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 July 2014

Frontline on Iraq: Feeding Yankee Paranoia


[For a recent post on accurate weapons in Gaza, Syria and the so-called “Donyetsk Republic,” click here. For a short list of our utterly cretinous blunders in Iraq so far, click here.]

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Last night’s Frontline special on PBS, entitled “Losing Iraq,” gave us that show’s usual good video journalism. It documented assiduously, and then highlighted, our series of catastrophic blunders in Iraq, beginning with Dubya’s and Cheney’s misguided decision to invade that country, using 9/11 as a pretext.

But the show’s last two minutes were as abrupt a departure from clear thinking and common sense as was our decision to invade Iraq in 2003, without the slightest plan or strategy for occupying and pacifying it.

The last two minutes show former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, with passion and worry, making the very same argument to extend the war—and the war in Afghanistan—that Dubya and Cheney made repeatedly. If we don’t save Iraq from itself, Crocker all but says, expect ISIS’ or Al Qaeda’s ninjas soon to be climbing over the transoms into your bedroom.

Perhaps I exaggerate. But not much. Noting that ISIS has “thousands” of jihadis with Western passports, Crocker implies that its survival, even for a while, will threaten our homeland and our national security.

To refute that call to paranoia, all you have to do is look at a map. ISIS is utterly hemmed in.

To the north are the Kurds, who have already proven quite capable of beating ISIS. That’s why Kirkuk and its oil fields are now in Kurdish hands.

To the northwest is Syria, in whose sparsely populated east ISIS has taken and now holds some territory. But further west are Assad’s strongholds and eventually Shiite Hezbollah, both of which have shown themselves capable of defeating Sunni extremists.

At the moment, there appears to be a tacit agreement in the West to let Assad and Hezbollah’s forces slaughter ISIS and its ilk in Syria with advanced, heavy weaponry supplied by Russia and Iran. So any strong push by ISIS into western Syria will encounter strong pushback.

To the northeast and east of ISIS are more Kurds and Iran, a powerful Shiite nation of some 70 million people. Iran has advanced technology, with presumptions to long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, plus millions of soldiers battle hardened in Iran’s 1980-1988 war with Saddam. To the south is Baghdad, a Shiite stronghold which Shiites, including Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army (not to mention Iran), will defend. In order to get to Kuwait, ISIS will have to go through Baghdad.

The only two neighboring nations possibly at risk from ISIS are Saudi Arabia and Jordan. With all its oil money and the heavy weapons it can buy, the House of Saud can take care of itself. And wouldn’t it be poetic justice if the the Saudi Princes, who started all the trouble by funding jihadis and the madrassas that breed them, have to shed some blood to save their thrones?

The only really innocent nation that might suffer is Jordan. But to get to Jordan, ISIS would have to go through Anbar province in Iraq, where the Sunni sheiks still rule. The sheikhs’ current alliance with ISIS is nothing more than a temporary marriage of convenience, borne of their terminal frustration with Al-Maliki’s ineptness and sectarian agenda.

In the unlikely event that the brutal self-proclaimed “Caliph” of ISIS proves a wise and effective leader, the Anbar sheikhs might accept him, for a while. More likely, they are using his crew’s brutality and fighting effectiveness as a bargaining chip in Iraqi politics, in a last-ditch attempt to save the chimera that is Iraq. Once they strike a bargain, or if Iraq falls apart in partition, you can expect the Sunni sheikhs to crush ISIS as throughly and quickly as a strong body’s immune system cures a cold.

The Sunni region across Iraq’s center holds some four to five million people. Its insurgent fighters nearly drove us Yanks from Iraq in 2005-2007. The only reasons we were able to stay in Iraq after the insurgency began was that they tired of Al Qaeda’s brutality, and we paid them to fight on our side. (As the Frontline special reveals, we paid them over $ 400 million.) You think these capable fighters from the folks who used to rule Iraq can take on a few thousand fanatics?

So no, Ambassador Crocker, ISIS is not coming for us anytime soon. Even if it survives in its present form, it will have its hands full just holding the territory it has already taken. And even if it can do that, it will have its hands full surviving in a region where every square inch of ground is spoken for, where its leaders and its troops are mostly foreigners and unwelcome, and where it tends to overstay its welcome, wherever it goes, with a nasty habit of slaughtering innocent Muslims in the name of “jihad.”

As for Crocker himself, he’s a tragic figure. Nearly alone among the civilian blunderers that started and tried to manage this misbegotten war, he did his job and stayed smart. He offered good advice based on actual on-the-ground experience, which his superiors largely ignored. Having spent about a decade of his life—and no doubt risking it many times—trying to save Iraq, he has an understandable personal interest in that unviable chimera. But the rest of us are not so burdened.

