is the consequences, and so it is appropriate to explore what those might be. (Moral and legal reasons are more important, but potential war criminals are usually not swayed by such arguments.)

Mr. Bush will launch an invasion of Iraq in February or March. It may begin in a surprise operation with the U.S. simultaneously seizing the oil fields, in an attempt to prevent them being destroyed by Saddam, and with the most intense aerial bombardment ever in the history of warfare, delivering as much destruction in a few days as the month long bombardment of the 1991 war, thereby allowing territory to be seized before the Iraqi army is able to respond to the occupation of their oil fields. The Iraqi people will not seriously defend their country, only the elite elements of Iraq’s army will fight. Their resistance will be short lived with U.S. air munitions quickly devastating their ranks. The U.S. will use weapons illegal under international law, particularly depleted uranium weaponry of multiple sorts (including missiles, bombs, and anti-armor rounds). Such radiation warfare has previously been used in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and has poisoned U.S. firing ranges. It is even more heinous than chemical warfare; thus the U.S. will conquer Iraq by actually using weapons as bad or worse than those it supposedly seeks to destroy in Iraq. There will be substantial civilian casualties, primarily from “collateral damage” from the air attack and the early ground war.

Saddam Hussein will most likely disappear, and not be found. The U.S. will begin to occupy Iraq, and to install its own government under the supervision of a U.S. general. The U.S. installed government will grant leases to the Iraqi oil fields to Western companies, accomplishing Mr. Bush’s goal in the attack. Once Saddam and his henchmen are gone, Iraqi resistance fighters will begin clandestine attacks against U.S. troops to end the occupation of their country (they won’t fight for Saddam, but they may well fight to liberate the country once Saddam is gone). Some hidden Iraqi chemical warfare agents, perhaps some biological agents, and likely some nuclear weapons research program will be found by the U.S. military (if insufficient weapons are found, they will be planted, but I suspect that Saddam does have some limited things to hide).

The real causalities will not be apparent until years after the conflict when Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops begin to suffer the long-term ill effects of the high-tech weapons used in the conflict (primarily from the inhalation of depleted uranium dust causing leukemia and other tumors, hemorrhages, and ravaged immune systems). As with 1991 Gulf War syndrome, the U.S. government will deny any link between veterans’ illnesses and the combat and the U.S. use of illegal radiation weapons, and veterans will receive minimal medical treatment for their illnesses. The legacy for Iraqis will be worse; they (and their children) will continue to breath uranium dust for decades or centuries after the invasion, as they have for eleven years after the 1991 war.

At some point U.S. troops will be withdrawn, very possibly because of continued guerrilla attacks against the occupiers. Whether the installed government remains after U.S. withdrawal is uncertain; it may be overthrown in a revolution, or U.S. client may remain in power using the same mechanisms as Saddam Hussein, or there is a small chance of a democracy emerging. The U.S. is likely to pledge to rebuild Iraq, but like Afghanistan, the pledged aid may never arrive.

The other casualties from the war are likely to be U.S. influence and prestige; the current combination of fear and respect may become simply fear, which in the long-term is dangerous. Many nations will begin or redouble efforts to clandestinely produce nuclear weapons to deter future U.S. aggression. This U.S. induced nuclear proliferation may be the most tragic legacy of the Iraq war.

In addition, a new generation of terrorism on U.S. soil will be spawned by the invasion. Osama bin Laden’s reasons to hate the U.S. appeal only to a small group of fanatics. Others may hate the U.S. for siding with Israel in their conflict with the Palestinians, but most of the Arabic world appears to have abandoned the Palestinians long ago. However, the U.S. grab at Iraqi oil is likely to panic many who currently side with the U.S. and create new recruits for Jihad against the U.S.

Mr. Bush’s war is not only wrong and illegal, it is foolish.

1 February 2003 — Open Letter to my Senators and Representatives

Jon Carroll wrote an excellent piece in the San Francisco Chronicle last month invoking the lesson we learned from Neville Chamberlain’s infamous meeting with Hitler in Munich. He said, Appeasement does not work with madmen or with dictators. … Silence or cowardice in the face of tyranny is unjustified both morally and practically. … The lesson of Munich is that it is necessary to speak out against tyranny, no matter how dangerous that becomes. The madman he was talking about is George Bush. I agree with him. When Bush announces that he will act with force against perceived threats, he is starting this country on a path that must not be taken. I urge you to take every possible action to stop this madman. I believe he should be impeached and removed from office.

29 January 2003 — State of the Union Address

Is it just me, or is the State of the Union speech simply an excuse for the faithful to genuflect before the chief of the White House, whether it is held by Clinton, Bush, or whomever? The speeches have little real content, but many pause points designed to elicit applause from the White House’s partisans, and to show the opposition either forced to applaud or sitting on their hands on a point narrowly made, as sacrosanct as motherhood, but which in fact conceals an agenda far less universal. Why do we bother?

26 January 2003 — Madmen in the White House

Madmen rule the U.S. White House. They do not simply espouse bad policy, but promulgate pernicious domination and control, both at home and abroad. It is still early in the process, but as their intoxication with power grows, we will all suffer. In the past, unchecked authoritarian impulses coupled with great economic and military might have led to catastrophe for all, and the U.S. possesses military might on an almost unprecedented scale. Even Nazi Germany had the U.S. to the West and the U.S.S.R. to the East, but where are the equivalent balancing forces to U.S. militarism today?

The U.S. has one Achilles heel; to some extent the U.S. has de-industrialized (a notable exception being armaments production) and has therefore become dependent for foreign industry to feed its economy. Should enough of the world find appeasement of the U.S. no longer tenable, it may be able to encumber U.S. imperialism via trade embargo. However, such an embargo would be ineffective without most of the major industrial nations participating, as no group of nations has the naval power to enforce a blockade.

It is therefore all the more important that the U.S. people rally to save their democracy from the anti-democratic and even authoritarian forces in the White House. In the past, the need to manufacture consent in the populace for unpopular policies has checked tyrannical tendencies, but with the media now so subservient to Republican money, the White House is charging ahead unfettered.

It is time therefore to fetter the White House. It is time for a grassroots effort to impeach Mr. Bush. There is little chance for an actual vote of impeachment in the Republican House of Representatives, but the impeachment drive itself would weaken Mr. Bush and check the White House’s march of folly.

14 January 2003 — Voodoo Economics

There they go again. Mr. Bush is pushing is using continued softness in employment as an excuse to have the U.S. treasury borrow money to give to Republican investors. Regardless of the problem, the answer is always “tax cuts.”

It is appropriate for the U.S. treasury to borrow during economic downturns and repay that debt during boom times (with an overall neutral posture except for investment in infrastructure that is appropriately amortized over its lifetime). This has a moderating influence on the business cycle. However, the legislative process is usually not quick enough to respond to the business cycle; such stimulus and braking should be via automatic mechanisms, such as unemployment benefits, reduced tax receipts, etc. Mr. Bush’s actions are a perfect illustration; the time for stimulus was in 2001; his tax cut proposals would make an impact in 2004 at best.

Mr. Bush is proposing as the centerpiece of his tax cut proposals the elimination of taxes on dividends, citing the inherent unfairness of double taxation (once on corporate profits, and a second time by the dividend recipients). There are several problems with this rationale. First, many dividends are already untaxed, being paid to retirement accounts, and second many corporations have exploited tax code loopholes to avoid paying taxes. In many cases the result of Mr. Bush’s proposal will be to lower the tax paid from one time to zero instead of from twice to once.

Moreover, if double taxation were the actual goal of Mr. Bush, he would be going after other instances of it, such as the taxation on the same income by Social Security and Medicare taxes and the income tax, or the double taxation of income by Federal and state for non-itemizing taxpayers. Mr. Bush’s proposal does make sense if his true, unstated goal is to put U.S. treasury borrowing into the pockets of the wealthiest 1% of Americans.

Mr. Bush also asserts that the economy will benefit from the increased investment that results, but here he confuses beneficial investment that economists cite, such as companies purchasing of capital for production, with “investment” in the stock market, which has little value to the economy.

The long-term effect of Mr. Bush’s proposal will be to add trillions of U.S. debt via a return to deficit spending in both good and bad times. This money will flow almost entirely into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans, i.e. the clients that Mr. Bush serves.

What should be done instead? Now would be a good time to eliminate the cap on Social Security and Medicare taxes, making it a flat tax, rather than a regressive one; applying it to dividends and capital gains; and lowering the tax rate accordingly. It would also be a good time to institute a prototype waste tax, with the revenue used to offset the income tax. If stimulus is desired, then the offset could be applied for the 2002 tax year for estimated 2003 waste tax receipts.

It might also be a good time to consider eliminating the corporate income tax altogether, recognizing that corporations will always go to great lengths (e.g. accounting games) to eliminate their income taxes anyway. This is likely to have a much more stimulatory effect on productive spending than Mr. Bush’s proposals. I do not propose that corporations pay no taxes, however. They are the most likely to respond to taxes with aggressive tax avoidance, and if the tax is a waste tax, the resulting behavior would be waste avoidance.

The best stimulus proposal so far as been the Democrats’: make grants to the states to help them with their deficits during the downturn. The states generally cannot engage in deficit spending, and so are raising taxes just when it is least useful. In addition to being stimulatory, federal borrowing to help the states would prevent cuts in services at the time when they are most needed.

23 December 2002 — One down

Mr. Bush and the Republican party are to be commended for easing Senator Lott out of the Senate leadership. Senator Lott’s recent indiscretion was not an innocent slip; the Senator has a long history of racist remarks and associations. Such sentiments are not appropriate for a Senator, or any other U.S. government officeholder. Racists have not accepted the U.S. Constitution, and therefore cannot be its agents.

The problem is that the Republican party has many officeholders who are just as racist as Senator Lott, and yet the party is taking no action against them. In particular Attorney General John Ashcroft has done far more than simply make racist remarks; he took actions in Missouri to maintain segregation, even defying federal court orders. His recent actions suggest no more allegiance to the U.S. Constitution today than before. This suggests that Mr. Bush is simply using Senator Lott’s remarks as an excuse; his true reason for the ouster likely lie elsewhere. If Mr. Bush were truly concerned about racist Republicans, John Ashcroft would have never been nominated.

If Mr. Bush truly seeks to cleanse the Republican party of its racism, he has taken only one down; there are many more to go.

19 December 2002 — Oil is merely important today, but a crisis in a decade

Some people doubt that U.S. foreign policy and war-making is oil-driven, so it is appropriate to review some simple facts. First, the U.S. would be wrecked by a major oil reduction without adequate preparation (the Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974 caused only a small reduction in oil imports, and so gives only a small taste of what a major reduction would do). People would starve: most U.S. food production is dependent on pesticides (petroleum products), fertilizer (ammonia is made from fossil fuels), refrigeration (electricity from fossil fuels), transport, packaging (plastic is a petroleum product), and so on. Without plastic, many of the products we buy would cease to exist. The economy would wither without truck transportation (diesel based). The U.S. government knows this.

