Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jack Kelly Sunday (as stolen from 2PJ's)

This is the territory of the Two Political Junkies, but I wanted to comment on Jack Kelly’s column in today’s Sunday Post Gazette. Kelly expresses the opinion that energy independence is quote unquote a pipe dream, and while I think his motivation for saying it is to skewer liberals, I think this is an issue worth mulling over.

Kelly’s basic point, I think, although he does not explicitly use the word, is about scale. He talks about coal gasification, mass transit, plug in hybrids and the nuclear power plants he thinks we would need to power them, solar (although not wind), conservation (55mph)and also drilling off the coasts and in the ANWR. He says that environmentalists could/should be mollified by an offer of 2,000 acres of some new national park where people could actually visit (he seems to skip over the point of a refuge). And Kelly’s conclusion is that all of this would help us reduce our demand for foreign oil in five to ten years from 60 percent of our consumption down to 25 or 30 percent.

By the way, Kelly has a novel suggestion about where to locate nuclear power plants to avoid the NIMBY problem. He suggests military bases. I think the troops have suffered enough, but Kelly's idea is probably doable. You give up a lot of your rights when you put on the uniform.

He’s probably about right about how much we could reduce our oil use too, maybe. There’s reason to be pessimistic, though. Many thought gas prices would not come down in the late seventies and early eighties and that a period of austerity and deprivation was with us to stay. Then greedy OPEC, getting rich as a collective, fell apart due to that greed, and gas prices plummeted. If demand in the US and the rest of the world falls, and if speculation really is fueling (so to speak) part of current oil prices, prices may fall again. Then the SUV’s will start selling again, and we will start the cycle of consumption again. Eventually we will reach a point where oil will start to run out, and we may have a global depression, complete with mass famine, plague, political upheaval and global war.

But stepping back to Mr. Kelly’s assessment, he glosses over the liberal accusation that new drilling (whether in banned areas or in areas where oil companies apparently hadn’t exercised options they already have) won’t start producing results for five to ten years anyway. I will say, picking up on the speculation theme I mentioned above, since oil is priced on a futures market, permission to drill in the ANWR and off the coasts might have an immediate effect on the price of oil, since traders/speculators would see the increased supply coming.

There is one thing to say about Mr. Kelly’s estimate. I do think it is accurate, what he estimates in a five to ten year period. I think that he should be wrong about eventual energy independence, though. If we started working today on all the things he said, new drilling and new nuclear power plants (which probably also take five to ten years) and also increased use of mass transit, conservation, plug in hybrids, solar yada yada, we would probably reach that 25 percent foreign oil figure in the five to ten he says we would. But there’s no reason we couldn’t go further, and reach a zero foreign oil percent figure ten years after that, if we continued on that pace.

No reason except that we won’t. By then there will be a new President, and even if it is a Democrat, (s)he will have run on a popular “Let’s make America fun again” ticket (or some variation). And that’s assuming we even get that far. Mr. Kelly doesn’t even catch some of the problems facing our national lack of will. Mass transit use is up, but the increased costs to mass transit due to fuel are rising even faster. Of course in Pittsburgh we have a separate problem (driver’s union) and Dan Onorato is no Reagan. The paradox of mass transit is that it gets more riders when gas (diesel) gets more expensive, but that’s when it needs to cut routes because off increased costs. Unless we adopt European style taxes to help fund mass transit (for those who can’t afford a car), we will not make it cheap enough and also it will not be solvent enough to really help us out. Public transportation in the US is hardly private, but it is still not public enough (ie European level of funding).

There is also the effect fuel costs have on everything else that I haven’t mentioned. The majority of our food and basically all of everything else is transported by truck, ship and train (even some by airplane), and so the price of everything is going to increase. We may finally get those raises we never got during the Bush Presidency, when there was massive increases in productivity. Or not, corporations may not want to deprive stockholders of any more than they have to. But look for people to start talking about Victory Gardens again.

If gas prices do not fall, if they in fact continue an upward trend, I think Mr. Kelly’s projections might be accurate. Especially if gas prices continue their previous dramatic ascent (I think they may have plateau’d in the last week or two, though). If gas prices fall, as they did in the mid eighties , we are probably sunk, due to repeat the cycle. The only good news being the “spinner” hub market would not suffer. Though they are probably made in China.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Gas prices some more

There is a still something of a national discussion about who’s to blame for higher oil prices and what to do about them. As far as blame, the discussion keeps shifting between the Chinese and Indians, the oil companies, the oil producing countries and any speculators you might find in the oil futures market. I can see why looking for a culprit would be attractive, because once found we could tell them to stop, and they could give us back George Bush’s America, where the explosive growth of the income of the rich means that we are all doing well (on average). Maybe we will find that speculators drove the price away from the actual cost of getting oil out of the ground and turning it into gas (sometimes estimated now at $75 a barrel, which makes you wonder why we had cars three or thirty years ago). If so, maybe we should give them a medal for forcing us to think about cutting back or buying smaller cars. Or maybe we should acknowledge a truth, that China is supposed to have as many cars as we do in maybe just a couple of years, before passing us, and the market is just adjusting to that fact.

