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

30 April 2012

Germany and America II: Could it Happen Here?


[The first and third posts in this three-part series are here and here.]

Introduction
Conventional Wisdom
Reversal of Fortune
Analogies in America
Fuzzy and Dangerous Thinking
Distinctions in America
Conclusion: Precautions Needed


Introduction. In a companion essay, I traced Germany’s evolution from the last century’s Nazi scourge to the exemplar of today. In almost every way—refraining from violence, helping others, fostering social and economic equality, using science and technology to improve human life, and respecting real knowledge and expertise—Germany today is a model nation, worthy of study, respect and emulation.

Put in broad historical perspective, those conclusions are not surprising. You could have said the same thing about Germany a century ago. At that time, just years before the first of the two world wars, Germany was not only at the top of its game. It was a global paradigm.

No educated person on Earth then could have belittled Germany, let alone ignored it. In literature, it had Heine, Goethe and Schiller, the last of whom is oft compared to Shakespeare. In music in had Bach, Brahms and Beethoven, not to mention Haydn and Mozart (if you include its cultural neighbor Austria). In mathematics and physics it had Euler, Gauss, Von Helmholz, and Planck, not to mention Einstein, who had already written his Nobel-Prize-winning paper on the photoelectric effect, in German, in 1905.

The average, honest, educated person, asked then what was the leading nation in advanced human culture, probably would have named Germany. Yet little more than twenty years later, mass rallies of mindless German soldiers were shouting “Sieg Heil!” on the parade grounds of Nuremberg.

So the key question from the twentieth century is not “How did humanity let mindless and brutal wars kill so many innocent people”? Our species had been doing that since time immemorial. Twentieth-century technology just gave it more efficient means of killing.

The really key question is “What the hell happened to Germany”!? More to the point, it’s “Could the same thing happen again, closer to home?”

Conventional Wisdom. The conventional wisdom is that Germans are a different subspecies, more prone to “following orders,” no matter who is giving them, as long as he is a “leader.”

For a long time, I believed that comforting myth. After all, I’m a Jew. It’s hard to think clearly about a people that just systematically murdered six million innocent and defenseless civilians solely because they looked and acted like you.

But time and peaceful reflection tend to clear one’s mind. Today I no longer believe that comforting but simplistic caricature of Germans and Germany.

Like everyone else, Germans have their salient, even idiosyncratic, cultural features. But I now believe the roots of Nazism lie much deeper. More important, I believe they are there in all of us, waiting only for the wrong circumstances to emerge. Most important of all, I can now see those same circumstances beginning to emerge in the country I was born into and love.

Reversal of Fortune. The error in conventional thinking inheres in the introduction to this essay. “How,” the question goes, “could the paradigm of human culture that once was Germany stoop, a mere generation later, to the bestiality of Nazism”?

The very question assumes that Germany’s state at the turn of the twentieth century and its state thirty years later were and are in irreconcilable contradiction. But what if they are related? What if one is actually the cause of the other, at least in part?

To see how this might happen, think about individuals, not nations. What happened, for example, to a universally respected monarch who was deposed and later became despised? What happens today to a corporate CEO who suffers the same fate?

Rage is what happens. The desire to get even, to re-establish one’s formerly exalted status, becomes overwhelming. Any means of doing so seems justified. Could the same thing happen to an entire people?

We all know the more subtle and sophisticated explanation of Nazism. It’s largely economic. After losing World War I, the same Germany that earlier had been universally respected became despised. The Versailles Treaty demanded reparations and economically isolated Germany, leaving it not only without its desired Atlantic port, but without the means to participate fully in international finance and the coming explosion of capitalist industry. The result was the Weimar Inflation—the worst suffering of that sort that any major power has ever experienced.

Our American president then, Woodrow Wilson, was a former professor, just like our present one. He tried to stop the first war’s other victors from persecuting Germany in the name of rude “justice,” i.e., collective punishment, but to no avail.

Never has a US president been so sadly and prophetically right. Wilson was a modern Cassandra: he foresaw the consequences, but nobody listened.

The resulting punitive and vindictive policies had a terrible effect. They reduced to abject poverty the very same people who, just a generation before, had been paragons of engineering, technology, industry, and commerce, not to mention literature, music and mathematics. The resulting inflation, stagnation and economic stress in Germany were universal and spared no one, even the very best.

My father knew this from personal experience. He had Austrian roots and spoke fluent German. As a young man he visited Austria during the Weimar Inflation. Then he had a chance to buy an entire block of apartment buildings for $24. (No, that’s not a typo. It’s the dollar equivalent of the price in German marks at the height of the Weimar hyperinflation.) My father declined and returned to the US, thereby likely sparing our family from perishing in the Holocaust.

Is it so hard to imagine that these stark circumstances engendered a blinding, collective rage—especially in a people accustomed to high productivity and concomitant respect? How else can you explain descendants of the historic intellectual leaders named in the introduction to this essay following a half-crazed former corporal and house painter into the most bestial (yet) of wars and the Holocaust? How else can you explain the scapegoating of Jews?

Maybe Adolf Hitler was just the first to express the collective rage. Maybe the Germans needed someone close to home to blame, lest they blame themselves and let their collective rage provoke collective suicide.

Analogies in America. Viewed in this light, the German experience no longer appears so unique and culturally determined. It could happen to anyone, or any people. As literature tells us—from Agamemnon, Troy and Oedipus to Richard III—reversals of fortune are part of the human condition.

That’s what makes America’s present state so dangerous. We Yanks have no great pretension to intellectual supremacy. No American sits in the ranks of history’s greatest scientists, for example, with Darwin, Einstein, Newton, and Adam Smith. There is no American author to compare with Shakespeare, or composer to compare with Germany’s “Three B’s,” let alone Mozart.

But for the last century, we Yanks have been supreme in the things that mattered most: science, technology and invention. We have won more than our share of Nobel Prizes, especially in economics and medicine. Our list of inventions and innovations is unmatched: the electric light, the phonograph, controlled flight, atomic energy, aircraft cabin pressurization, nuclear weapons, television, transistors, electronic computers, lasers, integrated circuits, CAT scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI’s), transplants of hearts and other vital organis, and now “designer” drugs and the Internet.

Of all the fields of human intellectual endeavor, science and technology reigned supreme in the twentieth century. We reigned supreme in them, and our collective success made us winners in industry, commerce and war.

So we got, and are, proud and arrogant. We began to think of ourselves as better than others, “exceptional.” While deriding the old pre-war German national anthem, “Deutschland über alles [Germany over others],” we began to think precisely the same of ourselves. Isn’t “exceptional” just a more polite and slightly more subtle way of saying “über alles”?

Pride, the Bible tells us, cometh before a fall. And so it was with us. We began to get sloppy, lazy and imprecise, in thinking and in action.

Losing wars followed. First came Vietnam, then Iraq (still a stalemate), then Afghanistan (a stalemate now, perhaps a loss in the long run). Next, we sold our manufacturing base to China. Finally, with a slight foreshock in 2000, came the Crash of 2008—a global financial catastrophe that, for the first time, was demonstrably and almost entirely a result of American greed and stupidity.

Can there be any doubt that we have suffered a dramatic reversal of fortune, and that most of it is our very own fault?

Fuzzy and Dangerous Thinking. The key indicator and primary cause of our decline was and is fuzzy thinking.

The Crash of 2008 began with a species of financial “innovation,” namely, securities backed by liars’ loans and “insured” by derivatives. So did the Great Depression. Then, the innovation was simple and easy for even laypeople to understand: buying stock on “on margin,” i.e., with borrowed money. This trend became an epidemic, so much so that the great financier Bernard Baruch sold out and saved his fortune after his cab drivers began recommending stocks to him.

But society’s collective reaction to rogue “innovation” in finance then was very different from today’s. Within four years of the Crash of 1929, we had strict legal rules limiting margin and requiring people to put up cash to buy stock. The credit-induced bubble of 1929 never precisely recurred.

It’s now nearly four years after the Crash of 2008, and we still have no rules limiting derivatives, including the credit-default swaps that are even now encouraging global, systemic financial risk. There are reportedly $700 trillion of them outstanding, and regulatory authorities, in their perverted “wisdom,” just exempted some 60% of their issuers from any government oversight.