Oil production follows the Hubbert curve, whether it is an individual field, a nation, or the planet. A century after oil production began in earnest, we are almost midway through this bell-shaped curve (the midpoint of the world curve is estimated to be between 2000 and 2020). The world (primarily the first world) has used approximately half of all the oil reserves of the planet, and they will be completely gone another century from now. This doesn’t sound so bad, except that from the midpoint of the curve on production falls, while demand can be expected to continue upward. Oil will become a scarce resource once production begins to fall a decade from now (it is plentiful now — cheaper than bottled water). The Hubbert curve is well known and accepted in both the petroleum industry and the government.

Most nations have already passed the midpoints of their Hubbert curve. For example, M. King Hubbert in 1956, correctly forecast that onshore and offshore production of the lower 48 states (i.e. without Alaska) would peak in 1969, give or take one year. Since then, U.S. (48) oil production has declined within 5% of Hubbert’s 1956 prediction [L. F. Ivanhoe]. Alaska, Mexico, Venezuela and the North Sea fields have passed their midpoints as well. Practically the only fields that have not peaked are in the middle east. The top five oil reserves are in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Iran. (The sixth nation in reserves, Venezuela, has only one eighth the reserves of these five). In addition, there are possible large reserves in central Asian nations (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan — the area around Afghanistan, not coincidently). These nations will control the world economy to a much greater extent than in 1973 or today. To make matters worse, the middle east is politically unstable. Saudi Arabia for example may be teetering on the verge of civil war when King Fahd dies. The U.S. government knows all this.

The U.S. government therefore sees a crisis on the horizon of enormous proportions. They are right to be working on a solution given the consequences of inaction. Their solution is the take control of the middle eastern and central Asian oil producers so that when the crunch comes a decade from now, the U.S. has first call on the world’s oil reserves (the rest of the world will simply have to make do with whatever we don’t use). The question for the citizens of the U.S. is whether this is the right solution. Regardless of what I may think of the legality, morality, and practicality of this solution to the crisis, I believe that it is a very bad solution because burning that ill-begotten oil will choke us with its CO2 emissions. Burning half of the planet’s oil has raised CO2 levels from 280ppm to 370ppm. Burning the remaining half in the next century is expected to increase levels to at least 540ppm [IPCC2001] (other fossil fuels are included in this estimate). The right solution is to begin drastic conservation measures in the U.S., especially in the transportation area, and also to work on alternatives to the non-energy uses of petroleum (e.g. get the USDA to promote organic farming). There is little time to make these changes because we’ve delayed so long, but that’s no excuse not to start.

16 December 2002 — Venezuela

Is the CIA behind the strikes in Venezuela? I know of no evidence for this, but after reading William Blum’s Killing Hope it certainly seems to fit a familiar pattern:

  • An foreign government (often Democratically elected) begins talking about relief for the poor
  • U.S. government officials begin making suggestions that there is something wrong with the foreign government
  • Economic pressure puts the foreign economy into a tailspin
  • The CIA begins planting stories in the local press it controls
  • The CIA begins bribing labor leaders to strike
  • The CIA begins talking to military leaders to stage a coup
  • Eventually the government is brought down one way or another

Only twenty or more years from now are we likely to know whether the U.S. was working to bring down yet another democracy. Still, it would almost be surprising if the U.S. were not working behind the scenes to destabilize Venezuela, as more is at stake than in the usual U.S.-inspired coup: oil. As the U.S. prepares to take control of Iraq for its oil, leaving a large U.S. oil supplier in its backyard acting independently must be unthinkable for the oil-obsessed occupants of the White House.

22 November 2002 — Hummer H2 is hot in the valley

The following letter was sent to the San Jose Mercury editors in response to one of their stories.

How sad to read your story Hummer H2 is hot in the valley on the web. At a time when we as a region and a nation need to be driving more efficient cars and trucks, to have valley residents making such a terrible transportation choice (10.7mpg according to ConsumerGuide.COM) is unconscionable. A decade from now, at projected sales rates and 15,000 driven miles a year, the H2’s on the road will burn 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline per year, or as much as 30% of the entire Artic National Wildlife Refuge production (estimated at 250 to 800 million barrels per year according to DOE). Don’t the buyers of the H2 realize, in echo of the old World War II slogan, when you drive an H2, you drive with bin Laden? It is hard to imagine a more unpatriotic act than increasing our dependence on those who fund Al Qaeda (which gets much of its funding from Saudia Arabia, the nation with the largest oil reserves). It is already the case that $30-$60 billion a year of U.S. military spending is spent to control the Persian Gulf region, when we import only $15 billion a year of oil from there (figures from Cato Institute). Do the 50,000 estimated annual buyers (nationwide) of the H2 really want to increase our $30-$60 billion price tag so they can drive a status symbol, and why should the rest of us have to pay extra taxes to support such irresponsibility?

20 November 2002 — Killing Americans

The occupants of the White House are coldly abetting the death of thousands of Americans by their policies in Afghanistan. By allying themselves with the drug lords of the Northern Alliance and failing to rebuild the country after the devastation they wreaked there, they are responsible the replanting of poppy crop, and the consequences of that crop. Soon that crop will find its way onto our (and others’) streets in the form of heroin and begin maiming and killing people in numbers beyond those of the eleventh of September. George Bush will not weep for these ignoble victims (ignoble because they are of the wrong color or social class). Indeed he will likely exploit their degradation and death, for it will afford him and his party the opportunity to further exploit drugs as a political issue for further attacks against U.S. civil liberties. Reflecting on an epitaph by W. H. Auden, I pause to pity the callous indifference of such tyrants, who are greatly interested in armies and fleets and cause little children to die in the streets.

13 November 2002 — Colin Powell’s Victory

Colin Powell pulled off a diplomatic feat in getting a 15-0 vote in the Security Council on Resolution 1441 for re-disarming Iraq. It was not made any easier by the White House’s earlier ineptitude, such as calls for “regmine change” and the pre-emptive strike doctrine.

However, the occupants of the White House still betray their contempt for the process to which the U.S. is committed by treaty by their desire to circumvent the Security Council. As the New York Times reported on the 9th, they inserted language that the U.S. can use to justify a future unilateral action against Iraq. In contrast, Mr. Powell appears to have privately assured several Council members, as Syria’s representative put it, “that this resolution would not be used as a pretext to strike Iraq, and does not constitute a basis for any automatic strikes against Iraq.” It remains to be seen whether such private assurances have any value.

U.N. inspectors did disarm Iraq after the 1991 war and keep the peace. What is appropriate now is to return to that successful model and not undermine it, as the U.S. did in 1998 when we began to use the inspection team as an arm of the CIA for spying instead of inspecting, which precipitated a confrontation with Iraq that halted inspections. President Clinton choose to bomb Iraq in response, and the inspectors were withdrawn prior to the bombing for their safety. Now finally they may return.

Unfortunately, I suspect that war or peace is still tied to domestic political considerations. Having used Iraq to win the mid-term elections, George Bush’s team is surely turning its thoughts to its own re-election in 2004. Perhaps the most dramatic lesson they learned in 1992 is that the economic downturn after the 1991 war lost them the election. They may plan, therefore, to postpone the war until the second half of 2004 or early 2005 and continue to use the Iraq hobgoblin to scare the U.S. public into voting for George Bush. If so, there may be time for the inspectors to do their job and avert war for the time being. Moreover, if George Bush is not elected in 2004, it may be that war will be averted entirely. Such an outcome, ironically, would be a true victory for peace by Colin Powell.

12 November 2002 — Domestic Spying

Every day of George Bush’s occupation of the White House seems to bring a new attack on U.S. liberties. On the 9th, the New York Times reported on a pentagon plan for domestic spying including “Internet mail and calling records to credit card and banking transactions and travel documents, without a search warrant.”

The plan appears to be without any sort of oversight facility to prevent its abuse. Since terrorists and other criminals are likely to move to cash transactions in response, the system will for the most part be useful only to spy on law-abiding citizens exercising their rights to disagree, speak out, organize, and protest against George Bush’s policies, much as President Nixon used the FBI to spy on and sabotage the work of domestic anti-war groups and others on his “enemies” list. The new system promises to make such spying much less difficult, and is therefore likely to be more extensively used.

Step by step, inch by inch, George Bush is moving the U.S. further toward a police state. Will we one day see Predator drones shooting “enemies” on the streets of America as in the recent Yemen strike?

9 November 2002 — As We Stagger

This commentary submitted was by Ian Walton.

As we stagger, via a few side alleys in the UN council, towards US action in Iraq, it seems useful to examine why much of the world is against such action.

As portrayed by the US administration, and ably amplified by the US media, the issue of how to deal with Hussein is clear-cut and one-dimensional. The attitudes of other countries, France; Germany; all of Scandinavia; South Africa; China—indeed most of the world—are simply dismissed. In the case of most US right wing media any questioning of the US line is seen as treacherous ingratitude because as we are constantly reminded, the French are not now speaking German as a result of a previous exercise of US power etc, etc.

Firstly we need to distinguish between Iraq and the ‘war on terror’. The US administration persists in blurring this distinction. If there were a single shred of evidence of a meaningful link between Hussein and Al Queda then we can be certain that we would have heard of it 24/7 from CNN and all the others. There is none.

Indeed, it is preposterous to believe that Islamic fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia who make up the core of Al Qaeda, would hang out in a largely secular country run by a madman who has more torture chambers than he has McDonalds. Particularly when they can have the free run of places like Afghanistan; Yemen; Somalia; Pakistan; and, for the comfort-minded: Saudi Arabia.

We will return to the ‘war on terror’ but first to Iraq. Put simply there is International scepticism of the need for drastic action against a regime that while undoubtedly very brutal is not really a very big threat. Hussein has been allowed to get away with some nasty things and to build up a large military largely under US sponsorship when the bogeyman country of the day was Iran. He learned a lesson and was largely emasculated following his incursion into Kuwait and the issue should be containable without invading Iraq and adding yet one more complex and expensive International peace keeping burden in that region.

Remember when Libya’s Guadaafi was the bogeyman. Similar things—invading neighbours, building up WMD’s sponsoring terrorism, imminently threatening world peace etc, etc. Well the US bombed his compound and we haven’t heard of him since. As a pragmatist I would gloss over the niceties of International law and say that it worked and the US is to be congratulated for that. But it is crucial to remember that such an action has already, on a vaster scale, been visited on Iraq and as a result the country and its leader is clearly amenable to a Guadaafi-type fix. That is why most of the world is arguing for prophylactic measures rather than invasion and mass slaughter.

This is not to say that what goes on in Iraq is not an abomination and a disgrace that the world should seek to fix but there are better ways than bombing the shit out of the place yet again. Moreover, does anyone seriously believe that current US intentions are driven by a desire to emancipate the poor Iraqi in the street?

