Sunday, May 18, 2008

A conversation with my evil Republican side

It’s all the Democrats fault. They messed up everything when they took over Congress in 2006, which is exactly when the price of oil started going up. They put these provisions in the last energy bill, which prohibited the import of Canadian oil made from the oil sands, and prevented western states from developing oil shale. That caused the price of oil to go up. It shot up even higher when Reid and Pelosi issued statements saying they still weren’t to let Canadian oil made from oil sands to come into the US. We need to import that oil and drill in the Arctic and off the coasts of Canada and Texas. Then the price of gas will come down, and we will be able to get back to the things we like to do.

Well, if the Democrats we doing something, why didn’t Bush say anything, why didn’t he veto the energy bill? Also, I doubt the increased drilling in Alaska and off the coasts would bring in that much crude, and anyway, currently refineries are operating at only 80%, apparently the keep the price of gas higher. Also, aren’t we robbing our children’s future if we drill for very drop of oil and use it all up? How long can these new sources of oil last, and even if we could flood the market with crude, wouldn’t that just keep people from developing new sources of energy and fuel, because the gas would be so cheap?

The Democrats probably buried the restrictions deep in the energy bill. As for how long the new sources of oil can last, I’m sure it’ll be twenty or thirty years, long enough for those hippie eggheads at Berkeley to finally get off their butts and develop something useful, besides the electric golf cart Ed Begley Jr tools around in. That’s when our kids will need the jet packs to replace our SUV’s. Once the Arab countries know we are developing hydrogen powered jet packs, they will fall all over themselves to drop the price of crude.


I just came back from a three day trip, driving down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina for a birthday party for two cousins and my dad. The drive was grueling, ten hours each way, made longer because I tried to drive 60 the whole way, instead of 65 or 70 (or 80 or 90). I had borrowed my mom’s car (I was kind of pressured to take it) because my mechanic has more or less pronounced my car to be on its last legs. Something about how the pistons get the air to mix with the gas fails once the car warms up. So I need to get a car, and I can do that, but I am in the in between stage right now (and didn’t want to drive a limping car ten hours down).

So I drove 60, partially to save gas for my own benefit, but also to make a statement. I have heard both 55 and 60 as the optimal fuel economy for cars, probably because fuel economy is tested in a couple of different ways (sometimes in a lab, sometimes in real world tests). Around here, when I drive 60 on Route 28, I pass as many cars as pass me. But on the interstates, I passed few cars, and many passed me. I don’t know if other cars were driving 60 (I wouldn’t, since I wouldn’t pass them if we were both driving the same speed), but I suspect I was something of an oddity on the road. That’s what inspired me to write the above fictional exchange.

I think the people advocating drilling much more are being incredibly selfish, willing to throw away their grandchildren’s future so they can be more comfortable in the present. Of course, I suspect they would think I was being selfish. I would advocate taxing gas to double the price. I think that would encourage conservation and the use of bicycles and public transportation. I’m sure people would say I was trying to tax the rich (true) and that I don’t care about poor people and I would be bankrupting governments. Actually, I would advocate not taxing gas sold to transit companies and city governments for the use of cops and fire trucks and the like. I think a tax credit could be given to rural volunteer fire fighters and EMS. And I think the Earned Income Credit could be increased for the working poor (maybe out of the gas tax funds) and state employment agencies could give cash to poor people actively looking for work.

I was thinking about all this as I watched cars in West Virginia drive at maybe 80 or 85. There were SUV’s and Prius’ right behind them; ten, fifteen or more miles over the speed limit. The ironic thing is that because of taxes, the gas is West Virginia is twenty cents more per gallon than in Pennsylvania, even though it seems to me that we drive a bit slower on average around here than they do there. The people who want to drill, who want to vote the Democrats out of Congress, could also chose to just slow down. It doesn’t even matter what kind of car (or SUV or pickup) they have, as long as they slow down, they will save gas. Sure, when these people went to buy or lease, they could have chosen a smaller car. But that is water under the bridge. But the eight dollar a gallon gas (with the new gas tax I favor) would like influence their next car purchase.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

4 plus or minus 1

So I was bad about posting last week, partly because we had people coming to visit, my sister in law and family, including a four year old. He was almost everything I expected, but when his 23ish uncle and I had to watch him for about two and a half hours, it went surprisingly smoothly. Not so much when, on his birthday on Monday, someone in the morning unwisely mentioned he would get cake later (I honestly don’t know who). He then decided he wanted cake for breakfast, and was inconsolable for a good (or rather bad) hour. During the visit he flailed considerably, jumped repeatedly on a bean bag chair, repeatedly ran into an air mattress propped up against the wall, but only suffered one boo boo running into the air mattress at its edge and slamming into the wall beside it. For all his running and flailing, he never kicked any of the electronics. And I think the Chinchilla survived intact; she was probably more pissed that we are out of bananas.

