Battlepanda: September 2005


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Random observations about The Road to Serfdom

I was inspired to read Hayek by the posts by Lawrence, Henry and Issac, which lead me to believe that Hayek is not the crazed libertarian dude many of his worshippers adherants take him to be. So far, I agree with their general assessment, i.e., socialism as Hayek railed against it doesn't really exist anymore. And libertarians are being disingenuous when they use Hayek impassioned prose to defend laissez-faire because Hayek himself didn't believe in laissez-faire. It says so right there on page 37 of my my edition.

Other thoughts:

1) Hayek's nightmare scenario was "a state of affairs which can satisfy neither planners nor liberals: a sort of syndicalist or "corporative" organisation of industry, in which competition is more or less suppressed but planning is left in the hands of the independent monopolies of the separate industries." (42) Hmm...where have I seen this kind of keptocratic behavior recently? I don't think it arose out of socialism though.

2) Just a general point. I don't think that Hayek was anti-government as much as anti-monopoly. But of course government can be thought of as the ultimate monopoly. Very restrictive institutions such as the military are OK in his mind (131) because of the individual's ability not to join or to leave it if they find it intolerable. This made me think. What would Hayek think of nation-states that adopt illiberal policies if people have the ability to freely immigrate? Of course, this is a pipe-dream considering how big a can-o-worms immigration is over most of the world.

3) Hayek habitually plays down the monopolies and inequalities that can arise spontaneously in the market. He pooh-poohs the notion that corporate monoliths will inevitably emerge through sheer economy of scale, network advantages, not to mention anti-competition tactics. The market will break up monopolies through competition, he believed, if only it is left alone by the government. Well, in the age of huge multi-national corporations, this belief seems quaint. In a footnote (107) where he cautiously ponders "It is probable that we habitually overestimate the extent to which inequality of incomes is mainly caused by income derived from property..." he quotes that the ratio between the highest salaries and lowest salaries in the United States and the Soviet Union are "of the same order of magnitude (about 50 to 1)". Well, now the CEO: floor worker pay ratio is more like 300:1 or 400:1 by now! Left to its own devices, I don't think this is a trend that will likely reverse itself.

4) Hayek is concerned above all with expanding choices and opportunities for people. He believes that the state should "do a great deal to help the spreading of knowledge and information and to assist mobility" (98). Elsewhere, he wonders if it is inevitable that wealth is passed down through the generations (can't find it at the moment). Admittedly, he does not expand on what exactly he meant in policy terms by those rather tentative statements. But it would not be unreasonable to say that Hayek is probably pro state-sponsored education and in favor of the estate tax!

5) Again and again in The Road to Serfdom, the slippery slope between socialism and totalitarianism (more specifically, the Nazis) are pounded over and over and over again. This might have caused some of the more susceptable libertarians to adapt the logic that since Hayek says that all socialist societies end up totalitarian and, say, Sweden has been a socialist society for a long time, it must necessarily be a totalitarian society. This leads to the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon John Emerson observed of "loonier of them believ[ing] that Sweden is, in fact, a Communist dictatorship".

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Get away from that baby

Yeah. That's right. I'm talking to you, lady. There will be no cooing over other people's babies in this hospital ward in West Yorkshire.

Apparently the cooing violate the precious little critters' human rights.
Debbie Lawson, neo-natal manager at the hospital's special care baby unit, said: "Cooing should be a thing of the past because these are little people with the same rights as you or me.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Control Room Marine joins Al Jazeera

If you've seen the excellent documentary Control Room, you would know that Al Jazeera is not the cloven-hooved peddler of hate that people in the U.S. often think it is. Certainly not more biased than the paragon of objectivity that is FOX news.

One of the most compelling figures in Control Room was Josh Rushing, a military public affairs officer at the time. There were many memorable exchanges in the film between Rushing and Hassan Ibrahim, the ex-BBC Sudanese journalist (and a real character.)It goes without saying that Rushing was completely professional in doing his job of propounding the military point of view in the movie. And nobody who have seen the documentary can honestly daub him as an American-hater. But his increasing doubts about the way the press for the war is handled comes through in the movie. Now in an ironic twist, he will be joining his old sparring partners at Al Jazeera:
One reason he wanted to leave the Marine Corps, says Rushing, is that his superior officers had forbidden him to speak to the press. He was torn between his loyalty to the Corps and his duty as a citizen. "I felt like I had a platform and something to say. I thought it would be a missed opportunity to say, take a public relations job in Houston, which I was about to do."

The journalists at Al Jazeera-International, says Rushing, are a mix of nationalities and most in the Washington Bureau come from established outlets like CNN, BBC, Britain's ITN and even Fox News. Rushing thinks that diversity will be part of Al Jazeera-International's appeal. "I'm an American and proud of it. If that affects my objectivity, then so be it," said Rushing.

