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

23 February 2013

Why China Wants Us to Know it is Spying

Why China spies on us
Why so openly?
Note on “spying” versus “hacking


Tuesday’s revelation that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been systematically spying on American business came as a shock. Although many suspected it, few believed the spying was as widespread and systematic as the privately-authored report revealed.

Three aspects of the revelation were particularly surprising. First, the spying’s primary targets were neither government nor military installations. Instead, they were predominantly businesses: privately owned industrial, commercial and banking firms. The targets were an A-list of notable American companies.

Second, the spies were most definitely not private actors. They were operating out of a building owned and occupied by the PLA. Not only that: open “clues”—incongruously left by one of world’s most secretive governments—made it relatively easy [search for “unclassified”] to trace the cyber attacks’ origin with a high degree of confidence. It was almost as if the PLA and the Chinese government wanted to be caught in the act.

Third, although the cyber attacks were systematic and pervasive, they were not particularly sophisticated. In the main, they used techniques long ago developed by hackers to steal consumers’ money and identities and to steal credit-card numbers and other financial access tools from banks.

In short, what the PLA did and is doing is not rocket science. It’s a systematic application of well-known hacking tools for Chinese governmental purposes. Before we can even begin to defend against such attacks, we must understand their purposes and why they were so easy to uncover.

This essay examines those questions. In so doing, its attempts to explain these three surprising facts. The next essay in this series will examine what we can and (if we are smart) should do about it.

Why China spies on us

The first surprising thing about the revelations Tuesday was the targets. We know that China and many others are trying to crack the cyber security of our military and intelligence agencies. But the massive spying revealed Tuesday was focused on our private sector. Why?

Four reasons are apparent. First and most obvious, the reporting source, a firm called Mandiant, is itself a private enterprise. Its goal was to produce a transparent, declassified report. Therefore, we can assume that it had no access to sensitive military and intelligence data or, if it did, was not permitted to include classified matter in its published report.

In other words, the reporter, for its own purposes, focused on private business to the exclusion of military and intelligence targets, if any, of China’s spying. Therefore the report tells us little or nothing about whether such spying or penetration actually occurs. Undoubtedly attempts do, but nothing in Tuesday’s report tells use anything more about whether they are successful than we already knew.

Second, military and intelligence targets are much more hardened than private, civilian ones. The Second World War, the Cold War, 9/11, and even our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq all taught us the importance of secrecy in military and intelligence matters. It’s quite easy, in principle, to protect secrets in those fields from cyberspying. All you have to do is disconnect the machines that store them and the networks that communicate them from the Internet, and keep them disconnected.

By and large, that’s what our military and intelligence services have done with their most important secrets. The disconnection can occasion some duplication and inefficiency. But absent inside penetration, it’s foolproof. You can’t “spy” remotely through a connection that doesn’t exist.

Third, our military and intelligence services, unlike our private sector, are subject to central command and control. Sure, they are sometimes fragmented and sometimes disorganized and unwieldy, and sometimes they work at cross-purposes. But no lawyer can gum up their security works by going to court with a thousand reasons why greater security infringes private rights or private property. Even patent and copyright infringement cases cannot stop forward progress; the law gives intellectual property owners only a right to sue for damages, after the fact, not the power to stop our government’s unauthorized use of proprietary technology beforehand. IP owners have both rights and that power to assert against the private sector.

Finally—and most important for this essay—China’s own probable goals suggest a focus on our largely unprotected private businesses. This is where our analysis of China’s motives comes in.

In my view, China has no desire to conquer other nations, let alone the United States. So its most probable interest in how we protect our homeland and people abroad is imitation. China wants to steal any secrets it can use to protect itself and its people, especially from terrorists. But the “hardening” of our military and intelligence sites against spying, especially after 9/11, makes that imitation a costly and difficult project.

But China does have an interest in deterrence, well beyond the nuclear variety.

As China grows more powerful and hungrier for resources, especially energy, it will inevitably try to expand its sphere of influence. That’s what’s happening right now with respect to the Daioyu/Senkaku Islands and their energy and mineral resources. China doesn’t want or expect war, in my view, but it wants to throw its considerable weight around to get a good bargain.

Part of that weight lies in China’s size, population, economic power and growing military resources. Our own technology and military power are counterweights. (We can never best China in population, and perhaps soon not in economic power.) So China wants a credible way of suggesting to us that, if we assert our countervailing power too far or too nakedly, China has relatively costless ways of causing us pain.

You might call this the “Straits of Hormuz” strategy. Iran is doing exactly the same thing, but much less subtly. Israel wants us to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Israel wants us to act because we have better weapons and because our action would cause Israel less political pushback than Israel’s own. But Iran ups the ante by saying, in effect,
“If you attack us, we’ll close the Straits of Hormuz, which carries 20% of the world’s crude oil. We maybe not be able to close it entirely, but we’ll do enough damage to precipitate a global economic crisis.”
China’s leaders are much too smart and too subtle to say this sort of thing out loud. If you pay careful attention to China, you will discover that its leaders never make threats. Stability is their paramount goal, and threats don’t produce stability. They can cause miscalculation and tragedy, which China has seen many times in its five-millennial history.

So China’s leaders don’t make threats. Yet they do act, and sometimes they make their acts known in subtle ways.

Just so, China appears to be tacitly saying,
“If you get in a fight with us over the Daioyu/Senkaku Islands, or even Taiwan, we can disrupt your privately run civilian infrastructure. We can throw a monkey wrench into your banking, industry, power grid and transportation systems. Not only will that make it harder for you to fight us, but your economy will have to bear costs that perhaps you would rather not bear. Don’t make us do it. At least think twice about it first.”
Why so openly?

Now we can begin to understand another puzzling aspect of the private spying revelation. Why was it so easy for Mandiant, the previously unknown private reporter, to discover the extent and authorship of China’s massive spying program? You might think the PLA would have better security and privacy than that. After all, it’s the military and intelligence arm of one of the world’s most closed and secretive societies.

I submit that China wanted the program to be discovered. It did so for two reasons. First, a deterrent weapon is no good unless your opponent knows you have it.

The last thing China wants is war, for war disrupts stability. But China’s leaders are hard bargainers, willing to use every advantage, real and perceived, to strike a bargain that’s good for them. Before we even start to throw our weight around in regional disputes in China’s area, China wants us to know, or to think, that it might cause us a lot of pain just by giving a bunch of hackers in a windowless room somewhere carte blanche in cyberdisruption.

The second reason why China wants us to know is legal. The reported spying involved private companies and private trade secrets. When secrets are stolen, we Yanks have laws to provide redress. Our Uniform Trade Secrets Act, a version of which exists in every state, allows aggrieved trade-secret owners to sue trade-secret thieves for damages and injunctive relief. We also have a criminal statute at the federal level, called the Economic Espionage Act of 1996. It authorizes criminal prosecution for theft of trade secrets and other acts of economic espionage, with huge fines and imprisonment as penalties. It also authorizes injunctive relief, but only on petition by our Attorney General.

But there’s a problem with the PLA. It’s China’s army, an arm of China’s government. An internationally accepted legal doctrine called “sovereign immunity” prevents any private party from suing a foreign government or any branch or agency of it. So owners of trade secrets stolen by the PLA can’t just sue the PLA for damages or injunctive relief, even if they could get jurisdiction in the United States. Likely this is one reason why China put its commercial cyberspying program there; the PLA, like our own army and the army of every foreign country, is immune from suit, even here in the United States.

What if, as appears likely, the PLA hands off stolen secrets to a state-owned enterprise or to a privately-owned Chinese company, to enhance its commercial advantage? Then there would be two potential problems. First, the injured trade-secret owner would have to investigate the chain of possession, inside China, in the process dealing with the formidable security apparatus that protects China’s military. Second, if the recipient is a state-owned enterprise, the doctrine of sovereign immunity might cover it, too. Only if the stolen secret’s user is a fully private party and if the plaintiff can trace the stolen secret’s chain of possession inside China can the plaintiff have a chance for redress in an American court. Good luck.

Similar analysis applies to criminal prosecution or injunctive relief under the Economic Espionage Act. While the Act lets us prosecute agents of foreign powers involved in trade-secret theft, we can’t prosecute them here if they stay in China. And the very same doctrine of sovereign immunity protects the PLA, as such, from both criminal prosecution and injunctive relief under the Act.


As I have reasoned at some length, I do not think China is a warlike power. With every historical reason, its leaders see stability as their paramount goal. War does not promote stability.

But China is as serious and uncompromising about trade as most other countries are about war. It wants to participate, and it wants to win. And it’s quite practical and relentless—even ruthless—in reaching that goal, as long as doing so doesn’t threaten to upset the apple cart of stability.