Iraq’s dirty little secret is not that ISIS’ fighters are so wily, strong and courageous as to defeat ten or hundreds of times their numbers of Shiite soldiers in Iraq’s makeshift army. Iraq’s dirty little secret is that its now largely Shiite troops won’t fight to save Sunni territory, which they view as not their home and not their country. They will fight to save Baghdad, Basra and their families and homes.

“Iraq” is not really a country. It never has been, except maybe under Saddam’s brutal tyranny. It’s a fiction conceived by the British Foreign Office almost a century ago. We Yanks have tried futilely to preserve that fiction for over a decade, at enormous cost in blood, treasure and national prestige. According to Frontline’s own statistics, we Yanks already have sacrificed over 4,000 troops dead, over 30,000 wounded, and an estimated two trillion dollars.

We are so powerful we might actually have done it, had we accepted the good advice of Crocker and our few generals with actual on-the-ground experience. But we didn’t, and the window for doing so closed at least two years ago. Maybe it never really opened: the main reason why two successive administrations bet all on the inept and sectarian Maliki is that there didn’t seem to be any alternative. There still doesn’t. Enough is enough.

We lost 50,000 of our own in Vietnam, wasted countless billions of dollars, destroyed our own domestic politics and disabled our military for nearly a generation because of a brand of national paranoia called “the domino theory.” Let’s not have second thoughts about abandoning a misguided and horribly costly adventure because of a second stroke of national paranoia.

ISIS is not coming over our transoms into our bedrooms anytime soon. The territory known as “Iraq” belongs to Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. It has for centuries. ISIS is an unwelcome newcomer. Eventually the three groups that own the land will absorb, co-opt, expel or crush it.

And even if they don’t, we know where ISIS lives. Our satellites can see every square meter of its activity through the clear desert sky. In the unlikely event that our superb intelligence fails to stop an ISIS attack on our homeland, we know where to find it. And we have the weapons and technology to exterminate its few thousand fighters utterly, if need be.

If ISIS has any sense at all, it’s not going to mess with us, at least not when it has so many tough things to do on the territory it only recently acquired. So let’s not crawl under our beds or waste yet more blood, attention, energy and substance continuing a war we never should have started.

A Closing Circle of Stupidity

Suppose neutral observers—perhaps from outer space—had reviewed our Yankee performance in World War II. Then suppose the same observers, being long lived, had observed our performance in the War in Iraq. Only one question would fester in their minds today: “These are the same Yanks?”

Following is a short list of the most serious of the many absolutely cretinous blunders we have made in Iraq, with the names of of those most responsible in parentheses after each, in rough order of responsibility:

    1. Invading Iraq to stop its nuclear weapons program, which didn’t exist (Cheney, Dubya, Rumsfeld);

    2. Invading Iraq because of 9/11, with which Iraq and Saddam had nothing to do (Dubya, Cheney);

    3. Ignoring, or not knowing about, the millennial Sunni/Shiite conflict, perhaps due to gaps in a two-week crash course by Saudi Prince Bandar, which taught Dubya most of what he knows about foreign affairs (Dubya, Cheney);

    4. Having no plan whatsoever to occupy the country and pacify its antagonistic sects, apparently believing that all would greet us with songs and flowers and join hands after centuries of enmity (Rumsfeld);

    5. Sending no more than half the troops (see 1 and 2) that our best generals (Shinseki of the Army and Zinni of the Marines) recommended to do the job (Rumsfeld). (In comparison, Colin Powell sent three times as many in Gulf I, when we didn’t invade Baghdad.)

    6. Having too few troops—and failing to deploy the troops we had—to keep order, to suppress looting, and to guard the huge mounds of unexploded ordnance that Saddam’s fleeing troops left behind (Rumsfeld). Where do you think all those IEDs that later killed us came from?

    7. Disbanding Saddam’s army without even vetting individual officers, leaving over 100,000 experienced, battle-hardened soldiers with a grudge, no income, and nothing to do (Paul Bremer, Rumsfeld).

    8. Purging all Baathists categorically from Iraq’s government, without even vetting them, depriving Iraq of its entire class of experienced government and administrative officials, and leaving them, too, with grudges, no income, and nothing to do (Paul Bremer, Rumsfeld).

