May 2008, Part 3
Jim Miller on Politics
Coal As A Substitute For Oil: At some price (and given some time) any fossil fuel can substitute for any other. We can make electricity, heat (and cool) our homes, and power our vehicles with natural gas, oil, or coal. Because we can make these substitutions, each fuel sets rough price limits for the other fuels.
That implies that the long term price for oil should be no higher than about 50 or 60 dollars a barrel. Assuming, that is, that you trust estimates from MIT.
In terms of economics, coal-based liquid fuel becomes viable when the per-barrel price of oil has exceeded the $45-50 range, according to separate MIT and National Mining Association studies. This is because of high front-end expenditures-a 10,000 barrel-a-day plant would cost approximately $600-700 million to construct-and the price of CO2 capture. All told, the refinement process is three to four times more expensive than refining an equivalent amount of oil. Not included in the above estimate is the cost of sequestrating the captured CO2, which would increase the price of the end product by a projected $5 a barrel. The imposition of a strict carbon cap and trade regime would also raise the cost of fuel produced with CTL technology, because of the CO2 emissions associated with it. Still, given the current high price of oil, coal to liquids is likely to remain an economically sound alternative.Or maybe even lower, if you trust the 35 dollar estimate given in this Wikipedia article.
And I think we probably can trust those estimates, because we have long experience with this conversion, notably in South Africa, and in Germany. Apparently the Chinese think they can trust those estimates, because they are building a large CTL plant that will begin operation this year.
China's largest coal company Shenhua Group will produce China's first barrel of liquid fuel from coal in 2008 using self-owned technology known as direct coal liquefaction.Though, of course, the Chinese may be building this plant partly for military reasons.
There are similar efforts to convert coal (and sometimes natural gas) to liquid fuels in the United States. (Some backed by the US Defense Department.) If oil prices stay above 100 dollars a barrel for long, we should expect to see many more, all over the world.
At least in places where they are not blocked by environmentalists, most of whom really hate these plants.
(Readers my age or older may remember that President Carter established a Synfuels corporation in the 1970s. It was a failure for many reasons.)
- 4:15 PM, 23 May 2008 [link]
908 Inches: That's how much snow has fallen since July 1, 2007 at Paradise on Mt. Rainier. There are currently 194 inches of snow on the ground there. Neither is a record, but both are well above average.
194 inches is just a little more than 16 feet. You can see some pictures of Paradise when there were more than 20 feet of snow on the ground here. If you read that post, you'll notice that Paradise has gotten about 30 inches of snow in the last month. Spring was beginning at the bottom of the mountain when I visited there last Sunday, but has not gotten close to Paradise.
(For the curious, the records are 1122 inches and 367 inches, respectively. The first was the world's record from 1972 until 1999, when it was surpassed at Mt. Baker)
- 9:55 AM, 23 May 2008 [link]
Economist Greg Mankiw Gives Obama Credit For A Good Idea: A very small one. But saying that it is Obama's "Best Idea Yet" is a little harsh, though I'll admit that I can't, offhand, think of a better idea from the junior senator from Illinois.
- 6:17 AM, 23 May 2008 [link]
Oil Prices? According to the Washington Post, oil experts are confused about the reasons for skyrocketing prices.
Confused about oil prices? So are the experts.Actually, the experts aren't confused; they just disagree. Some experts think the current prices simply reflect supply and demand; others don't.
Experts — if they want to be considered experts — must not be confused, but the rest of us can be. And I will admit that I am. The price rise in oil up until about a year ago might be explained — as far as I can tell — mostly by supply and demand. But I am not certain that the increase since then can be explained simply by those two factors.
Anatole Kaletsky is not confused (and may be an expert on economics). He is nearly certain that the current price of oil is a speculative bubble, not just a result of short supplies and strong demands.
To see that these "fundamentals" are all irrelevant, we have merely to ask which of them has changed in the past nine months. The answer is none. The oil markets didn't suddenly discover China's oil demand nine months ago so this cannot explain the doubling of prices since last August. In fact, China's "insatiable" demand growth has decelerated. In 2004 it was consuming an extra 0.9 million barrels a day; in 2007 it was consuming just an extra 0.3 mbd. In the same period global demand growth has slowed from 3.6 mbd to 0.7 mbd. As a result, the increase in global demand growth is now well below last year's increase of 0.8 mbd in non-Opec production, according to Mike Rothman, of ISI, a leading New York consulting group.Is that true? Is the Gulf filled with supertankers just sitting there waiting for higher prices? I have no idea. And I have no idea whether we can trust Mike Rothman. Or even whether anyone has the essential facts on oil production, since many of the oil producing nations do not release all of their data (and, of course, because there is always some cheating in the oil markets).