So China has turned Von Clausewitz’ famous pronouncement in a new direction. For China, war is not politics by other means. Trade is both politics and war by other means. China’s leaders understand that trade is a primary source of economic power, especially for a still-developing country, and that economic power is both the source of military power and the source of influence in the world—as well as a guarantee of fulfilling lives for a nation’s people.

For about a decade now, China has also understood that innovation is an important facet of trade, plus an independent source of economic power. It knows it starts from behind in science and technology and has a long way to go to catch up. But it’s trying hard to do so, with all the élan and capability of an authoritarian government run by smart and well-educated technocrats.

China is building huge universities to train its students, and huge technological institutes for research and study. For some time, it also has been trying to pry trade secrets out of foreign private businesses through ordinary business negotiations, using China’s huge market as a lever.

China’s firms, with the support and connivance of China’s government, often require disclosure of our technology and trade secrets as a condition of doing profitable business in China. Sometimes that condition is explicit, sometimes implicit. But it is nearly always there. And our private businesses, salivating over the prize of that huge market, often give in too easily.

The recent spying revelation now suggests that China is not above simply stealing Western trade secrets. Undoubtedly a significant part of the spying was an attempt to discover hidden vulnerabilities of our mostly-private civilian infrastructure. As this post discussed above, those vulnerabilities can give China much-needed leverage in diplomacy and international power politics.

Some of us, I am sure, will call China’s spying “acts of war.” (I can almost hear John McCain and Lindsey Graham on the Senate floor now.) But war is not China’s goal, and war is not the answer. The Chinese are far smarter and more subtle than that. We have to match their finesse.

We cannot neglect the possibility that another significant purpose of the spying was to steal Western secrets where economic leverage cannot buy them, thereby jump-starting China’s push for technological and industrial supremacy. As this post shows, legal means of curtailing China’s cybertheft of trade secrets are weak. The best we might do with legal action, as a nation, is to bring a national case against China before the WTO, for violating trade-secret norms to which China itself has subscribed.

But winning such a case would take years. And the prize, even if won, would just be the legal right to retaliate against China with trade sanctions. In other words, after several years of litigation we might win the right to start a trade war legally.

I don’t think we want a trade war any more than a real war. A trade war between the world’s first and second largest economies would cause everyone on the planet real pain.

We don’t need saber rattling. We don’t need war. We don’t even need a trade war. What we need is real, practical means to protect our privately-held trade secrets going forward.

That goal is and should be much broader than China. Protecting our valuable trade secrets is just common sense. China is unlikely to be the only rival nation seeking to get them by means fair and foul. But if we protect our secrets well, doing so may have the pleasant consequences of reducing China’s ability to intimidate us and increasing its willingness to pay honestly for secrets of value.

Reaching that goal will not be easy. Our most valuable secrets reside in a private sector that has been lazy, negligent, improvident, short-sighted and sometimes even recalcitrant in protecting them. My future essay in this series will be about that.

Note on “spying” versus “hacking.”

Throughout this essay, I use the term “spying” for what Mandiant’s private report revealed. That term tracks Mandiant’s own usage, which reports “cyber espionage” and the systematic theft of “hundreds of terabytes of data.”

In contrast, many inexpert news organizations use the less precise term “hacking,” which has two meanings. Its most common meaning is just gaining unauthorized access to a computer system by cyber wizardry, as distinguished from a physical break-in.

This is what a nerd means when he says, “I hacked into my former employer’s computer.” This first form of hacking, of course, is a prerequisite to stealing any data. You can’t steal data unless you can hack into the system.

But hacking also has a much darker meaning: the intentional modification or deletion of data or programs, including intentional insertion of viruses and other malware. Hacking of this sort can render computer systems inoperative. In more diabolical cases, it can turn them into destroyers of physical property or even killers of people, like the rogue computer “HAL” in the movie 2001. (Imagine, for example, a rogue computer in a petroleum cracking plant that dumps toxic substances on workers inspecting or repairing vats, or a virus that opens a dam’s spillway fully while people are swimming or boating in the placid river below. Don’t even think about a virus intentionally causing a meltdown at a nuclear power plant.)

“Hacking” of this second sort is the ultimate in cyber warfare. But it’s not nearly as easy to accomplish as stealing data. In order to accomplish hacking of this more dangerous sort, you have to gain access not just to data, but to a computer system’s programs and operating systems. You also have to overcome software-security and physical barriers, which good engineers design into systems to prevent these sorts of disasters from happening.

Most computer systems store data in places separate from programs and operating systems. Some even use entirely separate storage systems. Normal user privileges, even of high executives, rarely include access to programs and operating systems. Only computer personnel normally have access to those things, and even their access is layered and structured on a need-for-access and priority basis.

Web-based “apps” using Java and similar online programming languages are an exception to this rule. Their whole purpose is to let a remote party—even an unknown one—control your computer, at least in part, to let you do things you couldn’t do otherwise. But it’s possible to protect against destructive Java-based malware in at least three ways: (1) isolating the Java programming environment from the rest of the programs and operating system, i.e., limiting what Java can do, (2) disabling Java for critical user accounts (and perhaps giving critical users two accounts, one—for critical functions—with Java disabled and the other with it enabled), and (3) disconnecting critical functions from Web access entirely.

The security barriers between and among users are among the most difficult to break. So control of even a high executive’s personal account does not necessarily compromise programs or operating systems. Only control of a system administrator’s administrative account (not just his or her e-mail password) could do that.

As long as key systems administrators are competent, only something like bribery or extortion could extract their administrative account passwords. And bribery and extortion are hard (but not impossible) to accomplish remotely, over the Internet.

Mandiant’s report revealed no instance of destructive hacking of the type that might cause property damage, personal injury or death. Therefore “spying,” not “hacking,” is the better term. As cyber warfare develops, this second form of hacking may become a threat. But nothing in Mandiant’s report suggests we are there yet, or that China has developed that capability. The issue raised by Mandiant’s report is the systematic theft of trade secrets from our private sector, which is bad enough.


16 February 2013

Real Solar Energy Cost Parameters

Power per land area: one nominal megawatt for three football fields
Linear warranties and effective plant lifetimes
Real cost figures
Note on the time value of money
Note on Maintenance
Encouraging Update (3/25/13)


A year ago, I published a post analyzing coal promoters’ claim that wind and solar power are uneconomic. That post had three salient conclusions.

First, no one yet knows what the real cost of wind and solar energy will be. Because they have no fuel, refining, fuel-transportation or pollution-remediation costs, their energy cost per kilowatt-hour depends only on two variables: maintenance expense and amortized capital cost of plant. Of these two, the latter is by far the dominant factor.

We don’t know what amortized capital cost will be because it depends on the plants’ actual working lifetimes, which only experience can tell. No one knows those lifetimes for sure today because (1) no plants have yet been worn out and (2) plant technologies are rapidly moving targets.

The post’s last two conclusions were related. Close analysis of quantitative trends (but without real, accurate numbers) strongly suggests that wind and solar power will beat coal on the cost of energy by considerable margins. That suggestion, in turn, explains why the coal barons are trying to kill wind and solar energy with a PR campaign, rather than by competing in the marketplace.

While nothing I have read or thought since contradicts any of these conclusions, that post was mostly theory. Now, as a result of my own efforts to have a solar array built for my home, I have some real, current commercial numbers.

The calculations in this post are based on LG Solar’s commercially available panels, Part Number LG255S1C-G3. Their technical specifications are available here. This post is intended neither as a review nor an endorsement of these particular solar panels. Their specs are just an example of what a major multinational commercial manufacturer can produce and is willing to warrant today. The point of this post is how these current commercial specs corroborate solar energy’s cost superiority.

Power per land area: one nominal megawatt for three football fields

According to LG’s online spec sheet, the surface area of each panel is 1640 mm x 1000 mm, or 1.64 square meters. The panel produces a nominal power of 255 Watts. (The actual power depends on insolation, which in turn depends on the solar declination and hence on latitude at the array location, and of course on weather.)

So the panel area for a nominal one-megawatt array would be 1.64 x 1,000,000/255 square meters, or 6,431 square meters. That’s an area about 80.2 meters on a side, in US terms 6,431/4,047 = 1.6 acres, or less than three American football fields—hardly a huge area of land. (The actual area might be somewhat larger, because the panels must be tilted to account for solar declination, and each row of panels must stay out of neighboring rows’ shadows. Alternatively, rows can be staggered in height, like seats in a movie theater, without increasing horizontal land area.)

