Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 May 2008

A Solution to Our Energy Crisis: The Chevy Volt


[For the latest on the Volt and the auto-industry bailout as of 11/21/08, click here.]

The Volt Concept
The Volt’s Operating-Cost Advantage: Better than Dollar-a-Gallon Gas
Why the Volt is Revolutionary
The Obstacles to Success
Conclusion: A New Manhattan Project?
Update (7/15/2008)

World-changing products come only a handful a century. The last century saw the airplane, radio, television and the personal computer. Except for the PC, each took decades to reach its full potential.

In the next two or three years, we may witness the introduction of another world-changing product. Surprisingly, its maker will be one of our stodgiest and least innovative manufacturers. The product, called the “Volt,” will appear under General Motors’ “Chevrolet” trademark.

I’ve already written a post about the Chevy Volt, in which I enthused about its potential from a consumer’s perspective. This essay explains why the Volt is potentially a world-changing product that deserves the attention of politicians and policy makers.

As its name suggests, the Volt is essentially an electric car. As such, it will help solve four of our nation’s four most pressing energy problems.

First, it will dramatically reduce our economic and security vulnerability, which derives from relying on a single fuel (oil) for virtually all of our transportation needs. It will do so by allowing over half of our commuting and most short-haul light transportation to run on any source of power capable of generating electricity.

Second, because electrical energy costs much less than gasoline, the Volt will slash the cost of short-haul transportation by as much as a factor of ten. It will therefore give us economic breathing space to implement rational long-term energy policy.

Third, since about a quarter of our electrical energy comes from carbon-neutral nuclear and renewable sources, the Volt will reduce our transportation’s contribution to global warming by at least one-eighth (25% of the half that switches to electrical power) in the very short term.

Finally, by running on battery-supplied electricity—which produces no air pollution whatsoever—the Volt will shift transportation-generated air pollution from cities into the countryside, where power plants are located. It will thus make our crowded cities more livable. To the extent we also convert our electric-power infrastructure to nonpolluting nuclear and renewable sources, the Volt will reduce pollution in both city and countryside.

The rest of this essay explains how and why a single product will have these dramatically salubrious effects.

The Volt Concept

GM’s Volt will be a “plug-in hybrid.” Like Toyota’s Prius, it will have an internal combustion engine to provide motive power from fuel. Unlike the Prius’ engine, the Volt’s combustion engine will run on gasoline, ethanol, or any combination of the two. General Motors may use a small three-cylinder, flexible-fuel engine already in production in Brazil, where the vast majority of cars can run on any gasoline-ethanol mix.

But none of this makes the Volt revolutionary. What does is the Volt’s “plug-in” character. The Volt is essentially a fully electric car with an internal combustion engine for long-range and emergency use. In fully electric operation, it can recharge itself in several hours by plugging into a normal electrical outlet in your garage.

The difference between the Volt and the Prius is in batteries. The Prius’ batteries can move the car unaided only for short distances. In contrast, the Volt’s batteries will allow it to make a reasonable commute on battery power alone. The design specifications provide for a round-trip commute of forty miles—twenty each way—on nothing but battery power. According to GM, that length of trip accommodates more than half of commuting by American consumers.

The Volt’s Operating-Cost Advantage: Better than Dollar-a-Gallon Gas

When using gasoline or ethanol as combustible fuel, the Volt will have a range of about 400 miles on six to seven gallons of gas. In that respect it will be comparable to the best small cars now on the market, and better than most.

Yet what makes the Volt potentially so revolutionary is that it can run without any combustible fuel at all. Many consumers will be able to use it for daily commuting without ever buying gasoline or ethanol. Instead, they will recharge it by plugging it into a normal electrical socket in their homes, reserving the Volt’s liquid fuel for longer trips and emergencies.

Buried in the Volt’s website is a crucial design parameter: 8 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy stored in the Volt’s batteries give it 40 miles of range. That’s five miles per kilowatt-hour. To calculate the cost of operation per mile, simply divide the price per kilowatt-hour of electricity at your home by that number.

My own latest electric bill, for example, shows an average price of about seven cents per kilowatt-hour. Divide by five miles per kilowatt-hour, and I get 1.4 cents per mile. At four dollars per gallon, an average small car with 20 miles-per-gallon efficiency costs 20 cents per mile to run. For me, the Volt would have a cost advantage over a gas-driven car of 20/1.4, or about fourteen times. With the Volt, consumers in most of the country will realize short-haul transportation cost savings of more than a factor of ten.

Of course the Volt’s actual performance will depend on driving conditions. No doubt the design specification is based on travel over level ground. Commuting over hilly terrain will probably require more energy—even though the Volt, like every hybrid, is designed to recharge the battery from the car’s kinetic energy as it goes downhill.

But even if GM’s specifications are high under practical driving conditions by as much as a factor of three, a Volt charged from an electric socket will still have a four-times cost advantage over gasoline. Running one on electric power alone will be better than having dollar-a-gallon gas again.

How do we know this promise is real? GM claims it has already assigned more than 200 engineers and 50 designers to work on the Volt, and an additional 400 to work on its subsystems. It has spent millions on design, engineering and promotion. Historically, GM has been one of the stodgiest and least innovative auto companies in the world. It would not be investing in the Volt without reason to believe that its effort will command success in the marketplace. Its chief reason to expect success is the huge cost advantage that using electrical energy to commute will provide.

Why the Volt is Revolutionary

What makes the Volt so revolutionary is not its “Gee Whiz!” factor, but something much more pedestrian: its operating-cost advantage over internal-combustion engines using oil as fuel. Consumers can use it to commute less than 40 miles round trip to work or school without ever buying fuel.

If the cost advantage of electric power motivates millions of consumers to do so, the Volt will produce four dramatic changes in our nationwide energy picture.

First, it will produce a massive shift in energy usage from gasoline (and ethanol) to electric energy. In so doing, it will help solve our national problem of dependence on foreign oil.

To the extent consumers charge their Volts from the electric grid, they will power their personal transportation by burning coal, our principal source of electricity at present. To a lesser extent (and depending on their location) they will power their commutes using nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, or solar power.

If millions of consumers use their Volts in this way, they will significantly reduce our reliance on foreign oil and the economic, balance-of-payments and national-security problems that it creates. These benefits will not require any significant increase in plant capacity, at least initially, since most consumers will recharge their Volts at night, when usage of existing electrical capacity is low.

Second, the Volt will vastly improve the flexibility and resilience of our national transportation infrastructure. Right now, our nation’s entire transportation infrastructure runs on a single fuel—oil—of which we produce less than half our needs. By relying on electricity, the Volt will give our infrastructure much greater flexibility. Whatever power source generates electricity will be the power source that consumers use to commute. They can travel on coal, nuclear power, solar or wind power, or any other means of generating electricity, including means not yet invented.