Part of the reason is a deliberate lie of right-wing propagandists: that government itself, not private greed, caused the Crash of 2008. I’ve debunked that lie extensively elsewhere (1, 2, and 3) and won’t repeat the analysis here.

But it’s curiously similar to the Nazis’ scapegoating of Jews in one respect. Contrary to the Nazi lie, Jewish commerce and culture were part of prewar Germany’s strength, not a cause of weakness. Jews were solidly entrenched in Germany’s upper middle class. They had been pre-eminent in German science, engineering, literature, drama and music, as well as banking, commerce and trade. Albert Einstein, for just one example, was Jewish, although not particularly observant. So were the Rothschild banking family.

So in forcing its Jews to flee and later gassing them, Germany was not just committing mass murder. It was in part committing economic suicide—ripping out part of its own heart and brain.

Just so, we are ripping out part of our heart and brain by trying to drown government in a bathtub. During our best years, strong government regulation of a strong private sector made capitalism run like a Swiss watch [search for “pragmatic”] and insured our social cohesion and industrial dominance.

Well, you might say, we Yanks have done nothing as nasty and stupid as driving out and murdering one of our own ethnic groups, at least not yet. But are you so sure? In a country that, since the Civil War, has prided itself on racial and ethnical equality and religious tolerance, it’s hard to be overt about scapegoating.

But we do have clear scapegoats. Not only are they thinly veiled euphemisms for certain ethnic groups and economic classes. They reflect thinking every bit as fuzzy as Nazi Germany’s scapegoating of its own successful Jews.

Let’s start with the obvious, the epithet “socialism.” That name-calling is pervasive in our politics and media today. Every Republican candidate for president, including Mitt the winner and all the sore losers, aims it repeatedly against the President and all his supporters, as well as the few remaining moderates in the so-called “GOP.”

But does it make any sense?

Anyone who owns a dictionary can find the true meaning of “socialism.” Here, verbatim, is the very first definition from my Random House Webster’s American College Dictionary of 1991:
“a theory or system of social organization in which the means of production of goods are owned and controlled collectively or by the government.”
In other words, socialism is a system in which the government or smaller “collectives” (like the “collective farms” in the former Soviet Union) own and control what private business owns and controls in a free market.

By that definition, there are no socialists in America. None at all. No one here has ever seriously proposed that the government or “collectives” own or run doctor’s offices, medical groups and hospitals as, for example, does the National Health Service in England. In fact, no one has seriously proposed any substantial change in our private system of health care.

All that has been suggested is a small change our system of health insurance. And even that small suggestion is not for government ownership or the phase-out of private insurance. It’s just for a “public option,” i.e., a single government-run insurance program large enough to compete with private insurers and with a large enough pool of insureds to provide real and meaningful insurance, i.e., risk-sharing.

The same is true of banks. Even in the depths of the Crash of 2008, no one ever proposed nationalizing our banks, even the very ones whose greed and stupidity caused the financial meltdown. All that was proposed (and carried out) was temporary, market based financial investments. The government, which made the investments in order to keep the banks sound and solvent, explicitly disclaimed, or refused to exercise, the voting rights that, in our free-market economy, normally accompany ownership of common stock.

So where was the “socialism,” i.e., government ownership and control? Nowhere at all. There was partial, temporary, minority ownership, but no control. That is, there was not a bit of socialism. And now the banks have bought back the government’s investment and are entirely private again, as was the plan all along. To discern any “socialism” in these facts, you have to have a devious and creative mind.

So “socialism in America” is a complete and utter fiction, just like the Jews’ alleged undermining of pre-Nazi Germany. Not only that. Just as in Nazi Germany, the emotional purpose of the lie is to direct public anger away from the true causes of our problems and toward helpless scapegoats.

And who are the scapegoats? Today, in America, we call them “freeloaders.” They are vague phantoms, never explicitly identified, but hated and despised nonetheless. They include hapless welfare recipients and the unemployed.

Leave aside the (recent) fact that Bill Clinton, with bipartisan support, reformed our welfare system to reduce, if not eliminate, its abuse and use as a permanent crutch. On a numerical basis, welfare is a minuscule part of our national budget, utterly dwarfed by both our “defense” spending and spending on social security and Medicare, which support our middle class, not just the poor. What we give in welfare is an utterly negligible part of our national debt.

So analytically and numerically, scapegoating welfare recipients makes absolutely no sense. But it does emotionally and politically.

We all know who welfare recipients are, or at least are supposed to be. They are supposed to be minorities, especially African- and Hispanic-Americans. So how better to engender both conscious and subconscious hatred against minorities, including the President, than to blame welfare recipients for the higher taxes that the upper middle class now must pay to restore fiscal balance after a forty-year relative tax holiday?

Every American, whether native born or naturalized, knows deep down the racial and ethnic groups against which cries of “socialism,” “freeloading” and “income redistribution” are directed. They certainly aren’t middle-class whites.

So scapegoating in America today is not so different from scapegoating in Nazi Germany after all. It’s just more subtle and less “in your face,” reflecting the increased sophistication of modern Madison Avenue as compared to the old Nazi propaganda machine. And it’s evilly brilliant in one respect: because our President is himself half black, he can’t call out this evil publicly, lest he be accused of fomenting racial discord himself. (And hasn’t the right wing tried that one before?!)

Distinctions in America. Of course there are differences between American today and Nazi Germany. This is the twenty-first century, not the twentieth. We are analyzing America, not Germany. Our society today is much more diverse, tolerant and sophisticated, as a whole, and infinitely more democratic, than Germany’s a century ago.

Since history’s greatest war, we have been smart enough not to provoke war with any major power, including Russia and China—although sometimes it seems that we have picked fights with almost everyone else. As a result, we have not suffered the collective ostracism and economic sanctions of Germany after World War I. World War II left us the globe’s undisputed industrial leader, and we rode that lead to half a century of history’s greatest collective prosperity.

More important, our past intelligence and beneficence have earned us a reservoir of international good will, perhaps unprecedented in human history. We helped our allies beat back aggression in two world wars. With our Marshall Plan, we rebuilt Europe after the most terrible war and set our former enemies, Germany and Japan, back on the path to democracy and economic success. We started and hosted the United Nations in a (still vain) attempt to head off future wars. And we organized and hosted a passel of economic institutions, from the Bretton Woods conference to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, to stabilize the global economy after terrible shocks, including the one we just caused.

Because of this goodwill, we do not have to fear the sort of international opprobrium and ostracism that Germany experienced after World War I. At least not yet.

But this international good will is as much a trap as a preventive. With all the animus against Germany after the first world war, the world should have been watching its armaments buildup like a hawk. Apparently only FDR and Churchill were. With our reservoir of international good will, no one is watching us. Therefore a Nazi-like putsch here might sneak up on the whole world unawares.

Anyway, are these distinctions decisive? From here and now, it’s hard to tell. Hitler screeched more and had far less polish. But, in substance, the mindless (and dangerous!) drivel of people like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry are hard to distinguish from Hitler’s ranting. All were (and are) about little more than ignorant chest beating, alleged cultural superiority and entitlement, and blaming various scapegoats (including our President!) for our troubles.

The only salient distinctions are in the scapegoats. We purportedly scapegoat people by their supposed beliefs (“socialists”), not ethnicity, as befits the world’s most inclusive and tolerant society. And we so far have not scapegoated any major power, although some of our fringe groups—and even some of our presidential candidates—have come dangerously close with China.

The twenty-first century deserves, and the nuclear age demands, better and clearer thinking than that.

Conclusion: Precautions Needed. The analogy of the US today to Germany after World War I is not, thank God, entirely complete. The chance of something similar happening here is probably no more than 20%. But even that relatively small probability is unacceptable in a country with 10,000 nuclear weapons, which spends more on “defense” than the rest of the world combined.

We Yanks have to do better, and the rest of the world (especially our allies) has to help us sober up and face our own flaws squarely and boldly. A repeat of Nazi Germany in North America could easily cause the extinction of our species. We cannot let that happen.