My own solar array will produce 6.24 nominal kilowatts, more than enough (on average) to run a well-equipped house and charge an electric car. If we round to 6 nominal kilowatts per house, our nominal one-megawatt array could serve about 160 homes, with a solar array occupying a land area of less than three football fields. That’s about 100 homes per acre of panel land.

These facts have two big community-planning implications. First, in suburban areas, each new subdivision could, on average, power itself. For example, in a new subdivision of one-half acre lots, reserving one lot for a solar array could power about fifty homes. Second, in sunny rural areas, especially in the Southwest, land is cheap and unpopulated, with nothing but cattle to complain about views. In those areas, a one-gigawatt plant would occupy 1,600 acres.

The first point is the key to rapid adoption of solar energy. Solar arrays are infinitely scalable. You can build one for a single home, a single block of homes, a subdivision, an industrial plant, a whole neighborhood, or a whole city.

Big centralized power plants are no longer necessary as long as either (1) large, regional smart grids tie big areas together and average out local fluctuations in sun and wind, and/or (2) conventional power plants are available to smooth out fluctuations and avoid intermittency. The best plants for (2) today are natural-gas plants, which are scalable, rapidly adjustable in output, and low in carbon output for fossil-fueled power sources.

Linear warranties and effective plant lifetimes

The “Certifications and Warranty” portion of the LG technical specifications reveals some important facts about solar panels. They are solid-state devices with no moving parts. They are not like machinery, whose parts break down at random and which, after too many parts break down, have to be replaced.

Unless destroyed by accident, tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning or hail, solar panels continue producing power for long periods of time. But because of internal aging and other poorly understood phenomena (probably including microscopic manufacturing imperfections), the power they produce slowly decreases as they age.

Accordingly, LG offers a so-called “linear” warranty on the power output of its panels, which reads verbatim as follows:

“Linear warranty

Output warranty of Pmax (measurement Tolerance ± 3%)
1) 1st year: 97%, 2) After 2nd year: 0.7% annual degradation, 3) 80.2% for 25 years”

Thus LG warrants its panels’ power output to 80% of initial power for 25 years. But, unlike mechanical devies, solar arrays won’t just stop working some time shortly after the warranty expires. They’ll keep producing power, but at lower and slowly declining rates, for a long, long time.

How long? No one knows, because no one has yet used them at commercial scale for even 25 years.

It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of these points. Solar photovoltaic arrays use a new power technology, with characteristics that differ from those of all previously used power sources.

One characteristic—intermittency—has been much discussed in the popular press. The sun doesn’t shine at night, and solar panels produce less power when clouds decrease solar irradiance reaching the ground. This makes them harder to use than conventional power sources, but by no means impossible. There are many ways to handle intermittency; as one German put it, intermittency is not a “problem.” Accommodating it is just “a task.”

In any event, another characteristic of solar arrays is decidedly positive, as compared to all mechanical means of generating electricity. Unless physically destroyed, photovoltaic solar panels don’t break down. Like old soldiers, they just slowly fade away.

LG’s so-called “linear warranty,” which reflects this fact, will undoubtedly become an industry standard. It tells how solar panels actually perform. With greater experience in plant longevity, the present 25-year limit on commercial guarantees will no doubt rise. And the 0.7% annual power degradation rate will likely come down with advances in semiconductor and fabrication-process technology.

Let’s analyze how all this affects energy pricing. First, let’s look at effective plant lifetimes. If a panel, on average, loses 3% of its power the first year and undergoes a 0.7% annual power degradation thereafter, its power output will not fade away entirely until 1 + 97%/0.7% = 139.6 years.

Thus, century-long photovoltaic power-plant lifetimes are consistent with LG’s commercial warranties today (although not, of course, guaranteed.) If LG’s linear formula is accurate in the long term, its panels will still produce over a third of their initial power a century after manufacture. By that time, improvements in conservation and efficiency might allow the same power plant to serve the same customers, with proportionally reduced total power needs.

But by far the most vital point is cost. The cost of solar energy, like the cost of wind energy, depends primarily on how long the initial, fixed capital investment in plant continues to produce useful power. As far as the cost of energy is concerned, the annual degradation is irrelevant. What matters is the total energy produced over the plant’s useful life.

Let’s suppose, just for discussion, that the user makes an arbitrary decision to discard the plant (or the panels) when their output falls to 34.7% of nominal. That will occur in about a century. The total energy that the plant produces over this useful lifetime is just the area under power-output curve, which we can calculate using integral calculus, simple geometry, or (in this case) simple averaging.

Over the course of the first year, the power output drops from 100% to 97%, for an average of 98.5%. Over the course of the plant’s remaining useful life, the power output drops from 97% to 34.7%, for an average of 65.85%. So the “effective” working life of the panel, at 100% of nominal power, is 0.985 + 0.6585 x 99 = 66.17 years. That is, over its useful lifetime, until its “retirement” at 34.7% of nominal power, the plant would produce as much energy as if it ran at full power for about 66 years.

Real cost figures

With that figure, we can now make some pretty accurate estimates of what photovoltaic solar energy really costs.

We start with the routinely achieved industry standard of one dollar per Watt as the manufacturing cost of solar cells. Then we multiply by the the ratio of the cost (per Watt capacity) of a deliverable, working plant, with infrastructure, wires, control gear, and grid attachment, to the cost of manufacturing a one-Watt cell.

After the plant lifetime, this multiplier is the key numerical factor for analyzing solar photovoltaic power pricing. Since it reflects the cost of building a “turnkey” plant, I call it the “turnkey factor.”

My own commercial array vendor offers a turnkey factor a bit south of six. I have read in the business press that commercial builders of large-scale commercial solar arrays are now achieving turnkey factors as low as three.

With the turnkey factor and the plant lifetime now understood and estimated, we can estimate the real cost of solar photovoltaic energy, not from theory, but from commercial fact. We need only one additional figure: the number of hours of useful power that solar panels generate per year.

For that parameter, we assume that the sun shines eight hours per day, that two days out of three (on the average) have useful sun, and that a year has 365 days (ignoring leap years). With those assumptions, each year provides

8 x 2/3 x 365 hours = 1,947 hours

of useful energy output. Since these numbers are approximate, and to make calculation easier, let’s just call it 2,000 hours.

With these preliminaries, the actual cost of solar photovoltaic energy, in cents per kilowatt-hour, is as follows:

C = MT / 2L

where M is the cost per Watt capacity of manufacturing the solar panel (in cents, not dollars), T is the turnkey factor discussed above, and L is the effective lifetime of the solar panel, in years, at 100% of nominal-power equivalent. (We reduce the solar-hours factor from 2,000 to 2 because we are calculating energy in kilowatt-hours, not Watt-hours.)

At present we are assuming a turnkey factor T of 3 for commercial installations and 6 for home installations. We have just estimated an effective 100%-power lifetime of the LG solar panels as 66 years. The following table shows the cost of energy from LG’s solar panels using this formula and the estimates we have made:

Cost of Solar Photovoltaic Energy, Excluding Plant Maintenance

Mfg Cost M
of 1 W cell
Turnkey Factor TCost of Energy C
(cents)(dimensionless)(cents per kWh)

The results in this table are both surprising and encouraging. Over the last several years, the retail price of electric energy (derived 87% from coal) I have paid has been between 11 and 12 cents per kilowatt-hour. Let’s just call it 11.5 cents.

According to our Energy Information Administration, the national-average ratio of electricity-production expenses to all expenses of electric utilities for 2011 was 122,520 / 247,118 = 45%. So the total proportion of non-production costs was 55%. If we add a 10% profit margin for a regulated utility, the total proportion of non-production costs plus profit was 65%, or a production cost of 35% of selling price. Applied to the prices I actually pay, namely 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, that implies an internal energy cost to my power company of 0.35 x 11.5 cents, or 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Every figure in our table but the first is lower than that. Accordingly, unless plant maintenance (which the table neglects) adds 10% or more to the price of solar photovoltaic energy, the cost of solar energy from all but small home solar arrays like mine beats that of the biggest (and presumably most efficient) coal-fired power plant in the nation—the Four Corners power plant from which I get 87% of my power.

Even my little home solar array comes within 20% of the big coal plant’s internal cost of power. When you add in all the distribution costs, overhead and profit, I’ll be making a killing producing my own electrical power.


The numbers in this post are not theoretical. They come from commercial spec sheets of a major solar-panel producer. Although I am not at liberty to disclose a private bid, I have a real proposal from a real business to install a home solar array at an M of 100 cents and a T of 6.

There are only two aspects of this analysis that are not hard numbers. The first is the plant lifetime L, which is a reasonable deduction from LG panel warranties and the properties of solar cells. The second is the assumption that maintenance of solar arrays, which have no moving parts, will not add more than about 10% to the price of energy. (For further discussion of this second assumption, click here.)