The American system for allocating power and the fruits of that power (sometimes nicknamed the industrial-military complex) really only works effectively when it can claim a powerful external enemy as justification for its actions. Since the ending of the cold war, American society has been dangerously rudderless and ordinary people have been allowed to become better off, more informed and more able to sway events in directions that do not suit the established power structures. Since he was allowed into office on the condition that he restored the equivalent of the cold war status quo, Bush would have invented an external threat even if one had not been presented to him on Sept 11.

Indeed much of the incomprehensible rhetoric that currently flows from the administration arises from the fact that they are incapable of disengaging from plan A (the establishment of Saddam as the external threat) while they wish also to capitalise on Plan B, a windfall presented unexpectedly by Al Qaeda. The muddying of the message is essential because it is against the terrorists that the US people are prepared to go to war. Plan A was always going to be a tougher sell.

And within the twisted logic of the US establishment, both causes are necessary in their different ways…. The terrorist threat, unlike Iraq, allows for much needed control over and interference in the liberties of US citizens but it lacks the potential for any large scale military spending now that Afghanistan has been dealt with. Only Iraq offers the potential for serious expenditure of the kind that the system requires and in this regard its appeal to the administration is irresistible.

(North Korea, incidentally, will be held in reserve until there is a serious challenge to the Star Wars expenditures.)

Internationally the attitudes on terrorism are rather more mature. Britain, France and Germany to pick just three countries have suffered with the effects of terrorist action in one form or another for the last 30 years. While it is true that they have seen no single event as destructive and blatant as 9/11 these countries have lived with, and struggled against terrorism for much longer. It is fruitless to try to make moral comparisons between one large-scale act on 9/11 and the seemingly endless series of smaller scale atrocities as committed for example by the IRA over a 20-year period against the UK. Nonetheless, if one accepts that the objective of the terrorist is to scare a lot of people for a long time then one cannot belittle the terrorism that much of Europe has suffered now for many years while the US has been relatively unscathed until recently.

In view of this the Europeans in particular have grave misgivings about the adoption by the US of a policy of going wherever is necessary and doing whatever is necessary to kill terrorists even if this requires the US to be in blatant breach of international law. The thought of CIA controlled drones raining missiles which obliterate suspected terrorist vehicles anywhere and anytime may well satisfy the vengeful emotions of a Fox news viewer but it scares the hell out of the rest of the World. Everyone else except from the US recognises how fragile is the order upon which international good behaviour depends and how you mess with it at your peril.

This is not to suggest that countries like the UK have not, in frustration, been prepared to undertake assassination missions against suggested terrorists. They most surely have but they have been infinitely more subtle about it compared with the early excursions of US anti-terrorist action.

There is much more to this difference in stance than merely Old World subtlety. It is precisely the goal of any terrorist action to destabilise the status quo and hence to achieve an impact which goes far beyond the immediate human loss caused by individual terrorists acts. It would be a tragedy if the US in its learning phase in fighting terrorism were to break so many rules of International behaviour that the chaos that the terrorists desire were to result.

I watched in awe this evening as a seedy correspondent from Fox news asserted without a shred of evidence that, as he put it, “socialist” Scandinavian countries were providing succour to Al Qaeda cells. So what’s next? Nuking Sweden? And who will have won if it were to happen?

7 November 2002 — Ranked Ballots

The strong showing of the Green party in seven of California’s state-wide offices on Tuesday (an average of 4.6%, with a high of 5.8%) suggests that the Green vote will someday put a Republican into office by drawing votes from the Democratic candidate in a close election. This in turns suggests that it would benefit both the Democratic and Green parties to institute a ranked ballot system.

Instead of voting for a single candidate in a single-winner election, ranked ballots ask the voter to rank the candidates 1, 2, 3, etc. In an election with two candidates, this gives the same result as voting for the preferred candidate. However, in an election with three or more candidates, ranked balloting allows a winner to be chosen that is significantly more representative of the voters’ preferences.

For example, in California’s most recent election, many Green voters would have ranked the Green candidate 1, the Democratic candidate 2, and the Republican candidate 3 (ignoring, for simplicity, the other candidates). With Tuesday’s 5.8% of the first place vote, the Green candidate would be eliminated from the election, and those votes would count for the Democratic candidate instead. With current party support levels, the Democrats would receive more support against their Republican opponents in this system.

Green candidates would most likely benefit as well. There were voters in Tuesday’s election where the Green candidate was their first choice, but they voted Democratic instead out of fear of a Republican victory. With ranked ballots they could safely vote Green 1, Democrat 2, Republican 3, and as a result the level of Green support would increase. This could in turn would allow Green candidates to enter debates that are currently only between the Democrats and Republicans. This in turn would broaden the issues on the table and serve to further pull voters from the Republicans. Eventually it might lead to the victory of a Green candidate, a result the Democrats might not like, but which is probably more acceptable than more frequent Republican victories, and with ranked ballots this would occur only if the Green candidate were in fact the best choice given the electorate’s true preferences.

There are many methods for tabulating ranked ballots and choosing a winner. One of the easiest to explain, and therefore most poplar, is unfortunately one of the poorest. It is called Instant Runoff Voting, and is used in several places around the world, and will be used in San Francisco starting in 2003. Better methods have less anomalous results in certain unusual situations. For example, it is possible with IRV for a voter lowering her ranking of a candidate to cause that candidate to win, which is not the case in, for example, Ranked Pairs.

Regardless of the method of choosing a winner from ranked ballots, the system is a dramatic improvement over balloting that prevents the voter from expressing her true preferences. The California legislature should change the state’s balloting system as soon as practical.

6 November 2002 — Campaign Finance

The McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill goes into effect today, and by some accounts it is irrelevant already, except that hard money limits are raised. One might have hoped that it would have taken a few election cycles before loopholes were found, but a combination of questionable interpretations by the Federal Election Commission and the use of state party soft money has rendered the law almost teethless.

It is time therefore for the U.S. to adopt a serious system of public financing of elections. The conditions for receiving public money should include:

  • A prohibition on accepting funds from non-citizens outside the jurisdiction of the election (this is therefore a prohibition on accepting any corporate money)
  • A limit on individual contributions of $50
  • Participation in at least three debates with the other candidates
  • Contributions must be made anonymously and directly to a federal agency (in particular, no financing should pass through the candidate’s organizations)
  • Restrictions on the use of funds to elevate the debate (e.g. a 3-minute minimum on advertisements to prevent sound bite campaigning, and a requirement that advertisements be truthful)

The amount of federal funds would be twenty times the amount of the contributions received from individuals. The matching of individual contributions is unforunately necessary to prevent a multitude of fringe candidates from access to significant public financing, and also to prevent signature fraud. The $50 limit ensures that most citizens will be able to “vote” for the candidates of their choice during the campaign.

In addition, the public airwaves should be available free of charge for some portion of the campaign debate.

27 October 2002 — Questions About Bush’s War Plans

There are many questions about the upcoming war that should be asked. The first is “Why Iraq?” Yes, Saddam Hussein is bad, very bad, but there are many countries around the world with heinous leaders. Iraq may be developing nuclear weapons, but India and Pakistan just tested bombs, and we’re not threatening invasions there. Mr. Bush claims North Korea admits to its nuclear program, which would seem to make them a higher priority, but no invasion there is planned. Israel has nuclear weapons, and Iran and others are probably developing them, so why is Iraq singled out? Is Saddam Hussein more likely to use nuclear weapons than others? He may have calculated badly before, but at least Saddam Hussein is a calculator, and he seeks his own survival, and he surely knows that his use of nuclear weapon would end that quite quickly. A nuclear weapon in the hands of a religious zealot would be more worrisome, which makes India, Pakistan, and Iran of particular concern. Iraq may have biological and chemical weapons as well, but U.S. did not think this a threat when we helped Iraq acquire these weapons. Yes, Iraq defies certain Security Council resolutions, but then so does Israel, and Mr. Bush does not propose invasion to deal with its contumacy. Also, it is for the Security Council to decide the appropriate action when its resolutions are ignored. The only answer to “Why Iraq?” that seems to work is because of its oil.

So the second question must be “Is this a war for oil?” The likely outcome of the war is that Iraq will be administered by the U.S. while some transition government is arranged. Perhaps an election or assembly will even be arranged to rubber stamp the U.S. choice for a new president, as in Afghanistan. However, such a government will not be strong enough for quite some time to act independently of the U.S. During the early days, months, and years of this government, U.S. oil companies will no doubt find they have the inside track in obtaining leases to all of Iraq’s oil. If this is not the U.S. motivation in going to war, the U.S. should forswear such oil leases.

A third question is why no one is allowed to see the evidence that the U.S. uses to justify its war plans. If the evidence is conclusive, then the sources can be extracted now; they will not be needed once Iraq is run by an American general. It seems more likely that the evidence is not convincing, and that is why it cannot be released.

A fourth question is “Why Now?” The timing of Mr. Bush’s war is exquisitely timed to deflect criticism of domestic issues during the November elections, and thereby return his faction to power in Congress. If the need were so pressing, why did Mr. Bush not push the issue during the summer, and if it is not so pressing, why did he not wait for a resumption of U.N. weapons inspections?

A fifth question is why is it so important to conduct this war in violation of International law? The U.N. charter, to which the U.S. is a signatory, demands that such conflicts be brought to the Security Council for resolution, and that only the Security Council can authorize the use of force, except in repelling an ongoing armed attack. The U.S. is reluctant to submit to the Security Council, because it does not want to allow any other nation to have a veto over its actions.

So it follows that a sixth question is whether this war is about demonstrating U.S. power. Strategic analysts in the U.S. have long hungered to cast off the mantle of Vietnam, and return to active role in the world for U.S. military might, instead of acting through surrogates. Grenada and Panama were confidence building steps. In the first war with Iraq, itself a response to Iraqi aggression, the U.S. worked multilaterally and with the U.N. Then in Kosovo and Afghanistan, the U.S. sought to put the world on notice that it was in charge. In Kosovo, NATO was used, but the U.S. desires to demonstrate its ability to act unilaterally. It did so in Afghanistan, but it was in response to a horrible attack on U.S. soil. In Iraq, the U.S. probably seeks to demonstrate that mere defiance of the U.S. may lead to a devastating attack, and thereby further compel other nations to obsequiousness and servility to U.S. interests.

Yet another question is whether the principle of Mr. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive attack is reasonable. Imagine that your fellow citizens could make preemptive attacks against you if they thought (though they did not have to show the evidence) you were gettng too dangerous? Is that a world you would want to live in?

To this observer, it appears that Mr. Bush’s war plans are timed for domestic political reaons, with additional goals of securing Iraq’s oil for U.S. use, and intimidating other nations into servility. There is insufficient evidence to justify the invasion on the claimed grounds, and so none is offered. The preemptive doctrine on which the attack is based is fundamentally flawed. Finally, the action must appear unilateral (though the U.N. is welcome to second it, though it has no say in it) so as achieve maximum intimidation of other nations.