And if you think that’s impossible, just read some of the semi-literate, angry tirades against our President, “socialists,” Europe and China in many on-line comments to any of our national media. All it would take is our native Brown Shirts rising from their present 15%-25% of our population to something resembling a majority.

That’s unlikely to happen but by no means impossible. And Fox is doing every thing it can, day after day, to bring Nazi Germany here to us in America. It’s so-called “pundits” even sound like bullies.

It’s therefore a good idea to think about precautions, before the number of Brown Shirts rises any further. In the next essay, I will discuss what some of those precautions might be.

How many good people of the last three generations would, in retrospect, have loved to have had Adolf Hitler in their sights and pulled the trigger? And how much better would it have been never to let Hitler get his demented hands on power at all?

The means of keeping such people out of high office have proliferated since Hitler’s day. They are far more powerful, varied and sophisticated. And the whole world can use them. If we all use them—and I mean all, everyone, worldwide—we might forestall the second coming of a monster who could end our collective existence. Wouldn’t that be worth changing business as usual just a little bit?

Footnote: The phrase “second coming” is unoriginal in this context. It’s the title of a famous poem by Yeats. In it, he expressed the helpless despair of an intellectual mourning what was probably the most senseless war (yet) in human history. The poem is short enough that everyone should read it, several times.

The poem’s most memorable sentence has become a sort of proverb: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Doesn’t it uncannily describe our own times, although written in 1919, nearly a century ago?

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21 April 2012

Germany and America I


[The second and third posts in this three-part series are here and here.]

With China’s rise in our new multipolar world, Germany and America have become, by default, the leaders of what we used to call the “West.” This essay explores Germany’s increasingly important and positive role in world affairs. The next essay will discuss the possibility that America might, under adverse circumstances, retrace Germany’s disastrous steps from the last century.

Introduction: reasons to look ahead, not back
Conclusion


Introduction: reasons to look ahead, not back. Britain’s empire is long gone, its economic power a fading memory. So Germany and America are now the world’s two great Protestant powers.

If you consider economic power and political influence (as distinguished from raw numbers of believers), Christianity as a whole is not doing too well. Catholic Southern Europe and Catholic Latin America are wallowing in various levels of economic stagnation, even decline. Germany is the economic engine and increasingly the leader of Europe. Chile leads South America in every measure of average wealth and economic well-being; although Catholic, too, it has South America’s greatest proportion of European descendants, many of them with German roots.

There are clear reasons for this state of affairs, clear cause and effect. But for a moment, let’s focus on facts. Asia is rising and the so-called “West” falling behind. Catholic societies in particular are in a state of slow but steady relative decline. And, except for millions of converts, who comprise a small proportion of all society, Asia has little to do with Christianity. The West’s only two remaining serious competitors to Asia are the two remaining Protestant powerhouses, Germany and America.

That’s why the recent spate of political cartoons satirizing Germany sticks in my craw. One example shows an impossibly stocky German wearing a Kaiser Wilhelm helmet and holding a skinny, disheveled hobo, labeled “Spain,” by a neck leash. The message is clear: once again, nasty Germany is throwing its considerable weight around, as it did in the last century’s two world wars, seeking to dominate its neighbors.

The cartoonists have enough cultural sensitivity not to use Nazi symbols, which still rub many people raw. But references to the Kaiser suggest that there is some inherent aggressiveness in German culture that Germans can never expunge.

Let’s be honest about one thing. The Holocaust happened. Germany started the most terrible war in human history by going on an armaments binge, annexing Austria and invading Poland. Then it gave that war an unprecedentedly evil tinge by planning (and nearly completing) the systematic, industrial-scale slaughter of “outside” ethnic groups, including its own Jews, other Jews and so-called “Gypsies” (Roma).

These events were real, and history never should forget them. But Germany itself hasn’t.

Virtually alone among the perpetrators of atrocities against humanity, Germany has come clean—as far as it is possible to do after the fact. Its record of remembrance is better than that of most other major powers. Perhaps it has more to remember, but it has done a far better and more honest job than any others, including us.

More to the point, 67 years have passed since the end of World War II and the Holocaust. Germans who fought in that war and participated in the gassings and burnings would have had to have been at least 15 in 1945. If still alive, they would be 82 today. Even to understand what was happening and perhaps be influenced by Nazi thought, a German would have to have been eight years old, or 75 today.

We are now in the third postwar generation. Just as China is no longer “Red,” today’s Germany differs incomparably from Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

So let us look at it as it is today, not through the lens of postwar fear, fatigue and triumphalism. When we do, we can dimly see a society that, in many ways, is both admirable and enviable:

1. Acknowledging and remembering the awful past. Human societies generally have trouble acknowledging their crimes. Japan has never fully confessed its wartime atrocities in Asia, including the brutal rapes of Nanking and large parts of China and Korea. You can search its textbooks in vain for mere mention—let alone serious treatment—of these atrocities in Japan’s history.

In this respect, Japan is hardly alone. Turkey has never acknowledged its Armenian genocide, now approaching a century old. Russia has never apologized for stomping its iron boot on the necks of Eastern Europe and the Baltics, nor for Stalin’s mass deportation and slaughter of various non-Russian ethnic groups (which ultimately only weakened Russia itself and assisted the Nazi invasion).

We Yanks ourselves are not entirely guiltless. We have never apologized for our wartime atrocities in Vietnam, including sowing large parts of the country with land mines and Agent Orange, which still kill children and cause cancer today. And how many today recall the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo and the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It’s not enough just to say “they started it” and feel smugly justified in incinerating hundreds of thousands of mostly innocent people.

Against this background, Germany’s record is remarkable. Not only has it acknowledged the Holocaust; it has built monuments and museums. Germany has laid bare its crimes in its schoolbooks, and every educated German knows about them. Periodic retrospectives in German news media keep the memory alive, even three-quarters of a century after the fact. If it’s memory you want, Germany has it.

2. The influence of culture. Germany’s confession and contrition are neither accidents nor anomalies. They are logical consequences of Germany’s Protestant culture.

When Martin Luther nailed his manifesto against indulgences to the church door in Wittenberg, he was not just attacking the Catholic Church’s obscene wealth and all-pervasive power. He was changing Christians’ concepts of God and morality.

When an all-powerful God rules humanity through an all-powerful Pope, a good Christian’s duty is merely to submit. Even in matters of conscience, you do what you are told. For sins and crimes, you do prescribed penance, take absolution from your priest, and walk away with a free spirit.

Not so, said Martin Luther. A Protestant’s relationship with God is personal and direct. No cleric can command you, and none can absolve you. You stand naked before the Universe, alone. Only your own conscience and Reason can absolve you.

So when German Protestants slowly came to know the full enormity of their wartime crimes, they were rightly horrified. They had no Pope from whom to seek absolution. They had to look inside themselves. The result was the most honest, forthright and painful state of genuine contrition in human history.

To be sure, that’s what the gravity of the crimes required. But few other cultures ever suffered the same level of repentance. Germany’s Protestant culture did, precisely because it imposes individual responsibility before God. And from there it was only an intellectual baby step to individual responsibility before one’s fellow humans. (The Nuremburg Trials helped, but in the end, contrition came from the Germans themselves.)

3. German renunciation of force. Genuine contrition for the Holocaust and Germany’s other wartime crimes is hardly the end of what makes today’s Germany admirable. It’s just the beginning.

One sign of genuine contrition—the only really reliable one—is change. Nazi Germany brought disaster on the world, and perpetrated the Holocaust, by attempting to impose its will on others by force. In contrast, today’s Germany has virtually renounced force, including the death penalty for criminals. That’s a clear sign of thoughtful repentance.

Germany has armed forces but is extremely reluctant to use them. It has no nuclear weapons, although it could develop them in mere years. It doesn’t even want them on its territory, although it permits US forces to keep them. Germany has decided to renounce force and lead, if at all, only by example.

4. Social cohesion. Man is a social animal. Or, if you prefer, “No man is an island.” We live and thrive—or we suffer—together, in community.

As the community goes, so goes the individual. The “good life” requires support and nurture from a healthy community. It comes from a delicate balance between the individual and the community.