But I want to talk about Dick Cheney’s notion of personal virtue, the other side of the equation, what to do about gas prices. I can’t remember where I read it, but I saw an interesting article about how we really need to concentrate not on the Ed Begley (Jr) wannabes, but rather on the clueless so and so’s who drive alone in their Lincoln Navigators and Ford F350’s at 80 on the highway. If one of them slows down to 65, it will save more gas in percentage and real terms than if I squeeze another two mpg’s out of my Hyundai Accent by coasting instead of accelerating up to a traffic light. If a family switches form a Dodge Durango to a minivan, they will make more of a contribution to reduced demand than if a Birkenstock-wearer switches from a Camry to a Corolla.

Actually, I am guessing that a lot of these Navigator drivers are males, particularly the ones who drive at eighty on the highway. Not to be discriminatory, I am sure there are women who do this too, although why do I thing that they (a) are listening to country music while they are driving eighty and (b) do not have a graduate degree? In any event, these same people who will give up their handguns when it is pried form their cold dead hands (a view blessed by the high court) are not likely to become small SUV or minivan people. But I have a solution. I think these drivers (who are often driving alone) would enjoy a large motorcycle. The motorcycle, even a big one, would at least triple their mileage, and they are quite fun. You don’t have feel like you are in a giant cocoon, instead you have the massive engine right there, between your legs. And if they don’t want to wear a helmet, I say don’t force it. Let them have their freedom.

Not that I take the Darwinian view or anything. Suffice to say, either way problems are solved.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Even China ....

Even China is raising gas prices. Actually, they’re not raising prices above the market price. They are only raising prices closer towards the market prices.

Ok, first all, how come no country is a real capitalist country, not even the communists? China had fixed (and thus subsidized) the price of gas back on November 1st, and kept it there (where-ever there is) ever since. But a funny thing happened, their own energy companies threatened to go bankrupt, their stocks plunging. So China’s newly wealthy class took a beating in their accumulated wealth. And last week China decided to adjust the prices of gas and diesel upwards 18 percent, which for gas means its now the equivalent of $3.58 a gallon. Doesn’t sound too bad compared to here, but an 18 percent jump may mean that the Chinese will drive a bit less. At least no more Sunday drives in the park. And that may mean further downward pressure on demand, possibly causing the price to drop.

By the way, the NYTimes noted that if demands does fall in China, it will lend support to the idea that economists here are advancing. If we tax gas more, much, much more, the core price will very likely fall, as we use less. The less we use, the more that remains for our grand kids ( the great grand kids will have to be on their own, the ungrateful snots).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Cover of the Rolling Stone ...

Well, not really. But I did get quoted in the PG’s “Cutting Edge”, which might pass for a form of journalistic notice (in the city of Pittsburgh). Never mind that the column is apparently not linked to anything. Anyway, they noticed my last post, “Gas Prices”, and this is what they said:

Thank you, Europe

Cognitive Dissonance in Pittsburgh and Beyond ( thinks it's crazy to drill for more oil in the United States because it only would slightly reduce gas prices for a short time just so we could continue to drive SUVs. We could drive prices much lower by reducing demand. How? By living like Europeans, "where they make do with much smaller cars and a lot of trains, buses and bikes. Some say life there is just as good as here, some say maybe even better (with low crime and better schools)."

CDPB also suggests we thank the Europeans for heavily taxing themselves to keep their own gas prices high, which induces them to conserve, which helps keep worldwide prices lower, which saves us money while we drive gaz-guzzlers.”

I only repeat it here to note that they failed to mention that (I think) the US itself should also reduce demand by taxing gas like Europeans. But I am very amused that they did mention what I consider to be a inescapable conclusion: if we can reduce demand by taxing gas, we have to give a nod to the Europeans, who already did reduce demand with their own heavy gas tax. It could be the real reason OPEC collapsed as a cartel in the eighties, thus giving us the low gas prices that allowed us to buy SUV’s and drive them at eighty miles an hour on the highways.

Thank/Fuck you very much, Europe (pardon my French, Frenchies).