The table above suggests that solar panels are capable of delivering energy near a penny a kilowatt hour, under only two conditions. First, the industry must get solar-cell manufacturing costs down to 50 cents per Watt capacity. Some participants, such as First Solar, are close to that goal already. Second, commercial installers must get the Turnkey Factor for building large-scale commercial solar arrays down to three, if it is not already there. There is also a third implicit assumption: that any new cell technology that decreases the manufacturing cost per Watt capacity won’t also decrease the cell’s effective working lifetime L.

Note on the time value of money

Business readers may object that the foregoing analysis ignores the time value of money, that is, interest on the capital investment in plant (if it is borrowed) or a lost opportunity to receive interest on the same money (if it is not).

There are three answers to this objection. First, this analysis estimates the cost to the producer of producing electrical energy. If the producer has the money, he can invest in a solar array and, over its lifetime, produce energy at a lower effective cost than with coal.

Over the long lifetime of a coal power plant, the costs of the coal, its transportation, smokestack scrubbers and other regulatory/pollution-remediation measures will go up with inflation, which will roughly track the cost of money. But there will be no comparable variable costs for solar energy. Both investments will require maintenance, but that cost will be lower for solar photovoltaic energy. The cost of money comes into play only if you compare generating and selling electricity with other ways of making money.

Second, the effective lifetimes of solar arrays (66 years, in our estimate) are far longer than the terms of commercial loans, especially for power-plant construction. It is not customary to consider the time value of money in calculating power producers’ profit after loans have been paid off. That’s why nuclear energy is considered so “cheap” today, because the plants have long ago been paid off, and many are obsolete. Just so, solar arrays will produce decades of “free” energy (to the producer, except for maintenance) long after any plant-construction loans have been paid off. (This “free” energy will come without the risks of meltdowns and radioactive releases posed by nuclear power plants.)

Third, as a conceptual and accounting matter, it is not clear that the time value of money is relevant. There is no way to accurately estimate, let alone calculate, the effect of changing interest rates and inflation over periods as long as fifty or more years. Any attempt to do so would likely produce garbage in hindsight. (Just think of someone in the high-interest, high-inflation late 1970s trying to imagine what interest rates might be today.) The revenue received for energy might vary with inflation and interest rates, but the cost of the plant is a sunk cost, best conceived as a single, fixed expense.

Footnote: This quotation is from Hans-Joseph Fell, the legal architect of Germany’s energiewende. See Osha Gray Davidson, Clean Break: The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn from It, Kindle e-book (99 cents), Chapter 1 (Kindle at 10%).

Note on Maintenance

Analysis of existing data strongly suggests that solar panels satisfy the above post’s assumption of maintenance adding less than 10% to energy cost.

Our Energy Information Administration publishes online figures for electric utility expenses of various kinds. For 2011, maintenance's fraction of total production cost was as follows:

Maintenance/production cost = 15,772/122,520 = 12.8%

This figure is a nationwide average over all utilities and all sources of electric power. Yet as I explained last year, solar photovoltaic arrays are highly likely to incur the lowest maintenance expense of any means of producing electric power.

Solar panels and their inverters have no moving parts. They operate at ambient temperature, not the blast-furnace temperatures of coal or natural-gas burners, or even the high-pressure steam temperatures of turbines or reciprocating engines in coal, natural-gas or nuclear power plants. And of course they suffer only solar radiation, not the nuclear radiation that is rampant in the most critical parts of nuclear power plants, and that is almost as hard on materials as it is on living things.

Therefore solar photovoltaic arrays require only two foreseeable types of maintenance. First, someone has to inspect them periodically for damage to or destruction of solar panels (mostly after destructive weather events), to replace inoperable parts, and to see that they are still operating properly. Second, if snow, dust, leaves or other obstructions block solar radiation, someone has to clean them off.

That sort of maintenance is highly unlikely to cost more than the regularly scheduled inspections, diagnostic tests, routine part replacements, and occasional maintenance shutdowns of far more complicated plants with many moving parts. Coal plants, in particular, have another huge maintenance expense that solar plants don’t have: periodic replacement of expensive active elements in the stack “scrubbers” that try to remove from plant effluent (1) sulfur dioxide (the cause of acid rain), (2) mercury (which makes tuna dangerous for pregnant women and children to eat), and (3) particulates (which cause asthma and other respiratory diseases).

Based on this comparison, it is highly unlikely that maintenance cost for solar arrays would add more than 10% to their cost of energy, when the industry average is 12.8% And even if the cost for solar arrays hit that industry average, it wouldn’t change any conclusion in the post above.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post miscalculated my power company’s internal cost of producing a kilowatt-hour of electrical energy. The error, which affected only the last three paragraphs before the Conclusion, has been corrected.

Encouraging Update (3/25/13): A recent news article in Bloomberg.com suggests that commercial-scale solar arrays are already approaching long-term generation costs of a penny per kilowatt-hour. Based on data provided by a Sharp executive, it quotes turnkey costs of solar power (the product of M and T, or MT in the table above) of $4 per watt capacity for residential arrays, and $2 for large-scale commercial arrays.

If these figures are right, the calculated cost of solar energy for the life of the array, as figured above, is as follows:

Cost of Solar Photovoltaic Energy, Excluding Plant Maintenance

Turnkey Cost MT
of 1 W cell
Cost of Energy C
(cents)(cents per kWh)


10 February 2013

Let Them Go! The Case for Secession

[For brief comment on how Marco Rubio’s speech confirmed this post, click here.]

Recent historical trends
The divorce analogy
Irreconcilable differences?
Should government be able to act?
Live and Let Live


Mere days after Barack Obama’s re-election, Governor Rick Perry of Texas began talking about secession.

Now Texans are a special breed. Their formative moment came at the Alamo, when a small but brave bunch of them died in a vain, but posthumously successful, attempt to avoid being governed by Spanish-speaking brown-skinned folk.

That was in 1836. Not much in the Mind of Texas seems to have changed since then.

To a non-Texan like me, Governor Perry seems one of the stupidest men ever to enter American politics. He makes Dubya look brilliant. But he seems to understand Texans; otherwise he wouldn’t be their governor. And even a broken clock is right twice a day. So it’s worth some ink to consider Perry’s unoriginal idea dispassionately.

Would it make us all better off? After analysis, I think so. The idea holds up from a whole bunch of perspectives. Before you click out, let me briefly name them: (1) recents trends in global history, (2) trends in divorce law and practice, (3) irreconcilable differences, (4) the quaint notion that government ought to be able to act, and (5) the most basic American value of all: live and let live.

Recent historical trends

The end of World War II coincided roughly with the end of our species’ imperial era. Since then, far more countries have broken up than have formed.

The most impressive example is the old Soviet Union, which spun off (or finally let go) fifteen different nations. But there were lots of other examples: (1) India, which split from the British Empire and spun off Pakistan, (2) Pakistan itself, which spun off Bangladesh, (3) Yugoslavia, which broke up into seven new Balkan nations, which are now (finally!) at peace, (4) Czechoslovakia, which became the Czech Republic and Slovakia, (5) Indonesia, which let East Timor go after a long struggle, and (6) Sudan, which just recently let South Sudan go.

Other examples may be in process. The central part of Africa, which used to be a Belgian colony, has undergone so much boundary change that it’s hard to keep the names of new nations straight. That process shows no signs of abating.

Iraq may be similar. A lot of people, including this writer, thought its three peoples (Sunni, Shiites and Kurds) might be happier apart, or in a loose federation, rather than in a single, centrally governed state. As Chuck Hagel implied in his confirmation hearings, that question still awaits the judgment of history.

I haven’t even mentioned (except for India) all the former colonies that have split from their colonizers. They are almost too numerous to count. (I’ve got a future post coming on them.)

But perhaps they don’t belong in this discussion. Although their colonial masters owned them for all practical purposes, they and their colonizers together did not have enough earmarks of a single state, either geographically or politically, let alone culturally. So we’ll have to count colonies gaining independence as another centrifugal postwar phenomenon, but not quite the same one.

Have there been countertrends? Not many. The chief counterexample is the European Union (1 and 2). It has several would-be copycats, including Mercosur in South America and Asean in East Asia.

But the EU and its follow-ons are not really marriages. They are more like civil unions. Their goals are wholly economic; they don’t affect nationhood or undermine national sovereignty. Even the EU’s members are resisting further integration, especially in immigration and foreign policy. And the Brits seem ready to stalk out, or at least to “renegotiate” the terms of the civil union in their favor.

If you discount these weak civil unions, it looks as if divorce has been far more prevalent among nations since World War II than marriage.