As we discover new means of generating electricity, we can transition to them easily and quickly, without having to replace millions of automobiles in private hands. All we have to do is build new power stations. Even distributed power generation will work with the Volt.

Third, the Volt will help solve the problem of global warming. In the short term, the additional demand for electric power that the Volt creates will likely come from burning coal—the dirtiest fuel known to mankind and the greatest cause of global warming. In the longer term, a rational national energy policy should shift the additional necessary production of electric power to carbon-neutral sources, including nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermal and biomass. As this transition occurs, the carbon “footprint” of our national transportation infrastructure will decrease.

Finally, the Volt will help solve the problem of air pollution in big cities. The Volt is likely to see its primary use in crowded cities, where commutes are short and electricity plentiful. A Volt running on power from the electric grid produces no air pollution whatsoever. Even if Volts run on coal-generated power, they will push air pollution out of cities and into the countryside where coal power plants are located. As other sources of power replace coal in generating electricity, the Volt will reduce pollution not only in crowded cities, but in the countryside as well. Thus the Volt can help both city dwellers and country folk breathe clean air again.

The Obstacles to Success

All this sounds a bit utopian, doesn’t it? Yet the obstacles to the Volt’s success are surprisingly few in number. GM already has experience with “flex-fuel” internal combustion engines in Brazil. Its electric motors and power systems are no different in principle from those that power Toyota’s Prius, which now enjoys sales of nearly thirty thousand cars per month and high ratings for reliability. The Volt’s design involves no basic problems in physics (requiring new technology) or energy economics (requiring rethinking the business model).

The only obstacles to success of the volt are practical. They break down into two categories: engineering and political.

The engineering challenge involves the batteries. The Volt’s batteries require advanced lithium ion technology, in which GM has no expertise. So it is relying on smaller companies for battery development. The batteries’ basic physics and chemistry are already proven; prototypes exist which meet the Volt’s design specifications.

The problem is reliability. Consumers have come to expect high reliability from gasoline driven automobiles. In order to match that reliability at reasonable cost, the Volt’s batteries must be capable of enduring thousands of charge-discharge cycles without deterioration. So far, the batteries have encountered unacceptable levels of deterioration. In some cases, they have caught fire.

There can be no guarantee that these problems will be solved soon. Honda’s chairman has reportedly [subscription required] bet against battery technology (and against GM), choosing instead to develop fuel-cell vehicles rather than battery-operated ones. But fuel cells require an additional step in the energy cycle: the generation of pure hydrogen or methane as fuel for the cells, using electricity. Batteries promise better efficiency and greater simplicity, if they can be made to work reliably.

Making the Volt’s batteries work reliably requires no new developments in physics or chemistry, just better reliability and quality control. Those are things at which both American and Japanese industry excel. The battery companies suffer no shortage of investment. Given their huge upside potential, they are probably one of the best speculative investments in recent industrial history.

Many industrialists have gone broke betting that something cannot be done. Honda may be one of those. Or its fuel-cell cars (if successful) may supplement the Volt for long-haul transport, beyond the range of the Volt’s batteries. There may be room for both Honda’s and GM’s new technologies.

Potentially more serious are the political obstacles. If the Volt works, it will be one of the most disruptive new technologies in history. By converting a large fraction of gasoline usage—first to coal and later to less polluting sources of electric power—it will render a large fraction of our energy infrastructure obsolete. It is therefore sure to encounter political opposition from the oil companies. It is also likely to encounter opposition from owners of independent service stations, many of whom the Volt will put out of business as consumers “fill up” from plugs in their homes.

Conclusion: A New Manhattan Project?

Of all the products and solutions now on the drawing boards to address our energy crisis, the Chevy Volt is the most promising and closest to fruition. In the short term, it can reduce our cost of transportation and dependence on foreign oil dramatically by shifting the power source for commuting and short-haul transport from gasoline to coal. In the longer term, it can help reduce global warming and air pollution as we develop “greener” forms of electricity production and discover new ones. In any event, the Volt will increase the flexibility of our transportation infrastructure by allowing it to run on any fuel or means capable of generating electricity.

As readers of this blog well know, I am no admirer of coal as an energy source. It is the dirtiest fuel known to mankind. Even at current levels of use, it already produces horrendous pollution, health and environmental problems, in addition to global warming. Therefore I have mixed feelings cheering a new development that, in the short run, is likely to produce a massive increase in the burning of coal.

Yet it is now apparent that our three-decade neglect of rational energy policy has produced a crisis of unprecedented proportions. Our economy, our middle class, and especially our poor already suffer greatly from high gasoline prices. So do our national budget and emergency and military preparedness. And there is no telling how much higher worldwide increases in demand and the perennial turmoil in the Middle East will drive gas prices.

Under these circumstances, shifting a significant fraction of our transportation power from high-priced foreign oil (which we do not control) to lower-priced domestic coal (which we do) is an unfortunate but necessary interim step toward economic stability, strategic safety, and a rational energy policy. The Volt, after all, is fuel neutral; any method of generating electricity will charge its batteries as well. It therefore offers not only quick relief from the high price and precarious availability of oil, but also the opportunity to address economic, strategic and environmental problems simultaneously as we make the transition from fossil fuels to nuclear and renewable sources of energy.

In all these respects, the Volt is a potentially world-changing product. As such, it deserves careful attention and nurturing on the part of industrialists, politicians, policy makers, and citizens.

The Volt’s maker, GM, is not without political clout and industrial resources. But GM has shelved promising projects before, including an electric car called the EV-1. Some suspect that its reasons for doing so had little to do with long-term marketability or public benefit, and a lot to do with maintaining returns from an obsolete and socially deleterious business model, namely, profitable sales of big gas guzzlers. Whatever the truth of those suspicions, politicians and policy makers should make sure that GM does not use its plans for the Volt as cover for ulterior business motives, such as fighting legislative fuel-efficiency standards.

GM itself has some incentive in that regard. It has performed abysmally in recent years, dramatically losing market share to foreign manufacturers, principally the Japanese. The Volt may be its last hurrah.

But far more is at stake in the Volt’s success than the survival of one company—even an American icon like GM. The success of the Volt and products like it offers the quickest, most painless and most market-driven path to energy independence and economic relief for our nation. Accordingly, its success is a matter of general importance, even national security.

The key technical challenge is the Volt’s batteries, now under development by small companies. If those firms show signs of stumbling, policy makers should give careful consideration to broadening the field and providing research assistance, whether in the form of government grants or direct assistance from national laboratories.

The success of the Volt—and of similar efforts by GM’s competitors—is too important to leave to the vagaries of the private marketplace. It should be a part of our nation’s industrial policy and of any political plan to address energy costs and energy independence.