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Gas prices

After the initial big rise in the price of gas, at the end of last month, there were some comparisons made between life in the US and life in Europe, where they make do with much smaller cars and a lot of trains, buses and bikes. Some say life there is just as good as here, some say maybe even better (with low crime and better schools). Sometimes people would note that taxes on gas are much higher there, about four bucks more or less.

Now the conversation here has settled on the wisdom or viability of offshore drilling, and drilling in national parks and the ANWR. Never mind the fact that we don’t have additional refining capacity for more oil, or apparently even enough ships equipped to set up the rigs. Or that the oil companies will want to sock us with the initial cost of drilling.

So we have two competing theories of how to bring down the cost of oil, increased supply or decreased demand (the decreased demand is the European solution of high taxes on gas). The increase in supply is straightforward, although some people are predicting it wouldn’t work out that way. The thing is, depleting our domestic supply of oil just so we can continue to drive SUV’s eighty miles an hour on the highway and defer taking steps to address our future … I have no words.

Curbing demand would be difficult. The wealthiest people bought houses the farthest from the cities, bought the largest (and thus the ones that consume the most energy) houses and drive the largest and least efficient vehicles. But they lobby their Representative and/or Senator, and regardless of party, money talks.

Plus a tax on gas of European magnitude, even if it was phased in, would hurt poor people. Even if it was offset by an increased EITC and some kind of tax refund to the elderly, even if the poor and elderly knew to adjust their W-4’s or Social Security payments to get that money on a weekly or monthly basis, it would still hurt.

Everyone would be paying more, so many would feel pushed towards public transportation and/or bicycles, electric bikes or walking. The feds would have this revenue from the gas tax, some of which they would be giving to the poor and those on small fixed incomes. They could use another part of that income on increased subsidies to mass transit, and grants to cities for bus and/or bike lanes and bike paths. Mass transit, with more ridership and increased money from the feds, might be able to do without money from the state or the county. The remainder of hte gas tax revenue could be used to fund or subsidize alternative fuels research and production.

Or all the revenue could be thrown into Universal Health Care.

The funny thing is that the Europeans have been sacrificing on our behalf. With their higher gas taxes, they reduced not only their own demand, but their reduction contributed to a lower world wide demand. Before China and India’s economies took off, we were the only people consuming oil with total abandon, our SUV’s barreling down the road at 80 miles per hour.

It should also be pointed out that the last time gas prices were high, in the seventies and early eighties, Americans reacted fairly admirably by cutting back, and buying smaller cars. Congress reacted intelligently, with the 55 mph speed limit (something else I am in favor of) and with CAFE standards for American cars. Then gas prices came down, the 55 mph speed limit was repealed, and people started buying SUV's, and continued to move further and futher out into the suburbs.

Since oil is a finite resource, and since it also seems clear that we will not behave like it is until we are hit over the head with a sign, I am in favor of taking steps to decrease demand by artificially increasing the price. We can take steps to make sure that poor people can still meet their rent and feed their families, but we need everyone else to suffer some. We have seen that the pain we already feel in the current price run up has influenced our behavior some, demand for gas has fallen a percent or so in the first quarter, although I don’t the impact from the latest run up has truly been measured yet. But to separate the people who truly need a pickup truck from those who want to play cowboy and also to cut down on oil company profits, we need to beat up demand with even higher gas prices.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

John Yoo, Justice of the SCOTUS?

John Yoo, legal conservative extraordinaire, wrote an interesting editorial in the WSJ. He condemned their recent decision giving habeas corpus rights to the detainees at Guantanamo (the Boumediene decision). His reasoning was that these are prisoners of war taken from the battlefield, and such rights have never been given to POW’s. Further, he points out that several of the detainees (over 30), when released as mistakenly captured or whatever, have gone on to join the fight against the US in Iraq. Thus he says a clearly liberal court engaged in “judicial imperialism of the highest order”.

This is, of course, Mr. Yoo’s cover letter to John McCain. First vacancy on the Supremes, you should put me on if you want the right sorts of decisions on Iraq, Mr. Yoo all but screams. I won't go into the various criticisms I have read or heard about Mr. Yoo's editiorial, except to note the exist. Now, I don’t know if the Senate could bring themselves to confirm Mr. Yoo to the SCOTOUS (besides being an unabashed conservative, he is really young), but it hardly hurts to get oneself back on the national radar.