If you haven't seen Control Room yet, please do so. It is unquestionably the best film to have come out of the Iraqi conflict thusfar.

A book recommendation for y'all

One good thing about not having internet access all the time (I'm updating on the office computer as we speak) is that I've actually been reading! Books! Fancy that.

Anyhow, it's kind of off the news-ey beat this blog generally covers, but I can't recommend Carl Zimmer's Soul Made Flesh enough for those of you who like your pop science. You see, back in the days of Aristotle, they thought that the soul resided in the heart, and that the brain is some kind of pump (for spirits, apparently), thus getting things completely backwards for thousands of years. It wasn't until a dude named Thomas Willis came along in the seventeenth century that things got cleared up. Well, relatively cleared up. He still believed in leeches and purges and things, but at least he got the whole neurology thing kick started. Fascinating, fascinating stuff. And the whole thing was a great read too.

I am also (finally!) reading Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. I'm reserving my judgement because I am only about half way through, but my first impression of it seems to confirm my view of Hayek as a very reasonable man who wrote a book condemning socialism in fairly hysterical terms because, perhaps, the direction socialism seemed to be taking at the time merited it. He is certainly no knee-jerk lover of laissez-faire.

Monday, September 26, 2005

In case you forget who's boss in Iraq

(Via Dymaxion World)
Remember the two British Soldiers who were sprung from an Iraqi prison with British tanks? Well, there's an Iraqi warrent out for their arrest, something the British is going to ignore.
"Iraqi law is very clear. British personnel are immune from Iraqi legal process. They remain subject to British law," [Britain's secretary of State for defense] said in a statement.

The whereabouts of the two soldiers was not clear.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Elusive Intergration

Ezra points to a good interview with Jonathan Kozol, a guy I have not heard of before. Here be snippets:
There’s the greatest irony of all: If you want to see the most segregated
school in America today, ask to see the school named after Martin Luther King.
Or Rosa Parks, or Thurgood Marshall. New York City has a school named for Jackie
Robinson. Is this an integrated school that represents the ideals for which
Jackie Robinson is honored? Of course not. It’s a 96 percent black and Hispanic
school. There’s a school in New York named for Langston Hughes that’s 99 percent
black and Hispanic. The principal of Martin Luther King High School even said to
me, “Honestly, here we are at Lincoln Center in New York in a school that’s
named for Martin Luther King and I have to hunt around the building to find my
eight white students.”
The words of Brown v. Board of Education were clear: Even if segregated
schools could ever be made equal in physical facilities, faculty, etc., as
schools attended by white children, they would still be destructive to the souls
of segregated children by the very fact of segregation in itself. We have placed
them in isolation because we don’t want you to contaminate our own schools. It
sends a destructive message for young blacks, and they recognize it very well.
One teenager in Harlem said to me, “It’s like if they don’t have room for
something and don’t know how to throw it out they put it back in the garage.” I
said, “Is that how you feel?” She said, “That’s exactly how I feel.”
And these schools are not simply segregated; they’re wildly unequal. Nationally,
overwhelmingly non-white schools receive $1,000 less per pupil than
overwhelmingly white schools. In NYC, to give a dramatic example, there are kids
in the South Bronx who get about $11,000 a year towards their education while
right next door in the white suburb of Bronxville, they get $19,000. Kids that I
write about are treated by America as if they were worth half as much as
children in the white suburbs.
I often hear privileged white people say, “Well, that doesn’t sound quite fair, but can you really buy your way to a better education for poor kids?” Typically people who ask that question send their kids to Andover and Exeter. And still, the parents who spend $30,000 a year to guarantee their child a royal road into the Ivy League have the nerve to look me in the eyes and ask me about buying your way into a better education.

Ezra expressed some guilt over being the unwitting beneficiary of the unlevel playing field. As do I, especially since I goosed up my SAT scores somewhat with a Princeton Review course (nevermind that my mom made me take it). Of course, more intergrated schools will not make up for all those extra private benefits our family heaped upon us. But it seems like an obvious starting point.

White Man's Burden, Redux

Simon Jenkins on withdrawal, from a Guardian editorial:

Don't be fooled a second time. They told you Britain must invade Iraq
because of its weapons of mass destruction. They were wrong. Now they say
British troops must stay in Iraq because otherwise it will collapse into chaos.

This second lie is infecting everyone. It is spouted by Labour and Tory
opponents of the war and even by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Sir Menzies
Campbell. Its axiom is that western soldiers are so competent that, wherever
they go, only good can result. It is their duty not to leave Iraq until order is
established, infrastructure rebuilt and democracy entrenched.