Good industrial policy does not require picking winners. But it does require making sure that winning is limited only by technology and economics, not foot-dragging, stupidity, or ulterior business motives. Policy makers should insure that private actors do not sidetrack or suppress promising new technologies in order to prolong the profitability of obsolete business models having no long-term social benefit. We have suffered from an outmoded and poorly performing energy infrastructure far too long to tolerate additional foot dragging in the name of easy private profit, which often proves as evanescent as the sales of big SUVs today.

It bears repeating that the Volt concept requires only a single, minor additional innovation: making heavy-duty lithium-ion batteries reliable. All the rest of the technology needed for the Volt is ready off the shelf. In fact, it is running down the road in every Prius that you see around you. And reliable, mass-produced heavy lithium-ion batteries would have yet other immediate applications with dramatic impact on energy policy, such as making distributed solar power possible by providing an efficient and reliable way to store it at night.

Our Manhattan Project developed atomic weapons from a standing start in six years. It was entirely a federal government project, staffed by the best experts and brightest people in the nation. The development of reliable heavy lithium-ion batteries and processes to manufacture them is already well under way. Perfecting them is a task well within our nation’s collective technological competence. On the whole, it is a far easier task than was developing atomic weapons under wartime conditions in the early 1940s. If private industry cannot complete the task on schedule, then perhaps a new Manhattan Project is in order.

Update (7/15/2008):

The Seattle Times and New York Times have reported two important recent developments. First, as of June 4, GM’s board approved production of the Chevy Volt for 2010. Second, on June 30, GM’s Bob Lutz, its vice chairman and chief of product development, said the first generation Volt would sell for $40,000 and would lose money at that price. He also said that the Volt’s 40-mile range per battery charge would satisfy the commuting needs of 78 percent of U.S. commuters.

The new $40,000 price tag is 33% above GM’s initial estimate of $30,000. Undoubtedly it reflects increased cost for the batteries. With GM’s century-long experience in car production, it cannot have been so imprecise in predicting the cost of the mechanical and electrical systems that it will make and assemble. The price increase must reflect a revised estimate for the cost of the batteries, which GM itself will not make and which are still under development.

While the new price is disappointing, the new estimate and GM’s board approval suggest that sufficiently reliable batteries can be made; they will just be more expensive than originally expected. Presumably mass production and the production learning curve will bring the prices down with time.

Based on the new purchase price, the New York Times compared the price of the Chevy Volt to that of two Priuses. But the initial purchase price is not the relevant comparison. Operating cost is.

If you drive 40 miles per day, 365 days per year, you will drive a little less than 15,000 miles per year. At 20 MPG and $ 4 per gallon, that’s $3,000 yearly for gas. A Prius that gets 40 MPG will reduce that cost to half, or $1, 500. But a Volt will reduce the $3,000 price by a factor of ten or more. Therefore, assuming you don’t have to replace the batteries earlier, if you buy a Volt rather than a Prius you will recover the $20,000 price difference in about fifteen years. (Actually, the difference is less than $20,000 because a fully loaded Prius can cost up to $24,000).

That’s not particularly good, as few people keep their cars that long. But if the price of gas goes up to $ 8 per gallon, as many expect, you’ll recover the price difference in a mere 7.5 years. In the interim you won’t have to visit a gas station; you’ll just charge the car at home. You won’t be vulnerable to further gas price hikes. And you’ll have the knowledge that you are reducing air pollution and global warming by the percentage of your electricity that comes from sources other than fossil fuel.

That’s probably enough to get many people to buy a Volt, just as many have bought Priuses. But massive popular conversion to plug-in hybrids will depend on price reductions brought by mass production and perhaps new technology. They may well follow, as now GM is not alone. Toyota also has promised to produce a plug-in hybrid by 2010. If nothing else, GM will provide a nice price umbrella for Toyota’s competitive car.

permalink


Site Meter

26 May 2008

Energy Policy: A Matter of Planning


Our Failure to Plan
Electric Power for Transportation
Why We Need National Planning
Conclusion

Energy is the central issue of our time. As summer approaches with gas prices over $ 4 per gallon, its importance has now dawned on the least informed consumer.

What may be less obvious (except to truckers) is the extraordinary cost of diesel fuel. That cost is now approaching $ 5 per gallon, making diesel much more expensive than gasoline for the first time in living memory. As this extraordinary cost filters through to the price of every product that we buy, use or eat, inflation will inevitably rise.

Nothing could demonstrate more graphically how the price of energy has become a drag on our economy. That drag will only increase as rising prices follow rising worldwide demand.

But energy is not just a domestic issue. As Tom Friedman recently pointed out, it is central to our foreign policy. Every day the most enlightened and progressive governments on the planet—ours, Europe’s and Japan’s—transfer obscene sums of money to the worst—including Saudi Arabia’s, Iran’s, Russia’s and Venezuela’s. This enormous, steady transfer of wealth may be the most massively destructive economic imbalance in human history. Tyrannical sheiks and gangsterish Russian oligarchs wallow in luxury while progressive forces languish, China and India struggle to modernize, and Africa and parts of Southern Asia starve.

Energy is also a military issue. Not for nothing do we call our vast repository of stored crude oil the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. If the foreign oil tap were to turn off due to war, sabotage or political manipulation, it would leave us with the Hobson’s choice of energizing consumers, industry, or our military. In the long run, something would have to give. Consumers now struggling with $ 4 per gallon gas and trading their cars in for motor scooters [subscription required] are beginning to understand how painfully consequential those adjustments would be.

So far, our national response to this long-term historic challenge has been abysmal. Two sets of statistics tell the story. Although Americans invented nuclear power, in 2006 our nuclear fraction of national electrical energy production was 19.4%. France’s was 78.1%, Japan’s 30%. Well over 50% of all our electricity comes from coal, the dirtiest fuel known to mankind and the one most responsible for global warming.

Second, we have fallen far behind our trading partners in both conservation and modern renewable energy. Europe’s and Japan’s auto fleets get nearly twice the mileage of ours. Germany, which receives far less sun than our South or West, is the world’s leader in operational solar panel production.

For a nation that once prided itself on superior science and technology—so-called “Yankee ingenuity”—our current innovative and industrial stagnation is staggering. If we don’t wake up quickly, we are likely to experience history’s most dramatic and rapid demotion to third-world status. No nation enjoys a guarantee of supremacy, least of all one whose citizens and government are lazy, greedy and stupid.

Our Failure to Plan

Our last “oil crisis” occurred over thirty years ago. In the interim we have done little or nothing to address a predictable problem now returning with a vengeance. Why? What held us back?