7 October 2002 — Abrogation of Responsibility

Whether one thinks invading Iraq the proper course of action or not, it should be noted that the U.S. Congress is preparing to abrogate its constitutional resposibility to declare war. Instead Congress plans to pass a resolution saying in effect, if Mr. Bush decides that a diplomatic solution is impossible, Congress will not object to the White House invading Iraq. However, it is Congress’ responsibility to determine if diplomacy has failed. Congress should do nothing until all other avenues have failed, and then make a straight-forward unconditional declaration of war.

It is not hard to find reasons for Congress’ actions. It has not been willing to make an outright declaration of war since 1941, preferring that the President alone should undertake illegal warfare. Such acts of war have been illegal since 1945 when the UN charter was signed in San Francisco. The UN charter permits the use of force against another state only when it is initiated by the Security Council (articles 42-48) or for “individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” (U.S. Presidents have not feared to tread where Congress would not go; they have used illegal force aginst other nations since the signing of the UN charter in 1948, in 1950-53, 1954, 1958, 1960-75, 1969-75, 1971-73, 1975, 1981, 1981-90, 1983-84, 1986, 1989-90, 1992-94, 1993-95, 1994-96, 1995, 1998, and 1999, not counting CIA actions.)

There is a second reason for Congress’ actions in this particular case. Republicans wish to divert attention from the U.S. economy during the November Congressional elections, and so have put the Congressional resolution on the table. Democrats are eager to get the resolution dealt with so that the country can move on to other issues. Since these simple forces call for a resolution to be passed before it is appropriate to invade Iraq, Congress is preparing a resolution of conditional use of force, instead of waiting for the appropriate time to issue an unconditional declaration of war to support a UN Security Council resolution.

Those may be political reasons for Congress to act this way. However they are an abrogation of Congress’ responsibility.

2 July 2002 — The Corporate Mess

The recent scandals at Enron, Adelphia, Tyco, Xerox, Global Crossing, WorldCom, etc. are a symptom of one recent trend: excessive executive compensation. When the ratio between the highest paid and lowest paid workers in a company was forty to one, most executives were wealthy, but not so wealthy that they were willing to play risky games with their their meal ticket. Salary was a large source of their wealth, not their personal assets. (There were exceptions of course.) In contrast, today many executives accumulate personal wealth early in the careers that guarentees their continued wealth even if their company goes bankrupt. The company then becomes relevant only as a source of power and as a casino in which they can play double or nothing games with corporate assets, where they get a percentage of the winnings, but do not suffer financially if the company fails. This environment encourages risky bets where executives make fortunes, but eventually destroy shareholder value.

I’ve written about the problem of corporate power before. To address both problems, I offer the following suggestions:

  • Require interstate and international corporations to be federally chartered instead of state chartered. This avoids the race to the bottom in state corporate law (e.g. Deleware). (State charters could still be used for intrastate corporations.)
  • Federally chartered corporations should have a responsibility not only to their shareholders, but also to other stakeholders, including their employees and the communities in which they operate.
  • Make it illegal for corporations to own stock in other corporations.
  • Curb or eliminate the use of stock options to reward executives. If options remain, account for them on the company’s balance sheet (as proposed by FASB). When a pay-for-performance plan is still desired, alternatives could be crafted that are less prone to abuse than options.
  • Increase the budget of the SEC to allow for better enforcement of existing laws.
  • Increase the independence of the auditors by eliminating their non-auditing contracts with the companies they audit.
  • Perform random secondary audits.
  • Make executives liable for damages due to fraud so that they cannot keep their winnings at the roulette table.
  • Cap the amount of home value that can be protected from bankruptcy so that some states (e.g. Florida) are not havens for criminal executives building hundred million dollar homes.
  • Eliminate executive loan forgiving.

11 June 2002 — A Compassionate Police State

(Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution says “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Clearly today’s situation is not one of rebellion or invasion.)

Now that Bush has suspended habeas corpus by arresting a U.S. citizen and holding him in military detention without charge, it is frightening but necessary to ask where could this end?

President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. I do not think that this was legal (though clearly the rebellion clause was satisfied, it is not clear that the public safety required it when he used it to silence his political opponents), but for those who can justify it, consider the difference with today. Bush’s “War on Terrorism” will be never ending, unlike the Civil War (though curiously like Oceania’s wars with Eurasia and Eastasia). If Bush is allowed to subvert the U.S. Constitution for his “war” today, it will remain subverted indefinitely.

The best way to introduce heinous police tactics is to find a heinous and credible threat to justify them. Very possibly Bush chose a test case in which the suspect, Abdullah al Muhajir, is a true threat (though his method of detention prevents us from ever really finding out). However, once the tactics are established, they may be increasingly used in more questionable situations. Next we may find those held in military concentration camps are pressured to generate names of others that can be arrested as “illegal combatants” and those arrested then join the ranks that must supply names. After a while, it will be possible to cause almost any name to be generated by this process, at which point Mr. Bush’s political opponents may find themselves curtailing their opposition to ensure their names are not generated out of Guantánamo.

It is sobering to consider that the same politician that failed to win either the popular vote or any fair counting of the electoral vote is now dismantling our democracy in small but significant increments. Might Bush attempt to hang on to power? A politician that condones electoral fraud to win the vote in Florida might well attempt anything. Bush’s administration seemed pleased by the anti-democracy coup in Venezuela, and may have played a role in its instigation, which hints at his anti-democractic tendencies. If Bush is allowed to subvert the Constitution’s guarentee of habeas corpus, perhaps the 22nd amendment will not be far behind?

The prospect of Führer Bush kept in power by his Gestapo should temper the U.S. fervor for throwing out the constitution the moment we feel threatened. How prescient was Benjamin Franklin when he said “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

31 March 2002 — Russian Roulette

Would you play Russian Roulette with the revolver pointed at your kids heads? Does it matter if saying yes saves you a little money? Does it matter if you’re not certain how many chambers are loaded (estimates vary from 2 to 5, but only some bullet makers and some politicians say no chambers are loaded)?

If you’re unwilling to pull the trigger with the revolver pointed at your kids, why are you willing to burn fossil fuels for your electricity and transportation just to save a little money?

Scientists may argue over how many degrees centigrade we’ll raise the temperature of the earth over the next few decades, but essentially no one disputes that global warming is real. Why do some corporations and their politicians argue it necessary to prove that there is a bullet in the next chamber? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the onus to be on all of us to prove that the next chamber is empty before pulling the trigger, or to simply stop playing the game?

4 December 2001 — Hating Freedom

When Mr. Bush addressed Congress, he said that the terrorists had destroyed the World Trade Center because “they hate freedom”. Of course Mr. Bush’s remarks were not intended (I presume) to be a serious analysis of why it happened, but instead served to further vilify (if that is possible after September 11th) the enemy. Still, I cannot wonder if Mr. Bush’s choice of rhetoric was rooted in his own sub-conscious hatred of freedom because he has acted since the attack to accomplish that which he attributed to the terrorists.

By executive order, without an act of Congress, Mr. Bush is instituting military tribunals like those that convicted Lori Berenson in Peru. While self-imposed rules for these trials are not yet known, it is possible that defendents may be sentenced to death without being able to see the evidence against them, without being able to choose their own attorney, and without the right to appeal their conviction. When one branch of government legislates, tries, convicts, and executes without any check, it is commonly called a dictatorship. The only solace for U.S. citizens is that only foreigners are, as yet, subject to Mr. Bush’s dictatorship.

Mr. Bush’s apparent hatred of freedom does reach U.S. citizens even if his military tribunals currently do not. Mr. Bush is authorizing the FBI to resume Hoover-style investigations of political groups, a move which is surely rooted more in the belief that the Sierra Club is likely to oppose his reelection than it is to plant bombs. The government already had the ability wiretap without probable cause in cases of terrorism (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), but Mr. Ashcroft would extend this to simple criminal cases (Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001). Again Freedom appears to be the enemy, not terrorism.

Perhaps Mr. Bush is one of the few people for which “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” makes sense.

10 November 2001 — Recipe for Security

The U.S. is bombing Afghanistan in the name of fighting terrorism, but will our actions actually make us less secure? Revenge killing tends to be reciprocated. Terrorists bombed a disco in Germany and we used war planes to strike back at Libya in 1986, killing Moamer Kadhafi’s daughter. Two years later he gave us back Lockerbie. The chain may have been broken when the U.S. responded to Lockerbie not with further revenge killing, but with reasonable sanctions. Today, our bombing is creating hundreds of thousands of Afghanis who will have lost family and friends, and this may lead to future terrorism.

The war is seen many Muslims around the world as further proof of U.S. animosity toward Islam, perpetuating perceptions recently reinforced by the “no-fly” zones over Iraq and the continual bombing required to perpetuate them, sanctions against Iraq that kill millions, and support for Israel in the their occupation of Palestine. These perceptions are likely to fuel further terrorism.

Technology is ever increasing the terror and destruction that a small group, or even a single individual, can perpetrate. If we do nothing, our lives will be ever less secure. For example, today a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile capable of shooting down a commercial airliner costs around $100,000, is mass produced in many countries, and is traded around the world. Only by controlling the proliferation of technology and reducing the disaffection of those sick enough to use it against innocents can our security be improved.

There are many things that we can do to increase our long-term security, but this analysis suggests two actions that are being ignored. First, support small arms control regulations around the world. The recent treaty for this very purpose would be a good start. Second, the U.S. needs to reduce its dependence on nations where its presence incites animosity. We can reduce our dependence on the middle east by adopting a sensible energy policy — one that eliminates the import of all fossil fuels by promoting conservation (e.g. raise automobile fuel economy to 40 mpg) and sustainable energy production (e.g. wind and solar). The sooner we remove our war planes and troops from Islamic countries, the sooner the hatred created by our interference will begin to dissipate. The cost of such measures is likely far smaller than what we pay for the ability to project our military might to every corner of the globe, and they will have other benefits as well.

16 September 2001 — Does Retribution Work?

The drums are beating out a steady call for retribution for Tuesday’s terrorist attack on the United States. But does retribution work? It may be instructive to look at the recent escalation of terrorism between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel has responded with to rock throwing with bullets to the head and chest. Palestinians responded with suicide bomb attacks. Israel in turn responded with missle attacks from helicopter gunships and tanks. Still the Palestinians continue their attacks. Israel’s retribution has not acted as deterrent to people that have nothing to lose; instead it has inflamed and further radicalized them. Consider instead what might have happened had Israel responded to rock throwing brought on by Sharon’s visit to al-Aqsa by de-escalation. Most likely the Palestinians would have soon ceased throwing rocks.

Each person the United States kills with its own terrorist response (most of whom will be innocent in the original attack) will leave behind brothers, sisters, children, and neighbors who feel justified in doing whatever they can to retaliate in turn. Retribution will further fuel the fire and guarentee more tragedy for the U.S. years from now.

Anger is our real enemy.

I hope for peace, but still the drums are beating, beating, beating.