Note the word "until". It hides a bloodstained half
century of western self-delusion and arrogance. The white man's burden is still
alive and well in the skies over Baghdad (the streets are now too dangerous).
Soldiers and civilians may die by the hundred. Money may be squandered by the
million. But Tony Blair tells us that only western values enforced by the barrel
of a gun can save the hapless Mussulman from his own worst enemy, himself.
The first lie at least had tactical logic. The Rumsfeld doctrine was to
travel light, hit hard and get out. Neoconservatives might fantasise over Iraq
as a democratic Garden of Eden, a land re-engineered to stability and
prosperity. Harder noses were content to dump the place in Ahmad Chalabi's lap
and let it go to hell. Had that happened, I suspect there would have been a
bloody settling of scores but by now a tripartite republic hauling itself back
to peace and reconstruction. Iraq is, after all, one of the richest nations on
America left Vietnam and Lebanon to their fate. They survived. We left Aden
and other colonies. Some, such as Malaya and Cyprus, saw bloodshed and
partition. We said rightly that this was their business. So too is Iraq for the
Iraqis. We have made enough mess there already.

Brutal, the part about leaving the Iraqis to their fate. But staying out of humanitarian reasons is only meaningful if we are making the situation better.

Back to school?

Sort of...

It seems that the London School of Economics offer a distance learning program. £2,500 for the BSc degree, over the period of three years. I will be examined to the same standard as internal LSE students, but of course with none of the academic support apart from texts and packets to study from. Doing this program will be a good thing...

IF I have the discipline to sit down with my books on my own to study.
IF I have the aptitude to teach myself the concepts I'm being asked to master with minimal tutoring.
IF there is a future for me at all when (if) I emerge with my bachelor's degree in Economics aged 29. (Twenty-nine! That's almost thirty! Ack!)

But hell, what do I have to lose? I don't want to go into what I'm doing at the moment, but let's just say that it is not a job I want to devote the rest of my life to. In addition, I have plenty of spare time. A luxury I might no longer have in a few years, if I choose to have children.

(Children? Double Ack! Excuse me while I go freak out for a bit.)

The importance of keeping cool

Dude! My friend Chris asked the Explainer at Slate why ice is so important in emergency situations such as Katrina's aftermath. So now you know too.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Inching towards Democracy

"China will press for democratic progress, unswervingly reestablish democracy, including direct elections," said the Chinese premier Wen Jia-bao.

Yowsa! Stop the presses!

Oh, wait. He just means that democracy will be unswervingly the township level. There is already direct voting at the village level now. "If we Chinese people can manage a village, I believe they can manage a town in several years. " Way to give your countrymen credit there, Mr. Premier. Perhaps in a few years, once the Chinese people outgrow their trikes, they'll be allowed to pick their own state governors.

Seems like the central Chinese leadership are trying to have their cake and eat it. Just as they selectively unleashed the power of the market, they want to selectively unleash democracy to take care of the problem of low-level corruption without threatening their grip on power. Still, it's kind of like a game of Jenga, isn't it. if you keep taking blocks from the bottom, eventually the whole tower has to fall down.

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First came village election, then the Chinese people cast their ballot for Supergirl 2005. Can township elections be far behind? Ah the wheels of Democracy...


Bad news from Iraq are dime-a-dozen. But this latest snafu from Basra is just bizarre. An unruly mob managed to set two giant British tanks on fire with petrol bombs. A little bit sad that such a thing would occur in Basra, which was considered a 'bright spot' for the Brits, but not a totally unexpected course of events. The weird thing is that those tanks were on a ham-handed mission to storm an Iraqi prison/police station where two British undercover agents were held by the Iraqi police.

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All the soldiers survived with minor injuries, apparently, despite jumping from a burning tank on fire and surrounded by a wrathful mob. I wonder if they consider themselves very lucky or very unlucky.

Question. How bad exactly was the relationship between the British forces and the Iraqi authorities that they would refuse to hand over British undercover soldiers and even (the Brits feared) hand them to Shia militia? But I guess the question is kind of moot since whatever the relationship was like prior to this incident, it must be very very very very very bad now. AP reports that 150 Iraqi prisoners escaped in the melee (the Ministry of Defence denies this). Basra govenor Mohammed al-Waili called this incident a "barbaric act of aggression".

Monday, September 19, 2005

Oh, Zing!

This latest Fareed Zakaria column on the Bush administration's refusal to take responsibility of the runaway budget is simply blistering:
Today's Republicans believe in pork, but they don't believe in government. So we have the largest government in history but one that is weak and dysfunctional.
Public spending is a cynical game of buying votes or campaign contributions, an
utterly corrupt process run by lobbyists and special interests with no concern
for the national interest. So we shovel out billions on "Homeland Security" to
stave off nonexistent threats to Wisconsin, Wyoming and Montana while New York
and Los Angeles remain unprotected. We mismanage crises with a crazy-quilt
patchwork of federal, local and state authorities—and sing paeans to federalism
to explain our incompetence. We denounce sensible leadership and pragmatism
because they mean compromise and loss of ideological purity. Better to be right
than to get Iraq right.