One answer is clear. Republicans have held the White House for all but twelve of the last forty years. During that time, they treated the free market as a kind of sacred cow, which could overrun gardens but no one could chastise. Anything that smacked of market intervention, from regulation of financial derivatives to (God forbid!) industrial policy they declared sin. At the same time, they caricatured intelligent national planning as the equivalent of Soviet central planning. Meanwhile, nations like France, Germany, and South Korea, with strong free-market systems backed by intelligent national planning and industrial policy, have stolen the lead from us. China is in the process of doing the same.

The irony is that we once were good at national planning. Between Einstein’s first letter to FDR warning of the risk of the Nazis developing nuclear weapons and our explosion of the first atomic weapon in July 1945, less than six years elapsed. Our federal government planned, executed and ran the entire Manhattan Project, and it did so in strict secrecy. FDR and his team appointed top-notch administrators, including the legendary General Green, to ride herd on the smartest physicists on the planet. They collected skilled and dedicated workers from all over the nation, commandeered a prodigious amount of energy and natural resources, and made sure that we Americans were the first to develop and possess mankind’s most dangerous weapons.

The Internet has a similar story. The Department of Defense created it, in university and government laboratories, under funding by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Its original purpose was to provide a robust, “headless” communications system that could survive nuclear war. When its commercial potential became apparent, the government cut it loose for private commercial exploitation.

The Manhattan Project and the Internet are but two examples of the fruits of rational government planning. So were our successful voyages to the Moon in the 1960s.

If we need yet more proof that government can accomplish great things, we need only look to yesterday’s successful deployment of the Phoenix spacecraft on Mars. Government administrators designed and planned the spacecraft and its mission, and government and government-sponsored scientists and engineers built and tested the spacecraft and executed the mission. Their stunning success is a reminder what government can do when led by competent people not philosophically dedicated to proving that government can do nothing right.

Today we are emerging from four decades of Republican misrule based on that philosophy. For most of that time, we have had a pseudo-religious aversion to rational national planning, plus tens of billions of dollars of private venture capital looking for the next easy way to make a buck. So things like Facebook and MySpace got funded long before wind and solar energy, rational (i.e. efficient) ways to make ethanol, electric cars and nuclear energy. We have become a nation of hucksters addicted to glitz and quick money while neglecting the essentials of our economic survival.

Partly as a result, we now live in lamentable circumstances. Of all the world’s industrialized nations (plus some developing ones, whose options are still open) we have the worst energy infrastructure.

How is this so? First, our infrastructure is the least flexible. The overwhelming majority of our transportation runs on a single fuel: oil. Go to any other advanced nation—England, France, Germany, or Japan, for example—and you will see a very different energy infrastructure. You will see not only electric subways and buses, but comfortable and rapid intercity trains running on electricity. We have the like only in our Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington, D.C.

In France, which derives 78% of its electricity from nuclear power, the vast majority of public transportation depends on neither oil nor coal. If the Saudi oil tap turned off tomorrow, France would still run. The United States would not.

Electric Power for Transportation

Not only is our energy infrastructure the most vulnerable to political and market shocks. It is also the least efficient. For it fails to recognize electricity as the most efficient and flexible form of energy.

Electricity is the optimal energy source for four reasons. First, electric motors far exceed the physical efficiency of any internal combustion engine (ICE). The efficiency of large electric motors used in transportation is over 80% and often higher than 90%. The maximum efficiency of an ICE fueled by petroleum is about 34%. That means that about two-thirds of the energy of gasoline used in an ICE are lost as heat, doing no useful work.

Second, unlike fossil fuels, electricity costs nothing to transport. Once electric power lines are built, the marginal cost of transporting power is zero. (There are, of course, some variable costs for maintaining the power lines.) The only comparable fossil fuel is natural gas in its gaseous form. When conveyed by pipeline, its marginal cost of transportation is low. But even that cost is nonzero, due to the expense of supplying the power needed to maintain pipeline pressure. Coal, oil and liquefied natural gas all require energy to transport, and their marginal cost of transport is a significant fraction of the energy value they provide.

Third, electricity is the most flexible, universal form of energy. It can be used directly to run motors, power transport vehicles, heat homes or offices, or power electrical and electronic equipment. More important, electricity has maximally flexible sources. A variety of means—from nuclear fission to wind—can generate electricity. New means like fuel cells and nuclear fusion may be just around the corner. No other source of energy boasts the same advantages.

Finally, electricity can provide a distributed, decentralized power source. Not every home or office can have its own coal mine, oil well, or private source of natural gas. But every home or office in a windy area could have a windmill. Every home or office in a sunny clime could have a solar cell array or other source of solar power. Unlike fossil fuels, electricity offers the opportunity for a distributed, decentralized power system resistant to disruption, with little geographically extended infrastructure.

Our dependence on a single fuel for virtually all our transportation needs tells only half the story of our vulnerability. The other half is our inflexible transportation energy infrastructure.

At the moment, that infrastructure has three components: oil refineries, tanker fleets, and service stations. All require additional energy, not otherwise productive, to operate. As global demand for the single fuel they offer inflates its price relative to alternatives, these elements of infrastructure will become devalued or obsolete.

This point is not just theoretical. General Motors’ own projections for the performance of its Chevy Volt—whose availability GM projects in 2010—suggest a cost of operation per mile about one-tenth the cost of gasoline at $3 per gallon. At that price, Volt purchasers will never go the their local service stations. Instead, they will “fill up” their batteries by charging them, at home, from the electric power grid.

Of course the price of electricity will rise with increasing demand if GM’s sales of the Volt explode. But the basic point remains. At present prices an electric car like the Volt would cost less than one-tenth to run (from the electric grid) what current gasoline-propelled vehicles cost. If the Volt succeeds, it will make a large fraction of the refineries, tanker fleets and service station that comprise our nation’s transportation infrastructure obsolete.

The Volt’s advent does not depend on new forms of battery technology. The energy calculations GM has made rely upon current technology, which batteries now can deliver. What remains uncertain is whether GM’s suppliers can make batteries reliable enough to withstand thousands of charge-discharge cycles without breaking down or causing fires. That is a matter of engineering, not physics or energy economics.

Reportedly Honda’s chairman is betting [subscription required] against GM. He is putting his company’s resources into fuel-cell cars, prototypes of which Honda will soon provide for limited testing in Southern California. GM is betting that its battery suppliers will be able to solve their engineering problems within two years.

Whoever is right, one thing is certain. At more than ten times the current price of electricity, gasoline has a limited future as a transportation fuel. If storage batteries cannot reliably power cars with electricity, then fuel cells or ICEs using electricity-derived hydrogen will. Car producers need only provide buyers with simple devices to produce hydrogen by electrolyzing water (at efficiencies well in excess of 50%) and pumping it into holding tanks. Whether their cars use fuel cells or hydrogen ICEs, these consumers won’t be going to the gas station to buy gas at ten times the price.

