Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Energy independence -- code word for whatever you like

Paul Roberts makes an interesting case in Mother Jones:

Thoughtful observers have been trying to debunk energy independence since Nixon's time. And yet the dream refuses to die, in no small part because it offers political cover for a whole range of controversial initiatives. Ethanol refiners wave the banner of independence as they lobby Congress for massive subsidies. Likewise for electric utilities and coal producers as they push for clean coal and a nuclear renaissance. And it shouldn't surprise that some of the loudest proponents of energy liberation support plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other off-limits areas to oil drilling—despite the fact that such moves would, at best, cut imports by a few percentage points. In the doublespeak of today's energy lexicon, says Julia Bovey of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "'energy independence' has become code for 'drill it all.'"

Yet it isn't only the hacks for old energy and Archer Daniels Midland who are to blame. Some proponents of good alternatives like solar and wind have also harped on fears of foreign oil to advance their own sectors—even though many of these technologies are decades away from being meaningful oil replacements.

Put another way, the "debate" over energy independence is not only disingenuous, it's also a major distraction from the much more crucial question—namely, how we're going to build a secure and sustainable energy system. Because what America should be striving for isn't energy independence, but energy security—that is, access to energy sources that are reliable and reasonably affordable, that can be deployed quickly and easily, yet are also safe and politically and environmentally sustainable.

History vs. market fundamentalism

Brad DeLong quotes George Soros:

the system, as it currently operates, is built on false premises. Unfortunately, we have an idea of market fundamentalism, which is now the dominant ideology, holding that markets are self-correcting; and this is false because it's generally the intervention of the authorities that saves the markets when they get into trouble. Since 1980, we have had about five or six crises: the international banking crisis in 1982, the bankruptcy of Continental Illinois in 1984, and the failure of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998, to name only three. Each time, it's the authorities that bail out the market, or organize companies to do so. So the regulators have precedents they should be aware of. But somehow this idea that markets tend to equilibrium and that deviations are random has gained acceptance and all of these fancy instruments for investment have been built on them...

Monday, April 28, 2008

Small things count

I commend to you Jamie Kalven's essay here under the Chicago Tribune umbrella. One key to it is a paragraph he wrote in Slate 5 1/2 years ago:
There are large violent acts. There are no large healing acts. Healing is a matter of small acts of attention and care sustained over time. When men aspire to large healing acts, they generally come up with things like lynchings and wars.

Friday, April 25, 2008

If natural selection was God's tool, what does that imply?

Noah Millman makes an interesting point (h/t Ross Douthat):
science does have implications for the persuasiveness of specific religious doctrines, simply as a psychological matter. And I think evolution through natural selection is extremely uncongenial to the central Christian story about the nature of sin and evil in the world. Why? Because the Christian story has the entry of strife into the world come about as the result of human sin, whereas the core idea behind evolution by natural selection is that our existence – and the consciousness and ability to sin that comes with it – is a product of strife. Put bluntly: natural selection is not the mechanism that the Christian deity would use to create man in His image. Or, if it is, I’d like to see the explanation. I think that natural selection poses similar but less-acute problems for Judaism and Islam; it poses the fewest problems, I suspect, for Hinduism. Again: I’m not speaking of science refuting religion. I’m speaking of scientific results making certain core religious claims less persuasive.
Perhaps needless to say, there's more where this came from.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It's going to be a long bad year

Sam Smith at Undernews:
While Bill Clinton got away with treating national policy as one long television commercial, it is worth remembering that he initially snuck in thanks to Ross Perot. Further, as a con artist, he is far more skilled than either his wife or Obama.

The Republicans, on the other hand, can put up a candidate as intrinsically weak as John McCain and still have him run neck and neck with either of the two Democrats, despite each having extraordinarily passionate constituencies.

The difference is that the GOP believes in something that transcends whoever is running for office. For nearly three decades, in fact, Republican mythology has so dominated political discussion that the media and the public accept much of it as the norm, witness in the war on terror and the limitless virtues of capitalism.

The fact that the GOP is wrong, heartless, stupid and mean about much of this merely adds power to the argument that it helps to believe in something.