Ambrose Evans Pritchard may not be an economic expert, but he has been around for a while, and he agrees with Kaletsky. He even gives us some of the essential data:
The world's finely balanced market for crude has been creeping into surplus for several weeks. Opec's monthly report says that demand this quarter will average 85.75m bpd. Supply was 86.8m bpd in April. The fresh output from Nigeria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia may push it significantly further into surplus.On the other hand, there is this story from the International Energy Agency, which says that many of the world's oil fields are in worse condition than previously thought. But it is hard to know how seriously to take leaks from a study that won't even be completed until this November.
In case you are not as confused as I am, let me add one more point. The experts disagree on how much OPEC is restricting production, on whether, for example, Saudi Arabia could quickly expand its production and exports. I am inclined to think that they could expand fairly quickly, but that may just reflect my dislike of the Saudis and their OPEC partners. (President Bush seems to share that view or he would not have just asked them, again, to expand production. And, as I recall, the Saudis didn't say that they couldn't expand production, just that they didn't want to.)
And that point leads me to a bit of speculation: Although neither Kaletsky nor Pritchard mentions it, there is one thing that changed in the last year: The Democrats took control of Congress. That weakened President Bush severely, and made it much less likely that the US would expand our own energy production significantly. Could that have been a signal to the speculators? Possibly. Just possibly.
(For some interesting examples of just how wrong experts have been in the recent past, see this post.)
- 3:09 PM, 22 May 2008
Another Expert, More Confusion: This morning, I heard economist Philip Verleger (almost certainly this Philip Verleger) on Weekend Edition. He told Scott Simon that Americans were adjusting their use of gasoline downwards in a variety of small ways. In time, he expected these reductions, and similar reductions in other nations, to drop the price of gasoline down to 3 dollars a gallon or so.
He blamed much of the current problems on a shortage of light, sweet (low-sulfur) crude oil, which is best for making diesel fuel. The problem would be much less if the US were not buying so much of this oil for the strategic petroleum reserve. In fact, he believes that we could sharply cut the cost of oil by arranging a swap, trading the light, sweet crude in the reserve for more abundant, lower quality oil.
The shortage of particular kinds of oil explains, in his view, the combination of a price spike with full oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. He said those tankers are filled with sour Iranian oil, which is less suitable as a stock for diesel fuel. If he is correct in this analysis, then the current spike in the price of oil may be partly due to the clean diesel rules imposed by the EPA a few years ago, and similar rules in Europe.
Though Verleger expects oil prices to fall some time, he was predicting, just a month ago, that they might hit 200 dollars a barrel by the end of the year.
It's an interesting argument and more subtle than some of the competing explanations. Verleger may be right, but it is a little troubling that he was an adviser to President Carter, during Carter's (mostly) failed presidency. But it is possible that Carter didn't take his advice, or that Verleger has learned something since then.
- 2:48 PM, 24 May 2008
George Soros, who knows a little about speculation, says there is an oil bubble, but that it may not break until the US and Britain have recessions.
- 5:38 AM, 27 May 2008 [link]
We Can Feel Sorry For Ted Kennedy: Without accepting his idea that he can bequeath his Senate seat to his wife.
Ted Kennedy has made clear to confidants that when his time is up, he wants his Senate seat to stay in the family — with his wife, Vicki.The second paragraph omits some history. After JFK won the presidency in 1960, the seat was held for a time by an old friend of the Kennedy family, Benjamin A. Smith, II, until Ted Kennedy was old enough to run for the seat.
If it becomes necessary to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate, I would prefer that the decision be made by the voters of Massachusetts, not the Kennedy dynasty.
- 1:11 PM, 22 May 2008 [link]
Linda Douglass Makes It Official: Think some journalists are backing Obama? You are right.