Electrically generated hydrogen also can serve as a fuel for long-range transportation, including trucking. We will have to modify current ICEs to burn hydrogen and provide service stations with hydrogen-filling capability. But these tasks are all well within the ambit of current technology. Hydrogen stations for trucks could even generate their own hydrogen from on-site electrolysis plants, using electricity transported at zero marginal cost. That would save the additional expense of moving diesel fuel around the country.

Why We Need National Planning

As the foregoing analysis shows, our national energy future need not be grim. By converting our transportation infrastructure to electricity (with or without the mediation of hydrogen), we can achieve four important goals. First, we can lower the cost of transportation by about a factor of ten, back to where it was when gasoline cost 40 cents per gallon. Second, we can achieve energy independence by diversifying our power generation to escape dependence on oil. Third, depending on the fuels we use, we can reduce or eliminate our contribution to global warming. To the extent we use nuclear, wind, solar, ethanol or other renewable sources of power to generate our electricity, our carbon footprint will be neutral. Finally, since hydrogen ICEs produce only water vapor as exhaust, while batteries or fuel cells produce no air pollution at all, we can clean up the particulate and hydrocarbon pollution that has plagued our cities for the past century.

Reaching these desirable goals will require tremendous effort. We will have to convert our existing near-obsolete energy infrastructure to an entirely new form. The conversion will entail tremendous social, economic and industrial change, plus some economic dislocation. But it will not require any fundamental scientific or engineering advances, only elaboration of current technology.

The chances are slim that the unassisted marketplace can handle all these massive changes smoothly and quickly. Rational energy planning would jump-start the process, insure its smoothness and fairness, avoid severe economic dislocation, and insure an earlier and more successful completion of the transformation than would otherwise be possible.

Let me be clear. When I say “planning,” I mean nothing like the central planning of economic production which the Soviets and Red Chinese so dismally undertook during the last century. Under the planning I propose, government bureaucrats will not design, build, buy, sell, own or control anything. Nor will they pick winners, for example, as between GM’s battery operated Chevy Volt and Honda’s fuel-cell car. They won’t have to, because both ultimately will run on electricity.

What rational government planning will do is insure that our electrical infrastructure is developed quickly and is safe and adequate to meet skyrocketing demand as electricity becomes our transportation fuel of choice.

In that respect, government planning has four key roles to play. First and foremost, it could restore the stature and effectiveness of our nuclear power industry. It could do so by reviewing, testing and approving plans for meltdown-proof and terrorism-resistant nuclear power plants—a task for which our national laboratories at Los Alamos and Livermore are eminently well qualified. It could provide stringent and uncompromising regulation of safety, using elite and highly trained personnel independent of political and economic influences. It could also provide or manage national insurance against unanticipated plant shutdowns, in order to motivate private nuclear-power producers to put safety before profit. Then it could create a realistic and efficient system for storing nuclear waste, using the power of eminent domain to remove and compensate any private person or firm that stood in the way.

Government planning’s second role should be to support nascent electrical industries with research subsidies, tax credits, and, if necessary, temporary price supports for a start-up period. Government could provide money for basic and applied research in such things as practical nuclear fusion, cellulosic ethanol, coal carbon sequestration, and safer generation and storage of hydrogen. To avoid a feeding frenzy or co-option by private firms, this research support should be limited to universities, government laboratories, and nonprofit research institutions and conditioned upon making research results available to anyone at a standard, nondiscriminatory royalty rate. The model here should be DARPA, whose funding developed the Internet under conditions that ultimately led to universal public use.

Government planning’s third role should be to avoid economic and social dislocation. For example, it could provide loans, advice and technical assistance to owners of independent service stations seeking to convert from gasoline to hydrogen pumps. If electricity at home turns out to be the fuel of choice (either for battery driven cars or fuel-cells cars filled at home by electrolysis machines), it could provide loans and technical assistance for service stations destined for conversion to general business use, as well as for municipalities seeking to assist that conversion. The assistance could include advice and help in correcting the groundwater pollution that has so plagued service stations.

Government planning’s final role should be rationalizing electrical energy production and transmission nationwide, under federal regulation based upon local input. If we are to convert our transportation infrastructure to one based on electricity, our total national electrical capacity will have to roughly double. The federal government must control the permitting and development process under uniform federal standards so that development can proceed rapidly and investors in the industry can know what to expect. As a last resort, government planners should have the power of eminent domain to manage private owners resisting electrical developments that benefit everyone.

There is one other important role for government—one of which no presidential candidate can dare to speak. We need to eliminate all taxes and import duties on foreign cane-produced ethanol, which is eight times more energy efficient than our corn-produced ethanol. That single step would open much of the Earth’s southern hemisphere to green energy production and provide a path to economic success for small cane farmers worldwide. You won’t hear any candidate propose this change, for fear of losing the farm-state vote. But it should be part of any rational energy policy, and we should all look for hints.

Conclusion

If we are serious about energy independence, reducing global warming, and keeping up with our competitors in energy and “green” technologies, we are going to have to match our competitors’ rational national planning. This doesn’t mean accepting Soviet-style central planning of energy research, let alone business or industry. It does mean giving up our scatterbrained, me-first allergy to national planning and guidance.

We can guide, manage, regulate and superintend markets without destroying their invaluable incentives for voluntary investment and effort. We learned how to do that during FDR’s New Deal. If we hope to convert our energy infrastructure to something secure and sensible before the Saudis, Iranians and Venezuelans drive us into bankruptcy, we are going to have to learn that skill again.

Somehow, we must collectively rediscover how to trust our government and how to elect officials whose competence, judgment and honesty is worthy of our trust. It will be interesting to see which candidate—McCain or Obama—first provides a comprehensive, credible energy plan adequate to the scope of our past failures and the problems we now face. Neither has done so yet, but McCain’s inveterate belief in Republican economic religion suggests he will be the last to see the need for intelligent planning.

permalink



Site Meter

24 May 2008

Goodbye, Hillary!


From now on this blog will focus on the general election campaign and unrelated matters of public policy, relegating Hillary to the footnote status she so richly deserves.

Having no crystal ball, I don’t know when Hillary will be forced to accept reality. That depends upon the tug of war between the superdelegates’ better judgment and the age-old moral norm that one doesn’t push a lady.

But I do know that Hillary’s candidacy is finished. Her “assassination” gaffe is the very sort of coup de grace for her own campaign that she had hoped would finish Obama’s.

I doubt she really meant to imply that the party needs her standing by in the event of the unthinkable. For me, it was enough that she had the gall to compare herself—even by inference—to one of the three great leaders of the sixties, each of whom died in the service of a cause far larger than himself.