Late Addendum: I’ve been getting some hits from Germany, where readers must be wondering why I didn’t mention the recent reunification of east and west. The reason is that this was not a normal “marriage.” It was the restoration of a nation forcibly divided by war. As I’ve noted myself, the successful reunification was an extraordinary achievement, but it wasn’t the marriage of separate nations with separate cultures. If nothing else, the speed and success of the process showed that. Contrast the fact that North and South here are still fighting the Civil War after a century and a half. That’s a sign of differing cultures.

The Divorce Analogy

That being the case, it’s useful to look more closely at the analogy to divorce. When I was a kid, spouses had to prove infidelity or extreme cruelty to get a divorce. That rule led to lots of spying on bedrooms and lots of fake fights.

Eventually, the law and most of western culture settled on a more sensible rule: couples can divorce if they just can’t get along. As usual, the law expresses that simple rule in polysyllabic terms: “irreconcilable differences” or “incompatibility.”

This new standard has made divorce much easier and therefore much more common. Many bemoan the change and the rising divorce rate worldwide. But the main reason for their distress is children. Many people think, with some justification, that even a bad marriage is better for children than divorce.

There is, however, no close analogy to children in a divorce of whole peoples. They are more like adults who have no children, or whose children have grown up. Most neutral observers conclude that there is no reason for those spouses to maintain a mutually intolerable relationship. (The matter of real interethnic or intercultural children we can solve by giving them or their parents the right to choose a new home.)

Irreconcilable Differences?

Are Texas and our other so-called “red” states compatible with our “blue” ones? Or are there irreconcilable differences? Let’s take a look.

The following table lists a number ways in which red and blue views differ. Read through it and see whether: (1) these are important issues for the development and progress of any society or nation and durable sources of discord, and (2) my characterization of the degrees of separation is fair.

Leave aside for a moment who is right and who is wrong. (That’s why I provided no links, although this blog addresses many of these issues elsewhere.) The question before us is not who is right, but whether people so far apart on so many things ought to live together.

Table of Irreconcilable Differences

Issue or Subject“Red” View“Blue” View
Domestic Policy
A half-black presidentHate him and whole ideaDon’t mind, as long as he’s good
Labor unionsDon’t mess with marketsStill-important guarantor of social justice and economic equality
Social SecurityUnaffordable socialismSafety net for seniors, the economy and social justice
MedicareMore unaffordable socialismSame as above
MedicaidSame, plus burden on statesNeeded protection for poor in workforce
Undocumented ImmigrantsKeep and move them out, except maybe childrenCut the flow but let law-abiding workers stay
The Crash of 2008Government caused it, and Obama made it worseWall Street and lax regulation caused it, and Obama saved us
Federal debtAn existential threat right nowWe can cut it as our economy recovers
TaxesAlways down, never upOur postwar growth was fine when top rates ranged from 91% to 70%
GovernmentDrown it in a bathtubWe need it, especially when we’re old or sick, or bankers go rogue
Energy and the Environment
Global warmingA hoaxA grave long-term threat
Wind and solar powerUseless boondogglesNew industries and clean energy
CoalBurn, baby, burn! It’s cheapDirtiest fuel ever; phase out
Oil and gasolineDrill, baby, drill! They’ll always be thereThey’re getting scarcer and pricier; look for substitutes
Natural gasDrill, baby, drill!Good transitional fuel, but watch for air and water pollution
Nuclear powerFull speed aheadOther power sources are cleaner and safer
Foreign Policy
AfghanistanStay to defeat Taliban and secure Karzai’s governmentKill terrorists, but get out and shift to civilian aid
Arab SpringLock and load! Militant Islam is coming!Cautious hope for democracy and peace
ChinaSlave state, cheater, and dangerous rivalRising economic power and trade partner that bears watching
FranceSocialist wimpLeader in post-colonial engagement and nuclear power
GermanyOld enemy and commercial rivalHopeful example in manufacturing, energy, and economic equality
IranPrepare for air war and oil price spikesBoycott and bargain, but try to avoid war
IraqWe should still have combat troops thereWe should not have gone in, and it’s good we’re getting out
IsraelBulwark against militant Islam and (for some) Armageddon triggerClose friend which can do stupid things
RussiaSlave state like Soviet Union“Marketizing” European power; can be rival or partner
Military budgetSpend what we must to beat all foes in two world wars at onceWhere will those wars come from?
Mitigating global warmingOthers should go firstWe should lead
Political Personalities
Mahmoud AhmadinejadHitler reduxFailed subordinate on his way out; who’s next?
Rush LimbaughFreedom fighter and party leaderVile and dangerous blowhard
Sarah PalinStrong female leaderGold-digging airhead
Vladimir PutinLenin and Stalin reduxModern but authoritarian leader willing to bargain, not even close to Stalin
“Social” Issues and Attitudes
AbortionThe murder of childrenA woman’s personal and medical choice
ChirstianityAmerica’s religion and our highest lawOne religion among many
Church attendanceHigh and importantMuch lower and less important
Easily available gunsGuarantors of freedom from crime and governmentMakers of mayhem and slaughterers of children
EvolutionAnother hoaxThe foundation of modern biology
Faith and moneyJesus wants you to be richDidn’t Jesus say something about camels and needles?
FundamentalismOK if ChristianDangerous, whether Christian, Jewish or Taliban
Gay marriageOver our dead bodies!Yawn, why not? It’s a free country
Public pensionersFreeloadersFormer fire fighters, garbage collectors, police and teachers
Wall StreetLet ’er rip! Money’s good, isn’t it?Isn’t something rotten there?

If this list were about spouses, what would the prospects for an harmonious marriage be?

Should government be able to act?

Once in a while, should Congress be able to pass an important law? If you believe that government is best drowned in a bathtub so taxes can go lower, you might “just say no.”

But paradoxically, red voters are just as fed up with Congress as their blue counterparts. No one, red or blue, left or right, seems to like broken government. But all want government to do things their way.

We have broken government for four reasons. First, people with world views as dramatically different as those shown above can’t agree on anything. Their values and outlook are just too far apart.

Second, our voters have self-sorted into tribal camps. They read, watch and believe only news and commentary that supports their pre-existing views. So there’s not much switching between camps. Psychologists, social scientists and pollsters agree. They don’t see much prospect for future agreement or reconciliation.

Third, as red and blue voters become more entrenched in their views and more estranged from each other, “compromise” becomes a dirty word. It already is among the Tea Party. Gerrymandered single-party districts don’t help. Red-meat voters there don’t want compromise; they want champions.

Finally, our Constitution hog-ties us. Every state, even the smallest—has two votes in the Senate. Our Constitution won’t ever let those votes be taken away. So, for the foreseeable future, voters in a state like Wyoming will have about 50 times the voting power in the Senate as voters in California.

But that’s just the beginning. Filibusters give a minority of 41 senators a veto like much like the President’s. The Constitution allows each House to make its own rules, but the rate of filibuster blockage has gone far beyond anything the Founders might have contemplated, and far beyond anything in our golden age as a nation.

Next is the Senate “hold.” Any single Senator, individually (and often anonymously), can delay any piece of legislation or any presidential appointment that requires Senate confirmation, for any reason or for no reason. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, a red state, at one time had seventy holds on President Obama’s appointments. While the world “hold” implies only delay, in fact these holds kill legislation and appointments more often than not. (Procedures among 100 senators often can’t wait for one senator, or several, to change their minds.) So not only do we have the 41% “veto” of a minority; we also have an effective senatorial veto, which every single senator can exercise individually.

With these rules and such dramatic ideological splits, is gridlock any surprise?

With the mere act of secession, every one of these reasons for gridlock would disappear. Each spinoff’s people would have similar enough views—a similar culture, if you will—to haggle over details but get things done. The two separate tribes would not have sorted themselves out into different internal camps, at least at first. Their respective media would air different nuances of the two tribes’ views, but not irreconcilable opposites. There would be no jeering. So each spinoff would not have to contend with perpetually warring, jeering, entrenched camps.

Each side also could make considerable progress in avoiding the pitfalls of our Constitution. The seceding states would have carte blanche to design a new government, which they would be well advised to do without filibusters and Senate holds. Anyway, they would not have the incentives for gridlock that our Founders had. They would not be trying to meld two wildly different cultures: an industrial, Puritan, free and communitarian North, with an aristocratic, agrarian plantation South based on slavery.

With world views much closer together, and after a huge sigh of relief, the remaining states could change the Senate rules to eliminate or curb filibusters and avoid single-senator holds. They would be well advised to do so during the initial honeymoon period after secession, perhaps by constitutional amendment. The seceding states could do the same things in designing their government from scratch.