Linda Douglass, a longtime network news correspondent in Washington now working as a contributing editor to The National Journal, said Wednesday that she would leave the magazine to work for Senator Barack Obama's campaign.Jim Rutenberg, the New York Times reporter who wrote this story, appears nervous about the public reaction to this job change, and goes to some length in the article to assure us that Douglass was really, really being fair in her stories before this switch. Rutenberg should relax. Most of us in the center and right actually prefer to see Douglass openly backing Obama in a campaign position, rather than tacitly backing him, as so many journalists are, at the New York Times, and elsewhere in the "mainstream" media.
In fact, many of us would be pleased if more journalists would imitate Douglass and openly join the Obama campaign.
- 10:14 AM, 22 May 2008
- 6:29 AM, 23 May 2008 [link]
The Audacity Of I: A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope. I have not studied it, have not even read more than a few pages, but whenever I dip into it, I am struck by his pronouns.
For example, in the first three pages of his first chapter (titled "Republicans and Democrats") you will find these pronouns, in order: I, me, my, I, we, I, I, my, my, my, I, our, I, I, we. And everywhere else I have looked in the book, I find the same prevalence of those five pronouns.
Of course Obama does use other pronouns in the book, but far less often than he uses pronouns that refer to himself.
(There is an interesting contrast to Profiles in Courage, written by John F. Kennedy and Theodore Sorensen. In the first three pages of the first chapter (titled "Courage and Politics"), Kennedy (or, if you prefer, Sorensen) uses "I" in just two paragraphs, once in a quotation from a Cabinet member's diary and again in an opinion about the Senate. The book is about John Qunicy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund G. Ross, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, George Norris, and Robert A. Taft, not John F. Kennedy or Theodore Sorensen.)
- 2:43 PM, 21 May 2008 [link]
Just In Case You Missed It: Yves Rossy and his personal jet. In part, he built it and flew it to "impress the girls". I don't know if the girls are impressed, but I am.
- 2:01 PM, 21 May 2008 [link]
No, Former Army Chaplain James Yee Was Not Exonerated: Even though the Associated Press says so.
But the AP is correct when it says that Yee has just been made an Obama delegate from Washington state's 9th district.
That AP story was published in the Seattle Times, but it is not hard to find similar stories in the Seattle PI.
Incidentally, it is not unusual for spy cases to be dropped because the government does not want to reveal some of its evidence. That happened, for instance, with Armand Hammer, who was known to be working for the Soviets for much of his career — but was never charged with being an enemy agent. (For a description of this disgusting man and his many crimes, read Edward Jay Epstein's Dossier.) And spy cases have been dropped from time to time in Britain, for the same reason.Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 12:43 PM, 21 May 2008 [link]
Democrats Being Nasty: To fellow Democrats.
This nastiness is almost inevitable in identity politics, where the struggle is over who the candidates are, rather than what they have done, or what they stand for. De Rubens gives us an example:
And once it's personal, it isn't just politics anymore.
If you read the entire article, you will notice something significant: None of the Democrats quoted in the article say that their candidate would be a better president than the other candidate. Instead, all talk about how electing a candidate of the right sex, or color, would make them feel better. This might not do much harm if we were electing a homecoming queen or king, but we are choosing a president who will not be just a symbol, but who will make actual decisions.
Cross posted at Sound Politics.
(I can't help wondering whether Ms. de Rubens has complained about similar nastiness — when it was directed at Republicans. But whether she has or not, Obama supporters should still treat her with civility. And I say that despite knowing that this nastiness may help elect candidates who will try to do the best for all Americans, regardless of their race or sex. Most of the candidates who want to escape from identity politics, and to treat everyone equally, are Republicans, of course.For those not familiar with this area, I should add that people are generally more civil here than in some other parts of the country, especially in prosperous suburbs of Seattle such as Bellevue and Issaquah.)
- 3:51 PM, 20 May 2008 [link]
Don't Know Much About agricultural policy.
Speaking to a crowd of farmers in a barn, Barack Obama cited the Japanese not selling American beef as an example of how current trade policies have hurt rural communities.There are still some restrictions, but it isn't true that you "can't get American beef into Japan". And Japan imports large amounts of beef from Australia.
Note the context: Obama wasn't trapped by a trick question; he made this error all by himself.
- 9:27 AM, 20 May 2008 [link]
Ralph Peters has some sharp words for "mainstream" journalists.
Do we still have troops in Iraq? Is there still a conflict over there?You'd almost think that our "mainstream" journalists want us to lose. And I am certain that they do not want President Bush to get any credit for successes in the war on terror, especially in Iraq.