    9. When the Sunni insurgency began, hunkering down in our bases and preparing to leave Iraq, as quickly as possible, slowing only for “optics” in our 2006 midterm elections (Dubya, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove). (Petraeus later reversed this policy during the “surge,” with considerable success.)

    10. Sticking with Al-Maliki’s inept and sectarian rule, based on Dubya’s “gut” and personal loyalty, despite public and private advice from virtually all his on-the-ground advisers and independent Republicans like Senator Dick Lugar (then R., Ind.), as early as seven years ago! (Dubya).

    11. Despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary, continuing the self-delusion that an army composed primarily of Shiites, from which most (if not all) experienced Sunni and Baathist officers had been purged, would fight to hold Sunni territory for their millennial enemies (virtually everyone involved in the war on our side since 2006, including Obama).

    12. Giving huge caches of modern weapons, vehicles and ammunition to this Shiite army, which has just fled Sunni territory, leaving the caches in ISIS’ hands.
* * *


Reviewing even this short list of absolutely cretinous blunders, our neutral observers from outer space would conclude we are just not the same Yanks that had invented synthetic rubber and atomic weapons, deceived the Japanese to anticipate their attack at Midway, deceived the Nazis to make them think we would land at Calais, not Normandy, helped the still-Enlightened part of the world win World War II from a standing start in isolation and disarmament, and then rebuilt it afterward, smartly and quickly, with our Marshall Plan. They would conclude that we had instead become the Keystone Kops.

There is irony upon irony. Now our so-called “pundits” quake in fear at all those modern weapons (Blunder 12) in ISIS’ hands. But ISIS’ primitive jihadis have never had such weapons before. Few, if any, of them know how to use them, and anyway they are far too few to take advantage of all the weapons, unless each jihadi holds an automatic weapon, or drives an armored vehicle, with every finger and toe.

Who does know how to use them, although their skills may be a bit rusty and the weapon models a bit newer? All those Sunnis and Baathists that we purged from armed and government service in Blunders 7 and 8. With their numbers, as well as their experience with heavy weapons, the dominant Sunnis will make short work of the jihadis when the time is right.

What are the morals of this tale of utter and continuing stupidity? There are four.

First, don’t go to war unless you really mean it and intend to do and sacrifice everything as necessary to win. Second, when you do go to war, put the job in the hands of experienced military people who know how to wage it, and give them everything they say they need. Third, keep civilian control of the military by limiting civilian oversight to general policies, goals and objectives, leaving planning, strategy and tactics to the experts. Finally, elect (or in the Supreme Court’s case, appoint) a president who doesn’t try to make his “own reality” with his “gut,” PR and propaganda, but knows something about the reality that exists and has a habit of consulting experts who know more.

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27 July 2014

Accurate Weapons II: Gaza, Syria and the “Donyetsk Republic”


Introduction: what are “accurate weapons” today?
Gaza
Syria
The evanescent “Donyetsk Republic”
Conclusion

Introduction: what are “accurate weapons” today?

What I deem one of my most important posts recently redefined the term “accurate weapons.” In the context of modern geopolitics, and at our species’ present stage of social development, “accurate weapons” are not just those that hit their targets. They are those that accomplish a military/political objective with a minimum of what we now euphemistically call “collateral damage.” To drop the euphemism, they are those that kill or disable the bad guys without slaughtering innocent people and wantonly destroying useful property.

Applying this definition, I concluded that nuclear weapons are “accurate,” but only if they are never used. Used as deterrents only—as they have been since 1945—they tend to avoid war and therefore minimize civilian casualties. But if ever used again in anger, they will be the most inaccurate of weapons possible. For who can ever claim that an entire city’s population is bad guys?

Actually using nuclear weapons again would take us back to the last century’s utterly insane notion of “total war.” The goal of war today is not to annihilate an enemy’s people, as Rome did Carthage (and as Hamas seeks to do to Israel today), but to change behavior and achieve political goals. Thus does Von Clausewitz remind us that we are all human.

Starting with that definition, I analyzed a few modern conflicts and concluded that such weapons as snipers, drones, ninjas, and shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles are the weapons of the future. Properly and judiciously used, they are capable of achieving political objectives without making tidal waves. The latter two, in particular, are better weapons for rebels than for tyrants.

This essay applies that analysis to three of the globe’s worst current conflicts: the Hamas/Israel war in Gaza, the devastation of Syria, and Russia’s apparently continuing attempt to grab the “Donyestsk Republic” (and maybe Luhansk, too) as part of its own territory. This essay assumes familiarity with the analysis of the earlier one.