Mr. Yoo didn’t mention the lengthy dissent in Boumediene. Among the arguments (apparently), Justice Scalia states that the constitution stops at the “water’s edge” (except for you, Hawaii), which Mr. Yoo did obliquely refer to as a factor in the Justice Department’s choosing Guantanamo (no habeas for POW’s held outside the country). What’s ironic about that is that Maureen Dowd, covering George W Bush’s trip to Europe in today’s NYTimes, quotes him as saying:

” “There is some (sic) who say that perhaps freedom is not universal,” he asserted, adding that he rejected as elitist the notion that “maybe it’s only, you know, white-guy Methodists who are capable of self-government.””

I really enjoy the double standard the administration states with a straight (perhaps smiling) face. Freedom is universal, but only apparently the freedom to have a “unitary” chief executive. The rights of the United States are only for US citizens, you furiners can create your own rights for your own people. I assume Bush will next embrace Robert Mugabe as “my kind of leader”.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Empire Strikes Back (Actually just the conservatives ...)

The latest chapter in the electric bike saga, I was going to call the company last night, but I had an errand to run right when I got home, so I didn’t get to the phone until 7:00pm. No problem, their manual say they are open nine to five pacific and I could swear that’s what their recording said, when I called before.

Uh-uh, their recording said their offices were now closed, their hours are nine to four. Mind you, this is a company that also shuts its customer service down at noon (pacific), for training and lunch. Impressive.

So I wrote yesterday about how I thought newspapers were trying to get us to accept not just European policies, they were trying to force a European lifestyle down our throats. But our government(s) also struck blows yesterday, blows for … well against progress. Actually, the state legislature passed a smoking ban, so I can’t complain about that.

But in the city, our Mayor veto’d Bill Peduto’s campaign finance reform bill, and the council was unable to over-ride the veto. Ravenstahl’s reasons, as enumerated in an incomprehensible statement and several confusing interviews, include the lack of statewide limits on contributions, that city wide offices are treated the same as council district offices, a statement that union PACs are somehow disadvantaged by being treated the same as other PACs, and the infamous millionaire argument. Of those, only the city wide versus council argument might have some merit (there’s some sense to the statewide argument, but its like saying gun sales should not be limited, because gun collectors might be affected, as opposed to the criminals the law is aimed at). Saying that no reform should be allowed because it doesn’t restrict millionaires and doesn’t give unions special status is saying nothing should be done until it is in perfect form (not to mention that both those actions, limiting a person’s personal spending on his/her campaign and granting one group status over others for no reason would invite courts to strike the law down). There’s more to say about campaign reform, but the Burgh Report is tossing around a lot of ideas, I'll leave it here for now here.

On the other end of things government, the Senate took giant steps backward in the middle of our energy crisis. Senate Republicans did not allow a bill containing credits for the solar and wind power industries for research and development to come to a floor vote, effectively killing it for the time being. They also blocked a tax on the Oil industries, on “windfall” profits, saying it would just be passed on to the consumer. Now, six months ago, when gas was $3 or a year ago when it was $2.50, I would have said ok, we don’t absolutely need such a tax. But now, at $4 a gallon and rising, we could use the extra incentive to cut back. The Democrats were talking about using the money to help the poor with their energy bills. We know some oil companies are vertically integrated, owning the wells, refineries and franchising the stations (and setting their price). So in fact their actual price per barrel is much less than other refineries and stations. But for them to use that price would be to throw the domestic gas market into a funny sort chaos, beneficial in the short run but ultimately detrimental. But a tax might extract some of those excess profits, and redirect them back to a segment of the consumer market.

Of course, the democrats had their day too. They blocked a Republican sponsored measure to repeal a twenty five year measure banning new drilling in coastal areas. Besides the fact that we don’t want to encourage demand by lowering prices, shouldn’t hold on to the oil we have, in view of our special status as biggest user per capita?

Really, the Senate is proving that American politics is still pretty reactionary, cmpared to those oddly behaving but still progressive Europeans.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Not so much (electric) ... and also those crazy Europeans

Well, I rode the electric bike last Monday and then again on Friday. Something I did, I assume riding it to work on Monday four miles and then *not* charging it at work (since it is supposed to have a range of 8 miles and I thought I could just ride it back home) has caused the battery to basically fully discharge. Now it seems to have a range of two miles of electric charge, with pedaling. Needless to say I am pissed off. I tried calling the company yesterday, but they wanted the bike and charger present, which would be difficult considering I was calling from work (during lunch). I meant to call them when I got home (they're on the left coast), but got distracted.

Now, I was always taught and learned the hard way a few times that you don't recharge a battery until it mostly or fully discharges. It you always leave a laptop plugged in, after a while the battery will never hold a charge. But apparently Sealed Lead Acid batteries are different, you must charge after each use and letting them get down to 20% charge spells doom for the battery. Which still makes no sense to me.