Communist societies like the Soviet Union and “Red” China got it wrong. They put all their eggs in the community basket and crushed the individual. We are getting it equally wrong by going to the other extreme, where rampant individualism and economic predation push what’s left of our middle class into poverty.

In contrast, Germany appears to be getting it just right. There the ratio of CEOs’ pay to the average worker’s is about ten to one. Here, the ratio is over four hundred. Germany has huge corporations, like ours, but every one has representatives from labor on its board of directors. Those members don’t control the boards, but they have real power and are listened to.

Finally, Germany recognizes natural gradations of abstract reasoning power in its education. Rather than push everyone toward college and aggrandize abstract reasoning and desk jobs, it educates people with practical and manual skills, too.

These are the reasons why Germany, on a per-capita basis, leads the world in manufacturing despite its relatively high wages and standard of living. It makes use of, and carefully nurtures, all the talents of all its people.

The irony is that we Yanks used to do the same. Once we had an egalitarian society with the world’s strongest social cohesion. Once we had educational paths for people whose skills are practical and manual, not just abstract. Once those paths extended from “shop” courses in junior high school, through work-study programs in high school and college, to apprenticeships and lucrative careers in machining, building and technology.

Now those things are haphazard at best. Everyone wants to get rich quick by becoming a “celebrity” or making a killing in finance. The results you see in the ruins of our society all around us.

Germany provides a pleasant contrast. Germans don’t like paying taxes any more than anyone else. And their Protestant work ethic nurtures plenty of individualism. But they have come to the conclusion that everyone is better off when people help their neighbors, both individually and through rational social structures intelligently designed for that purpose. The results of their better approach, both inside and outside of Germany, are rapidly becoming more widely known.

5. German reunification. The speed and success of German reunification after the end of the Cold War is but one aspect of Germans’ social cohesion. West Germans grumbled at their high taxes and the enormous investment the West had to make in the East. But they paid.

Today, the process of reunification and rebuilding is nearly complete. It is now a mere twenty-three years after the Berlin Wall fell. Yet in that single generation, Germans equalized grossly unequal societies of West and East, restored their traditionally successful culture and social cohesion, and became a leading economic and manufacturing powerhouse.

That was an extraordinary achievement. We have given it far too little publicity and analysis here in the United States.

In 2005, I had a chance to see first hand just how extraordinary. I visited the ancient university town of Rostock and the neighboring tourist/leisure port of Warnemunde, on the Baltic Sea.

Both towns are in former East Germany. As I walked around them, I could not for the life of me tell where I was in Europe, except for hints from Germanic architecture and German signs. The upscale, bright and neatly maintained shops and homes, with window flowerpots, the rows of sailboats and yachts in the marina, the polished cars on the streets and the open-air markets selling leather goods, clothes and souvenirs—all could have been almost anywhere in Europe.

All these things bespoke a prosperous, vibrant society at one with a unified Europe. And all arose in spite of wartime devastation and two generations of Communism’s heavy hand. The contrast with Russia’s generally dowdy and decrepit St. Petersburg, once Peter’s “window to the west,” was breathtaking.

6. European unification. The process of European unification is, of course, still under way. But what better society to lead it than one that has just completed a similar process in unifying its own people?

Germany paid a price for starting the last big war. Its had its territory utterly devastated and split for 44 years, it people divided, and many impoverished by Communism. In its own reunification, it learned many practical lessons in how to heal economic systems and make societies work. Now it’s applying those same lessons in a larger field, namely, Europe as a whole.

The rest of Europe is, of course, reluctant to follow Germany’s lead. Memories of past conflicts and tragedies linger. France has always seen itself as the leader of continental Europe, and Britain can’t decide whether it’s continental, American or none of the above. Its isolated island culture may yet doom it to separate mediocrity.

But in the end, German perseverance and talent are likely to prevail. Germany seeks now to lead by reason, not force. And it seeks partners, especially France. It was, after all, a German-French partnership (1 and 2) that stanched the flow of bankruptcies, made the bankers take their “haircuts” on Greek bonds, and is building a new EU economic firewall. Anyone who discounts Germany’s contribution to this glowing future is underestimating its perseverance, discipline and resolve.

7. Clean energy. In a world still struggling to free itself from American post-Cold-War hegemony, Germany and China are among the few truly independent and powerful voices. Perhaps for that reason, Germany has taken a bold step in securing its energy future.

Faced with increasingly scarce and more expensive oil, Germany had a stark choice. It could rely on coal (its traditional energy source and the world’s dirtiest fuel) and turn itself into a Dickensian hell. It could rely on nuclear power, and risk a Fukushima or Chernobyl on its own territory.

Germany chose neither. Instead it chose to make a huge bet on wind and solar power. With the cleverness of German engineering, that choice is likely to be a stunning success. But it evoked a collective gasp from other advanced nations, all stuck in a never-ending spiral of reduced supply of, increased demand and higher prices for, and more frequent and more devastating accidents involving, fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Is there any question that Germany, once again, is leading the way here? Wind and solar power have no fuel cost and produce no pollution. They don’t contribute to global warming. And they do not suffer from scarcity; nor are they likely to do so in the foreseeable future. So their prices are likely to go down, not up, as time goes on.

After making a huge and risky investment in reunification within the last generation, Germany now is making another in the energy future of our species. Wasn’t that the kind of thing we Yanks used to do?

8. Economic stabilization. There is much talk about the “conditions” that Germany is imposing on its contributions to the EU’s various economic stabilization funds. There is also much talk about German reluctance and taxpayer grumbling.

But actions matter, not words. Germany is investing in European unification and stabilization in the same way, and to the same extent, as it invested in its own. If the success of the first is only half as good as the success of the second, Europe will be much stronger, wealthier, happier and healthier as a result.

Conclusion Grumbling is a prerogative of taxpayers everywhere. The important question is “do they pay”?

Practically alone among Western democracies, Germany’s taxpayers are doing just that. They are investing in what remains of German reunification—a process that is already one of the most stunning postwar achievements. They are investing in a strong and more united Europe and, quite understandably, expecting influence in proportion to their investment. They are investing in clean, limitless, low-cost power for a civilized but healthy future. And they are investing in better and stronger governance of the EU, one of the very few human societies that is our own rival in the rule of law and, in that, truly something new under the Sun.

All this is admirable. The resulting prosperity, social cohesion, health and happiness inside Germany are enviable.

Yet memories of old ghosts remain. Soon most, if not all, of the old Nazis and Nazi sympathizers will be gone. Germany’s leader today is a woman, and ex-physicist who personifies Protestant Reason, self-reliance and Germany’s modern willingness to become a dynamic but peaceful part of a larger world.

This is not your last century’s Germany. This is more like the Germany of Goethe, Heine, Schiller, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Euler, Gauss, Planck and Einstein. That Germany existed not long before the psychotic break of Nazism, which itself had economic and political causes. It looks as if that old Germany might be coming back.

In a world so desperately seeking talented leadership, now is not the time to be looking backward. Now is the time to file away the old war movies, put the past on the back burner, and see what we can learn from one of the two human societies that is making an undisputed success of itself right now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

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12 April 2012

How Electric Cars Can Beat their Gasoline and Natural-Gas Rivals


[For recent comment on Germany’s big bet on wind and solar energy, click here. For reasons why Carlos Ghosn may be a genius, click here.]

Electric cars have some decisive advantages compared to cars powered by gasoline and even natural gas. They have the lowest energy cost of driving. As my calculations show, natural gas at industrial rates, solar photovoltaic electricity, and nuclear electricity provide the lowest per-mile energy cost. The first two cost 1.8 cents per mile, the last 1.5 cents. In comparison, gasoline at $3.78 and 30 miles per gallon costs 12.6 cents.

The differences among these three lowest costs aren’t meaningful. Within the probable error of the calculations, which were based on information publicly available now, they are the same. But the advantage of all three over gasoline is real and huge.

Electric cars are much simpler and more elegant in design and operation than internal-combustion cars. Electric motors provide nearly constant torque throughout their entire range of RPM, which is much wider than for reciprocating piston engines. So electric drive trains don’t need transmissions. (Have you ever heard a subway train shift gears?)