Gaza

Hamas, which now rules Gaza, is founded as a political organization on little more than revenge and hate. It’s therefore not surprising that its chief weapons, besides small arms, are among the most inaccurate in use today.

Its rockets are many but notoriously inaccurate, even in the conventional sense. They are easy to shoot down, and they fail to hit their intended targets, as in the case of Hamas’ most recent Hail Mary pass—an attempt to disrupt Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.

But Hamas doesn’t mind. Conscious of its weakness, both militarily and politically, it sees killing innocent Israelis as its only option to achieve its inaccurate goal: wiping out Israelis, some two thirds of whom, from time to time, reveal in polls a yearning for peace.

That’s why we Yanks, Israel and many other nations have labeled Hamas a terrorist organization. But Hamas persists with its extremist goals and methods because, as in the present war, sometimes they work to advance political ends. Read on.

Israel, on occasion, returns the favor. When its invading forces blow up tunnels, its troops, tanks and explosives are “accurate weapons” in the sense used here. Tunnels are inanimate, and no Palestinian fanatic builds them with the nearest-Israel ends in a heavily populated area. To be effective, tunnels into Israel have to end in the no-man’s land between Gaza and Israel. So destroying them is not just a legitimate military/political objective, but one that can be achieved with a reasonable minimum of civilian casualties.

Yet tunnels are not Israel’s only targets. Israel also targets Hamas’ leaders, including propagandists and other non-combatants, and of course Hamas’ stashes of rockets and other weapons. Hamas, Israel says, keeps these stashes in and under mosques, schools, hospitals and areas heavily populated with civilians, in order to use innocents as “human shields.”

Hamas denies this, but without much conviction or credibility. It seems just one of Hamas’ many unfortunate but logical acts of desperation. A cornered rat, which Hamas has resembled for years now, has few choices. But how could/should Israel respond?

There are three logical possibilities. First, Israel could go after only the most important targets and, of those, only the ones whose precise whereabouts can be pinpointed at the moment of weapons release. Then, at very least, no civilians would die except in a militarily successful strike. Second, Israel could broaden its air strikes by relaxing the second criterion, at the risk (and the likelihood) of broader civilian casualties. Third, Israel could go after targets without much regard for minimizing civilian casualties (other than political lip service) in a bold attempt to crush Hamas militarily by killing its leaders and troops and destroying its weapons caches.

Is there much doubt that Israel has taken the third path? Egypt’s closing of the Rafa crossing, through which many of Hamas’ weapons previously flowed, gave Israel a tempting short-term military strategy: destroy the weapons caches now and rely on blockades on two sides (Israel and Egypt) to render Hamas helpless.

What this strategy neglected was the rule of accurate weapons. In the world’s eyes—and with some reason—Hamas’ more-than-25-to-one casualty ratio as compared to Israel, coupled with the devastated landscape of post-conflict Gaza, gives Gazans and (by association) Hamas much more international sympathy than perhaps they deserve. To put it simply, Hamas has made political strides, where it couldn’t on the merits of its policies and tactics, by turning itself and its unwilling people into victims.

And so we now have violent demonstrations in the West Bank and in Islamic (and a few non-Islamic) nations around the world, supporting a terrorist organization whose popularity at home and abroad was diving before the conflict. Israel’s responding to Hamas’ use of inaccurate weapons with patently inaccurate use of weapons of its own has improbably given Hamas new life.

The furture, of course, is not ours to see. It is possible that, after global disgust at the carnage dies down, and after Gaza’s people suffer some more, Hamas’ fortunes will sour again. But is is also possible that Hamas, having thrown a Hail Mary pass by turning its own people into unwilling victims, will enjoy new life and broader support. Gazans may conclude, like the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, that they have no alternative but to fight.

If that happens, the result will be further proof that using accurate weapons is the best approach, even in the face of an “assymetrical” attack with inaccurate ones. Discipline, restraint and intelligence matter, even (maybe especially!) in warfare.

Syria

The case of Syria is much simpler, and much more tragic, than the case of Gaza. Assad and his tiny one-eighth minority of Alawites have utterly destroyed Syria in order to save it for themselves. And they have done so with the most inaccurate weapons possible in modern warfare, save nuclear ones. They have bombed, strafed, shelled, and at times gassed heavily populated cities, creating utter urban devastation and a vast refugee crisis.

Russia and Iran, to their eternal shame, have assisted this deliberate carnage by supplying as many inaccurate weapons and as much ammunition for them as Assad could request. And they’ve done so consistently and with apparent glee at Assad’s Pyrrhic victory (so far).