But if things stay as they are, there is no reasonable prospect for any foreseeable solution for either red or blue. The gap in world view and ideology is simply too broad. And as the Senate’s recent failed attempt to curb filibusters proved anew, no politician ever lets power drop out of his or her hands while alive. Hence the chance of abolishing filibusters and Senate holds in the midst of a severe ideological split and gridlock is minimal. The gap in world view, the warring camps, the hatred of compromise, and our Constitution are tying both red and blue states in a death embrace that allows no room for breathing, let alone action.

With secession, the logjam would break quickly for each side. With like-minded compatriots and rules more suited to action, each side could realize its ideological dreams in its own way. The seceding states could reject Roe v. Wade, allow anyone to carry an assault weapon with a huge magazine, make church attendance mandatory, outlaw unions, give tax break to Wall Street banks to lure them down South, use coal for 100% of their power, drill everywhere for oil and gas, and declare their new nation a Christian one.

The remaining states, by constitutional amendment, could overturn Citizens United, outlaw firearms in crowded cities, and bring back the fairness doctrine for public discourse in the Internet Age. They could also regulate the big banks or break them up into pieces small enough to fail, subsidize wind and solar energy, give labor unions more power, expand Medicare to all ages, and invest heavily in a smart grid, better roads and Internet, electric cars, and education. They could even raise taxes to fund these things.

Each side, of course, would predict the other’s failure. But maybe ideology isn’t so important after all. Maybe if citizens believe in what they are doing, think they are being fairly treated, work hard, and work together—rather than at cross purposes—that’s all that matters. Maybe today’s ideological struggles have no more import than Jonathan Swift’s metaphorical quarrel about which end of a boiled egg to flatten.

The rivalry and competition between the two resulting nations might spur both on to success. And if not, it might settle finally (and for history) whether a mixed economy with strong regulation and a strong safety net is better than a more muscular capitalism with few restraints on money, power and guns.

Isn’t competition the law of nature and our species? Why not settle the endless ideological debate with a real test, an experiment? If one side “won” decisively, the other could always rejoin it.

Live and let live

As I once wrote about gay marriage, the most succinct expression of American values is “live and let live.” That simple phrase states the essence of our common culture better than the lawyers’ language of our Bill of Rights.

But when two groups of people have such starkly different values and world views as our red and blue states, it’s hard to live and let live. With secession, each side would be free, finally, to live according to its ideology and world view. And each side would be obliged to let the other live, albeit in a different nation.

In our present gridlocked society, neither side gets its way, and nothing ever seems to change. That’s not “live and let live”; that’s stasis and ideological combat.


A peaceful and orderly secession would of course require some conditions. But they are not many. I think a mere six would do the job.

First, all states wishing to secede would have to declare their intentions within a specified period, maybe two years. Most would want to have a referendum, but the second condition might make that unnecessary.

Second, every citizen or legal resident of every state would have the right, until the very day of secession, to choose to live in any other state, red or blue. The “privileges and immunities” of US citizens and permanent residents, including freedom of travel and residence, would last until the very day of secession. That day should be at least five years after all seceding states have declared their intentions, so as to allow all the dust to settle and every individual to make up his or her mind.

Third, from day of declaration until the day of secession, all military personnel would have the right to be transferred from the remaining states to the seceding states, or vice versa. The military command of each new nation would have the power to choose the particular state, but not the nation. That way, no military person would be forced to serve a nation that he or she did not support. (You might call this the “Robert E. Lee rule.” He agonized over his decision but made the wrong choice. Our Civil War would have been a lot shorter had he chosen right, but you can’t change history.)

Fourth, the seceding states would have to relinquish all nuclear weapons and weapons-related nuclear materials and technology. They didn’t invent them, and they would have marginalized or ignored the people who did—mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants. And given their views on war, the whole rest of the world would sleep easier if they had no nukes. But the remaining US states would pre-sign a treaty guaranteeing a nuclear response to any nuclear attack on any seceding state.

Fifth, each seceding state would have to agree to pay the accumulated arrears of federal money received over federal taxes paid by the state itself, its people, and its private businesses. (The seceding states collectively, if red states now, would most likely have such a collective deficit. But a few, like Texas, might have a surplus.) Each state would be given a lengthy period, such as ten or fifteen years, to make the required payment.

Finally, as part of the declaration of secession, the seceding states would have to establish, before secession, binding rules for immigration, emigration, and international trade. They would also have to agree to abide by all treaties and international agreements binding on the United States, including the WTO, with such exceptions and changes as they could negotiate with foreign parties. (Russia undertook similar obligations as successor to the Soviet Union when it split up.)


Abraham Lincoln presided in a low-divorce era. Couples didn’t split up then, and neither did nations. Both do today.

At first Lincoln wanted only to preserve the Union, not abolish slavery. But he could foresee slavery remaining a source of conflict between the Union and the Confederacy as far as the eye could see.

In other words, Lincoln was prescient enough to understand that secession alone would not significantly reduce the risk of war. Neither the Abolitionists nor the slave owners were going to change. So once the Confederate states seceded, Lincoln had no choice but war. Preserving the Union was a goal that not only Abolitionists, but everyone in the North, could get behind.

Circumstances are quite different today. Slavery is gone forever. Not even Texas is likely to re-institute it. Our blue states and red states have enough of a common culture, and are sufficiently imbued with a common gospel of capitalism and trade, as to enjoy a vibrant and competitive, but not bellicose, relationship as separate countries.

Rather than war, a strong and friendly rivalry might develop after secession. With each able to go its own way, the two sides might eventually develop a certain mutual affection. Their relationship might mimic the affection we now feel for Britain, despite our long-ago Revolutionary War.

Each spinoff country would have the right and necessity to develop its own foreign policy and trade relationships, subject to pre-existing treaties. These tasks would no doubt be a preoccupation of the seceding states for several years after secession, perhaps a decade.

Except for the risk of war between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands, there is little risk of war between major powers today. Certainly no major power is threatening us. The red states tend to see threats and danger everywhere, not just from Iran and North Korea, but from Russia, China, and even tiny Venezuela. Whether it’s better to face those perceived threats as part of the United States or as a separate country would be something they would have to think about in deciding whether to secede.

Not every red state would necessarily follow Texas. Most would, maybe all. But some might not, particularly the northern ones. Their defection would help make secession easier: the bi-coastal United States remaining after secession would need some sort of ground transportation corridor over the phalanx of seceding states in our center. Maybe strong agreements on trade, transit of people and transportation of goods would suffice.

But the likelihood of any foreign power attacking either the United States or the seceding states solely due to the act of secession seems remote. After all, the Soviet Union dissolved with no such consequence. It had much less friendly neighbors, some of which were much more powerful than ours. Yet no one even thought of attacking it. So the negligible risk of foreign military action—or trade action for that matter—should not preclude secession.

Lincoln couldn’t allow it in his day because: (1) that sort of thing wasn’t done, and (2) war probably would have come anyway. Why postpone it and fight a stronger, better organized foe later?

Today there is no such risk, and there are plenty of precedents for division. We can divorce if we like, under a standard of irreconcilable differences. We certainly are incompatible by any measure of human culture.

As Churchill once said of us and Britain, we red and blue folk are two peoples divided by a common language. But worse yet, we inhabit a common governmental jail cell. Separate and free from each other at last, we might both soar.

Another Case of Immediate Confirmation

I love it when real events confirm my analysis quickly, as they did with my post on coal.

After writing the foregoing post, I had a bout of writer’s insecurity. Had I exaggerated the differences between “red” and “blue” states? Had I been fair to the red ones, whose views I don’t share? Do voters there really believe that government caused the Crash of 2008?

Well, I didn’t have long to wait for confirmation. Last night’s speeches provided plenty.

Marco Rubio, the GOP junior Senator from Florida, gave the “red” reply to the President’s State of the Union address. Very early on, he insisted that government caused the Crash, and that only private initiative could fix it. “A major cause of our recent downturn.” he said, “was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.”

Do red voters think global warming is a hoax? Well, Rubio didn’t say so exactly, but he did say this: “When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather, [the President] accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air.”

Rubio, you may recall, is the GOP’s great white hope. He’s the son of Cuban immigrants, and he gave his reply speech in both Spanish and English. He personifies the GOP’s desire to “pivot” on immigration and save itself from Hispanic ostracism.

Rubio hails from Florida, a state once red but now purple. Insofar as his own personal constituency is concerned, he has every electoral incentive to be moderate and bipartisan. Yet as conservative pundit David Brooks noted afterward, he disagreed with almost everything the President had said, point by point, item by item. You don’t even have to know the President’s speech to know this; just read Rubio’s own.