Electric drive trains also don’t have to endure the high temperatures and pressures of engines powered by sequential internal explosions of fuel. So, apart from their battery packs, they should last much longer with much less maintenance than internal-combustion vehicles.

If energy cost per mile and maintenance were the only considerations, we would be seeing an explosion of sales of electric cars. They offer the same reduction in energy cost as industrial natural gas: nearly a factor of seven over the cost of gasoline. With gasoline north of $4.20 a gallon, that’s the equivalent of 60-cent-per-gallon gas!

In addition, electric cars don’t emit carbon monoxide, noxious fumes, or any pollution. And you can charge them at home, in your garage, from a standard electrical outlet, without installing a natural-gas compressor.

Judging from these advantages, you would think electric cars would be selling like iPads. But they aren’t. Besides consumers’ inertia, the reason is electric cars’ three disadvantages: (1) a higher initial price, (2) limited range and (3) driving on coal.

At present, electric cars cost more to buy than their gasoline counterparts, and their driving range on a single charge is more limited. Aware consumers who believe in science and live where coal dominates electric power also don’t want to drive on that dirtiest of fuels, which spews twice as much greenhouse emissions per unit of energy as either natural gas or gasoline.

The dividing line for carbon emissions is 50%. Where coal produces 50% or more of your electric power, you would only increase your carbon footprint by driving on electricity. (For example, where I live coal provides 87% of electric power, so I would increase my carbon footprint by 74%.)

This blog doesn’t just bewail problems. It provides solutions. There’s no easy or quick solution to the carbon problem except reducing the fraction of our electricity that comes from coal. Converting our electric plants to natural gas can help there, but that takes time. Drivers can also reduce their personal carbon footprints by setting up a home solar array, but that’s expensive. So electric-car makers ought to be pushing their wares hardest where coal accounts for significantly less than 50% of electric-power generation.

But once over the carbon hurdle, electric cars face still two more: high purchase prices and limited range. Fortunately, there is a common solution to both problems—one which would also help gas stations survive as more drivers begin charging electric cars and compressing natural gas in their homes.

The solution would require some changes in how car-makers and gas stations do business. But it doesn’t require any technological innovation, let alone breakthroughs. It’s easily doable, and it would propel this new industry forward like a rocket.

Electric-car makers could sell the cars to drivers but only lease the battery packs. That would lower the selling price of the car by a substantial amount, giving electric cars an initial-price advantage over both gasoline and natural-gas cars.

At the same time, battery-pack leasing would solve the range problem. “Gas” stations would own or lease the battery packs and maintain supplies of fully-charged ones, ready to install. Drivers would come to “gas” stations and put theirs car up on racks. The station’s attendants would pop a few screws, lower the discharged pack, and replace it with a fully charged one.

The driver would be back on the road in no more time than it now takes to gas up and buy a doughnut. Cars could go hundreds of miles per day on electricity, just as they now do on gasoline or natural gas, with the slight inconvenience of a few more “pit stops.”

A local “gas” station would provide the battery pack in the car when it is first sold. Agreements among the car maker, gas station and buyer would govern who owns it and the terms of its use. Insurance would protect the car maker and “gas” station against loss or theft of, or collision damage to, the battery pack. Separately owned gas stations would have master agreements for interchange of battery packs in long-distance driving.

The agreements need not be much more complex than those for buying cars on time, which also can involve several parties (car maker, financer, and driver). They would relieve drivers of all worries about the battery packs, including charging-cycle deterioration and collision damage (which has been reported, in crash testing, to cause fires). They would also allow car makers or their battery suppliers to improve battery packs continuously (and recycle the lithium in old ones), in ways completely invisible to drivers.

Of course leasing the batteries to gas stations would raise the per-mile cost of electric driving. Gas stations would have to charge more for a fully-charged battery pack than just the cost of electricity to charge it. Not only would they have to pay their operating expenses and make a profit; they would also have to recover the cost of replacing each battery pack when its ability to recharge falls below acceptable limits for driving. Their removing this worry and burden from drivers would come at a cost.

But that cost appears bearable. The Nissan Leaf’s website advertises a battery lifetime of ten years, with a possible deterioration of 30% or so in range. Since drivers would charge at least once a workday, and since there are 250 workdays in a five-day, fifty-week work year, that means about 2,500 charge cycles. The cost of replacing a $5,000 battery pack after those cycles would add an extra two dollars to the cost of each charge, or about 2.9 cents per mile (at the Leaf’s 73-mile EPA range [footnote 1 at bottom of page]).

That would raise the energy cost per mile from 1.8 cents for solar photovoltaic electricity or 1.5 cents for nuclear electricity to 4.6 cents and 4.4 cents per mile, respectively. Those figures compare with the per-mile energy cost of natural gas at residential rates, namely, 4.3 cents per mile. In fact, they are all within the range of probable error in my calculations and should be considered equivalent.

Natural-gas cars would still offer an energy-cost-per-mile advantage if gas stations could procure natural gas at industrial rates. According to my table, they could offer driving at 1.8 cents per mile, or about 2 cents after a 20% surcharge for operating expenses and profit.

But with leased battery packs, electric cars would have a substantial initial-price advantage over both gasoline and natural-gas cars. That price advantage would be even higher for natural-gas than for gasoline cars, by at least the minimum $3,500 extra that it costs to buy a new natural-gas car now.

So consumers would have a real price choice. They could save big money on the car price and go electric, at the cost of paying more per mile of driving (but still much less than for gasoline). Or they could buy a natural-gas car at a higher initial-purchase price and save more in driving over the life of the car. But in either case they would save fuel costs over gasoline, by at least a factor of three.

The model here is the computer-printer industry. Printer sales skyrocketed after the industry discovered the “Gillette” business model of selling razors cheap and blades dear. By increasing their prices for printer cartridges (with extra profits from heavier use), printer makers lowered their initial prices for printers, sparking sales. The electric-car industry could do the same thing with cars and battery packs, substantially reducing initial purchase pricing.

An electric car is a thing of simplicity, grace, elegance and beauty. It has no transmission, no reciprocating pistons, no crankshaft, no camshaft, no clickety-clacking valves, no exhaust manifold, afterburner or muffler. It needs no electric starter. It has only electric motors (that also serve as generators) and solid-state power controllers, which have no moving parts. Its battery pack is the only awkward thing in it, and the only real point of maintenance worry.

Solving the initial-cost and range problem for electric cars, by itself, would be no small thing. But the battery-pack-leasing solution would also have societal benefits. As electric and natural-gas cars come into greater vogue, the future of gas stations will be in jeopardy. For the first time ever in the automotive history, consumers will be able to “fill up” in their homes. They won’t ever have to go to a gas station except when they need repairs. So gas stations, with all their gainful unskilled and semi-skilled employment, might begin to disappear.

The price disadvantage of residential over industrial electricity (and natural gas) will keep lower-income consumers coming to gas stations, especially if they drive a lot. But many higher-income consumers, from whom driving takes a much lower share of income, will accept that price disadvantage for the convenience of “filling up” at home.

So battery-pack leasing to or by gas stations would be a boon to the whole electric-car industry, including its infrastructure. It would lower drivers’ car-purchase price, giving electric cars a significant initial-price advantage for the first time. It would allow electric cars to recharge about as quickly as gasoline cars now fill up. It would unleash electric cars’ range, at the small inconvenience of more frequent pit stops. It would assuage consumers’ anxiety that, because of improvements, next year’s model of the very same car might have a better, longer-lasting or cheaper battery pack. It would promote energy independence in transportation, since virtually none of our electricity comes from foreign oil. And in places where less than half of electricity comes from coal, it would give drivers the satisfaction of lowering (or just not increasing) their carbon footprint while driving a modern, elegant, easy-maintenance, nonpolluting machine.

P.S. Where Government Might Help. The solution to high electric-car prices and short ranges proposed above might make sense for a single car manufacturer. But there are already two entrants in the industry, Chevy and Nissan, and at several more expected this year. There soon will be many different types of battery packs.

If every car maker has its own proprietary battery pack, gas stations will have a tough time maintaining stocks of charged batteries for every make of car. Some standardization of packs— for physical interchangeability only—is vital if this scheme is to work.