From the very beginning, the answer to this inaccurate carnage was accurate weapons. Give the rebels accurate shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, or something like the missiles used to shoot down MH-17, and Assad’s small air force would soon be grounded or degraded. Ground-aiming shoulder-fired missiles and/or rockets might do the same for Assad’s tanks and artillery.

But no one in the West wanted to give the rebels these accurate weapons for two reasons. First, the rebels were and are highly diverse and divided among themselves, and the West couldn’t find a center of rebel gravity that it felt it could trust. Second, the most effective rebel fighters were and are Islamic extremists, and the West feared they would divert any accurate weapons it gave them to, among other nefarious uses, shooting down civilian aircraft in acts of global terrorism.

So the Syrian rebels never got the chance to answer Assad’s inaccurate carnage with accurate weapons. The result is what we see today: a nation of killing fields and rubble, devastated, bleeding, torn and displaced.

The evanescent “Donyetsk Republic”

The so-called “Donyetsk Republic” is perhaps the most interesting case of all, if you can call pointless carnage “interesting.” I write “evanescent” because the so-called “republic’s” promoters’ stated purpose is to make it part of Russia as quickly as possible, must quicker than the Lone Star State (Texas) became part of the US in the nineteenth century.

Why is this the most interesting case? Because Vladimir Putin has apparently decided to realize his nineteenth-century imperial ambitions with accurate weapons.

For weeks, Putin massed Russia’s troops and tanks near the border with Donyetsk. Then he backed them off, suggesting that their presence there had been a threat and deterrent, a feint only. Now he’s massing them again, perhaps casting doubt on the feint theory. But the fact that he hasn’t yet sent them across the border suggests that Putin, a highly intelligent if now bent man, may understand the value of accurate weapons.

The Donyetsk rebels are a minority of a minority. Ukrainian speakers are a majority in Donyetsk, as in Ukraine as a whole. And not even all Russian speakers there want to separate and join Russia (the “Doynetsk Republic’s” transparent goal), let alone if doing so requires a bloody war.

Crude, local armed thugs thwarted and disrupted the local part of Ukraine’s recent elections to obscure this point. They did the same with several international attempts to poll Donyetsk’s and Luhansk’s people to gauge their mood.

Yet demographics indicates that they would lose any such electoral or polling contest, and so does their behavior. So we assume, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that the Donyetsk rebels, unlike their Syrian counterparts, are a small minority of the population of Donyetsk.

Nevertheless, Putin has given them unexpected life with accurate weapons. The Buk or SA-11 high-altitude anti-aircraft missile batteries that shot down MH-17 also have shot down at least four Ukrainian military planes.

The Buk is undoubtedly an accurate weapons system, designed to shoot down single planes up to 72,000 feet. The downing of MH-17 was a tragic result of catastrophic and criminal stupidity by the operator of the battery, his commander, and perhaps “Strelkov,” the self-proclaimed “defense minister,” apparently now in hiding. Of course the international community should prosecute those responsible with all the doggedness and cleverness of SDNY prosecutor Preet Bharara. But that tragic error does not belie the general usefulness (and humanity) of accurate weapons in the twenty-first century.

So Putin apparently has decided not to invade, but to fight a proxy war in Donyetsk (and, to the extent successful, maybe in Luhansk, too) to expand Russia’s empire. If you accept his antiquated and inhuman goal, his plan makes some sense.

Syria may have failed to teach Putin that putting minorities in charge by force is not a good idea. But at least for the present, he has learned the lesson that accurate weapons are better than inaccurate ones—and in the sense of “accurate” used in this essay. The shooting down of MH-17 was catastrophic not just in its human toll, but in its understandable distraction from this lesson.

Putin may have learned this military/political lesson, but have we? He is all but challenging the West to a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine with accurate weapons. With his SA-11 batteries, he has effectively neutralized Kiev’s air force. Does he also have other accurate weapons up his sleeve, so as to neutralize Kiev’s tanks and artillery and condemn Donyetsk’s people to a horribly inaccurate ground slog to recapture the city of Donyetsk from the rebels?

Maybe Putin’s reluctance to invade comes from caution, not restraint. Almost four months ago, I suggested that accurate weapons in Kiev’s hands might prevent or curtail a Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine. In Ukrainian patriots’ hands, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons might reproduce the Soviet Union’s unforgettably bad experience in Afghanistan, which an unprecedented (and not well known) letter-writing campaign by Russian mothers ended.

If accurate weapons could drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and if they are now giving Russian-backed rebels the advantage in Donyetsk, could some in the hands of Kiev’s forces even the proxy war and bring all parties to the bargaining table?