As far as I can tell, Hillary’s campaign has never served any purpose other than her own, and she has served that purpose with all the narrowness of spirit of the pettiest courtroom shyster. No point was too tawdry, small or self-serving for her to argue, no pander too low, and no apology so necessary as to avoid weaseling, whether on her Iraq vote, her Bosnia fantasy or now her twice invoking the specter of assassination. She never did apologize to Senator Obama or his family, who are the obvious foci of fear of assassination in this election.

May God give her wisdom to exit with grace, and the selflessness to redeem her twisted candidacy by leading her partisans back to the great cause of arresting our nation’s precipitous decline. And may God grant us leaders who are acquainted less with interminable legal argument and more with problem solving and statesmanship. “Obliterate,” indeed!

permalink



Site Meter

21 May 2008

Revolt of the Experts


For months I have been searching for a word to describe Barack Obama’s core constituency. I don’t mean African-Americans, at least not as a bloc. Many of them were late to jump on Obama’s bandwagon. Like so many others, they thought that someone with African blood had little or no chance to become president, no matter how well qualified he might be.

No, I mean the people who supported Obama from the very beginning, before Iowa, before South Carolina, before the primary season even began. I mean the people who jump-started his campaign by maxing out their $2,300 individual contributions long before anyone really knew that racism in America—though far from knocked out—is on the ropes.

Who are these early supporters? Most of them are not rich; $2,300 is a significant sum for them. Why did so many pony up for a relatively unknown candidate facing a racial barrier of unknown height? The answers to these questions say something about what may be a new movement in America.

History is myopic. It focuses largely on presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, autocrats, tyrants, and other strong leaders. Yet it often neglects the next levels down. It neglects the layers of society that mediate between the top leaders and the so-called “common people,” i.e., the average worker in today’s society.

Some of the most successful societies in history relied heavily on the next layers down. The great Chinese emperors had their Mandarins. Rome had its Senators and leading merchants. At their heights, the British and French empires had their aristocrats, many of whom were great statesmen and scientists. We Americans once had more than a handful of Senators and Representatives who could think for themselves in the public interest, as well as industrialists who occasionally considered the public good (as long as they were making money).

In all great societies, the next levels down had three things in common. First, they involved highly educated folk, trained in the best schools of their nation and time. Second, the social norms under which they worked gave them considerable power and independence. Far from being lackeys or sycophants, they served as advisers to the top level, as a reservoir of talent in times of need, and often as a check on capricious or misguided initiatives from the top. Finally, in large, complex societies they served as the “glue” that bound the nation together, translating edicts from on high into practical governance for diverse localities.

When the next levels down enjoyed these virtues, life was good for everyone, including the common person. Every golden age had at least one vibrant next level down.

The need for vibrant next levels down is greater today because society is more complex. There are an infinite number of jobs that no top-level leader can do, no matter how wise, smart, or strong-willed he or she might be.

No political leader can personally run an air traffic control system, let alone design an airplane. None can predict the weather, manage a health-care system, design highways or ports, run (let alone design) a nuclear power plant, build computer networks, manage a modern economy, or teach anyone else to do these things. Modern society needs experts, and their expertise inescapably gives them a certain power: the power of knowing.

The United States’ experts are unique in two respects. First, the United States is still the world’s scientific, technological and economic leader, so it has more experts per capita than any other nation. It has to. Second, the United States educates its experts differently than does any other society. Rather than forcing them to focus early on narrow technical expertise, it insists on every expert receiving a well-rounded “liberal” education before proceeding to specialization, usually in graduate school. It expects engineers, doctors, scientists and computer programmers to know something about law, politics, history, literature and government.

Until recently, this huge mass of highly trained and liberally educated experts has been silent and invisible. Its members have been content to ply their specialized trades, leaving the messy business of politics and government to others.

But there comes a time when, even as you focus happily on your own work, you become aware that the fellow at the next bench is repeatedly smashing his hammer into his thumb. When you see that the person smashing his thumb is your supreme leader, you begin to look up.

As every expert knows, some questions go beyond ideology and moral relativism. In our complex and technical society, there are increasingly right and wrong answers to a variety of social and political questions—as matters of expertise, not moral perspective.

Building bigger and less efficient cars and subsidizing the oil and gas industries will not secure energy independence or lower energy costs as global demand rises. Dismantling all the regulatory precautions of the New Deal without regard to the reasons for them or the risks of new financial instruments will not avoid something like our mortgage meltdown. Neglecting to strengthen the levees around new Orleans will no more save the city than neglecting the nation’s bridges and highway infrastructure will facilitate commerce, travel and trade. Starting an optional war without insuring that you have the necessary troops and resources—and without committing those resources—is no way to win. Continuing to hope that global warming will reverse itself despite decades of evidence to the contrary is not rational policy. Allowing an epidemic of obesity to overtake our children in the name of freedom of consumer choice will not produce a healthy society.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Our experts are people with years (sometimes decades!) of training to solve real problems using reason, logic, education, experience and common sense. In the last seven years, they could see that our leaders were bunglers who repeatedly smashed their hammers into their thumbs. So they revolted.

Their revolt is silent and invisible. You won’t see them out on the streets picketing. Only occasionally will you see their op-ed pieces in mainstream media. But you’ll find them on the Internet, contributing to campaigns, persuading, writing, teaching and working behind the scenes.

The revolt began in 2004, with the flawed candidacy of John Kerry. The experts’ effort failed—in part because Kerry proved a poor candidate and in part because their effort began too late.

But experts are as persistant as Hillary Clinton. When they have a problem to solve, they keep trying to solve it until they find a solution. As 2008 approached, experts studied the field early and carefully. Unbeknownst to anyone but themselves, they picked Barack Obama.

The experts’ choice struck the pundits as naïve. Why pick someone so unknown, who would have to fight the apparent handicap of racial prejudice? For an expert, the answer was easy: Obama is an expert, too.

He’s superbly educated and highly intelligent. He’s dispassionate, steady and thoughtful. He’s listens and thinks before coming to a conclusion. He doesn’t let ideology get in the way of thinking or problem solving. Already that puts him light-years ahead of John McCain, whose lack of knowledge of economics allowed him to buy the neoconservative twaddle that has brought our economy low.

Obama has similar advantages over both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Like Edwards, Hillary is quintessentially a legal advocate, a litigator at heart. As her own campaign reveals, she is trained to fight and push even a lost cause to its bitter end. In contrast, Obama was a law professor (although he practiced civil rights law for a short time). He is trained to see the law as a means of solving social problems. His education and temperament let him see all sides and find a middle ground.

So the vast majority of experts are foursquare for Obama. What they find most attractive about him is not his charisma, his unusual family history, or his message of hope—although all are attractive qualities. They see him as a dispassionate, thoughtful, expert problem solver like themselves.

Experts hope and trust that Obama will soon be in the White House, and they’ll work hard to put him there. But whatever happens, experts will not go away. Now aroused, they will not let mediocre minds, ideologues and demagogues usurp and destroy our nation, the greatest social creation of the human race so far. And that goes for Hillary, too!