Otherwise, electric cars’ battery packs will be like incompatible railroad gauges in the nineteenth century. Different sizes and types will create mini-monopolies, make everything more expensive, and hobble the industry’s development nationwide.

It’s possible that an industry consortium could sort this all out. But more likely, car makers will continue to compete in everything, producing a jumble of battery-pack designs that render a sensible industry infrastructure impossible. To avoid this problem, government can and should encourage or require standardization of battery packs.

Standardization should be for interchangeability only. No regulation should mess with battery packs’ proprietary innards. Gas stations could and should charge more for recharged battery packs that have greater power capacity or lighter weight.

All that's needed is standardizing things like overall voltages, maximum current capacity, sizes, shapes and plugs, so that service stations can install recharged packs interchangeably. The packs’ internal, functional designs can continue to be proprietary and chief points of competition. Even plugs can vary in design as long as they fit together.

Battery packs’ most vital commercial parameter—energy-storage capacity in kilowatt hours—should NOT be standardized. That’s precisely where we want robust competition. If a battery maker can fit more power storage into the same size and weight, more power to him!

But within these limitations, battery-pack interchangeability would have three desirable effects. First, it would create a new industry for electric-car battery packs, just as IBM created the software industry in 1969 by “unbundling” computer software from computer hardware (then so-called “mainframes”). Second, in so doing, it would encourage car companies to focus on their main expertise—cars—while leaving battery design and chemistry to experts in those fields. Finally, it would create robust competition in battery packs, quite apart from that in cars, leading to quicker innovation and improvement of the most critical component of electric cars.

To encourage rapid development of a sensible electric-car infrastructure, government should encourage or require such minimal standardization. At the very least, it should enact a limited antitrust exception permitting otherwise competing private firms to join together and standardize electric-car battery packs, for inter-brand interchangeability only. There could, of course, be different standards for different classes of cars and light trucks (but not too many, lest the battery-pack leasing scheme become too complex.)

Footnote 1: Nissan’s Leaf website is coy about the replacement price of battery packs, so this price is just a rough guess. Any estimate is likely to be rough for the same reasons that Nissan won’t tell. Battery-pack design and production technology are under continuous improvement. Sales haven’t yet reached anywhere near the level where mass production will achieve maximum economies of scale. The price of lithium is uncertain and will become more so as electric-car sales take off. And, for all these reasons, battery packs’ costs are industry trade secrets as closely guarded as their design. (These same reasons also argue for battery-pack leasing, which will keep these issues invisible to consumers, giving them the benefit of continuous improvement without the worry.)

Footnote 2: IBM unbundled and created the software industry only under threat of antitrust litigation by the federal government. As any one who follows the computer industry knows, unbundling software was one of most successful acts of “industrial policy” in human history. (Imagine if hardware makers like Intel, IBM and Apple still served as the only sources of software. Microsoft, Adobe and and Oracle wouldn’t even be in business!) Sometimes it takes a little government nudge to get private industry and investors to do the right thing.

Coda: Is Carlos Ghosn a Genius?

Although you don’t see the ideas in this post widely discussed in the popular press, it is entirely possible that they are not original.

Carlos Ghosn (pronounced “Goan”) is the hard-driving CEO of Nissan. Over a year ago, in dedicating Nissan’s new plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, he mentioned some curious figures. When fully running, he said, the new plant would produce 150,000 Leafs annually and 200,000 battery packs.

If doesn’t take a genius to notice the discrepancy in number. The extra 50,000 battery packs amount to 33% of the car production. So what are they for?

There are only three possibilities. First, Ghosn might have had so little confidence in the battery packs’ reliability that he wanted 33% spares for warranty service to insure drivers’ confidence in his cars.

That explanation is possible but unlikely. The only major problems reported so far with either the Volt’s or Leaf’s battery packs are fires that sometimes occur after destructive crash testing. Major crashes don’t occur that often, certainly not in one-third of cases.

Second, Ghosn might have wanted Nissan to go into the related business of home battery packs. The Leaf’s (and Volt’s) battery packs have enough capacity to power the average household for several days, apart from any electric space heating. With proper electronics—no more complicated than the Leaf’s own—they could solve the intermittency problem for wind and solar power on a household-by-household basis.

Most Leaf owners will charge their cars at night, in between commutes to work. But the sun shines during the day, when the cars are at work. So consumers who want to install solar arrays on their roofs to charge their cars off the grid (and without coal’s massive pollution) could use an extra battery pack.

Finally, Ghosn might have had in mind precisely the business model discussed in this post: an infrastructure with spare fully-charged battery packs ready to install, in a mere five or ten minutes, in electric cars traveling long distances.

Ghosn was coy about his precise intentions. But he did mention Nissan’s massive investment in infrastructure.

Reporters’ and readers’ eyes glaze over with talk about “infrastructure.” But it’s vital to widespread use of any form of energy. How do you think your electric power gets to you from today’s remote and gargantuan nuclear, coal and hydroelectric power stations, by magic?

Tomorrow’s wind, solar and natural-gas generators will change our energy infrastructure considerably. They are all scalable, and natural-gas plants are the best short-term solution [search for “complements”] to the intermittency of wind and sun.

We don’t have to build massive, remote generators any more just to realize economies of scale. Another decade or two will see wide dispersal of power generation by wind, sun and natural gas, which will put power sources much closer to users and relegate our robust national grid to backup and intermittency-proofing.

Likely Ghosn was thinking about all this when he made his Smyrna announcement. But he didn’t want to be too specific and tip off competitors, including Bob Lutz at GM.

In our modern energy era, it’s not enough to be a “car guy” like Lutz. You have to be an “energy guy,” too. Among other things, that means using math for more than just building reliable machines. It means using statistics and probability to predict how far most electric cars will drive (on the average), how many spare, fully recharged battery packs they will need, and where service stations to swap them for discharged ones should be. There must be a lot of math behind that 33%-spares number.

Our telecommunications industry knows this story well. Decades ago, AT & T developed a whole new branch of statistical math in order to compute how little it could spend on telephone infrastructure and still let the average consumer have a dial tone and a long-distance trunk line when needed. The new branch of math it developed helped advance the progress of thermodynamics and statistical physics.

Of course you could “overkill” the investment and spend too much. But AT & T was frugal and didn’t. It used its head—and math—instead.

The same is true of cell-phone providers today. That’s why the phone system works perfectly in normal times but breaks down under overwhelming load during emergencies like 9/11. No statistics can predict the anomalous loads and abnormal traffic of days like that, even far from “Ground Zero.”

If Ghosn thought of all of this, he is truly a genius, at least as compared to his competitors. But that what it takes to succeed in transportation today. Transportation takes energy, and energy is getting scarce, tricky, multifaceted and expensive. So you have to understand energy as much as how to build machines that roll. Ghosn may be the first car-company CEO to ken that point well enough to succeed in today’s environment.

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07 April 2012

Why Germany’s Bet on Renewables Will Win Big


[Note: The permalink to this post below and links to it in the Title and Subject Index previously did not work. The problem has been corrected.]

Germany is betting the store on renewable energy. It’s investing over $263 billion to convert its electrical infrastructure from coal (Germany’s traditional power mainstay) and nuclear power to the wind and sun. That’s over $3,219 for every man, woman and child in Germany.

If we invested the same amount per capita, it would be close to a trillion dollars. That’s a big bet.

Renewables’ competitors are trying to paint this conversion as both hard and foolish. But it’s neither. As I’ve recently explained, the conversion requires no major breakthroughs in engineering, let alone any fundamental advances in science or mathematics.

All the pieces to the puzzle are available now, off the shelf. This post explains why the changeover is not only not hard, but very, very smart.

1. Cost. Although it’s hard now to calculate the costs of wind and solar power precisely, they are likely to be lower than the cost of coal power, even in the short term. If you include coal’s massive “external” costs—of acid rain, mercury poisoning, particulate-induced asthma, coal smog, and global warming—wind and solar power are much cheaper.