ButI have this fear that Currie Technologies will say I screwed up the battery. So I am dithering between sending the battery for "warranty work" and just buying a new battery and being done with it. I will probably choose the worst of all worlds, buy the new battery and also send the old battery in for warranty work, so they can yell at me.

Meanwhile I took my “basement bike” to Iron City Bikes to get worked on. To me, a basement bike is one you used to ride, and then it got a rear flat tire, which are pains because of the derailleur, so it sat for a couple of years. My bike is a hybrid or cross bike, one with a frame shaped like a mountain bike frame, but lighter and with tires thinner than a mountain bikes but not as thin as a road bike. It has no motor, though, so I either have to ride that eight tenths of a mile hill up Stanton or carry it up city steps from Morningside.

But the city schools are suppose to let out this week. I may try the city buses again, with the folding bike.

A bunch of articles and blog posts have looked to Europe as a model for alleviating some of our current problems, particularly around oil. I remember reading somewhere in the PG sometime in the last two weeks a piece about how in Austria people often live in apartment complexes near a bus line or a light rail line, and commute that way. The piece mention how people walk around city centres, and how there is almost no street crime.

But I also read yesterday about truckers in Spain, France and Portugal going on strike protesting high gas prices. And of course you wonder about stories about low crime in Europe when there are soccer riots and used to be terrorists.

I do think that some European-style gas taxes here (ie $4 a gallon) would be a good thing. Although tough to deal with on a personal level.

The latest Europhile suggestion was made by Bob Feikima on Sunday (who I know of through a relative). He complains that American drivers try to cheat traffic lights, barreling through yellow and then the first part of red lights. In fact, he said that lights equipped with cameras cause rear end collisions, as drivers at the rear of a column of cars are surprised when someone aheadof them obeyes the law. He was advocates removing all traffic lights and signage from intersections, something apparently done in Europe, Then if you are approaching an intersection and see a driver, you have to”negotiate” by catching his/her attention and bargaining on whether you have to stop or he/she should.

Personally I am not impressed with this idea. As I drive through Stanton Heights and other neighborhoods around the city, there are frequently narrow streets with about three lanes. So if cars are parked on both sides, and a car is approaching me, I have to do this negotiating thing that Feikima suggests. I generally pull over, expecting the other car will proceed for a little way and then do the same. But what happens about ninety percent of the time is that the other driver continues and drives right past me. My only other alternative would be to play chicken with other drivers, not terribly appealing.

This is what is likely to happen if Feikima’s suggestion is adopted. There will be a whole bunch of side impacts as cars try to jockey their way through intersections, believing they can beat the on coming car and force it to slam on its brakes (and most satisfyingly skid into a parked car). But maybe soon we will be forced to abandon our cars for bikes anyway. I am willing to risk an electric bike to electric bike accident.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

It's Electric!

Again, long time, no post. I've been busy, we moved my mother in law into a nursing home, I took a trip south (see last post) and general other stuff. I am in the process of buying a new (used) car, more on that later.

I don’t think I mentioned that I bought an electric bike. I did> I have taken it on one test ride into work so far, and it doesn’t look like I will get another ride this week because it is due to rain the rest of the week. I bought the bike here. So I am substituting dirty coal power for human power, somewhat. I can basically live with that, since it is not a whole lot of dirty coal power, but that brings up another issue. I rode the thing into work, using the battery fairly frequently to give me an assist up hills and so on. I then let the battery sit the rest of the day while I worked. What I really wanted the power assist for was the ride up a long hill at the end of the ride home. But when I reinstalled the battery at five, it was indicating a half or less charge. I wasn’t sure how much power was left, so I rode the bike as a regular bike most of the was home (albeit a seventy five pound regular bike). When I tackled the hill, the battery still had juice, but it didn’t seem to be much. The bike and I struggled up the hill.

Now, I am not supposed to let the charge go below 20%, but there is no meter to indicate when you get down to there, so I just have to hope. The battery on the bike is a sealed lead acid type, apparently the heaviest, and indeed it weighs 25 pounds by itself. Meanwhile, I am only supposed to get 200 to 300 charges on it. Maybe by the time I go to replace it there will be something lighter and more durable. Meanwhile, that 200 to 300 charges was the reason I didn’t plug the battery in at work. I may have to start doing that, but then maybe I won’t be riding the bike that much, not if I want to avoid rainy days (rain plus electricity does not sound like a good idea, besides the lack of fenders). We’ll see. Still, even if I only ride 100 to 150 times, that’s a lot of gas to save.