- 9:00 AM, 20 May 2008 [link]
Diaspar Versus Lys, Krugman Versus The People: In Against the Fall of Night (later rewritten as The City and the Stars), Arthur C. Clarke described two contrasting ways of living, Diaspar, a city that provided everything for its jaded and somewhat decadent inhabitants, and Lys, a land of villages, where the people, though misled about their own past, were, on the whole, healthy psychologically.
In the introduction to my copy of Against the Fall of Night, Clarke explains the origins of the contrast between these two ways of living.
And, undoubtedly, much of the emotional basis came from my transplantation from the country (Somerset) to the city (London), when I joined the British Civil Service in 1936. The contrast between a pastoral and an urban way of life has haunted me ever since; I could hardly have imagined that, thirty years later, I should resolve it by the drastic expedient of commuting around the world every few months, from Ceylon to New York.As you may know, especially if you are a science fiction fan, Clarke eventually settled in Ceylon full time, resolving the conflict in favor of the pastoral.
Americans have found an easier way to resolve the conflict between pastoral and urban ways of life; about half of us now live in suburbs. (And more would if they could.)
Most people may like living in suburbs, but most city planners hate them. In Britain, as this review of a book on post-World War II Britain points out:
At war's end, Britain faced a housing crisis. German bombs had destroyed or severely damaged 750,000 houses, and virtually no new ones had been built for six years. Kynaston shows that, far more than national health insurance or the nationalization of industry, "across the country, it was on the home that most people's hopes and concerns were really focused." In their diaries and letters as well as in survey after survey, people made clear their strong dislikes in housing ("nothing less than a mass aversion towards the whole idea of flats," Kynaston characterizes it) and their equally strong desire: a small suburban house with a garden. The planners and reformers would have none of it. Stridently communal, possessed of what Kynaston describes as an "almost visceral anti-suburban bias" and an accompanying conviction that "explicitly identified social virtue and cohesion in living cheek by jowl" in apartments and planned "New Towns" (innovations, Orwell noted, that would tend to break up the family), they wouldn't let the preferences of the public vitiate their glorious designs. As one of them, the economist P. Sargent Florence, declared, the predilections of "architects and planners" should trump "the inarticulate yearnings of the average working-class housewife." When addressing an unruly public meeting that opposed his "New Town" planning schemes designed to create "a new type of citizen," Lewis Silkin, the minister of town and country planning, put it more bluntly: "It's no good your jeering; it is going to be done." Ah, the People's Tribunes.And in the United States. Here's how Tom Wolfe described the views of American planners in his essay, The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening:
I can remember what brave plans visionary architects at Yale and Harvard still had for the common man in the early 1950's. (They actually used the term "the common man.") They had brought the utopian socialist dream forward into the twentieth century. They had things figured out to truly minute details, such as lamp switches. The new liberated workingman would live as the Cultivated Asetic. He would be modeled on the B.A.-degree Greenwich Village bohemian of the late 1940's — dark wool Hudson Bay shirts, tweed jackets, flannel trousers, briarwood pipes, good books, sandals and simplicity—except that he would live in a Worker Housing Project.American planners had less power than their British counterparts, especially in the first two decades after World War II, so the suburbs exploded here as workingmen, and everyone else who could afford to, rushed out of the cities to that compromise between the urban and the pastoral, the American suburb.
But the planners never gave up and, in recent years, have had some success in forcing Americans back into cities, or at least into the more densely settled suburbs, often by using innocuously labeled "growth management" plans.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is certain that those planners are right (regardless of what people may want).
Any serious reduction in American driving will require more than this — it will mean changing how and where many of us live.The Berlin neighborhood is not exactly Diaspar, but it is closer to Diaspar than to Lys.
Do most Europeans want to live this way? Probably not. But that doesn't matter to Professor Krugman, just as it doesn't matter to him that most Americans don't want to live in "four- or five-story apartment buildings". He knows what's best for us, and we should just do what he says. Whether we like it or not.
(Does Paul Krugman live in a four- or five-story apartment building? Not exactly:
We have a lovely house in Princeton, though it's not a mansion. It's on a wooded lot, and we have lots of deer, which drives my wife crazy (she's a gardener.) We have two cars - an old Jeep Cherokee, and a very old Volvo. Once the weather improves, I'll bike into the office most days.Sounds not just suburban, but exurban, to me. But then our planners almost always think they deserve exceptions from their plans.