I despair. For how much longer will the public perception of Republicans as the small government party continue? On the social front, they're increasingly intruding into our lives in unwelcome ways. On the economic front, they are spending like the proverbial drunken sailors while refusing to recognize the tab.

Deficit Reduction DIY

Count Ricardian equivalence as another economic dictum that might be sound in principle but often worthless in practice. Jacob at Everybody's Illusion say that if you have a cow with the deficit and its impact on future generations, simply work out your share of the deficit and square that money away as treasury bonds. Gift the money to your kids with the understanding that it is for repaying the deficit when it finally gets called in. Since the money you put away will be the same money that you would pay if taxes were raised tomorrow to pay for the deficit, surely it's six-of-one/half dozen of the other. Sounds good, right?

Let's say you follow Jacob's plan and unilaterally eliminate your share of the deficit. Your offspring (provided they can keep their mitts off the cash) are insulated from the destabilizing effect of the (inevitable) future tax hikes. But what about everybody else? Unless everybody in America followed Jacob's plan, you are still going to have a society plunging towards financial meltdown. Not a pleasant fate to contemplate for your sprogs.

Yes, yes. I know that Jacob probably did not intend anybody to actually take his suggestion seriously. But he presented this idea with enough gravity that I'll bite. I have a hard time telling when libertarians are being flippant, rather than simply naive.

Another Eyesore Embassy

Dan Nexon makes a good point in comments -- the British Embassy in the U.S. is pretty gosh-darn hideous too, in a more municipal way.

Also, super bonus points for a witty retort using a The Princess Bride quote.

Dressed to shock

An Australian man built up such a huge static electric charge on his synthetic-material jacket, he left "left a trail of scorch marks and molten plastic behind him." The charge was estimated to be around 30,000 volts.

It was yesterday afternoon when Frank Clewer walked into a Warrnambool business and got his first shock.
"It sounded almost like a firecracker or something like that," he said.
"It was at the reception area. Within say, around five minutes, the carpet started to erupt," he said.
Burns the size of 10-cent pieces were left on the carpet where Mr Clewer had been standing.
Scientist Karl Kruszelnicki says it is likely the electrical build-up was caused by a number of factors, such as the synthetic clothes the man was wearing.
"This poor guy has built up static electricity thanks to an unfortunate combination of insulating clothes that he's wearing, static, synthetic clothes, just walking along and he's just building up this static charge everywhere," Dr Kruszelnicki said.

Of course, in Australia this would be winter, which explains the jacket. I'm still trying to figure out how they arrived at the 30,000 volts number.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Slow blogger blues

Sorry for the paucity of posts lately, folks. I've been mooching internet intermittently from family and at the office, but I'm one of those slow bloggers who can't dash off posts on the fly. Hopefully, once I finally get broadband set up at home, I'll be back to my usual posting frequency.

I was almost seduced into one of those PDA mobile phones that claims to do everything but scrub the kitchen sink, including check emails and blogs. Unfortunately, it would have tied me to a horrendous plan with far more minutes than I would need. Besides. Wi-fi coverage in London is incredibly sparse, especially coming from Mt. Airy, where the entire down-town is free wireless.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Fortress America

Most other embassies in London are sanely and appropriately housed in the historical and gorgeous row-buildings in Mayfair. But not US. We had to build a hideous and enormous concrete ediface redolent of soviet-style architecture at its most souless, probably knocking down a whole block of lovely buildings in the process.
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Complete with giant golden eagle. Nice.
Not content with blighting one of the nicest squares in London, now the US embassy is "applying for permission to install rising bollards in Upper Grosvenor Street and Upper Brook Street so that - at times of heightened security - they can be raised, and the roads around the embassy sealed off". Nevermind the aesthetic horror of turning Grosvenor square into a concrete bunker. The traffic disruption alone is unacceptable.

On a bizarre side-note, Countess Anca Vidaeff (who lives in Upper Brook Street) is going on a hunger strike to protest this. Why she thinks anybody will care is beyond me.

(No links. I don't think the "Mayfair Times" is online. Article is from the September 05 issue for the record.)

Thursday, September 08, 2005

I miss my baseball

England is gripped by cricket fever. Apparently, there's this match-up with Australia called 'the Ashes' that's supposed to be a huge deal.