2. Cost Trends. Smart people (like the Germans) think not just of present cost, but of costs down the road. Wind and solar power are not like any fuel-based power source (including natural gas, coal and nuclear energy). Every fuel-based power source tends to get more expensive at time goes on, as more people adopt it and demand for the fuel increases. Because wind and solar power require no fuel and create no pollution (external costs), their cost depends only on maintenance, plant cost, and plant lifetime. So they will get cheaper as time goes on and we learn to make plants cheaper, easier to maintain, and longer lasting.

3. Practically Inexhaustible Supply. Wind and solar power will never run out, at least not until our Sun incinerates us or burns out. Scientists estimate that will take at least a billion years. So infrastructure built for wind and solar power will last until (if ever): (a) it deteriorates from age or (b) we learn to duplicate the Sun’s nuclear fusion in a bottle. Germany is making a long-term investment—something our quarterly-report-based culture has trouble doing.

4. Practically Unlimited Supply. With the Earth’s present population, wind and solar power are practically unlimited. If you want more power, just build more wind farms or solar arrays. We might eventually run out of space if we fail to limit our global population. But food (and land for growing it) will run out first.

5. Freedom from Long-Term Price Increases. Because there is no scarcity of wind and sun (and no reasonable prospect of scarcity), there is no risk of limited supply. Wind and solar power will never suffer the inexorable rise in prices (apart from economic crashes) that gasoline is now suffering, or that natural gas will suffer, too, as it begins to run out.

6. No Greenhouse Gases. Neither wind nor solar power produces any greenhouse gases, so neither contributes to global warming.

7. No Pollution. Neither wind nor solar power produces any air pollution. Along with France, which gets over three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear sources, Germany will have the world’s cleanest skies. If Germany can convert its vehicle fleet to electric power, its skies will (except for industry and pollution from elsewhere) return to their pristine, pre-industrial state, while its people retain all the delights of modern civilization.

8. Reduced Danger of Accidents. Solar and wind power (in that order) are the least dangerous forms of generating electricity. They are the least likely to have serious accidents. And the accidents they are likely to have will be unlikely to have widespread consequences (beyond power outages).

9. Minimal Damage to Us and Other Species. Because they don’t produce any pollution or greenhouse gases, the wind and sun can power our modern civilization while doing minimal damage to ourselves and other species that inhabit this planet. In contrast, global warming with fossil fuels could extinguish one-third of our current fellow species.

10. Easy Transition. The current glut of cheap natural gas enables an easy transition to wind and solar power. It gives us enough time to develop longer-term solutions to the intermittency of sun and wind, including methods of electrolyzing water or synthesizing fuels, which Germany is testing now [search for “VOW”].

* * *


Less than two centuries ago, life was “nasty, brutish and short” for most of our species. What brought us out of that sad state was a series of technological innovations, in everything from agriculture and medicine to transportation and the home. Collectively, England, Germany, Japan and the United States are responsible for the vast majority of those innovations.

Germans are among the best engineers on Earth. They are responsible for (among many other things) aspirin, the Diesel engine, jet engines, and the processes we use to make polyethylene, polypropylene and other polymers. At present, and as a culture, they respect science and technology far more than we do. Their current leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, is an ex-physicist.

So when we scratch our heads and wonder why Germany is making this huge investment in power from the wind and sun, we ought to consider who the investor is. Do you think a society that still respects knowledge and expertise, run by an ex-physicist who is doing more than any other leader to cure the epidemic of bank gambling that caused the Crash of 2008, might know more than Rush and the dolts on Fox?

Your call. But just remember, your kids’ and grandkids’ futures depend on your answer.

Footnote: Building a wind farm or solar array produces some pollution if fossil fuels power its manufacture and construction. But that’s a one-time external cost that every construction project incurs. It’s not repeated, and it’s nothing like the massive pollution that coal-fired power plants spew out every day.

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Comment and Copyright Policy


I publish every comment that: (1) is not flaming or abusive, (2) relates to the post, (3) expresses a point of view clearly, and (3) is not commercial. Opposing views are welcome.

Time permitting, I try to respond to every comment. Although (mostly) retired, I don’t work on this blog every day, so comments may take days to appear, especially when I’m traveling. Please be patient.

Before publishing comments, I check all links in them, whether active or passive. I reject comments containing links that fail to meet these standards.

Like Consumer Reports, I forego whatever revenue I could get from Google’s Adsense program in order to maintain the appearance and reality of independence and non-commercial motives. I expect commenters to do the same. So I reject comments containing any links for commercial or self-promotion purposes, no matter how subtle they may be. (Google doesn’t allow me to modify comments, so I can’t just delete the link. I have to reject the whole comment.)

Legal and Technical Details


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I pledge not to enforce my copyright against anyone who borrows from this blog for an honest discussion of public policy, even one that disagrees with me. I might enforce it against someone who: (1) distorts my views, for example, by quoting me out of context (something that has become a dark art form on the Web) or (2) fails to give me or this blog credit for my writing.

As a retired professor, I have little sympathy for students who plagiarize this blog to avoid doing their own thinking and writing. But getting ideas from this blog—in order to expand them, embellish them, or refute them in one’s own words—is fair game for anyone, including students. That’s what this blog is for—to encourage an exchange of ideas.

How to Cite this Blog. I will never enforce my copyright against someone who borrows honestly from this blog and gives credit to it. So feel free to quote and borrow at will, in term papers and otherwise. Just cite the blog and URL in your footnotes or bibliography, thus: “Diatribes of Jay, [insert URL of page cited] (visited [date of visit]).” You can copy and paste the URL from the address line of your Web browser. (In online media, a working, active link will do. See below for how to write one.]

Change and Removal Policy. My general policy is not to remove posts or comments from this blog. From time to time, I fix my own typos and minor factual errors and improve phrasing, but I don’t “fix” substance. When I become aware of an substantive error, I try to correct it in the same or a subsequent post, and I call it out. Acknowledging error is the beginning of wisdom.

If you would like me to remove a comment of yours, please say so in another comment to the same post. If you adequately identify the comment you want removed, and if I believe you are the author of that comment, I will remove it and will not publish your request to remove it. I may retain copies or excerpts in other posts and comments (which may be hard to find) and in my own or others’ replies to your comment.

Linking How-To. Here’s how to insert active links in comments on Google’s Blogger (or anywhere else, if in HTML editing mode):

1. Copy the following HTML tags and insert them before and after the words in your comment that you want to highlight as a link:

BEFORE: <a href="">
AFTER: </a>
Be sure the quotation marks are the “straight up” kind, as shown, not the printer’s left and right quotation marks that I’ve tried to use in most of this blog. Also be sure that there is a space between “a” and “href” and no other spaces.]

2. Insert the URL you want to link to between the quotation marks in the first tag. (You can copy this URL from your browser’s address field when the window or tab displays the desired Web page.)

For example, suppose the desired URL is “http://www.myblog.com” and the words you want to highlight as a link are “my blog.” Here’s what the link should look like in your input on Google’s comment screen:
For further reasons for this conclusioncheck out <a href="http://www.myblog.com">my blog</a>.
3. Click on the “PREVIEW” button in Google’s pop-up window for comments. (You may have to scroll up or down to see the button.) If you have copied the HTML tags and filled out the first one correctly, the words you wish to highlight will appear highlighted and underlined as a link. If the tags are “broken,” Google’s pop-up comment window will display an error message.

4. Before publishing the comment, check the link by clicking on it in the previewed material. The best way to do this is to open the link in a new tab, so the pop-up comment screen remains active if you wish to modify your comment. Your click should take you to the linked material in a new tab in your browser.

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02 April 2012

Not a “Moon Shot”—Not Even Close


Introduction: the “Moon Shot” Propaganda Ploy
The Chevy Volt
Germany’s Leap in Renewable Power
Conclusion


Introduction: the “Moon Shot” Propaganda Ploy

One of the ways (1 and 2) in which the sworn enemies of renewable power dupe the public is making it all seem so exotic and hard. The preferred metaphor is the “Moon shot”: the remarkable forced march in engineering that put men on the Moon within a mere decade after JFK’s bold announcement of that aim.

From the standpoint of politics and PR, the “Moon shot” meme seems brilliant. It gives gullible journalists a little sensationalism to titillate their readers. And it feeds right into engineers’ and managers’ egos, making them seem like supermen. (Germany also may have an interest in forestalling competition in a field in which it seeks global leadership.)