Full disclosure: I grew up on a farm, have lived in a very large city (Chicago), small towns, a medium-sized city, and a suburb. I've been reasonably comfortable in all of them, but, everything else being equal — it isn't — I would prefer living in "a small suburban house with a garden".)
- 3:52 PM, 19 May 2008 [link]
Your Carbon Footprint May Vary: Does this surprise anyone?
Cars promoted as eco-friendly were criticised yesterday for pumping out up to 56 per cent more carbon dioxide than the manufacturers claim.Britons can save on car taxes if their cars emit less CO2, so the manufacturers have reasons to, let's not say cheat — that's such a harsh word — let's just say manipulate the results, so that their cars appear to put out less CO2 than they actually do.
- 2:13 PM, 19 May 2008 [link]
Some Men just won't respect a woman's right to privacy.
- 10:58 AM, 19 May 2008 [link]
Worth Reading: John Bolton explains the basics of negotiation.
The real debate is radically different. On one side are those who believe that negotiations should be used to resolve international disputes 99% of the time. That is where I am, and where I think Mr. McCain is. On the other side are those like Mr. Obama, who apparently want to use negotiations 100% of the time. It is the 100%-ers who suffer from an obsession that is naïve and dangerous.Barack Obama probably won't read this op-ed, but he should.
(Fun fact: Ronald Reagan was president of a union, the Screen Actors Guild. He said, more than once, that his experience as a union president helped him negotiate with political adversaries, and even with enemies of the United States.)
- 10:37 AM, 19 May 2008 [link]
How Ignorant Is Barack Obama? This ignorant. He doesn't know basic American geography. (There probably aren't any maps of the United States in novels by Toni Morrison, E.L.Doctorow, Philip Roth, or John le Carre.)
This ignorance is even more extraordinary when you remember that Obama is the junior senator from Illinois — but doesn't know what states touch Illinois.)
- 5:35 AM, 19 May 2008 [link]
18 Months To Go: Prince Charles forecasts disasters.
The Prince of Wales has warned that the world faces a series of natural disasters within 18 months unless urgent action is taken to save the rainforests.What I like about his prediction is that it is specific enough to be testable. By November, 2009 we will either see devastating effects of climate change, for example, widespread droughts, or we will not. Unlike some climate modelers, the prince has provided a prediction that meets one of the essential tests of a scientific theory: It is falsifiable; that is, his prediction can be proved wrong. And soon.
If I forget to check on the accuracy of his prediction 18 months from now, please remind me.
(The prince somewhat weakens his own case with this:
He conceded that at times he had been forced to keep his counsel when he would have liked to have spoken out. "You learn as you go along. I am going to be 60 this year. I would be a blinding idiot if I had not learnt a bit by now."The replies to that are all too obvious.)
- 6:37 AM, 18 May 2008 [link]
Song For Obama? I am sure his campaign already has one, but I doubt that they picked the song that fits him best. I have two suggestions.
First, let me note something that almost everyone knows. Obama has two significant publications, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. Both are, in large part, autobiographies. Think about that for a moment, and you will see why I think that Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" might be a good song for the junior senator from Illinois.
But there are other possibilities. Obama time and time again reveals astonishing ignorance about basic facts of American history and economics. When, for instance, he made his famous "arugula" statement, he appeared to believe that farm prices were then low. And his recent discussion of foreign policy was — assuming he was telling the truth — misinformed, to say the least.
It might seem implausible that a man could graduate from two Ivy League schools, Columbia and Harvard, and be that ignorant, but those who are familiar with our colleges and universities will tell you that it is quite easy to go through them, even the better ones, without learning much, except perhaps, a few things in your major.
Nor does Obama seem to have made much effort to educate himself since. (Unlike that voracious reader, George W. Bush.) Here's a telling exchange from Amazon:
Q: Do you ever find time to read? What kinds of books do you try to make time for? What is on your nightstand now?He claims to have read one novel (with an Iowa setting), started one serious book, and at some time in the past to have read unspecified fictional books by leftist authors. No military history, no economics, no political philosophy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. That's not an impressive reading list for a man who wants to be president.
For a man this ignorant, one song seems like an obvious choice, Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World", with its famous opening line, "Don't know much about history."
- 1:49 PM, 17 May 2008 [link]