Gene has been watching cricket, determined to become the first American to crack the code. I told him that it's hopeless, that unless you are English or at one point colonized by the English, the elusive appeal of leather on willow will always escape you. And so it is that at the end of half an hour's viewing, he still haven't figured out which country is pitching and which country batting "because they're both wearing white".

One point of interest: Instead of singing "God Save the Queen" at this game, "Jerusalem" by William Blake will be sung instead. Contrary to popular belief in the U.S., "God Save the Queen" is not really regarded as the English anthem, and as the Scots and the Welsh have taken to singing their own national anthems, so the English too are struggling to find a song that expresses their national identity apart from the other countries in the union better than the rather generic "God Save the Queen". In my opinion, if this sticks, they will be replacing a lumbering and distastefully jingoistic ditty with something sublime.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Now live from London

First of all, thanks so much to John from Dymaxion World for his excellent posts on peak oil and other energy issues while I was away. I've actually been settling in London for a few days now, but have had trouble obtaining reliable internet access. Hopefully I'll be blogging regularly from this point onwards.

The British press have been reliably scathing on the handling of Katrina. And I'm very glad that the U.S. press seem to have stepped up to the plate for once too. The other item that is big news in the U.K. is the court martial of 7 elite soldiers from the paratrooper regiment who battered an Iraqi teenager to death. They are being charged with murder.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Final Thoughts on Peak Oil

(Posted by John.)

So how bad will it be? Dunno. (How's that for anti-climactic?)

Seriously though, I'd be pretending to much greater expertise in this subject than I actually have if I made a prediction. But let me put it this way - not only are we not getting ready for this, we're not even getting ready to get ready. That DOE report I mentioned predicted it would take 20 years to make the transition away from oil - and also predicted a Peak in 2016. So we're really behind. Obviously, it's much worse if the Peak comes sooner.

But there are many, though I don't believe they make up the majority, who are pushing what I've repeated called Apocalypse Porn (in a perhaps doomed attempt to coin a phrase.) These people include Matt Savinar and JH Kunstler, and the running theme is that civilization as we know it is doomed, doomed! One of the oft-repeated claims is that the global economy functions on oil, therefore when oil Peak hits the global economy will collapse. But this assumes that people have no agency in the matter. Yes, the ships which carry the bulk of world shipping run on oil. But not that much oil - less than we use for airplane travel, or even agriculture. People will quite readily give up flying to Florida for vacation, rather than give up cheap laptops from China. They will, if at all possible, give up driving to and from work every day rather than give up eating. Indeed, in a post-Peak world procuring cheap commodities from overseas becomes even more important as our lifestyles are degraded by high fuel prices. Similarly, whatever cargo can be moved by rail will be as trains are more efficient than trucks. This will be more expensive then we're used to - but not prohibitively so, and not so much as to induce cannibalism.

Now, this isn't to say the transition will be painless. In fact, given our essentially total lack of preparedness, I'd bet on a major recession (not to mention less variety at the supermarket) as a result of oil production peaking. But the transition is possible, and advising people to put money in canned goods and marksmanship lessons - rather than clean, renewable energy - isn't terribly helpful.

Some optimists would like to hope that even this relatively mild future could be avoided, by high prices stimulating conservation. I believe a certain amount of this is possible, but whether it can outpace racing demand growth is very questionable, in my eyes. Demand in the US, China, and India is simply growing too quickly, and any decline in price (from conservation) is only going to fuel that growth further, and possibly be self-defeating.

Speaking of - stop blaming China and India for the oil prices. Yes, they're accounting for almost all the demand growth. But it's hardly like they're gluttons - or oiloholics, as The Economist calls them. To portray China and the US as equally culpable for high oil demand is no doubt insulting to the Chinese - who after all still consume less than 1/3 the oil the US does, and 1/12 the oil per person that the US does. If the US wanted to avoid high oil prices, the US government could have led the way in efficient cars, not SUVs. As my favourite President said, it's insulting for a nation of SUVs to lecture an nation of bicycles on energy efficiency.

But it does point to the importance of choosing our new energy sources properly - and why abundance is so important. God willing, by 2050 there will be 9 billion decently well-off people on the planet. The only way we're going to avoid armageddon is if there is room for growth, and the only way we can do that is with abundant energy.

Do I have a plan? Well, my short version goes like this: get people off of oil for transportation. Using electric cars for our daily commutes, and trains for longer trips, would do wonders for the economy and for the environment. If necessary, we could probably support aviation from coal-derived fuels. But I'd just as soon not, if possible. There's more to it than that - what role for biofuels, for example - but any plan that doesn't begin with getting Americans out of gas-powered cars is worse than no plan at all. And there's always the chance that if America doesn't do it for itself, it'll be forced to by foreign competition - seriously, does Detroit remember how bad the 1970s and 80s were? Because they aren't acting like it.