We’ve all, by now, probably heard about the four City Council members clever maneuver of walking out of Council when the issue of their own payment for a lawyer in the LED sign affair came up. This was done because the Law Department issued an opinion that the four should not even discuss payment, much less vote on it, since it represented a conflict of interest. Mind you, the Mayor accepts tickets to charity events and then discusses City business with the companies that donated tens of thousands of dollars on his behalf at the event (hell, he brags about how he was working then), but that is not seen as a conflict of interest. The City Law department needs to grow up, they need to start behaving like adults. The issue in question with the four had extraordinary circumstances. The City Solicitor told the Council persons he could not represent them, because he had a conflict of interest. The Council persons did not receive any benefit from taking this action, they were simply trying to compel the City and Lamar to follow the rules.

Now, you can ask whether the four should have joined Dr Dowd’s suit. You can say that if they were going to do that, they should have done so as he did, as private citizens. But you can also say that if they hadn’t joined the suit, that Lamar might have pressured the Zoning Board to ignore Dr Dowd, or simply to rule against him, forcing him to take the matter to Common Pleas (where it ended up anyway).

When I first wrote about Dr Dowd in January of last year, I believe I wrote that politicians always break your heart, because they are human and almost always have to take some action you disagree with. Certainly some commenters are complaining about Dr Dowd’s vote yesterday, including me. But then some commenters have always been against Dr Dowd, because they preferred Len Bodack or they didn’t like Dr Dowd’s performance on the School Board. Dr Dowd, along with Jim Motnik, asked for the opinion from the Law Department. This is the second time I know that Dr Dowd has asked for an opinion for the Law Department, although in fact he may have asked for many tht I never caught. But the first time I knew of was when he asked for an opinion about the LED sign, and that took weeks. In fact, I think it only arrived after Dr Dowd had filed his appeal. If Dr Dowd had waited for the opinion, he probably would have been too late with the appeal.

This city’s elected officials have had a tenuous relationship with ethics. Between the hostile reaction to Bill Peduto’s campaign finance reform legislation and the Mayor’s antics, the one issue the Law Department has reacted swiftly on is whether the four Council persons have a conflict of interest in getting their legal bill paid, on an issue the Law Department should have handled themselves months ago. Evidently Dr Dowd is still prepared to take the Law Department seriously, even though I can’t imagine anyone else does. I myself had characterized George Specter (who I am sure is a perfectly nice guy) as similar to the lawyer Ted on Scrubs, and I am thinking he is sliding back into that role. Dr Dowd needs to decide if he believes the Law Department is still acting in good faith in rendering its opinions, or if it is simply taking direction from the Mayor’s office.

Monday, May 05, 2008

More gas ('scuse me)

Kent Moors was on the KD/PG Sunday edition, which I caught from the web later in the day on Sunday (, He said a couple of very interesting things, which I hadn’t heard before (although one I had suspected). He said that US refineries are currently operating at 85%, which was actually up some from earlier in the year. I had thought (and I keep reading from other sources) that the refineries were maxed out. But in fact oil companies are creating an artificial shortage, to drive the price of gas up just a bit more.

Moors mentioned that several of the big oil companies are vertical companies, meaning they control the oil fields, the refineries and the distribution of the refined oil (the gas we put in our cars). He speculated that their cost for a barrel of oil was actually around $75 (what they charged themselves). I had always thought this was the case, so it was nice to hear Dr Moors verify it. So these bigger oil companies (probably Shell, Exxon, BP, Sunoco and others) could give us a break, but they would rather make a profit now.

Moors also said that he expected worldwide demand to jump in ’08 and ’09, and the supply we see now would start to dry up. I assume that means we can expect to see a sharp rise in the price of gas. I believe Moors mentioned that he thought the Asians would be willing to pay more for gas than we would, but I don’t remember if he described what would happen as a consequence of that.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton literally says that she doesn’t want to listen to economists, because they give you “Elite Opinions”. More than a few people have already drawn the comparison to George Bush. Apparently Mrs. Clinton said, on one of the network morning news shows, that a lot of people don’t understand what she is proposing. I think I do, it is the gas tax holiday combined with a windfall profits tax on oil companies. I haven’t looked to see what constitutes a windfall profit, but I think Mrs. Clinton will find forty nine Republicans and Barack Obama voting against her in the Senate, leaving the tie breaker up to Dick Cheney… Hmm, wonder how he would vote? In a perfect world, the Republicans would support Clinton’s plan, just to watch it fail. But there is a chance the windfall profits tax would hurt the oil companies, so I doubt that will happen. Clinton still gets to portray herself as the champion of the little guy, the poor white trash who never got themselves much book learnin’. That must kill Obama.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

How many dollars a gallon?