Ever since Bill Clinton dismantled the Democratic belief system, his party has virtually forgotten what it thinks. It has no comprehensible plan for the economy, the environment, the Iraqi war, cities, education or who's coming for dinner. It has become just another House of Pancake Makeup, presenting what it believes will look good on television.
I wouldn't demonize Bill that much; those who think government can do good and that communities and collectives are real as well as individuals have had trouble getting their message across in all countries for the last quarter-century or so. (This is actually the same logic, BTW, that shows sprawl isn't primarily caused by US subsidies or US racism.) But the current scene doesn't offer a lot of, er, hope.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

From America the Omnipotent to America the Doomed

Ian Buruma has a nice New Yorker gang review of books on the decline of the US, or is it the rise of China/India etc.? I enjoyed his take on Robert Kagan: "Reading Kagan is like reading the work of a very clever Marxist: the logic is impeccable, even when the premise is wrong."

Buruma has a deadly eye for bad premises and overgeneralizations, of which Kagan is far from the only supplier. B. himself treads somewhere between the optimistic liberal internationalists who think prosperity will automatically bring peaceful cooperation on one hand, and the gun-toting neocons and their thuggish president on the other.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Of Prairie, Woods, & Water

Joel Greenberg, author of the definitive A Natural History of the Chicago Region (my lengthy review here) has edited Of Prairie, Woods, & Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing, brand-new, gorgeously designed and published by the University of Chicago Press.

I won't even pretend to have read all of his 100 selections, which range from the 1700s to 1960. I can say they include well-known naturalists and writers like Gene Stratton-Porter and Jens Jensen, and unheard-of ones like Colbee Benton. Like Greenberg's own history, this book defines the Chicago region with appropriate generosity, stretching north into Wisconsin, southeast into Indiana, and around the corner into southwest Michigan.

(Greenberg will be on WBEZ-FM 91.5 tonight at 9 pm Central. I'll link to the podcast if one becomes available later.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Another cult

The Cato Institute is promoting Gene Healy's book The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power. He writes in a mass email:
Americans have come to see the president as a figure responsible for solving all our problems and fulfilling all our hopes and dreams. Is it any wonder then that the presidency has burst its constitutional bonds and grown powerful enough to threaten
American liberty?

Using historical scholarship, legal analysis, and cultural commentary, my book traces the growth of the Imperial Presidency over the course of the 20th century, showing how the Imperial Presidency has been a regularly recurring feature of American life for nearly a century. George W. Bush has, in short, followed a path marked out by history’s ‘great’ presidents.
Why pick on just the 20th century? Activist presidents like Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase), Jackson (Indian "removal"), Lincoln (Civil War), and Grant (Reconstruction) -- and their worshippers -- are all over the 19th century.

I'm curious enough to ask, but probably not curious enough to actually read the book: does Healy confront the problem that sometimes liberties conflict? The "rights" to secede and to hold black people in bondage were surely infringed by activist presidents, but allowing those "liberties" probably would have hindered the expansion of corporate capitalism across a large uniformly governed area. If Healy is expounding an actual political philosophy and not just playing ventriloquist's dummy for a certain portion of the upper crust, he'll produce a rationale that goes beyond just hating on the New Deal.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The new energy world order

Michael Klare , author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy:
There are few countries — perhaps a dozen altogether — with enough oil, gas, coal, and uranium (or some combination thereof) to meet their own energy needs and provide significant surpluses for export. Not surprisingly, such states will be able to extract increasingly beneficial terms from the much wider pool of energy-deficit nations dependent on them for vital supplies of energy. These terms, primarily of a financial nature, will result in growing mountains of petrodollars being accumulated by the leading oil producers, but will also include political and military concessions.

In the case of oil and natural gas, the major energy-surplus states can be counted on two hands. Ten oil-rich states possess 82.2% of the world’s proven reserves. In order of importance, they are: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Russia, Libya, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria. The possession of natural gas is even more concentrated. Three countries — Russia, Iran, and Qatar — harbor an astonishing 55.8% of the world supply. All of these countries are in an enviable position to cash in on the dramatic rise in global energy prices and to extract from potential customers whatever political concessions they deem important.