4 July 2001 — 1984 in 2001

In another forum I have asserted that 1984-style control exists in our society, but in an even more insideous way because it is largely invisible — indeed it is subtle enough that even those that work in the equivalent of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth do not always realize what they are doing. Others understand all too well, and exploit it for its profit potential. The actual system, in contrast to what Orwell predicted, is not the result of an explicit plan of the government or a cabal, but rather a system that has evolved in a survival of the fittest process where the ecosystem is our market system and democracatic government. In this system the government is not the agent of control, but one of the objects of it.

How does it work? A prevailing orthodoxy directs our society. Dissents from this orthodoxy are allowed and even at times celebrated, but this dissent has been channelled to reinforce the system.

First, democracy has been tamed by giving the electorate the appearance of choice. The system offers candidates that differ on a few issues irrelevant to the orthodoxy, but who agree on all the issues of importance to the system. The latter issues are portrayed as mainstream, and are essentially unquestionable. The heat of the electoral arguments revolve around the irrelevant issues, leaving the mainstream view not open for discussion. The elimination of real choice at the ballot box is made considerably simpler by the two party system; it is only necessary to ensure that both nominees of the two parties are acceptable to the orthodoxy. Whether the candidate of party 0 or party 1 wins may be a matter of small preference, but not critical to the orthodoxy. An expected result of the lack of real choice is voter apathy and low electoral turnout; this is in fact observed.

Second, any non-orthodox view is portrayed as irresponsible or even dangerous. Protestors are demonized and their protests misrepresented. Provocateurs or independent acts of violence are used to discredit movements. Pejorative labels (e.g. “socialist”) are used to vanguish non-mainstream opinions, even when such labels are entirely incorrect. Like our bodily immune system fighting foreign bodies, dissenting ideas are attacked with antibodies to quell the infection and a lasting immune response is generated to prevent further reinfection. Dissent is thereby used to vaccinate the public against any non-mainstream view. For example, the anti-globalization protests (e.g. Seattle, Washington, Quebec, Sweden), whatever you may think of them, have been consistently mispresented by the U.S. media; it is necessary to turn to alternative media outlets (or people who were there) to find out what really occurred.

This system operates at with increasing efficiency as it evolves. The consolidation of the media has made it much easier to misrepresent dissenting views and thereby innoculate the public. Journalists of a century ago were of a similar class of their readers and even their editors were not too distant in status. Today, with five or six media voices instead of hundreds, the mouthpieces of the media achieve celebrity status, and celebrity pay pushes them into the upper class. Is it surprising that anchorpersons seem extra sympathetic to tax cut proposals that will benefit them far more than their viewers? Is it any wonder that they present the protestors in Seattle, Washington, or Quebec as naive, confused youth, or even as lunatics, after all the system that is protested directly benefits their class? Is it not predictable that violence would be used as the defining element of their coverage, and the source of the violence reassigned from the police to the protestors?

In 2001 in the U.S. we can see the adaptation of the system to its political and social environment at its most sophisticated to date. The U.S. has just weathered the 2000 presidential election; had there been a real difference between the candidates the turmoil resulting from a vote that could have gone either way depending on the interpretation of a small number of ballots would have led to crisis. Because Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore were both acceptable to the system, it was irrelevant which was chosen, and so an arbitrary choice was sufficiently acceptable to the system and to those who voted (though they had a preference, it was not so strong to do more than complain) and to those who did not vote (who may have not bothered because the choice they were offered seemed irrelevant).

An even stronger indication of the stability of the system is global warming. A climate catastrophe is predicted by the scientists of our day. Whether this prediction is fact or not cannot be known with certainty, but that is irrelevant. What is relevant and known with certainty is that the scientific community assigns a high likelihood to the hypothesis that that CO2 and other greenhouse gases are causing global warming. Given this fact, Mr. Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto treaty (claiming more “research” is needed) is a monument to stupidity, and yet it is almost inevitable (Mr. Gore would not have overtly rejected the treaty, but he was not any more likely to have implemented it than his predecessor — the system would not have allowed him). If control were being exercised by an intelligent entity, that entity would find it in its own self interest to control greenhouse gas emissions, but the orthodoxy is not an entity; it is a distributed system of production, control, and propaganda. While the prevention of global warming is not threatening to the system, it is threatening to enough of its investors, and so pressure is exerted to maintain the status quo despite the suicidal implications. That only a few of the investors in the status quo are sufficient to block a necessary change of policy demonstrates the intolerance of the system to community self-interest. In forming a system so stable, only established voices can be heard.

If only Orwell had written a sequel showing his distopia evolving into something benign. As it is, we shall have to figure out that evolution ourselves.

27 January 2001 — A Divider, not a Uniter

Despite his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Bush’s actions since 7 November have shown him to be well schooled Gingrich-style devisiveness. Most notable in this regard is Mr. Bush’s nominee for Attorney General, Mr. Ashcroft. Where was the bipartisanship that candidate Bush so often declaimed would be the hallmark of his administration in this choice? The bipartisan strategy would have been to quietly submit his choices to the Senate leaders, and to deal with their objections long before the issue ever became public, at which point it becomes a matter of face to stand firm. Many of Mr. Bush’s other cabinet choices likewise can only further divide the nation, especially when he appoints individuals that are hostile to the very purpose of the departments they will head (e.g. EPA and DOE).

Mr. Bush’s legislative agenda is similarly devisive. After losing the popular vote (and most likely also the actual electoral vote), the prudent course would have been to meet the Democrats half-way. Given the extroadinary closeness of the Republican and Democratic agendas on most issues, this would have been have been ceding very little. For example, a tax cut midway between his and Mr. Gore’s proposal would have still been sufficiently fiscally irresponsible to make Mr. Bush’s investors chortle with glee, and such a gesture would have begun healing the animosity between the two camps of our one party system. Instead Mr. Bush is vainly sticking to his original proposals, as if they had been in some way been sanctified by his certification as the victor of the ballot battle.

To put it bluntly, Mr. Bush has broken his campaign pledge within days of taking office, or even before. In contrast, his father took much longer to break his “Read My Lips” campaign pledge, and did so because it was sound public policy. In all likelihood, the father’s pledge was sincere though belated recognized as wrong, whereas the son’s pledge of bipartisanship appears much more likely to have been little more than a campaign ploy that he never intended to keep.

30 November 2000 — Embargo Trade with the U.S.

The United States’ single-minded pursuit of a moment of convenience, an eternity of regret is the single biggest problem facing the world today. Its head in the sand refusal to look at solutions to global warming caused by our excessive consumption of fossil fuels will result in serious problems at home, and disaster for much of rest of the world.

So why does the rest of the world put up with us? There is an alternative. The favorite weapon against those you cannot (or simply don’t want to) invade is the trade embargo. The rest of the world could put in place a trade embargo against the United States. Its economy is totally dependent on foreign trade. Having almost completed our deindustrialization, we no longer produce much, except for agricultural products, weapons, and “service”. If Asia were to cut us off, we would be able to eat, but not much else. Unable to clothe ourselves, communicate, play, work, or travel the country will fall into a deeper depression than the 1930s. And that will finally stop our consumption of fossil fuels.

An oil embargo would work as well, but the oil producing nations are not likely to be the first to react to the dangers of global warming.

It need never go that far. The first step for the rest of the world would be to set a distant cut off date after which foreign exchange into and out of the U.S. dollar would no longer be allowed if United States consumption has not met some target. Even the negotiations toward such a cut off would be enough for foreign investors to pull their investments out of the United States. The dollar would plummet in value, making imports very expensive, which would in turn throw our economy into a recession (or worse).

Sentiment in the United States would turn blood-thirsty, and the temptation to bomb the hell out of someone would be strong, but if a good fraction of the world were united in the foreign exchange embargo, even we would probably conclude it foolhardy to bomb them all.

In the end the United States would negotiate weakened targets in return for removal of the threat of sanctions. The value of the dollar would remain affected to some degree, thereby limiting our ability to purchase the oil that we so desperately need to destroy the world.

I cannot but shudder as I write these words, as I am prescribing a remedy that could be horrible for my country if carried beyond the threat stage. However, the consequences of the United States’ current course would be no less heinous than what Hitler wrought during in Europe, and while we do not have the evil intent of Hitler and his citizens, that is no more exculpatory than “I was just following orders.”

It may not be the most likely of scenarios, but what other way is there to bring an errant super-power to heel? It is a moral necessity that it be done.

25 November 2000 — Once Again, A Double Standard for Israel

Israel continues to murder Palestinians at a rate higher than Milosevic murdered Kosovars, and yet the United States does nothing (it certainly does not threaten to bomb Israel as it did Serbia). The savagery of the killing is disgusting; shooting youths for rock throwing is not a measured response, it is barbaric. Shooting journalists and medical workers trying to aid the wounded is likewise criminal.

Palestine is occupied territory, and under International law the Palestinians are within their rights to resist the occupation, whereas Israel is acting criminally. United Nations security council resolutions recognize this and demand Israeli withdraw, but for decades this demand has been ignored.

U.S. bias has been long evident, but President Clinton recently demonstrated how blatant it is during the peace negotiations by threatening to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem when Mr. Arafat refused to back down from the peace framework established in U.N. resolution 242. This is especially inappropriate behavior for a mediator. For years the United States has criticized Mr. Arafat and the PLO for not accepting the terms of 242, and now that they do, the United States simply discards it and prepares to itself occupy Palestinian territory.

Israel eventually ended their illegal occupation of southern Lebanon. Inevitably they will have to do likewise in Palestine. Let us hope that Israel and the United States realize this sooner rather than later, and so staunch the flow of blood.

22 November 2000 — Florida’s Supreme Court Ruling

After the Florida supreme court’s ruling that manual recounts must be included in the state’s tally, Mr. Gore appears to have a chance of getting Florida’s electoral votes. However, because the manual recounts are occurring only in Democratic counties, it is not possible to say that such a count will express the will of the people. What would happen if all of Florida’s counties manually recounted their ballots may never be known. Would Mr. Bush gain just as many votes as Mr. Gore, leaving the tally in Mr. Bush’s favor by a hair? This turn of events will only increase the appearance of illegitimacy of whoever is eventually declared the winner and the associated rancor over that choice. Mr. Gore does have the moral advantage of being the probable winner if the West Palm Beach butterfly ballot effect is taken into account, but that will surely not satisfy Mr. Bush’s supporters.

Mr. Bush should drop his futile attempts to block manual recounts and urge a full manual recount of all of Florida’s counties, and also petition the Florida supreme court for a realistic deadline to accomplish this. This is the only way the nation’s President will have any chance of being successful. That should surely be the first criteria guiding both Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Gore’s actions at this point.