Neither Rubio nor the President covered all the points in my table. But all that they both covered matched my take. Rubio even opened his speech with an oblique reference to life being precious “at every stage”—a hint that abortion is murder.

There were only three exceptions. First, Rubio claimed to agree with the President on lowering the corporate tax rate, but without stating conditions. Second, he agreed (without saying so) that the cost of college is too high, but he disagreed on how to lower it. “We must,” he said, “give students more information on the costs and benefits of the student loans they’re taking out.” In other words, no regulation, just disclosure.

Finally, as point man for the GOP’s “pivot” on immigration, he urged “a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first,” he said, “we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”

No doubt David Brooks hopes the GOP survives. Without it, he might be out of a job. But he recognized that there was nothing new in Rubio’s speech. It was straight out of the GOP script of the last twenty years, or GOP scripture if you prefer.

Brooks attributed the speech’s lack of substance and luster to the necessity for Rubio (or any GOP pol) to secure the GOP nomination without being Tea Partied. But isn’t that precisely the point? The Tea Party mentality has captured the GOP and controls its mind.

So my table stands confirmed, and the question remains: can people so far apart in all they feel and think they know get along? And even if they can get along without literally killing each other (except in random gun violence), can they work together well enough to succeed in a very, very competitive world? Or does success require secession?

P.S. Another event today confirmed a different part of the post above. Lindsey Graham, a red-state senator, threatened to use a senate hold to delay or block the appointment of Chuck Hagel (also a Republican) as Secretary of Defense.

Leave aside Graham’s ostensible reason for the threat: to get more information about the tragedy in Benghazi. Certainly Graham doesn’t expect Hagel to have it. Hagel was nowhere near the event or in the chain of command—whether before, during or after the event. So Graham’s ploy is just another example of government by extortion.

Leave aside also the unmitigated gall of a guy whose military service was in a law office, and who never saw combat, challenging the right of a guy who did to serve as Secretary of Defense, based on nothing more than a difference in views, largely motivated by ideology. We’ve seen enough of that recently not to be shocked anymore.

But this farce illustrates precisely how our Senate rules have tied us in knots. In any proper parliamentary democracy, the prime minister would pat Graham on the head and tell him to sit in a corner.

Not here. Like every other individual senator, red or blue, Graham has the power to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of government any time he chooses. That kind of power approaches Lord Acton’s definition of absolute corruption.


02 February 2013

Breaking the Nuclear Taboo: Another Risk of Iran Going Nuclear

Why Did Bibi Look Worried?
Evidence of Israel’s Arsenal
The Fatal Attraction of Small Nukes
Small Nukes’ Terrible Logic


In a previous post, I analyzed how the problem of Iran’s feared nuclear-weapons program resembles three-dimensional chess. The geopolitical ramifications alone are immensely complex. Unless sanctions can motivate Iran to reconsider, no simple solution seems apparent, let alone self-evident. (War is never a simple solution, although it may seem so before it starts.)

But I recently stumbled upon evidence of a new fourth dimension. The types of weapons that Iran may be developing, and that Israel already may have developed, might break the taboo on nuclear war that has kept the peace among major powers since 1945. In other words, Iran and Israel, acting out their enmity, might make the unthinkable thinkable for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age.

I hasten to add that this essay is no more than informed speculation. I am an ex-physicist with (as readers of this blog know) no reason or proclivity to avoid staring straight at unvarnished truth. But I am also an outsider, with no more access to secret intelligence that one can get from reading the news and surfing the Web. So readers—especially those with access to more current and more accurate intelligence—must judge for themselves the logic of this analysis and the likelihood of it being correct.

Why Did Bibi Look Worried?

I begin where I myself started. In recent pictures, especially those with our President, Bibi Netanyahu looked genuinely worried. Why, I asked myself, should he be?

If Israel has a small nuclear arsenal, as everyone assumes, then doesn’t it have the power to annihilate Iran in retaliation for any conventional, let alone nuclear, attack? A former director of Mossad, Israel’s CIA, recently described Iran’s leaders as cold and calculating and amenable to deterrence.

That seems right. While wily and duplicitous, Iran’s rulers hardly seem prone to committing national suicide like the late bin Laden’s dupes.

Deterrence works. It worked for 44 years with the Soviet menace—something far more dangerous and fearsome than anything Iran could become, even given this whole century. Surely Bibi is smart enough to understand that.

So logic compels the conclusion that Bibi fears something more subtle than Iran going berserk and nuking Israel shortly after its first successful nuclear-weapons test. What might that be?

Evidence of Israel’s Arsenal

At first, I thought of something else unthinkable. What if Israel really has no nukes and is just bluffing, like Saddam Hussein?

But something called the “Vela Incident” quickly dispelled my doubts. In September 1979, an American spy satellite—designed for the specific purpose of detecting atmospheric nuclear tests—recorded what seemed like a small nuclear explosion under partial cloud cover off the coast of Antarctica.

The news leaked about a month later. Our government quickly convened an expert panel. Just as quickly, the panel announced that a nuclear blast was not proven and probably not real. The satellite’s electronic report, it wrote, was more likely the erroneous result of a micrometeorite strike on a single sensor.

Evidence for that theory was ambiguous. The panel concluded that only a single sensor had reported the unique dual-flash signature of a nuclear explosion. But there was evidence that two sensors had made near-simultaneous reports, albeit with different strength—a result consistent with the satellite’s age and condition. Although still operational, it had been working long past its conservative design life, just as our Mars rovers are doing today. The secondary summary of the report that I read (and link here) did not explain how a micrometeorite strike could mimic the dual-flash optical signature of a nuclear explosion.

Leaked opinions of scientists involved, but outside the panel, appeared to undermine the panel’s conclusion. More important, there was corroborating evidence, including reports of short-lived isotopes appearing later in Australia, in the thyroid glands of sheep. The panel dismissed this evidence rather airily, without close analysis, let alone convincing refutation.

Most important of all, all nation-states involved had every motivation to deny that anything unusual had happened.

Suspicion quickly focused on a joint project between Israel and South Africa, perhaps a contribution of Israel’s technical expertise in exchange for uranium. At the time, both nations had ample reason to seek nuclear weapons. South Africa’s white minority government was still in the throes of Apartheid, facing a huge majority of angry and increasingly militant black people. Nelson Mandela was still in prison. Israel had successfully prosecuted two major wars in the preceding twelve years, both started by sneak attacks from its neighbors. It was justifiably afraid that a third major attack might be more successful unless it gained a decisive advantage in weaponry.

Our own government had strong political motivation to deny the reality of any nuclear test by either country. At the height of the Cold War, we wanted to convince the world that our nuclear nonproliferation regime was effective and seamless, in order to avoid sparking a more general arms race. Both Israel and South Africa had equal motivation for secrecy; neither wanted to stir up its enemies or set global public opinion against it.

South Africa’s subsequent abandonment of Apartheid, plus its later complete abrogation of nuclear weapons development, reduced its motivation for secrecy. Our tacit acceptance of India’s and Pakistan’s violation of the nuclear nonproliferation regime reduced ours. But at that time—at the height of Cold War paranoia and before much visible progress in nuclear disarmament—everyone was looking much farther north, toward the US, the USSR, China, Britain and France. Even today, the universal desire to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East gives rational actors ample motivation to maintain the secret.

So based on this circumstantial evidence of a test involving Israel, plus ample evidence of motivation for secrecy, I conclude that Israel’s nuclear arsenal is real, not a bluff.

The Fatal Attraction of Small Nukes

In any event, something in the apparently objective online report of the Vela Incident caught my physicist’s eye. The unique dual-flash signature that the Vela satellite had detected apparently came from a low-yield nuclear explosion, of about three kilotons. In comparison, the bomb that fell on Hiroshima was estimated to have had a sixteen kiloton yield, and it was small by Cold-War standards.

Low yield is important for two reasons. First, the lower the yield, the greater the probability of a successful test escaping detection, or at least identification of its nuclear origin. Below five kilotons, unambiguous identification of underground nuclear explosions by seismic means becomes iffy, at least with the technology available then. Other means of identification, such as surface subsidence or the escape of radioactive material, are avoidable with due care.

The Vela satellite’s optical detection technology was vulnerable to weather interference. What apparently had made detection possible in 1979 was a fortuitous parting of the clouds. But for that fortuity, the Vela nuclear explosion (if such it was) might never have been noticed. The Vela satellite had a very broad focus but was not designed or intended to find tests in Antarctica. No one was looking there.