We have seen the future, and regardless of who wins the election we're not going to be in charge.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Don't know much about blasphemy

Damon Linker reviews Charles Marsh's Wayward Christian Soldiers in The New Republic:
Evangelicals, in his view, have actively betrayed Jesus. ... Consider Bush's speech at Ellis Island on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks. In his remarks, the president described the United States as the 'hope of all mankind' and asserted that this 'hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.' Marsh bristles at this passage, which alludes to the prologue to the gospel of John but modifies its message in a crucially important respect. Whereas the New Testament describes God as the light that will not be overcome by the darkness that surrounds it, Bush ascribed divine agency to America. For Marsh, this substitution is unforgivable -- nothing less than the idolatrous 'identification of the United States with Christian revelation.'
Hubris? Blasphemy? What say you?

Monday, April 14, 2008


The New Rules Project offers some guidance to localists everywhere:
One way communities can ensure that redevelopment projects and new retail centers include locally owned businesses is to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with the developer that stipulates how much of the project's retail space must be set aside for local businesses.
When I was growing up, localism (like balanced federal budgets) was a conservative thing. Now it seems to some extent to have crossed the spectrum, what with a Republican president spending like a drunken sailor and expanding federal power from schooling to torture, while liberals drool over farmers' markets and local food. What has been going on here?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Then and now

"The times recall those of the late 1800s," writes my friend Jim Krohe in Illinois Issues (this portion of which isn't on line),
that gave rise to the biz schools. Then, as now, rapacious corporations strode over the land, corrupting politics, exploiting aggrieved workers and leaving citizens at large appalled by the damage that the untrammeled pursuit of profit had done to their cities and civic values. The difference is, back then the new biz schools hoped to bring civilized values to the running of business.
Then, professional management expertise was expected to reconcile labor and capital, ethics and self-aggrandizement. What now?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Conservation: learn first, buy later

My friends John Porterfield and Cappy Kidd at Informed Energy Decisions just got a new shot of publicity from A Fresh Squeeze. If you aren't already inspired to call them for an energy audit BEFORE you make a possibly pointless investment in new windows, then check out the Reader story from 2006. They're students and practitioners of "building science":
Building science looks at energy-saving ideas in the context of an entire structure. One recent client, says Porterfield, was thinking of spending $700 on attic ventilation fans for his building. "We told him that was a waste of money. A 1978 National Bureau of Standards study established that running roof fans just increases electricity use for cooling, without improving on natural ventilation through grills. That's only one of thousands of in-field energy-efficiency studies that builders and buyers are unaware of."

People ambushed by high heating bills often ask Porterfield and Kidd, Where can I buy the right appliance? They answer that in nonemergency situations it's more important to reduce their home's larger energy losses first, then buy equipment to fit their new lower energy needs. In other words, make sure the building shell is doing the best possible job of using and retaining whatever energy is put into it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Are Newspapers Doomed? Do We Care?

My former colleague Mike Miner points to an online symposium on whether newspapers are doomed. Read all about it and post there if you choose; I've got videos to watch.

As both of my faithful readers will have noticed, posting on this blog has become intermittent and is likely to remain so, at best. The business of re-inventing my life post-journalism doesn't leave time for me to create daily posts of the kind that I would like to read. (No, I'm not short of opinions, just short of the time to make them defensible!) In a blogging emergency you should always be able to find me at http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Iraq: out now

Sam Smith points to retired Lt. Gen. William Odom's 2 April 08 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
The only sensible strategy is to withdraw rapidly but in good order. Only that step can break the paralysis now gripping US strategy in the region. The next step is to choose a new aim, regional stability, not a meaningless victory in Iraq. And progress toward that goal requires revising our policy toward Iran. If the president merely renounced his threat of regime change by force, that could prompt Iran to lessen its support to Taliban groups in Afghanistan. Iran detests the Taliban and supports them only because they will kill more Americans in Afghanistan as retaliation in event of a US attack on Iran. Iran's policy toward Iraq would also have to change radically as we withdraw. It cannot want instability there. Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, and they know that Persians look down on them. Cooperation between them has its limits.

No quick reconciliation between the US and Iran is likely, but US steps to make Iran feel more secure make it far more conceivable than a policy calculated to increase its
insecurity. The president's policy has reinforced Iran's determination to acquire nuclear weapons, the very thing he purports to be trying to prevent.
Read the whole thing, it's short (PDF).