14 November 2000 — An Illegitimate President

Whoever is declared the winner of the 7 November 2000 Presidential election is likely to preside beneath a cloud of illegitimacy. If Mr. Bush is declared the winner, he will join Adams, Hayes, and Harrison as winners of the electoral college while losers of the popular vote. It is also likely that even an electoral college victory will be viewed as tainted by the fact it was based on flawed balloting. No balloting is error-free, but Florida’s errors appear to be significantly larger than Bush’s margin. The electorate appears to have narrowly preferred Mr. Gore, but the tally has failed to give that result due to errors. As the errors are impossible to undo, and revoting seems unwise, the best choice may still be to declare Bush the winner. This will further detract from Mr. Bush’s legitimacy in the eyes of the nation. If Mr. Gore is declared the winner, it will most likely be the result of court challenges of some sort (e.g. if Florida’s electors are not certified by 12 December so that the electoral college votes without Florida on the 18th or 19th). Neither man will be as effective a leader under those circumstances as he would otherwise be.

Mr. Bush has already sought to undermine what few shreds of legitimacy he might have held onto if he had only acted with the wisdom shown by the electorate, whom polls show to be more interested in accuracy than an early resolution. Mr. Bush’s juvenile demands to be anointed President before Florida’s votes are counted (which cannot occur before the 17th) call into question his abilities as a statesman. Mr. Bush’s lawsuits are so utterly without merit that his ability to execute the nation’s laws are suspect.

The question is then what should the United States do for the four years it is led by a President who has the appearance of illegitimacy. It is especially important after the last eight years of a do-nothing Congress and President. Clinton’s failure to submit the Kyoto climate treaty to Congress and get it ratified is the singular most glaring failure of the last eight years, and four more years will only prolong the inevitable pain of adjustment.

It is easier to say what the next President should not do, which is to take the country to war to force a false unity. On this point, however, I am not optimistic.

The best prescription I can offer for the country is for Congress to take the leading role in governing as it did during Reconstruction. With both the House and Senate almost evenly divided, this can only happen if the Republican and Democratic leaders decide to work together. Each would propose several agenda items for the nation. Each would accept a few of the other side’s agenda items in return for acceptance of a few of theirs. This pared down combined agenda might accomplish more in four years than Clinton’s leadership accomplished in eight. This requires only a few leaders in Washington to place their patriotism before their self-interest. It is with sadness that I must say that I am not optimistic on this point either.

10 November 2000 — What to do about Florida?

First, Mr. Bush should stop calling on Mr. Gore to resign. No one should concede until all the votes are counted according to law, which cannot happen any earlier than the 17th of November in Florida.

Should Mr. Gore challenge the West Palm Beach balloting in court? As much as I would like to provoke a crisis in order to effect real change (such as replacing the electoral college with a direct Condorcet vote), I cannot see such a challenge being otherwise helpful. I can see a court invalidating the entire West Palm Beach balloting, but not calling another election. Invalidation will not help Mr. Gore. Perhaps a court challenge could unearth another path to victory for Mr. Gore, but at what cost?

If Florida’s absentee ballots give Mr. Bush the popular vote, he should become President, despite the flaws so far discovered. Mr. Gore would do well to follow Mr. Nixon’s 1960 public posture (though not his behind the scenes manuevering) once all the ballots are counted. I do hope that Mr. Bush’s ability to damage the country will be limited by the thinness of the Republican majority in Congress, and that even that will disappear in 2002, which it will if the normal mid-term Congressional effect continues.

9 November 2000 — How should votes be counted?

Most elections in the United States are winner-take-all. Some number of choices are presented, and the voter is instructed to vote for only one of the choices (voting for more than one invalidates the ballot). The choice that receives the most votes wins, and all other choices lose. It seems an obvious enough method, but if there are more than two choices, it gives poor results. Why then do we use this method, called first-past-the-post? Initially, the alternatives may not have been obvious, and so first-past-the-post was used, but it must not have taken long to see the problems. Alternatives were proposed and in a few cases implemented, but still first-past-the-post predominates. Why? Because the better methods threatened what was by then an entrenched two-party system. First-past-the-post makes voting for any but the two most popular choices risky to the individual voter, because such a vote potentially results in the election choosing one of the voter’s least desirable choices. Many voters therefore feel compelled to restrict themselves to the two most popular choices. This in turn leads to voter apathy, as the two choices are often unattractive, and there is no real opportunity for a third choice to arise to represent such voters.

Worse still, a two-party system is vulnerable to becoming a de facto one-party system in all but appearance. The power centers of the country realize that there are only two parties to control, and that can be done with campaign contributions (with enormous return on investment) and propaganda. Because the powerful also control much of the media of the country, propaganda is simple, cost effective, and almost invisible. Control of the two parties is far from perfect, but that lessens the appearance of control, which is necessary lest the electorate realize what is going on and break free. With control of the two parties in the hands of the power centers, the parties become less and less representative of the people and more and more representative of their controllers. They become in effect a single party with two public heads for the sake of appearance [1].

This transformation has occurred in the United States. It occurred not become of the cunning and strategy of a single entity or cabal, but instead in the same way that evolution managed to produce some of the great wonders of nature, such as mammalian eyes and brains. It has been a series of tiny steps, some forward, some backward, where steps that benefited the system were retained, and others died out.

The system that has resulted has the benefit of being quite stable. That stability has been of great benefit to the United States in the past, allowing it to become the world’s preeminent superpower. This same steadiness of direction marching toward greater and greater wealth despite the idiosyncrasies of the electorate (e.g. emotional and irrational tendencies) has tamed democracy and made it safe for the powerful.

However, we now find ourselves in the endgame, and our evolutionarily honed system is now marching toward the cliff’s edge and its steadiness on this path has become a disastrous drawback. We will soon destroy our only habitat (planet earth) in the pursuit of still higher short-term profits (global warming being the greatest near-term threat). If our controllers were a single conscious entity or cabal, it might be possible to convince them to change course, but they are instead distributed agents acting of their own accord to optimize their own return. We need to instead break the steadfastness of the power centers on our course and explore alternative ways forward.

To create a real debate on our direction, we must first lessen the control of the powerful on our existing political landscape through campaign finance reform. We also need to create real second and third political parties to energize the debate in a way that our dual-headed single party cannot, and for that to happen we must fix our balloting. Fortunately, there was been plenty of academic analysis of voting systems, and the answers are well understood. Approval Voting is one of the simplest methods. Another is Condorcet’s Method. I prefer the latter, but the simplicity of the former may make it the overall better choice for the United States. It is imperative that we implement changes to our electoral methods, and one of the two choices above would be a fine start.

6 November 2000 — Vote for Nader and elect Bush?

Many of the people whom I know want to vote for Mr. Nader, but plan to vote for Mr. Gore instead, because they fear that voting their conscience will elect the least desirable candidate. Is it not better to censor ourselves and falsely declare our preference for Mr. Gore than permit Mr. Bush to claim victory? I think not.

First, I concede that a vote for Mr. Nader may elect Mr. Bush and this would have several negative consequences. While Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore agree more than they disagree, and would generally take the nation in similar directions, there are a small number of differences in their policies (and more importantly in their clients), making the choice of one or the other not completely inconsequential for the United States. For example, it is likely that Mr. Bush’s Supreme Court appointees will overturn important existing decisions and block future reforms. Mr. Bush’s election is also likely to put the United States back on the road to insolvency, as he follows in the footsteps of President Reagan and his father to provide a million percent ROI to his investors. Mr. Bush is also likely to start an arms race with China over missile defense systems (Mr. Gore is difficult to predict on this one).

The election of either Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore will probably have little effect in many of the areas that they tout as differentiating. While there are differences in their policies toward handgun control, campaign finance reform, education, environmental protection, and health care, neither is likely going to much affect the status quo. Mr. Gore’s inclination toward progress in these areas is likely to no more effective than President Clinton’s. Given the tenacity with which these issues will be contested, he is not likely to spend the political capital it would take to make real progress. Mr. Gore may build fewer roads in our National Parks for the timber companies than Mr. Bush, and otherwise present the appearance of concern, but he is unlikely to push for real reform. He just wasn’t chartered to do that by his investors.

Still, isn’t better in a couple of areas and the same in most worth debasing our vote? To find the answer, we must look at where we are headed, regardless of our choice on 7 November 2000. Military spending and the disparity in income between rich and poor will both increase. Voter turnout will remain low or decrease further (apathy being key to establishment control of the system). The political system will remain a one party system masquerading as a two party system to present the appearance of choice while ensuring (via propaganda and campaign financing) that the two candidates offered as alternatives to the voters are both in fact nearly equally acceptable to the establishment. Oil production will peak in ten to fifteen years, and we will be unprepared, sending our fossil fuel based society in a panic as demand exceeds supply (production peaks approximately when we have consumed 50% of the oil, implying there will still be as much oil to be produced in the future as in the last 150 years, but the rate of production will be reduced). Global warming will continue unabated because doing anything about it will be too inconvenient in the short term, with eventually ruinous consequences. Population will continue to increase and our insatiable appetite for living space will continue to doom more and more species to extinction. Finally, we will continue to poison our air, water, and land with our toxic chemicals.

Our world is a bus that has run off the road into rocky terrain. There are passengers seated inside, some hanging on to the outside, and the United States is in the driver’s seat. Does it really matter whether the driver pushes harder on the pedal or swerves to avoid the sapling? Either way we crash, the only difference being how hard. All that really matters is whether the driver can get back on the road. Neither of our two choices will do that.

If this election does not then offer us the chance to get back on track, how does voting for Mr. Nader help? His goal is simply to build a second party to challenge the first (dual-headed though it may be). Only a voice not tamed by the establishment can ask the necessary questions and shift the debate. Mr. Nader’s first step is to reach the 5% point in the polls to receive federal matching funds next time. It is a painfully slow strategy, and fraught with opportunities for the establishment to intervene, but perhaps it is all that we have.

20 June 2000 — Who’s Responsible for the Death Penalty?

The United States is one of the few western democracies with a death penalty. It’s one thing we agree on with Iran, China, and Afghanistan. How is it that our nation is aligned with the worst of the globe on so moral an issue?

The Economist’s answer is that that the U.S. is a democracy, and the majority of people want to see people executed for when convicted of a serious crime. It’s a touching theory, but surely the Economist knows that what Americans want is manufactured by the same engines created and perfected to manufacture commercial demand for products. Our political system is a soccer game in which citizens are the ball. Yes, the characteristics of the ball determine how it responds to being kicked, headed, and thrown, but the primary direction is imparted by the opposing teams. Their skill in manufacturing public opinion determines the score.

Why have the teams played as they have? The teams are not opposed on all issues. They agree on more issues than they disagree (the issues on which they agree are not open to discussion). One item of strong agreement is that there should be only two teams. Voters do not of course neatly align with the two teams on every issue. Individuals’ politics are multi-dimensional; their views on one issue can be independent of their views on another issue. The goal of America’s two parties is to force voters to sacrifice their views on most issues to the issue most important to them, thereby silencing debate on other issues. In addition, the parties may adopt policies contrary to the actual view of both their leaders and the majority of their investors, so as to prevent the defection of a minority of their investors, for whom the policy is most important to the other side.