But, at the same time, the “Moon shot” meme makes the public think that wind and solar power are all so risky and iffy. People become like sheep trotting meekly to slaughter. Maybe, they think, we’d all be better off just playing it safe, burning yet more coal, and not minding our labored breathing, increasingly nasty weather, or disappearing coasts.

The meme appeared at two critical junctures in our species’ slow and erratic march to a more rational energy policy. In the first, Bob Lutz, GM’s “father” of the Chevy Volt, described the development of this first serial hybrid as a “Moon shot.” In the second, a German power manager recently called what Germany is now committed to doing in renewable power “as challenging as the first moon landing.”

But in fact is there is no comparison between either project—the Volt or Germany’s coming renewable power grid—and the first Moon shot. Coal’s brilliant PR hacks are just making pedestrian engineering seem risky and hard.

This is not to say that the Volt and Germany’s power projects don’t require competent engineers. They do. But the necessary skills are just basic competence, nothing more. Neither project required (or requires) any extraordinary new concepts in engineering, let alone any fundamental advances in physics, chemistry, materials science or mathematics.

Most of the pieces of the puzzle are available now, for commercial sale, off the shelf. All the engineers need to do is put them together competently.


The Chevy Volt

The Volt was probably the easiest of the two projects. Except for the high-power lithium battery packs, which GM farmed out to others, every piece of the puzzle had been developed previously and was already in successful, everyday use.

Toyota had been the pioneer. Every Prius running down the road already had demonstrated (and still demonstrates) the practical feasibility of electric drive, regenerative braking, and the high-power solid-state switching devices (with no moving parts) that balance power among generator, motor and battery. If worse came to worst, GM’s engineers could have bought a Prius and disassembled it to see how it was done.

GM’s Volt design, the serial hybrid, is even easier in concept than the Prius’ parallel hybrid design. In a serial hybrid, the internal combustion engine just runs an electric generator to charge the battery; it never powers the wheels directly. In a parallel hybrid like the Prius, the internal combustion engine and the electric drive motor both have to power the wheels at once.

The hard part of designing the Prius was developing a continuously variable mechanical (not electric!) transmission—without jerky gear shifting—to do that job smoothly, efficiently and with acceptably low maintenance. But even that required no great breakthroughs in engineering, let alone science. It just required the good, competent, persevering trial and error for which Japanese engineers have become justly admired.

That’s why my initial reaction to the Volt’s design, back in 2007, was so enthusiastic. A serial hybrid eliminates the need for any transmission at all. Electric motors don’t require transmissions; they deliver nearly constant torque throughout their RPM range. (Have you ever heard a subway shift gears?) And running a generator also needs no transmission; the combination of generator and internal combustion engine work most efficiently at a single, optimum RPM.

So, as I’ve pointed out, the design concepts of the Volt’s electric drive were marvels of simplicity, far more elegant than the average gasoline-driven car. The difficulties of bringing it to market arose mostly from marketing, management inertia and politics, not engineering.


Germany’s Leap in Renewable Power

Germany’s task of converting its power infrastructure from fission and coal to the wind, the sun and natural gas is much the same: pedestrian engineering and a little scaling up. No fundamental breakthroughs required.

Wind and solar power plants don’t need any development at all. They work right now, all over the world. They have for years. Travel almost anywhere in our country, and you can see wind farms everywhere. Solar farms exist, but they are harder to see as they are rarer, shorter in stature, and mostly remote from highways.

Both types of plants can always use improvements in efficiency and power. And steady improvement in maintenance costs and longevity are important. Because these power plants use no fuel at all, their maintenance costs and longevity determine the cost of wind and solar power.

But windmills and solar cells are standard industrial products. You don’t need radical engineering for them; you just need a purchasing manager.

If there is anything out of the ordinary that German engineers must do, it involves building a smart grid to switch heavy power loads as wind and solar power fluctuate and “baseload” plants using natural gas or coal must take up the slack.

But that, too, is just putting existing pieces together and scaling up. Remember the regional brownouts and blackouts of the 1970s and 1980s, including the great New York City blackout of 1977? Although smaller-scale failures do occur, the big regional blackouts are mostly a thing of the past. In retrospect, they appear to have been growing pains of a national electricity grid that now sends power wherever it’s needed.

The technology to do this exists today, off the shelf. We have the power lines; we have the switches; we have the sensors; and we have computers to make instantaneous adjustments. We also have satellite, wire, and even fiber-optic communication from every major power node to regional control centers.

Most of the switching to date accommodates variable power loads. But converting to variable power generation is pedestrian. The basic task is precisely the same: getting power from places where it’s in temporary surplus to places where there’s a deficit. Electrons don’t care which way they go.

To accommodate wind and solar power—including their natural fluctuations—all we need to do is use more of the same. And as for variation of wind and sun with weather, we can now predict them, at every town, hamlet and weather station, tens days out. (If you don’t believe that, you’ve never visited weather.com) The predictions can prove wrong at a single point, but when averaged over wide areas with the aid of computers, they are reliable enough for power switching.

Conclusion

So what Bob Lutz managed and championed and Germany is doing is bold, yes. But “Moon shots,” no. Not even close.

It’s true that our manned trips to the Moon got a boost from technology developed for intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the Moon trips required so much more: missiles don’t carry people and don’t have pilots, and the Moon is about thirty times as far away as ballistic missiles must fly. Our engineers had to invent from scratch all the space suits, life-support systems, navigation equipment (including fine motor jets) and re-entry heat shields to keep the Astronauts alive and on trajectory. (The Russians, then Soviets, weren’t telling us their secrets.) And our engineers had to totally redesign missile thrusters and guidance systems for a much longer trip, the hazards of space, and the influence of the Moon’s gravity.

That was truly a remarkable engineering project, of which we Yanks can be justifiably proud. Comparing the Volt or Germany’s power-switching improvements to it only belittles what we accomplished in the sixties.

The comparison also unjustifiably aggrandizes engineers in what, until recently, were two of the sleepiest, least innovative fields of engineering: cars and electric power. Now that those engineers are beginning to do what engineers in biotechnology, medical equipment and Silicon Valley (to name just a few) do every day—innovate!—they deserve support and encouragement. But they certainly don’t deserve encomiums, far less gross exaggerations.

When I was a kid, a writer named George Gamow popularized science and mathematics in books for non-specialists. He wrote a “Dr. Tomkins” series explaining the “miracles” of nuclear physics that had helped us end history’s most awful war and then promised infinite power. His book entitled “One, Two, Three . . . Infinity” explained the mathematics of the infinite and its influence on physics and cosmology.

When I was a kid, these books were best sellers. Can you imagine anything similar today?

In those heady years of public respect for science and engineering, the average Joe and Mary wanted to know more about them, not just use their “miraculous” results. No one alive then could have imagined the assaults on science and reason that exist today—with millions of people utterly disbelieving the results of tens of thousands of climate scientists, working worldwide over decades, and the “theory” of evolution, which is the foundation of all modern biology and microbial medicine.

Today large portions of the public are utterly ignorant of basic science and engineering. What’s worse, Fox goads them to remain so.

Thus it’s perhaps not surprising that the general public could compare the Chevy Volt and Germany’s beefed-up power grid today to the Moon shot in 1968. (Engineers, in both GM and Germany, ought to know better.) And it’s certainly not surprising that the coal barons would try to make them believe that, in a desperate attempt to revive their justifiably dying industry when engineering and economics fail.

But the “Moon shot” meme is just one more data point on a downward trajectory of American science and technology. When you add it to our loss of the Large Hadron Collider to Europe, and the fact that the first real push for large-scale solar and wind power is happening in Germany, not here, it’s hard to be optimistic about our future.

If we now think the pedestrian hard, could we ever again attempt the “impossible”? We developed nuclear weapons from an untested, mostly “foreign” theory in the midst of history’s greatest war. We sent men to the Moon in less than a decade, from a standing start and in spite of a “missile gap.” We turned a bunch of isolated computers into a global communication system called the Internet.

Those were truly remarkable scientific and engineering feats. If we confuse them with pedestrian engineering to improve our lives, new feats of that magnitude will become the province of Germany and China.

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