The last seven years have taught us a lot about demagogues. Every one of us now understands that the thumbs they smash may be our own. So experts will continue to work hard, behind the scenes, to pick leaders who can make the hammer hit the nail. And they’ll continue to prime the pump for any candidate who promises expert decisions untainted by ideology or demagoguery.

permalink


Site Meter

18 May 2008

Where are the Adults?

Update on May 18, 2008

As well-informed readers will recognize, the post below is becoming outdated. Adults are in fact beginning to step in.

Last Wednesday John Edwards endorsed Obama and promised to campaign for him. So many superdelegates are now jumping on Obama’s bandwagon that he may have the nomination numerically wrapped up by next Tuesday, with help from an expected win in Oregon. No less a Clinton supporter than the New York Times today speculated as much.

Edwards’ endorsement was inevitable. I had predicted it over three months ago. Hillary’s lame policies, tolerance for corruption, divisive style of campaigning, and imperial style of governance were and are incompatible with everything that Edwards stood for. As Spock of Star Trek would say, Edwards supporting Obama was “logical.”

So why did Edwards take so long? Therein lies the rub, and therein lies the Democrats’ challenge in general election campaign now upon us.

Although Elizabeth Edwards was careful not to state her preferences, she hinted that she favored Hillary. In order to endorse Obama, Edwards had to ignore the apparent preference of his spouse, who herself is engaged in a difficult and public battle with cancer. Obviously that was not an easy choice for him to make.

Maybe Elizabeth changed her mind after seeing how often Hillary’s ambition trumped what was good for the party and the country. Maybe John had decided to refrain from endorsing until some predetermined time. Maybe the pressure of Hillary’s divisiveness and pandering finally forced his hand, despite his wife’s preferences. Maybe, like other politicians, he simply wanted to give the democratic process as much time as possible to work.

We may never know why it took him so long. But we do know that the Democratic party’s dilemma now is John Edwards’ writ large.

There are millions of women in America—especially young ones—who have not yet understood how disastrous Hillary would be as nominee for the party or as president for the country. Some may never make that realization.

Yet somehow Obama and the party much reach out to them. We all need them to return to the Democratic cause and the enterprise of restoring our nation after seven years of disastrous misrule. Carrying the gender politics of the campaign into the general election would spell disaster.

To say that Hillary could be helpful in avoiding that disaster is an understatement of Obama-esque proportions. Whether she undertakes the effort—and the enthusiasm she brings to it—will tell us a lot about what Hillary is really made of. Much louder than her words, her actions (after she finally acknowledges defeat) will tell whether she cares about the party and the country or was in it for herself all along.

Original essay of May 7, 2008 follows:

In several essays (1, 2, 3, and 4), I have analyzed why Hillary Clinton’s interminable candidacy is bad for our party, our country, and the world. I’ve tried to be as abstract and dispassionate as is possible under the circumstances. I’ve tried not to succumb to my feelings.

But the truth is my feelings toward Hillary are strongly negative. I have an absolute conviction that she lacks the basic competence and leadership skill to be a good president. I find her utterly devoid of grace, humor, and humanity. I cannot fathom how someone so devious and self-serving can earn the nation’s confidence and heal the deep wounds made by Dubya and Rove. And how would the rest of the world react to a person whom her own people cannot trust?

I didn’t always feel this way. I once admired Hillary for saving her marriage. I once marveled at her bid to become the nation’s first female president. Although male, I felt a weak reflection of the gleams of women yearning for gender equality in the White House and beyond. I, too, thought a female—any female—could hardly do worse than our latest male had done.

But then I watched Hillary in action.

I saw her use every cheap trick and throw every dirty punch to win the nomination. I saw her exploit racial prejudice while hiding under the veil of gender equality. I saw her turn debates into a game of “gotcha!” and foreign policy into pandering to domestic interest groups. I saw her campaign by trashing her opponent with trivia. I saw her debase the science of economics by pandering with voodoo. I saw her demolish every principle of honor and competence that once made our party admirable and our nation great. And I began to despise her for constantly tearing others down to build herself up.

Now my reaction to Hillary has reached the point of loathing.

I am not alone. Who do you think jump-started Obama’s campaign and primed the pump of his unprecedented fund-raising? It was this country’s largely hidden intelligentsia. It was professors, teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers and scientists. It was people with decades of training to think abstractly and dispassionately. It was people who spent their entire adult lives learning how to solve problems, without favor or prejudice. It was people who value competence, reason and expert knowledge above all else. It was people, like me, who saw those same qualities in Barack Obama.

The politicos and pundits laughed at us. They told us we were naïve dreamers. No one these days gets elected, they said, on extraordinary brains, talent and competence alone—least of all an African-American. The days of the Kennedys and King are gone, they said. We have to get down in the mud and nominate the best demagogue, principles be damned. We have to beat Dubya and Rove at their own game. So they anointed Hillary.

But we professionals don’t believe that, and we never will. We will not give up our country’s fundamental principles of competence, honesty, honor, and equality. We will not settle for a scoundrel just because she is female and skilled at demagoguery.

Those of us who are teachers are familiar with the Hillary type. We’ve seen many like her. They can quote all sort of facts and figures to dazzle the impressionable. But they cannot reason; they cannot predict consequences; they can lead only by intimidation; and they don’t know right from wrong. They have no perspective, honor or virtue.

Lest we forget, Robert S. MacNamara—the architect of the War in Vietnam—was just such a person. He could dazzle anyone—including the Kennedys—with his command of facts and figures. Yet he got us mired inextricably in our worst foreign debacle until Dubya.

Now Hillary has thrown her last Hail Mary pass. She has said with pride and defiance that she does not listen to economists. (Her exact words were “I’m not going to put my lot in with economists,” in speaking of her ridiculous proposal for a gas tax holiday.) She tried to prove that she is the top alpha male.

After seven years of Dubya, she apparently believes we Americans want more machismo, instead of competence. Like Dubya, she wants to make her own reality. But we all know how that reality turned out. Sadly, we are living it every day.

Hillary has already done our party and our nation tremendous damage. She has been the most divisive national political figure next to Dubya himself. She has tried to cleave worker from professional, black from white, women from men, well-off from poor, and old from young.

And she has had the gall to insult our intelligence by insisting that she is doing nothing of the kind. She says she is doing it only to toughen Obama up for the Republicans. But John McCain is far too honest and honorable to stoop to Hillary’s tricks. And no Democrat in my lifetime has done to another Democrat what Hillary has already tried to do (mostly unsuccessfully) to Obama.

This willful, selfish child must be stopped. The only adults who can stop her are the superdelegates and uncommitted party leaders like Al Gore, John Edwards and Howard Dean. They must convince her to step aside. If they cannot do so in private, they must go public.