How does this apply to state killing? Some decades ago Democrats were securely in power in many legislative and executive positions. Their relative security allowed them to follow their conscience in voting for alternatives to killing convicts. As in most European nations, those that voted against state murder were leaders, somewhat ahead of public opinion. Electoral security can be ephemeral, and soon Republican political fortunes were waxing. The parties were in actuality close on most issues, and on the issues important to Republican investors, their policies were not in general favor. It was therefore necessary to adopt positions on other issues to pull voters from the Democrats. These issues mattered little to Republican investors, but they served to move some of electorate into a camp inimical to their own self-interest. For example, Republicans seized on religion (e.g. school prayer), “law and order”, and uncontrolled guns as issues to split off voters from the Democrats. In a multi-party democracy, such a strategy would not work as well, but in a two-party system, voters are forced to choose a candidate that reflects only their most important view. Which dimension of individual thought is most important at any one time is easily manipulated.

So the Republicans used “law and order” as a peripheral issue to induce voters to favor a team whose real agenda is to pad the pockets of their investors. The Democrats responded with a standard two-party strategy: adopt the other party’s position so as to nullify the loss of voters. This of course denies any meaningful choice on the issue. Indeed as Republican power waxed, Democrats adopted almost every Republican position, to the point that Bill Clinton’s policies became indistinguishable from Republican policies (consider GATT, NAFTA, the revival of Reagan’s “Star Wars”, the giveaway of the television spectrum, doing nothing to implement the Kyoto accords, to name a few). (Clinton’s success in adopting Republican issues as his own so infuriated the Republicans that they impeached him.)

The Republicans’ choice of “law and order” as a polarizing issue was not simply a reflection of its latent potential with the electorate. Early development of the issue came from the commercial sector, where nightly television “news” programs (really entertainment programs) had fine tuned the if it bleeds, it leads strategy and were dramatically overemphasizing crime, to the point that much of the populace felt threatened. Republicans simply followed television’s lead. Their success in using the Willy Horton issue to defeat Michael Dukakis emboldened them to further emphasize the issue. The Democrats were not to be outdone. Across the nation punishments were increased (three strikes, more capital crimes, more prisons, mandatory sentencing, etc.). Bill Clinton flew home to Arkansas during his first presidential bid to witness an execution to prove he was no Michael Dukakis. Governor Gray Davis of California has defied court orders to parole eligible prisoners to prove he’s “tough on crime”.

Hollywood may also be partly responsible for bolstering support for the death penalty. Their increasingly violent action movies teach that the answer to all problems is not the legal system, but instantaneous justice dispensed from the barrel of a gun. Americans were of course pro-execution long before Hollywood’s ultra violent movie making binge, but such fare may have contributed to or even reversed the slow evolution of public thought over the centuries on appropriate criminal punishment.

Politicians have done more than simply exploit commercially created fears and bloodlust; they have ensured a steady supply of grain for the mill by making sure that the poor are unable to defend themselves. Surveys of the convictions of inmates on death row show significant trial errors in well over half of the cases, including public defenders sleeping through trials [Economist2000-06-17]. It would save public money to properly fund the defense at original trials, so as to eliminate the necessity of endless appeals, but reducing the taxpayer’s burden is not a real goal, and it might reduce the grist they need to show just how tough they are. No, it’s more politically more expedient to pass laws limiting appeals from unfair trials than to make the trials fair.

And in many locales, prosecutors are politicians as well, which has led to instances of the state knowingly convicting the innocent by withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense. In political calculus, the prosecutor’s career is certainly more important than one man’s life (after all, the rationale goes, the convicted was probably guilty of something, even if not for the crime for which he’ll be killed).

The next time the lights dim at a state penitentiary, or a prisoner dies in agony from a lethal injection, consider that the murder motive was political opportunism exploiting sentiments first stroked and manipulated for entertainment. It says a lot about what we have become.

3 June 2000 — The Elián González Show

Perhaps Thursday’s court verdit in the Elián González case signals that we are to soon have the last episode in the Elián hit TV series. Elián has played the role Truman played on The Truman Show: a real-life character used as entertainment for the masses. Only this time the integration of entertainment and reality was more complete than Hollywood dared imagine in Truman; not just one character, but much of the real-world danced to the tune called by the entertainers, as politicians were called on to declare themselves as either agreeing to the rule of law or to renounce that in favor of the higher principle of tweaking Castro’s nose.

What struck me so powerfully about the Elián series was that not only did it succeed so well at captivating America, but it managed to do so against the backdrop of waxing anti-immigrant sentiment, such as expressed at the ballot box on California’s Proposition 187. Such is the power of the camera! Of course, such sentiment was reserved only for a single boy, it did not extend to other would-be immigrants. In all liklihood during the course of the Elián series’ run more than a few Haitian refugee boys were quietly sent back to a far worse fate in Haiti than Elián will find home in Cuba. (But of course the media can’t admit that Haiti might be worse off than Cuba as we only recently intervened there, so of course it’s ok there.) Last year 4600 children without parents were detained by the INS; why did Elián’s case merit a TV spectacle that the others’ didn’t?

If you got caught up in the Elián series, do not despair; the infotainment industry will leave no stone unturned until it can manufacture some other “real-world” drama to bring you.

26 June 1999 — NRA and Money in Politics

Despite their loss in the Senate, the NRA recently demonstrated it still has the House in their pocket. Such is the power of the NRA over the Republicans that I half expect the next Republican bill outlawing abortion to have an exemption for cases where a handgun is used. While a few Senate Republicans should be commended for their votes, I suspect they were willing to cast them knowing that the House would kill the bill (payback for the House impeachment vote?).

NRA control of our national legislature illustrates the best and worst of our political system. The ability of a passionate minority to block the wishes of the majority on an issue by organization, lobbying, and propaganda is healthy in a political system. However, the NRA’s ability to buy politicians with campaign finance dollars is profoundly unhealthy. Seventeen congressional races received more than $40,000 in 1998 from the NRA’s PAC, and one received more than $200,000 (which was over 40% of that Senator’s total PAC contributions).

17 June 1999 — A Parable

Imagine the year 2030. The populace of Southern California (SoCal) is predominantly of Mexican decent, but Hispanic people are still second class citizens due to the prejudice of the rest of the nation. In SoCal the minority white population feels unsafe from their local loss of control, and from the anger, demonstrations, and in some cases the mob violence of the repressed majority. Whites move away, and in some cases are forced out. The SoCal population becomes 90% Hispanic. Some in SoCal suggest independence from the U.S. This strikes makes Americans very uneasy; although SoCal was originally Mexican territory (it was taken by the U.S. during the war of 1846-1848), the Americans regard it as important to their cultural identity, due to the presence of Hollywood. A few years later, a U.S. president is elected on the platform of keeping Southern California as part of the U.S. and to reclaim it for whites. Federal agents begin increasingly hostile and deadly crackdowns in SoCal. A local terrorist group, the SoCal Liberation Army springs into existence, and begins bombing Los Angeles federal buildings. The reaction of the federal agents to the SLA attacks on their offices makes the recent Amadou Diallo and Tyisha Miller murders and the Abner Louima sodomy everyday occurrences. A thousand Hispanics are killed by federal agents in 2040. Opposition to the President’s policies mount within the U.S and the rest of the world. At this point the world’s newly ascendent superpower, China, prods ASEAN to intervene on behalf of the Hispanic population of SoCal. It demands that ASEAN troops occupy the entire U.S. and be immune from U.S. prosecution regardless of what crimes they might commit. Under the threat of bombardment, the U.S. offers to allow the U.N. to station troops in SoCal. ASEAN rejects the U.S. counteroffer and signs a deal with the SLA and demands that the U.S. sign it too. The U.S. rejects ASEAN’s demands and ASEAN begins bombing the U.S. from space to teach the U.S. its place — who is th U.S. to defy China’s world hegemony? U.S. opposition to the President crumbles with the U.S. under attack. Unable to match the technologic superiority of Chinese weaponry or penetrate China’s defensive shield, U.S. military troops begin massive retaliatory attacks against the only target within their grasp: Southern California. A massive exodus of Southern Californians begins into Mexico. Tens of thousands are killed and millions become refugees. U.S. water supplies, electric power, and even hospitals are hit as part of the ASEAN bombardment. The Golden Gate, San Francisco Bay, Brooklyn, and George Washington bridges are ruins. The plants, offices, and studios of U.S. businesses that support the President, including Boeing, GM, GE/NBC/Microsoft, Westinghouse/CBS, Disney/ABC, and Time/CNN/TCI are smoldering skeletons. Finally, wearying of the destruction of its infrastructure, the U.S. agrees to an EU brokered deal to allow ASEAN troops to occupy SoCal. The remaining whites flee SoCal, fearful of SLA reprisals. The U.S. economy spirals down in a tailspin from the damage inflicted by the ASEAN bombing. Over the next decade, a hundred thousand U.S. children die from the after effects of the war.

Who is right and who is wrong in this story? White prejudice represses Hispanics. Hispanic nationalist violence helps ethnically clense SoCal of whites in the 2030’s. U.S. racism and white retaliatory violence in the 2040’s represses the SoCal Hispanics. China’s intervention causes massive death and suffering for whites and Hispanics alike, as does the U.S. retaliation against SoCal. China does demonstrate it is the preeminent world power, however, so it gets what it wants.

Does the answer change if we change the year to 1999, the U.S. to Yugoslavia, Southern California to Kosovo, Mexico to Albania, China to the U.S., and ASEAN to NATO?

10 June 1999 — War on Yugoslavia

The bombing of Yugoslavia has ended for now. What did NATO accomplish? It did not win the terms that it had insisted on at Rambouillet. Had it been willing to accept back in March the terms it just settled for, the bombing would never have begun, the Kosovars would still be in their homes, countless lives (both Kosovar and Serb) saved, terrible destruction avoided, and violations of International law, U.S. law, and the NATO charter would have been avoided. But NATO did not want a peaceful settlement, it wanted to bomb Yugoslavia as punishment and to demonstrate NATO’s might, and it got its way by demanding impossible terms and then starting a war when they were rejected. Since NATO has accomplished what it wanted — punishing Yugoslavia — with impunity, perhaps it is legitimate to say that it won, but it may yet be a Pyrrhic victory for NATO, for it may ultimately have begun NATO’s demise. On 4 June, European Union announced plans to create a military capability independent of NATO’s.

If one takes a more global view, it is the world that has lost in this war. International law, never strong, has been further compromised by the unwillingness of the NATO countries to involve the United Nations in the resolution of Kosovo until its tantrum had run its course. This war is a declaration of resurgent militant U.S. hegemony. Some might argue that U.S. hegemony is good for the world, as it is likely to cow most of the world into peace. More likely it will lead in many capitals to step up arms purchases and to form alliances to defend against U.S. intervention by provding substitutes for the fallen second superpower. This is likely to lead to yet more war.