I haven't even begun to deal with all the issues surrounding oil, sustainability, and alternative energy sources - these posts have really just been a primer of sorts. But if you're interested in keeping up, I'd reccomend The Oil Drum, WorldChanging, and Treehugger just for beginners. For more depth, read Natural Capitalism - and don't let optimism or pessimism get in the way of critical thought.

If I have time to post more later I will, but I'm moving on Saturday and thus will be kind of busy the next few days. If I don't get to it, thanks for reading and especially thanks to Angelica for giving me the opportunity to annoy a wider audience. Good luck in London!

Thursday, September 01, 2005

I Continue To Anger

(Posted by John.)

Hell hell hell hell hell.

The news out of New Orleans keeps getting worse and worse. I don't know what American news is like, but the Canadian press is being highly critical of Bush in the crapiness of this response. (I see that CNN is even landing some punches.)

Regarding the idea of not "politicizing" this, I've written a response - but in this case only, I'd prefer to keep Angelica's much nicer blog clean. So the link is here, and follow if you like.

As Brad Delong says, impeach him now.

Second Verse, Same As The First

(Posted by John.)

Ezra writes:
New Orleans is going to need a lot of rebuilding. And while I agree that it'd probably be smartest to pack up and move the city elsewhere, it's probably not going to happen. But couldn't we hire all those displaced residents to work on the rebuilding? Surely a large amount of what needs to be done is low-skill or easily learned labor. And the government could pay them a slight wage, provide housing and food, and generally give them a purpose and a hand in reconstruction while they wait for their homes to dry out. Otherwise you have an enormous mass of unemployed, bewildered refugees flooding into nearby economies that're totally unprepared for the influx. It'd be a disaster. This'd prove a much cleaner and more sustainable way to occupy them while New Orleans is resurrected.
Are you kidding? With this administration? Listen to yourself, Ezra! That's exactly the same arguments we used against Bush's Halliburton-ification of Iraq - that local labour could do the job, giving them a wage and keeping them out of the insurgency.

How'd that turn out again? Oh, right.

Atrios has been amazing today - covering all the examples of Bush's criminal incompetence. But one that made it on Kos has me seething - if it's true, this is incredible:
On tonight's news, CTV (Canadian TV) said that support was offered from Canada. Planes are ready to load with food and medical supplies and a system called “DART” which can provide fresh water and medical supplies is standing by. Department of Homeland Security as well as other U.S. agencies were contacted by the Canadian government requesting permission to provide help. Despite this contact, Canada has not been allowed to fly supplies and personnel to the areas hit by Katrina. So, everything here is grounded. Prime Minister Paul Martin is reportedly trying to speak to President Bush tonight or tomorrow to ask him why the U.S. federal government will not allow aid from Canada into Louisiana and Mississippi. That said, the Canadian Red Cross is reportedly allowed into the area.
Please God, let a Democratic congress impeach this bastard in 2007.

I Remember!

(Posted by John.)

As much as Bush is full of shit when he says "nobody anticipated the levees breaking", he's even more full of shit if he thinks that the energy problems we're seeing as a result of Katrina were unexpected.

The Rocky Mountain Institute has been banging the drum of what they call "Brittle Power" for decades now. On page 2 of Chapter 1, they point out:
The United States has reached the point where:
a few people could probably black out most of the country;
a small group could shut off three-fourths of the natural gas to the eastern U.S. in one evening without leaving Louisiana;
a terrorist squad could seriously disrupt much of the oil supply to the nation or even to the world;
one saboteur could incinerate a city by attacking certain natural gas systems;
a few people (perhaps just one person) could release enough radioactivity to make much of the U.S. uninhabitable;
and a single hydrogen bomb could probably do all these things simultaneously.
The problem is highly-centralized, poorly placed energy infrastructure. Seriously, would you base that much refinery capacity in New Orleans?

Reading Brittle Power - as with everything by the RMI - is very educational.


(Posted by John.)

We can stop listening to various right-wingers complain about why "dem foreigners" aren't offering America help. Radley Balko has the details.

Words Fail Even Me, Sometimes

(Posted by John.)

As the scale of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico becomes apparent, it's becoming harder and harder for me to watch. We're watching a city die, make no mistake about that. Even with the levees filled and the city drained, New Orleans (not to mention the other towns that have been hit) is unlikely to ever recover from this blow. Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, could be dead. As much as some people are loath to hear it, this is without a doubt worse than 9/11. Yes, there are things in this world that can hurt more than terrorism.

Anyway, Billmon has a list of charities you can donate to.