It’s worth a try. Both factors that kept the West from arming Syrian rebels are absent in Ukraine. Outside Donyetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine is hardly split. The majority of all Ukraine wants Ukraine to stay whole, at least as much as is possible after Russia’s successful land grab in Crimea. The nation has had chance to unify in the most recent election, and it will have another in the upcoming elections triggered by Yatsenyuk’s resignation. And, to my knowledge, there is little Islamic extremism in Ukraine, so not much risk of the West’s accurate weapons falling into terrorists’ hands.

Add to that my analysis, in my earlier essay, that shoulder-fired missiles restricted in both area of operation and longevity are technically feasible, and may already have been developed. Then the case for arming Kiev with accurate weapons, which are far more useful for defense than offense, becomes strong.

Conclusion

The three histories briefly summarized in this essay—of Hamas against Israel, Assad against the Syrian people, and Russia and the Donyetsk rebels against Kiev and the Ukrainian people—all illustrate a common point. Inaccurate weapons cause vast human suffering while facilitating only transient or temporary gains.

Assad’s inaccurate heavy weapons may win in the short term. But, in the long term, he and his heirs and clan will pay a heavy price in hatred and opposition, perhaps eventually resulting in the partition of Syria, or its division and occupation by foreign powers such as Iran and Israel. Hamas has won a temporary reprieve from political extinction by using inaccurate weapons against Israel and causing Israel to use inaccurate weapons back, thereby victimizing Gaza’s people. (Whether a cleverer leader than Netanyahu could have avoided taking the short-term bait is another question entirely.)

Meanwhile, having apparently learned something from the humanitarian and political catastrophe that is Syria, Putin is experimenting with more accurate weapons in Eastern Ukraine. If the West is serious about driving the conflict to the bargaining table, and not into the crowded streets of Donyetsk City, it must answer Putin’s challenge with accurate weapons of its own.

Footnote: There is also a more sinister reason for not arming the Syrian rebels with accurate weapons. The Syrian conflict has attracted some of the most vicious and extreme jihadis from all over the world. Apparently there is now a tacit agreement among several interested parties—Iran, Russia, the US, and Europe—that it’s not a bad idea to attract all these future terrorists to the killing fields of Syria and let Assad slaughter them with advanced heavy weaponry supplied by Russia and Iran.

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20 July 2014

Some Good News amongst the Bad: the Iran Talks and Atlantic Oil and Gas


[For comment on atrocity-by-negligence in downing MH17, click here.]

The Iran talks will continue
Careful offshore exploration for fossil fuels will proceed Implications for Keystone
Coda: the view from Manhattan

As bodies of innocent fliers fell from the sky over Eastern Ukraine and Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza, it was easy to despair the relentless drumbeat of bad news. But submerged in that drumbeat were small sounds of hope: two bits of good news.

The Iran talks will continue

The first was extension of the talks in Vienna with Iran. The talks were not on track to meet their self-imposed July 20 deadline (today) for a permanent resolution of open issues. So the parties to them, including our own government, extended the talks for four months. They did so professionally, with little comment, and apparently as amicably as possible under the circumstances.

Nowhere in the world today are the prospects for diplomacy more promising and more important than in the multilateral talks with Iran. (See 1 and 2) Our Little Cold War with Iran is and has been utterly senseless. A rapprochement with that important and increasingly democratic regional power could change a lot of things for the better.

Not only could a rapprochement reduce the level of Israel’s paranoia. It might also lead—eventually and with the circuitousness of any positive developments in that region—to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Is it just me, or do others also see something strange in the barrage of some 1,600 rockets that Hamas has been sending into Israel in the current war? There are many of them, to be sure, but they have been singularly inaccurate and ineffective.

Israel’s “Iron Dome” has worked well, but it covers mostly the big cities and is not 100% effective even there. So it looks as if the rocket technology available to Hamas has not kept pace with Iran’s, which Western intelligence agencies now fear is capable of international flight with nuclear warheads.

Does this mean that Iran, quietly and without fuss, has stopped supplying advanced technology to Hamas, a Sunni terrorist organization that might, sooner than later, become Iran’s direct enemy? That question is one that every interested intelligence organization worldwide should now be trying to answer, especially those sitting behind the diplomats at the just-extended talks.

Careful offshore exploration for fossil fuels will proceed

The second bit of good news is contingent. Our President has opened large parts of our own Atlantic seaboard to seismic exploration for fossil fuels. Drilling there will be contingent on the results of that exploration and on efforts to minimize the environmental impact of exploration and drilling on innocent sea creatures, which seismic exploration alone could harm.

