Sunday, May 13, 2007

Energy Policy As A Precursor To Withdrawal From Iraq... Is That An 800 Pound Gorilla....

Or is it a pygmy marmoset? Either way, in Only Halfway There Thomas Friedman is concerned that the Democrats haven't taken due notice.
To call for withdrawing from Iraq by a set date, no matter what the situation is on the ground there - without a serious energy plan here - is reckless. All we would be doing is making ourselves more dependent on an even more unstable Middle East, because any U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is likely, in the short run, to be destabilizing.
Should I give him credit for departing from other pro-war pundits by no longer arguing that it is reckless, per se, to advocate for withdrawal from Iraq? Or should I observe that he was one of the many enablers of this war, despite its being reckless to have entered the war without a competent plan for at least establishing stability in post-war Iraq. Should I joke that the least he can do is offer the Democrats another six months to formulate the withdrawal plan?

Friedman suggests that we need an energy policy which unchains us economically from the Middle East, and he suggests that policies which bring down the price of oil will bring about positive change in the Middle East by forcing its leaders to "extract the talents of their people by educating, empowering and connecting them." That's a wonderful platitude, but if we look to world history, where exactly do we find the developing nations, poor in natural resources, which do as Friedman describes? Unless the form of extraction he suggests is the extraction of people with marketable skills to work in more developed nations - as with the extraction of nurses and other health professionals from African nations to staff hospitals in Europe and North America.
But to hasten that day, Democrats have to be a lot more serious about energy than they have been up to now. Everyone has an energy plan for 2020. But we need one for 2007 that will start to have an impact by 2008 — and there is only one way to do that: get the price of oil right. Either tax gasoline by another 50 cents to $1 a gallon at the pump, or set a $50 floor price per barrel of oil sold in America. Once energy entrepreneurs know they will never again be undercut by cheap oil, you’ll see an explosion of innovation in alternatives.
Everybody has a plan for "five years from now" or ten or twenty, because our system all-but-ensures that nobody will have to take responsibility for the enactment, success or failure of such a plan. Any President proposing change "in five years" knows that he will either be reelected or out of office when the target date arrives.

The idea that any party will embrace as part of their platform, "We want to increase the tax on gasoline", is absurd on its face. Embracing a regressive tax that hits the pocketbooks of poor and middle class voters once, twice or three times per week? That's a formula for losing elections. There was a point, immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when the Bush Administration might have been able to create such a tax while maintaining popular support. But that would have threatened their overriding agenda of slashing taxes for the wealthiest Americans, and the Bush Administration has never had the slightest interest in energy conservation. ("Conservation may be a personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." Dick Cheney, 2001.) Have we completely forgotten the secret energy policy meetings that Cheney held with energy industry executives, and the hard-fought court battle he ultimately won to keep their identities secret? Apparently so....

Setting a $50 minimum price per barrel for oil sold in the United States.... how does that do anything but ensure that nobody will offer oil for sale to the U.S. market at a price of less than $50/bbl? How does that encourage alternative energy, as opposed to the exploration of oil in regions traditionally deemed too marginal for drilling, or the further development of projects to extract oil from tar sands? How does that affect the monarchs and potentates of the Middle East, which can do just fine, thank you very much, with profits on oil at $50 or more per barrel?

In developed nations where there is a significantly higher tax on gasoline than in the United States.... which, I believe (save possibly for Russia), is all of them, where are the alternative fuel technologies which Friedman believes should have emerged years or even decades ago? Is Thomas "The World Is Flat" Friedman suggesting that only American scientists can develop alternative energy techologies? That American scientists cannot see any long-term profits in alternative energy, and thus won't focus on the problem unless we manipulate market forces?

I find it very interesting that Mr. Friedman struggles with the idea of supporting a Democratic Party which does not have a solid plan for Iraq, but has no trouble giving a Republican Administration incredible latitude in formulating any sort of policy for victory in that war. It would be insanity, after all, for Mr. Friedman to endorse doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome, which is no doubt why he has historically endorsed doing the same thing over and over again only in six month increments. Let's call it "hoping" for a different outcome. I find it interesting that he has thrown his literary weight behind an administration which opposes conservation and alternative energy (save possibly for nuclear power plants and subidizing the manufacture of corn ethanol, to the extent that either of those policies can truly be deemed "alternative"), but expects serious policy only from the Democrats.

Friedman has to know that President Bush detests "the soft bigotry of low expectations", so why is he being so disrespectful of the President?


  1. Aside from nuclear power, does anyone have an "alterntaive" that is feasible and currently available for use? Don't misunderstand, I acknowledge that it is only part of a solution, but at least it seems to be a step in the right direction.

    To the best of my knowledge, most of the probems with the use of nuclear energy are political and or self-inflicted rather than technical (. . . if France could do it 25 years ago . . .).


  2. Nuclear power is a peculiar animal that is "alternative" in the sense that it's not based on the use of fossil fuels, but is otherwise quite conventional. Beyond its poor public image, the biggest problem with nuclear power is that it is difficult to build a cost-effective nuclear plant. We still haven't found a way to extend the life of a nuclear power plant, or to construct it in such a way that the pipes and other aspects of the plant which become brittle due to exposure to radiation can be removed and replaced in a cost-effective manner. We also tend to over-engineer safety features, although that aspect of the cost can be reduced by following the "French" model of having a standard plant design. (When you design each new plant "from the ground up", you waste a lot of money in the design process.)