On a less important note, we should take a look at the damage to the oil infrastructure. The Oil Drum is a blog you want to be reading. Basically, the short version seems to be that even with Bush dipping in to the SPR, gas prices are going to go up. This is because it wasn't just oil rigs that were destroyed, but refineries have been put out of comission as well. There was already little to no slack in the US's refinery capacity, so this has made things even worse. The gasoline shortages have already started. Somewhat oddly, this may very well mean that oil prices go down in the near future, while gasoline prices go through the roof.

Speaking of which, I lost my bet that we'd see $75 per barrel of crude before September. Oh well. I figure it was a long shot, anyway. On the other hand, if I'd bet on $5/gallon for gas, I'd have been right...

Overall, Katrina shows the problem with Peak Oil - any disruption can have huge side effects. Now, obviously Katrina would have hurt the US regardless. But ten years ago there would have been spare oil and refinery capacity to make up the shortfalls. Now there won't be.

That Bush isn't asking Americans to cut their gasoline use immediately is totally bewildering to me. At least for the next few months, people need to slow down and drive less.

Sleep Aids

(Posted by John.)

The last store at our intersection wasn't a purveyor of caffeinated goods at all - they provided sleep aids so you didn't need caffeine. Similarly, solutions to our energy problems are not going to come simply by finding new sources of energy - though that will be necessary. Rather, we need to start re-thinking what we use our energy for.

Take oil. People can do without a certain amount of driving. What they can't do without is, for example, heating their homes in January. For your information, the IEA estimates that there will be oil supply problems for the 4th quarter of 2005 and the first of 2006. Similarly, we're now looking at severe price hikes for natural gas for this winter and the next few years.

Now, it's possible to heat homes electrically, but this is a huge use of electricity, and the North American electrical grid is overloaded as it is. So electricity might replace oil and natural gas, but is there a more elegant solution? Fortunately, there is - and it's only slightly more complicated than digging a hole. A geothermal heat pump is basically a heat exchanger buried about 6 feet underground. Because earth at that depth stays at a constant temperature year-round, it's possible to moderate a home's temperature by drawing cool air during the summer and warmer air (relative to the air outside) during the winters. You might still need a small heater to supplement the heat pump during the winter, but much less than if you were heating the home entirely on electric.

If that doesn't excite you, solar thermal systems have been heating homes for decades now. Indeed, solar thermal systems have contributed more energy to the US than electric systems ever have, albeit more often for pools than homes. Solar heaters have a number of positive aspects, including low cost, reliability, and high efficiency. Also, solar heaters have an interesting effect: Because a solar heater heats your home gently for the whole day, rather than in spurts (like a conventional furnance), the solar heater effectively turns your home in to a heat "battery" - your walls, furniture, everything retains a lot of heat in the winter. A well insulated home could mostly or entirely heat itself through the winter with low-cost solar systems. As with the geothermal system, it might need an electric heater to supplement it, but either (or both) of these systems can provide for the bulk of household needs.

How about water heating? One of the biggest energy consumers in your home is your hot-water tank, even if it's a modern model. But is it necessary? Not really. A number of people are now adopting "tankless" water heaters, which heat water as it becomes necessary, rather than keeping several dozen gallons hot at all times. The energy savings are potentially huge.

And these are just what's possible to retrofit existing homes. When we talk about building new homes, it's now possible to build "zero energy" homes - not that they don't consume energy, but they generate their own energy. It currently adds slightly to the value of the homes, but the additional cost is paid off within a matter of years, not decades. (How long is a mortgage?)

There are a number of more mundane things homeowners can do - replace old windows, re-insulate their walls, get rid of incandescent bulbs in favour of new compact fluorescents, etc etc.

Then there's the habits we have to change. Simple, silly stuff consumes a non-trivial amount of energy. Do you open the oven to peak at your frozen pizza while it cooks? Stop that. Leave the fridge open? Leave the water running while you brush your teeth/shave? Stop it! Do you leave your car running while you run in to the store? Stop that, too - you're burning gas, and harming your engine.

During the 1980s, California had an enormously successful conservation measure. At one point, the state legislature expected they would never have to build another plant again - they were actually saving electricity that quickly. However, that conservation program was abandoned with the deregulation of electricity in the 1990s. A similar thing happened here in Ontario, and we've paid for it this summer, to the tune of millions of dollars.

It might not be possible to repeat California's success on a national scale. But we could without question make massive reductions in our electricity demand - halving it is not impossible. Reducing America's electricity demand in half would allow America to get rid of all of it's coal generation, which would incidentally save thousands of lives who currently die from air pollution. Alternately, if we could save 30% of US electricity, we could replace all of America's light vehicles with electric models. Air pollution would also go down in this scenario, as electric cars are still cleaner than gasoline cars - even powered from coal. Oh, and America would meet it's Kyoto targets with room to spare.