The national Sunday morning news shows focused on Obama and Clinton, because of the recent Reverend Wright resurgence and the upcoming primaries in Indiana and North Carolina. However, the KD/PG program and the Post Gazette Forum section focused on the price of gas. That’s not surprising, now that our primary has gone by, we can and are more interested in every day matters. The Post Gazette’s piece, by a CMU professor named Lester Lave, was both pretty interesting and sort of a “no duh” sort of piece. He began by giving a reasonable sort of over view of the US’s recent history of gas consumption, the missed opportunities to improve mileage standards and the unfortunate fashion of buying SUV’s (as one owner put it , because everyone else has one). He mentioned that Europeans are much more efficient consumers of energy, in their buildings, their industries and their transportation. He also made the statement that they do not suffer in their standard of living, something that many of us simply might not believe.

He made some policy prescriptions as well. The first was to raise mileage standards and the second to educate consumers. Of course, Congress simply has not shown the will to raise the CAFÉ standards and especially with “An Inconvenient Truth”, those who are willing to be educated (and even many of those who aren’t) have learned quite a bit. Dr Lave’s last suggestion is one that has in fact been made many times, but may be getting closer to being enacted. Instead of enacting a gas tax holiday, Dr Lave proposes going the European route and enacting a gas tax nightmare – four dollars a gallon tax. According to Dr. Lave (and I believe him, by the way) Europeans are paying $8.50 a gallon. Before the wealthy white readers throw up their hands and say “What about the poor people?” (many of whom may not have cars), remember that tax revenue can come back to targeted groups. Dr. Lave suggests exempting the $20,000 of income from the Social Security tax, paid for the gas tax revenue. I think the earned income credit could be adjusted upward as an alternative, for example. The EIC is a great way to help the nation’s working poor, too, because it costs employers nothing, so it doesn’t impact prices (the way the minimum wage might). Now, I would hope a four dollar a gallon tax would be phased in, say a dollar a gallon every six months. The oil companies would scream bloody murder because their profits would go down with the decreased gasoline use. But they helped get us in to this problem, and they wouldn’t disappear, they’d just have to get use to smaller profits. And the tax revenue could also help fund research on alternative fuels.

I myself have decided that bringing a folding bike on to a PAT bus is a practical impossibility. I may still try a few trial runs after July first (when I am sure there will be few or no Schenley students on the morning bus). But I have already ordered a cheap electric bike (from Walmart). It’s due to arrive in about a week. Actually, its not so cheap, it will take, in my estimate, a year to pay for itself in lower gas consumption. And it is recharged from the house electricity, so I am helping the coal burning electric companies (although not a whole heck of a lot). However, arriving to work not totally drenched in sweat is an appealing idea, and perhaps my presence on the road will give a few more people the idea that they too could occasionally abandon their cars and find some sort of two wheeled transportation.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Free for all market

I’m probably getting this wrong, but it seems like the Republicans, in their haste to strike out and set up their own policy on health care, are actually undermining the shaky, crappy system we have now. I believe I have read that John McCain’s proposal ends the employer based tax deduction for employer based plans and instead offers a tax credit to everyone – $2500 for individuals or $5000 for families – to buy their own health care coverage. That’s fine as far as it goes, but employer based health care plans offer health insurance companies pools of healthy people (they are working, after all) to insure. Even the spouses and children tend to be healthy (they live in the United States and are not destitute, since mom and/or dad are working). It seems likely to me that if individuals or families get the tax credits, employers will stop offering health insurance to their employees, letting the employee take on the burden of finding a health insurance plan to use the tax credit with. I’ve criticized the proposals of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama because I believe we need a single payer health care plan, because I believe we need to dismantle the health insurance industry. I didn’t think the Republicans would be the ones to take the first steps to actually do that.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

It's a gas, gas ... gas

So apparently US refineries are working at full capacity. This, much more than the supply of crude oil, whether at home or abroad, determines the supply of fuel here. This is what the boring veteran of the Reagan *and* Clinton administration's said on the PBS news hour last night. If there is a gas tax holiday, and the price of gas drops (say, to $3.25), and lots of Americans plan a farewell tour this summer, what do you think will happen? Gas stations will run out of gas. Right now, the supply of gas is inelastic, that is, it is fixed. It is fixed at the level we are getting right now. Hillary Clinton’s gas tax holiday combined with a windfall profits tax might be revenue neutral (although it may also cost money or make money, it all depends how the plan is set up). But I doubt President Bush would sign it into law, and in fact I doubt the republicans would let it get out of the Senate. John McCain’s plan may have a chance on both counts, which means we may see the price of gas rise a little slower, and yet the oil companies will get a lot richer faster. But the republicans will have done something to help the common man.