Let me say first off that I am enthusiastically adamant about protecting our fellow species on this planet from unnecessary harm. My views on that point are just an extension of my revulsion at Vladimir Putin’s treating his neighbors as subhuman, with policies that he would not for a moment foist on his own countrymen. For me, it’s all the same principle—merely extended beyond our own species to others who share our planet.

But the consequences of not exploring and drilling, as carefully as we can, may be much worse than the consequences of moving forward, both for sea creatures and for our own species. Read on.

For gas

If we find gas, we can use it, kilowatt-hour for kilowatt-hour, to replace coal. With that simple expedient, already underway almost everywhere, we can slow the acceleration of global warming. If heating our planet continues on its present course, let alone accelerates, it is highly likely to do far more harm to sea creatures than a few weeks or months of intermittent undersea noise. (And even gas drilling, let alone exploration, has nothing analogous to the risks of oil spills because gas is a gas and dissipates naturally, even if accidentally released.)

Already there are credible scientific estimates that global warming and other human activities, on their present courses and without appreciable acceleration, will eventually extinguish up to one-half of species now sharing our planet. In the long run, global warming is the most dangerous of these activities. So it is by far a greater evil than temporary, localized undersea noise, even if the noise may have unfortunate effects on sea creatures nearby.

For oil

If we Yanks find oil, we may at last be able to make our nation 100% energy independent. (Right now, we supply only 60% of our oil needs.) We might even sell some to Europe and thereby give our disputatious allies a bit of backbone in dealing with states like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. (Venezuela appears to be on the brink of rediscovering the value of foreign technology and expertise in preserving and enhancing the sole asset that saves it from choas and revolution.)

A war, even a short one, will be far more devastating to other species that share our planet, including sea creatures, than any seismic exploration or foreseeable oil spills.

And, in case you haven’t noticed, fossil fuels are the number-one probable cause of war today. China is at loggerheads with its old enemy Japan, its older enemy Vietnam, and its neighbors the Philippines and Indonesia over oil and gas in the South China sea. Russia’s oil and gas give it leverage over Europe, which makes Europe meek in protesting Russia’s abysmal politics in Syria and Ukraine, raising the risk of wider wars. By becoming energy independent, we Yanks can increase the strength and bargaining power of ourselves and our allies and better reduce the risk of war.

Any war today would wreak havoc with the environment, on land and sea, especially if it were nuclear (as it might be in the Middle East or South Asia). So again, exploration and drilling are the lesser of evils, as compared to increasing the risk of a war over energy resources that could devastate large parts of our biosphere, to the detriment of all species, including our own.

Implications for Keystone

Does the same reasoning apply to the proposed Keystone oil pipeline, which would send crude Canadian tar-sands oil through our heartland to refineries in Texas, probably mostly for export? Although the question is a good one, I think the answer is no.

Keystone is different because rejecting it would not cause the Canadian fossil fuels to stay in the ground. Refusing to approve exploration and drilling along our Atlantic seaboard would, as we Yanks are the only ones who can exploit the resources there.

Already Canadians are making plans for a pipeline to take their northern-Albertan tar-sands oil to the west coast of British Columbia (BC) for export, most likely to China. There are several practical and geopolitical reasons why this is, in sum, a much better plan than sending it over a longer pipeline to our Yankee refineries in Texas.

First, there is geography. The west-coast BC port offers a direct sea route to China. Selling the Canadian oil to China would: (1) take some pressure off the South China Sea and its potential for catastrophic conflict: (2) site the risk of overland pollution in Canada, which owns and will profit from the oil and ought to accept the risks with the benefits; (3) give China a reliable source of supply; and (4) bring China closer to our friendly northern neighbor, which shares our Western history and our Enlightenment values.

As for Europe and its dependence on Russia and the House of Saud, among others, Alberta’s tar sands are far away. If we Yanks ever have excess oil, it makes far more sense to send our own crude directly from oil wells off our Atlantic Coast than to pump Canada’s overland to Texas, at the risk of spills and evironmental catastrophes, refine it there, and ship it a longer distance to Europe.

The main reason for taking the geographically less sensible approach would be to increase the downstream profits (principally from refining) of our own Yankee Big-Oil firms. But that would just reduce the profits of their European counterparts, in which there is much cross-ownership. At the same time, it would leave us Yanks holding the bag of pollution, far from where the energy is used. That’s a generally bad idea, if only because it reduces the incentive to clean up.