A note on electric cars: Despite no serious money from the government, electric cars are increasingly realistic alternatives to gas-powered cars. Their ranges are now comparable to gas cars, and the newest technology can near-fully charge a car's batteries in 5-10 minutes. No car maker has produced the "model T" of electric cars - combining low cost, decent performance, and ease of use. But with recent announcements by Mitsubishi, Subaru, and a consortium of North American battery companies, it looks more and more (to my layman eyes, at least) like the future will be run on batteries. Unlike the alrernatives, it's a well-tested technology with an existing distribution grid (copper wire.) It's long been believed that electric cars can be cost-competitive with gas cars, in mass production. Let's hope that this is proven soon.

Then there's the bigger stuff. Suburbia could conceivably be a big problem - is it a sustainable lifestyle in a post-oil age? Some people don't think so. James Howard Kunstler made a big noise a few months ago, in what was at the time the most attention the blogosphere had paid to Peak Oil issues. I was (and am) very skeptical of these claims. The replacements are there, and if nothing else suburbanites are a pretty important market sector, not to mention a big voting bloc. A LOT of money is at stake - and while the market may not be able to solve all problems, catering to the whims of suburbanites is something it's really good at.

Still, my optimism doesn't change a few basic facts: We need to start using less energy. We need to start using energy more intelligently, and differently. Both of these things are possible, without worsening our lifestyles. And we really, really need to build more renewable energy quickly.

Contrast these basic needs with the most recent energy bill passed by the Republican Congress - with the Democrats shamefully playing quislings - and you can see why there's still reason for concern. Our governments are still locked in to the paradigm of needing more energy, rather than using the energy we have more intelligently. This isn't even a partisan problem - shamefully, and defying all common sense, the Ontario Liberal government (basically, Canada's Democrats) is widely expected to announce a new program of nuclear construction, even though Ontario still hasn't paid off the debt from it's current nuclear plants!

I'm almost done here - Angelica will be back soon. But in the next big post, I'm going to wrap up with some concluding thoughts, and try to impress why I'm so optimistic. Of course, when the extremes are "status quo" and "apocalypse", optimistic has some very different meanings.

In Response to Comments...

(Posted by John.)

Scott asks:
I have a question about the cost of solar. Aren't solar cells still prohibitively expensive to produce, even factoring in gains for mass production on a global scale?
There are several answers to this question. The first is to say that there have always been ways that governments could have brought the price of solar down, if they'd been so motivated.

One telling example is the US government's far-sighted program in the 1950s to buy transistors in bulk from whoever could make them - it began quickly bringing the price of these new inventions down. A similar program in the 1970s could very likely have brought the price of solar down to the point where it would be competitve with coal today.

Ignoring governments, the major oil companies could have thrown 1% of their earnings towards solar - which would have in no way threatened their business models - and massively stimulated research and development.

The second answer to Scott's question is that, in some cases, solar power is already the cheapest form of energy available - for example, here in Toronto (where I'll soon be leaving) the electricity prices have been capped by the government. If they had not been, however, we'd be seeing prices in the $0.15/kwh range during this last summer, roughly 150% what the best solar panels can produce. In rural areas that are off the grid, solar is often the only source of energy available.

The Third answer to Scott's question is this: Yesterday I exchanged emails with the people at Nanosolar. I have to say, I wish these guys (and presumably gals too) all the luck in the world. If they pull off what they hope to, we're all going to know this company pretty soon.

If you haven't caught the name before, Nanosolar is a company that is trying to apply printing technologies to photovoltaic cell manufacture. Rather than the energy-intensive and costly manufacture silicon cells currently undergo, Nanosolar essentially hopes to run solar power off by the foot. (They've already demonstrated the process - you can watch a video at their website.) The cost savings promise to be revolutionary - $0.50 per installed peak watt of power, compared to $10 for current PV cells, or $1 for coal plants. You read that right - Nanosolar will be able to under-sell coal.

It gets better. In the medium term, they hope to bring that price down even further, to $0.20 per peak watt. At that point, the power to run your home forever would add only a few hundred dollars to your mortgage. Throw some batteries in the basement, make your heavy-use appliances DC instead of AC, and suddenly the solar future is here.

At $.20/Wp, Solar could compete with coal, even taking in to account solar's intermittency. And given their stated figure of an energy payoff in three weeks and a lifetime similar to conventional cells - decades! - the energy profit would be literally orders of magnitude higher.

To recap: In the next year or two, Nanosolar will be introducing cheap solar power that will be able to compete with even our current cheapest source of electricity. If any billionaire investors are reading this site, consider throwing some pretzel moneez their way. Seriously.

Now, it should be said that I'm basing all this on the company's own website and an exchange with someone from (I believe) their PR department. So a grain of salt would not be ill-advised. Still, I hope you can see why I'm excited.