Monday, April 7, 2008

Kiss my ring and join the voodoo crowd

Rick Perlstein, our most astute observer of the conservative sensibility, on the McCain situation:

Conservatism is, among many other things, a culture. The most important glue binding it together is a shared sense of cultural grievance--the conviction, uniting conservatives high and low, theocratic and plutocratic, neocon and paleocon, that someone, somewhere is looking down their noses at them with a condescending sneer. And to conservatives, McCain has been too often one of the sneerers. It is, as much as anything else, a question of affect. As Michael Reagan wrote, "I don't like the way he treats people. You get the impression that he thinks everybody is beneath him."

They are not entirely imagining things. Birds fly, fish swim, McCain preens: it has ever been thus. His preening has turned the thin-skinned crypt-keepers of conservatism hysterical. "McCain's apostasies," Charles Krauthammer recently wrote in the Washington Post, "are too numerous to count." They aren't, really. Some conservatives still call the Republican nominee "Juan" McCain, for what Reagan calls "such blatantly anti-conservative actions as his support for amnesty for illegal immigrants." But of course Reagan's sainted father, in signing the 1986 immigration bill, was a more unapologetic and effective advocate of "amnesty" than McCain ever was--and you don't hear him getting labeled "Ronaldo" Reagan. Note, also, that other supposed bugaboo of conservative ideology: pork-barrel government spending. McCain is the Senate's leading fighter against spending earmarks. If pork was what they truly cared about, he'd be a hero. But that stance has earned him no points on the "conservative" side of the ledger.

The issues aren't the issue. George Stephanopoulos once asked Tom DeLay what it was conservatives demanded of McCain, and DeLay admitted as much: "I don't think they're demanding that he change in his position," he said. "It is attitude."

In other words: it's the ring-kissing, stupid. Consider George H.W. Bush's attitude: he all but groveled before conservatives--first calling supply-side doctrine "voodoo economics," then swallowing hard and accepting a spot as voodoo priest Reagan's running mate. Bob Dole, formerly a proud budget balancer, lay prostrate before them in accepting a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut as the cornerstone of his 1996 presidential platform, then took on movement hero Jack Kemp as his running mate.

Read the whole thing in the Nation.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Bush's worst legacy

Glenn Greenwald in Salon:
Yet again, the ACLU has performed the function which Congress and the media are intended to perform but do not. As the result of a FOIA lawsuit the ACLU filed and then prosecuted for several years, numerous documents relating to the Bush administration's torture regime that have long been baselessly kept secret were released yesterday, including an 81-page memorandum (.pdf) issued in 2003 by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo (currently a Berkeley Law Professor) which asserted that the President's war powers entitle him to ignore multiple laws which criminalized the use of torture ....

The fact that John Yoo is a Professor of Law at Berkeley and is treated as a respectable, serious expert by our media institutions, reflects the complete destruction over the last eight years of whatever moral authority the United States possessed. Comporting with long-held stereotypes of two-bit tyrannies, we're now a country that literally exempts our highest political officials from the rule of law, and have decided that there should be no consequences when they commit serious felonies. John Yoo's Memorandum, as intended, directly led to -- caused -- a whole series of war crimes at both Guantanamo and in Iraq.
Read the whole thing. I don't see how this could be a liberal vs. conservative issue, given that liberals seek to be humane and conservatives don't approve of an all-powerful government.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Disagree this!

Brad DeLong points to Paul Graham's taxonomy of disagreement (and explanation of why it's more important than usual these days). Just so you know, in ascending order from worst to best, the kinds of disagreement are name-calling, ad hominem, responding to tone, contradiction, counterargument, refutation, and refuting the central point.

How did you disagree today?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

History lesson

Radical historian Howard Zinn in the Nation:
The New Deal was tentative, cautious, bold enough to shake the pillars of the system but not to replace them. It created many jobs but left 9 million unemployed. It built public housing but not nearly enough. It helped large commercial farmers but not tenant farmers. Excluded from its programs were the poorest of the poor, especially blacks. As farm laborers, migrants or domestic workers, they didn't qualify for unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, Social Security or farm subsidies. Still, in today's climate of endless war and uncontrolled greed, drawing upon the heritage of the 1930s would be a huge step forward.
Whether you agree with Zinn's prescription, I think his characterization of politics in general is spot on. The right-wing noise machine can't admit it, and the milquetoast Clintons and Obamas can't either, but on economic issues, today's much-vilified "liberals" would have been right-wingers in the 1930s and 1940s.