It is therefore quite possible that the nuclear event, if real, marked the culmination of a series of tests, which stopped or went underground (literally) after public reports of the incident surfaced a month later. And there were means at that time, surely known by Israeli scientists, to hide underground nuclear tests of similarly low yield, let alone even lower yield.

Second, Israel’s strategic position, gave (and still gives) low-yield weapons considerable value. Israel is a tiny country, packed with crowded cities and towns, with empty desert in between. So are its neighbors. If you’re going to “go nuclear” in that environment, you don’t want 50-megaton behemoths that will annihilate the whole neighborhood, including large parts (or all) of your own country.

You don’t want such doomsday nukes for three reasons. First, it would be impossible to test any such big nuke without irrefutable detection. Second, the geopolitics of annihilating an enemy are not particularly favorable. Not only would Israel’s doing so incite rest of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. It would also turn global public opinion sharply against it, much more quickly and decisively than its land-annexation policies are doing today. Descendants of victims of the Holocaust would be ill advised to author a holocaust of their own.

Finally, military strategy taught the advantages of small nukes, especially in Israel’s neighborhood. No one else in the immediate neighborhood had any nukes, nor (at that time) any immediate prospects for developing them. So there was no need for a nuclear deterrent. Israel was undoubtedly looking for a way to counter the vast numbers of its enemies, i.e., an “outside-the-box” way to augment its conventional military superiority.

So every strategic objective—avoiding detection, defending Israel without producing tidal waves of geopolitical revulsion, providing credible deterrence, making actual use possible, and beefing up conventional forces—motivated having small, non-doomsday nukes.

The report that I read, apparently by an outside observer like me, speculated that Israel may have developed a neutron bomb. [search for “neutron”] Cold-War cognoscenti will remember what that is: a low-yield nuclear weapon that produces lots of instantaneous deadly radiation but little radioactive fallout and has a relatively small blast radius.

When our government proposed developing such a weapon during the Vietnam War, there was widespread public revulsion. Domestic opponents decried neutron bombs as the ultimate inhuman technology, designed to kill people but leave buildings and machinery alone. If it actually developed neutron bombs (which I think likely), our government apparently never seriously considered using them, in Vietnam or elsewhere. As a matter of geopolitical strategy, it kept the nuclear taboo.

Yet three things are apparent. First, if you live in a tiny country like Israel, surrounded by enemies, you want to be able to defend yourself against invading armies without creating awful waves of destruction and consequent global political pushback. You also want to avoid producing radioactive fallout that might end up on your own territory, killing or sickening your own defensive forces or your civilian population. For those purposes, neutron bombs might be attractive.

Second, if you want to destroy uranium-enrichment centrifuges buried deep in stone caverns, low-yield nukes might be the tool of choice. You don’t want to take out a whole city, just the target that creates the threat of a nuclear-armed enemy. And you might have to bust through a lot of rock. Low-yield nukes might be effective in that application.

Third, despite repeated public denials, it is highly likely that both the US and Russia (if not China) have small arsenals of these weapons and plans for building more quickly. Yet for reasons of sheer enlightened self-interest, none of these countries is likely admit their existence, let alone to use them, under any foreseeable circumstances. The nuclear taboo makes us all safer.

Small Nukes’ Terrible Logic

But Iran has as much reason to break the taboo as Israel, and to do so with small nukes. The first time it detectably tests a nuclear device, all Hell will likely rain down on it. So its first priority is to build a device whose blast is too small to detect or identify unambiguously.

The Hiroshima bomb, at a mere sixteen kilotons, was enough to destroy an entire medium-sized city. A bomb one quarter that size, four kilotons, would be a powerful weapon of terror against civilian populations, as well as a powerful weapon of deterrence, if not self-defense. So would bombs a tenth or twentieth that size, especially if available in numbers.

The problem of test detection is key. A later-published review of seismic-detection technology suggests a lower limit of 5 kilotons for reliable and unambiguous remote seismic identification of underground nuclear explosions. Smaller nukes might be detected, but classifying them unambiguously as nukes, rather than as chemical explosions or earthquakes, might be difficult.

There has undoubtedly been progress in seismic detection since that time, including such things as electronically focused seismic arrays. But in the event of a successful nuclear test by Iran, Israel would have two problems. In order to justify even a conventional strike on Iran, let alone a nuclear one, its scientists would have not only to convince Israel’s own intelligence services, but the rest of the world, including some part of the Islamic world. That might be a tall order. (A good analogy might be our revealing, in 1962 and before the United Nations, our satellite photos of medium-range ballistic missiles being assembled in Cuba. You don’t want such evidence to be ambiguous or easily contradicted.)

Insofar as planning actual use is concerned, Iran has much the same physical constraints as Israel. It lives in a crowded neighborhood, in which doomsday devices are not practical weapons and may be too terrible even for credible deterrence. So it has every incentive to go small, too.

In fact, Iran has every incentive to refine as much fissionable material as possible, build a small device in secret, test it underground using every means to avoid seismic identification, and then build more devices secretly, using the tested design. There is evidence that, for small nukes, avoiding seismic detection (or reliable identification as a nuke) may be as simple as excavating a large cavity around the device under test.


Although driven by the logic of their mutual enmity and paranoia, Iran’s and Israel’s development of small nukes could have unfortunate consequences for our human species. Since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, our global public has thought of nuclear weapons as doomsday devices, never to be used except for deterrence.

The resulting nuclear taboo has been enormously beneficial to our species. As I pointed out in two previous essays (1 and 2), the taboo and nuclear deterrence have kept the peace among major powers for over 67 years.

In contrast, consider the three-quarters of a century leading up to and including World War II. During that period, there were five or six major wars between or among major powers, depending on how you count. Each was more bloody and horrible than the last, and each chewed up more civilians in an ever-escalating tide of “total war.” The nuclear age, the nuclear taboo, and our Pax Atomica turned all that off as if flicking some celestial switch.

That may not seem so to a nation like ours, now reeling from (and winding down) two decade-long, needless wars. But our two recent wars were neither with or in major powers. Our now-waning wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing like the “total war” between or among major powers. They were not even like our own civil war, if extrapolated to modern technology. Our foes were not major powers, let alone our equals.

Suppose now that political leaders and their generals begin to see nukes as just more powerful conventional weapons. Suppose two nations, such as Iran and Israel, actually use them in combat, and neither comes out more than partly devastated. Suppose a jaded humanity begins to accept nukes’ awesome power, greater-than-usual destruction, and the putrid sores and lingering deaths from radiation sickness as just more unfortunate “collateral damage” from war. Suppose, in short, that the nuclear taboo fails.

What then? What might happen then between India and Pakistan? on the Korean Peninsula? in the multiply fractured Middle East, where the Iran-Israel and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are not the only religiously motivated disputes? Would a Sunni-Shiite nuclear conflict be next? Would the worldwide progress in rational government that we’ve seen during our Pax Atomica vanish in a bloody, radioactive new age of empire and war?

One would hope that, after the horrors of the twentieth century, our species has outgrown that dark side. But who wants to take the chance by severely testing our collective maturity and restraint?

That is why, I suspect, every nation that has small nukes, probably including our own, keeps their existence and contingency plans for their use as the deepest and darkest of secrets.

I stress again that these thoughts are just informed speculation. But, if they have merit, the consequences of allowing Israel’s and Iran’s unfettered self-regarding strategies even to approach their logical conclusion are horrendous. Our hopefully dawning twenty-first century might be even darker than the last.

This is why every nation has a vital national interest in halting the strategic logic of Iran’s and Israel’s mutual enmity. The “red line” is not just for Bibi or for Israel. It’s a red line for all humanity. Crossing the line of the nuclear taboo might usher in a whole new era of human depravity.

Big doomsday nukes have kept the nuclear genie in the bottle for two-thirds of a century. Let’s not let it out now, let alone in a conflict in which religion plays far more of a role than it ought to at this stage of our species’ development. The example of flawed mortals claiming to represent God—and actually possessing godlike destructive power—might become our species’ self-administered coup de grace.

Footnote. This man’s views are both expert and unusual enough to quote at some length. His name is Efraim Halevy, and he’s a former director of Israel’s Mossad, its highly respected intelligence agency, analogous to our CIA or Russia’s FSB. Here are three direct quotes of his, from a recent interview with Margaret Warner on PBS [link to both video and transcript]:
“I believe there is no existential threat to Israel of any kind. Israel is indestructible, in my view. We have offensive capabilities. We have defensive capabilities.”

* * *

“By saying that [something] is an existential threat, you’re almost inviting your enemy to try it out.”

* * *

“The [Iranians] are not demonic, and they are not messianic. They are very, very cool calculators when it comes to their direct interests. When you have the shotgun right next to your temples, sometimes, clarity emerges.”