The hour is already late. The breaches in our party and the country are growing larger by the week. Soon they will be irreparable.

If we don’t stop and heal the multiple and growing rifts that Hillary has created, we will not only lose the general election, whomever we nominate. We will forfeit a unique opportunity to remake our society. And we will lose our Democratic soul for another generation.

P.S.

For a narrower perspective on this same point, focusing on the black-white divide that Hillary and Bill exploited and widened, see Eugene Robinson’s piece in the Washington Post May 9. If you like visuals, see Ann Telnaes’ brilliant animation of April 16.

permalink



Site Meter

04 May 2008

Why Hillary is Dangerous II: Pandering


This is the second of three essays analyzing why Hillary Clinton would be the most dangerous Democratic president in my lifetime, and why I would prefer John McCain (without Romney!) to her. The first essay dealt with foreign and military policy. The last will deal with character. This one deals with Hillary’s habit of pandering.

Pandering has become a prominent feature of our political landscape. All political candidates pander to some extent. Both Hillary and Barack have pandered to Joe and Mary six-pack by bashing international trade.

In our complex and diverse nation, the temptation to pander can be irresistible. “If pandering can win over an obscure—or not so obscure!—ethnic, interest or demographic group,” the candidate thinks, “what’s the harm? I’ll increase my vote count, and the rest of the voters won’t care.”

But pandering is not a victimless crime. It debases our politics and subjects us to risk in five ways.

First, it distracts us from real issues. Many pundits think Karl Rove put Dubya in the White House (twice!) by pandering to American religious extremists on abortion, gays and the perceived evils of a supposedly debauched secular culture. In the process, Rove and Dubya distracted part of the electorate from real issues like the true cost of war, bin Laden and Zawahiri in Pakistan, energy independence, our dilapidated infrastructure, the hollowing and mistreatment of our military, and the weakening and corruption of our economy. Those chickens are now coming home to roost.

Hillary and our media have been doing the same thing. For three weeks, they have focused our attention almost exclusively on the words of an obscure Chicago preacher whose church Senator Obama attended. Meanwhile, Iraq and Afghanistan continue to deteriorate and our economy continues to slide.

Second, pandering is deception. Candidates who pander have little, if any, intention of following through. Bush and Rove didn’t really want to make America a Christian theocracy; they just wanted the religious right’s votes. (That’s why thinking evangelicals, if they vote at all this time, are likely to support Obama.) Hillary doesn’t really want to “obliterate” Iran; she just wants the votes of Jews and religious extremists who think that annihilating Iran once and for all would be a good thing.

Hillary probably has no intention of imposing a dangerous five-year interest-rate freeze on our delicate credit economy. If by some exercise of dark magic she becomes president, and if the mortgage crisis has not begun to resolve itself by that time, all of her economic advisers will advise her against doing so. But her pander would have helped her become president by convincing voters who have never taken a course in basic economics that she is “decisive” and “knowledgeable.”

This point segues into the third reason why pandering is dangerous. It encourages us to forsake competence and expertise for belief in magic. When Hillary assures voters that a five-year interest-rate freeze, a summer gasoline-tax holiday, or a health-care mandate will solve their economic problems, she is moving down that road. More subtly, she is asking voters to believe in the myth of American invincibility—a national brain cancer that is eroding our collective contact with reality. She is encouraging voters to trust in magic, myth and wishful thinking, rather than science, technology, and informed expert knowledge. That road leads to third-world status.

The fourth reason why pandering is dangerous is that it promotes a cult of personality. A “leader” gains our love not by showing us how to solve real problems, but by convincing us that coddling our worst prejudices will solve them. The “leader” tells us what we want to hear. Then her image on a placard replaces competence and results as lodestars of political skill, and a cult of personality is born. As the neglect of real problems makes life worse, prejudice and anger increase, fueling the vicious cycle of propaganda and feeding the cult of personality. Supporting competence takes a back seat to supporting a leader who seems to care about us. Hillary has shown us just how this is done in courting Joe and Mary six-pack with a toxic combination of voodoo economics and thinly veiled racial prejudice.

The fifth reason why pandering is dangerous is that it has unintended consequences. When any American presidential candidate speaks, the world listens. Pandering targets a domestic audience alone because foreigners don’t vote. But foreigners do hear the pander and react accordingly.

When our free-world allies hear a serious candidate for president proposing solutions to economic problems worthy of Hugo Chavez, they begin to doubt. They begin to wonder whether the nation whose leadership created the modern global economic system has lost its competence. They begin to act on their own, ignoring American leadership and sometimes neglecting even to consult with us. Global economic coherence dissolves.

When the world hears Hillary promise to “obliterate” Iran, it doesn’t discount that statement as pandering to American Jews and other Iran haters. It worries. Iranian extremists (including Ahmadinejad) cite the implied threat to strengthen their political base and turn Iran toward greater extremism. Al Qaeda redoubles its propaganda that American is an anti-Islam “crusader.” And Israeli intransigents take heart, believing that Americans will support them no matter how short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating their foreign and military policies may be.

The irony is that “obliterate” is exactly what Iran’s leaders need to hear, but in private. As I have argued at length, Iran’s leaders need to understand what nuclear weapons can do. They need to see pictures of Hiroshima just after the blast. They need to see video of our fifty-megaton hydrogen explosion over the Bikini Atoll. They need to understand how absolutely puny North Korea’s one-kiloton dud was in comparison. Their technical experts need to understand how many decades behind they are in weapons development and how much better they could serve their people by devoting their scarce technical expertise to peaceful economic progress. Their religious leaders, who have their heads in the clouds and the Koran, need to see scientific and technical reality, if only in pictures of devastation.

But we can’t even begin this process of technological education by issuing threats in public, which Iranians and everyone else will see as empty. We’ve got to start direct talks with Iran, which Senator Obama has been recommending for nearly a year now. Only then can our emissaries make these points in private, secret meetings of technical experts, with full-motion video. Throwing reckless threats across the international diplomatic transom undermines this serious expert-level diplomacy and makes our leaders look no better than Ahmadinejad himself.

Some people compare Barack Obama unfavorably with Hillary Clinton because Hillary is more glib. But glib isn’t necessarily good. Barack speaks more slowly and deliberately than Hillary because he’s thinking more.

Hillary thinks about how her pandering will play to a purely domestic audience. The geographic scope of her thinking ends at our national borders. Her historical perspective ends with our general election in November of this year.

In contrast, Barack is thinking about the big, wide world outside our borders. He is pondering how his words will play there, not just this year, but for the foreseeable future. He’s got a lot more to think about, so he speaks more slowly. He’s thinking about us and our future, not himself.

permalink



Site Meter