If the U.S. and NATO treat Yugoslavia as they have Iraq, then they may soon have even more millions dead from starvation and disease on their hands. Thousands, especially children, are still dying each month in Iraq from the U.S. policy of maintaining U.N. sanctions against Iraq. We need to rethink policies of punishing civilians for the acts of their leaders.

1 June 1999 — Humanitarian War

Wars are always justified by the protagonists on humanitarian grounds, but these justifications are rarely factual. Consider whether NATO’s current claim of humanitarian aims in its war on Yugoslavia have merit.

NATO’s actions in Yugoslavia belie the claim that this is a war to help the Kosovars — a humanitarian war. NATO’s use of depleted uranium weapons (in weapons) are poisoning Kosovo (and Yugoslavia) making it an unfit place for the Kosovars to live when they return. Many will die slow deaths from radiation-induced cancers. NATO’s use of cluster bombs will maim and kill in gruesome explosions children who think that undetonated cluster bombs are toys. The U.S. does not care about the Kosovars or it would not poison or booby trap their homeland.

Hundreds of Kosovars have died because NATO prohibits its pilots from flying low enough to see their targets. If the goal were to help the Kosovars, would not a different risk calculus be used? NATO called it a “a good day” on 14 May, when it killed at least 87 ethnic Albanian refugees in the village of Korisa, and injured a hundred more [LM on-line magazine, June 1, 1999]. While NATO claims most civilian death and injury is accidental, there are instances of NATO deliberately targeting civilians (e.g. bombing the television studios in Belgrade). In addition NATO accidents are happening at a rate of over 2 per week. The U.S. and NATO only care about demonstrating how much retribution they can deliver to those who won’t accept U.S. hegemony.

If humanitarian reasons were behind NATO’s actions, then why did it set the bar so high during the Rambouillet negotiations? The use of U.N. troops instead of NATO troops and restricting them to Kosovo instead of occupying all of Yugoslavia would have achieved that same results and averted the humanitarian disaster that NATO’s bombing caused. FAIR goes further in WHAT REPORTERS KNEW ABOUT KOSOVO TALKS -- BUT DIDN’T TELL and asserts that the U.S.’s goals at Rambouillet were explicitly explained to reporters beforehand (but “off the record”) as to ensure Milosevic’s rejection so that they would have the excuse to begin the bombing they so wanted.

Clinton has broken U.S. law in continuing military action after the 60 days provided in the War Powers Act. He has not even sought congressional approval. Clinton is therefore in violation of both International and U.S. law. Clinton’s motivation is unclear, but it is possible that he fears a debate on his Kosovo policy that would point up the contradictions in his justifications.

The U.S. is also refusing to help pay for the reconstruction of Yugoslavia once the war is over. The after effects of the bombing will be a humanitarian disaster for Serbs and Kosovars alike for many years. To destroy the infrastructure of a country and then leave it to the ravages of disease, weather, poverty, and even famine is inhumane.

Both the death and suffering of the Kosovars have dramatically increased since the bombing began; NATO began its action after two thousand Kosovars were killed over a year’s time in Milosevic’s brutal repression of the KLA insurgency. Five thousand or more have died in just the two months since the bombing began. If we felt compelled to intervene after two thousand deaths in a year, shouldn’t the rest of the world feel compelled to intervene in our far worse slaughter?

The U.S. blames Milosevic for the humanitarian disaster in Kosovo. If our actions were intended to address the humanitarian issue, then U.S. policy would have to be to remove Milosevic from power. That is not the case, and so our motivations cannot be humanitarian. NATO has not even removed those indicted of war crimes in areas under NATO control (e.g. Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic).

In the last 45 years the U.S. has bombed Afghanistan, Cambodia, Congo, Croatia, Cuba, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Sudan, and Vietnam. In none of these cases were the reasons humanitarian. Why would Yugoslavia be an exception?

To call this war humanitarian is nonsense.

23 May 1999 — End of NATO?

NATO’s war against Yugoslavia is beginning to strain the “alliance.” If there is anything positive in the Yugoslavia disaster, it is that this could be the beginning of the end of NATO. This outcome is unlikely, but it is worth considering the possibility.

Why should NATO be dismantled? NATO’s original stated mission was to defend Europe against Soviet attack. That mission is now irrelevant. (Whether it was necessary during the Cold War is debatable, though there is no doubt that the United States’ membership in NATO was a deterrent to the Soviet Union.) Not only has NATO’s stated mission vanished, apparently so has its charter, as the war against Yugoslavia is contrary to that charter. NATO has become an aggressor.

Moreover, NATO’s stated mission may not have been its real mission. After World War II, the U.S. was distrustful of Europeans to govern themselves in ways acceptable to Washington. NATO and in particular U.S. troops stationed on European soil provided a modicum of U.S. control over European affairs. NATO thus became and remains an agent of U.S. foreign policy and a legitimizing front for the U.S. military (Americans believe that unilateral U.S. action in Yugoslavia is unacceptable but are prepared to accept aggression under NATO’s aegis). The U.S. made membership in NATO financially attractive to the European states by bearing a disproportionate share of its military budget, in effect giving many European states a free ride.

This situation might be acceptable if U.S. foreign policy were benign, but it is not. NATO’s dissolution would no longer lessen Europe’s security, but it would make Europe more independent of the U.S. in policy matters, and that would be a good thing for the world. U.S. hegemony means the continued exploitation and subjugation of the third world and increasing power for U.S. corporations, who act in no one’s interest except their own.

The unrest of Germany, Greece, and Italy (and probably others who aren’t so vocal) over the Yugoslavia war will most likely be beaten into submission by the U.S. with threats of expulsion, but it is just possible that enough of the NATO states will find such heavy-handed treatment no longer worth the price of NATO’s security umbrella.

16 May 1999 — EPA and Industry

The U.S. EPA has approved the use of Monsanto’s genetically engineered corn that includes genes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The genes produce a toxin that kills some agricultural crop pests, including the European corn borer. Bt toxin is also used in organic agriculture to control pests as part of a discipline called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) where it is applied externally and selectively. It is especially useful because of its selective toxicity for leaf-eating larvae of moth and butterfly species. The use of Bt genes in non-organic agriculture is likely to cause resistant strains of pests to evolve within a few years, thereby destroying the usefulness of this organic farming technique. (It also limits the product’s lifetime. Both are no doubt viewed as a good thing by Monsanto since they will create dependence on their labs for enhancements and replacements.) The EPA has therefore required a resistance management strategy for growing Bt toxin crops. Apparently the efficacy of this strategy was not evaluated before approving Bt toxin crops because this week’s issue of Science includes an article, Inheritance of Resistance to Bacillus thuringiensis Toxin (Dipel ES) in the European Corn Borer, showing that the assumptions of the approved strategy are not in fact true, and therefore the resistance management strategy is fatally flawed (Bt toxin resistance is inherited as an incompletely dominant autosomal gene instead of being regressive). This indicates that the EPA rushed to approval of Monsanto’s Frankencorn without adequate scientific study. Why else would they approve a product based on untested assumptions than to favor a company they are supposed to regulate. Now we have some basic results and they are awful. We must replace the EPA with an orgranization that is capable of regulating its industries instead of being a marketing arm for them (by giving them the appearance of legitimacy).

15 May 1999 — Trade War

The U.S. is at war with the European Union over trade issues, and it is one war I hope we lose. Europeans are defying the U.S. and the WTO by prohibiting U.S. beef raised with growth hormone. The EU will likely have trade sanctions imposed as a result. I am cheering for the EU on this one; they are right to stand up to the WTO rules that are based on a regulatory ceilings instead of regulatory floors. If they have the mettle they will pull out of GATT or force it to be renegotiated – action that will eventually lead to rules that don’t destroy my right to decide what I eat. The U.S. and the WTO assert that the EU must show that BGH is unsafe before banning it. This is absurd; the burden of responsibility should be to show that BGH is safe before allowing it into the food chain (and I don’t accept the U.S. FDA approvals of such things as proof of safety, especially given the revolving door between Monsanto and its regulators). The rush to the bottom in safety, environmental standards, and worker and customer rights must be stopped, and that means dismantling its battering ram, the free trade treaties and replacing them with fair trade treaties.

9 May 1999 — Sudan Bombing and the U.S. Press

The United States now quietly allows that the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory cannot be justified (it unfroze the assets of its owner). This story got almost no coverage in the United States (it was page A8 of the 4 May 1999 New York Times). If there was any doubt that the U.S. “press” engages in selective coverage to further the propaganda aims of the government, there is no further. For the original story to have generated days and pages of articles and then for the falsehood of much of that coverage to be buried without any investigative followup dramatically shows how our news is manipulated.

8 May 1999 — War in Yugoslavia

The NATO war against Yugoslavia is wrong. I was slow to feel confident of this opinion because of the lack of information and debate in the early days of the war. Also, the urge to do something when a humanitarian disaster is brewing is strong. Together these factors have had precisely the effect they were intended to: promote tacit approval of NATO’s actions. It is still all too true that the first casualty of war is truth.

The relevant issues are

  • Is it legal for NATO to intervene?
  • Should the international community intervene?
  • If intervention is appropriate, how should it be done?
  • Why is the United States actually intervening?

I will consider the last issues first, because the method of intervention obviously effects the question of should, and the United States rationale for intervention could be legitimate.

The proffered explanation for the war is to prevent a human catastrophe, but the United States has never been interested in preventing human catastrophe in the past, so this lacks credibility. The U.S. sat idle during worse atrocities in Rwanda and Cambodia. It has defended Israel’s repression in Palestine and instigated attrocities against the Mayans in El Salvador and Guatemala. The U.S. has ignored and continues to ignore the attrocities committed against the Kurds by Turkey and the ethnic cleansing taking place in Tibet by China. It is currently standing idle while a similar situation is developing in East Timor. Of course, the United States might have a newfound humanitarian conscience, but if this were so, the U.S. would not have chosen to bomb Yugoslavia, as bombing would predictably lead to a worsening of the human catastrophe (and why then not East Timor?). But if the U.S. is not bombing Yugoslavia for humanitarian reasons, why is it doing it? It is true that this action will send billions of dollars to U.S. defense contractors, but the country seems to be in a mood to throw more money into this hole anyway. A war will certainly help justify still larger military spending, but it is not necessary to achieve it.

I admit to having been puzzled as to why the United States decided to thrust NATO into bombing Yugoslavia until I heard Noam Chomsky speak on the subject. Chomsky suggests that the United States is bombing Yugoslavia to demonstrate that the world must reckon with U.S. power. The world knows that the U.S. is the remaining superpower and possesses the capability to wreak havoc almost anywhere, but what the U.S. desired was a demonstration that the United States has the will to do so. Chomsky cites a partially declassified NSC memo arguing that the U.S. should strive to be unpredictable and thus better give pause to other world leaders. The legacy of Vietnam might have led some to conclude the U.S. would use its military might only in the most dire circumstances in the future. The Gulf war showed that the United States was to be reckoned with when its interests (i.e. oil) were directly threatened. Thi