Second, based on a recent Canadian Supreme-Court decision, Canada, BC and the part of Big Oil that builds and maintains the pipeline will have to negotiate with Canada’s “First Nations” (natives that we Yanks might call “Indians”), whose land will suffer it. The results of those negotiations will be examples for the world, in fair treatment of native peoples, environmental protection and sensible sharing of the benefits of natural resources. Some day even Nigeria and Saudi Arabia might take note.

Third, it seems likely, although far from certain, that the dirty process of further refining the partially refined tar-sands oil into gasoline, heating oil and jet fuel will take place in China. If so, much of the pollution from using this resource will occur where it is used—a just, fair and sensible outcome, and one that will give China a constant incentive to clean up its act.

Finally, and perhaps most important geopolitically, a BC oil port would make Canada more independent of us Yanks.

If we Yanks did not have such a helpful and friendly neighbor to our north, we would have to invent one. For over a century, Canada has fought alongside us in every major war of ours abroad, including our stupid and sinful ones.

At the same time, Canada has often served as an adjunct to our national conscience. It did so before and during our Civil War, when our “Underground Railroad” led slaves to freedom as soon as they crossed the Canadian border. It did so again during our War in Vietnam, when many of our best youth crossed that same border to continue their political struggle against the war, or just to live their lives in peace and freedom.

Unlike Putin, we Yanks don’t like having poor, weak, downtrodden neighbors who resemble vassal states and not-so-secretly hate and fear us. We like having strong, healthy, capable and independent neighbors.

Canada is one of the world’s finest neighbors, not the least for its independent voice, independent conscience and independent approach to the same Magna Carta and Enlightenment values that suffuse all English-speaking societies. We Yanks need it to stay independent, not to become a vassal of our Yankee Big Oil. So do Canada’s First Nations.

So for a whole bunch of very good reasons—only a few of which are environmental—Keystone should fail. Canada and/or its own firms should manage, transport and sell its own tar-sands oil. Canada should receive the benefits of doing so, and it should incur the environmental and other costs, with as much help from us Yanks as it and its own fossil-fuel companies care to accept.

For all these reasons, the President’s announcement of seismic exploration for fossil fuels off our Atlantic seaboard is good news. It will make us Yanks more energy independent. And it may encourage Canada to become not only energy independent, but an energy exporter infused with a good environmental conscience and healthy Enlightenment values. The world needs more of those.

Coda: The View from Manhattan

There is yet another reason—a smaller but nevertheless important one—why I favor the BC oil port and oppose Keystone. It has to do with the increasing concentration and centralization of power in our increasingly capitalist and business-minded world.

We think we live in a democracy. We credit our myth that the popular will controls. But in fact the vast majority of decisions that affect our individual lives are made by people and in places utterly free from any public scrutiny or sway.

They are made by well-meaning but self-interested businessmen working with spreadsheets and other abstractions in offices far above both Main Street and the common streets of their own cities. (I say “men” because that is present fact; the proportion of women in positions that can affect, let alone make, the big decisions is rising but still, regrettably, tiny.)

I know because I once worked in such a place. During the summer of 1977, working as a so-called “summer associate,” I temporarily occupied the corner office of a senior partner in a major Wall-Street law firm.

Some thirty or forty floors above the hubbub of real life, I had a commanding and stunning view of the State of Liberty, the ferries running to and from her, and ship traffic into Manhattan and America.

I don’t think I was (or am) a bad person. But as a young man, I sometimes found it hard to keep my mind on my work. If I were in that office as a much older man today, I would find it easy to forget the 307 million Americans behind my back and out of sight, whose lives the decisions I might make might change in profound and sometimes terrible ways.

From Emperors Nero and Caligula to Vladimir Putin today, concentration and centralization of power can have many evil consequences. Good ideas and good people from the hinterlands or the outback get ignored or crushed. Justice gets neglected or trampled. Cronyism comes to matter more than brains, character and wisdom. And as cynicism and apathy replace public trust and energy, a society declines. So it happened with ancient Rome, and so it may happen with us Yanks today.

That’s why, uncharacteristically for a progressive, I sing the praises of corporations. Their original purpose was a good one: to deconcentrate economic power and remove economic activity from politics and monarchy. That purpose still applies.

But like governments and leaders, corporations can get too big and too powerful. Then they morph from part of the solution into part of the problem. Their CEOs can have—and today often do have—more power over more people, more energy and more economic activity than ever did an emperor or caliph of the ancient world. And they also can abuse it.

The problem is not just stupidity or ill will, although those, too, exist. The kindest and smartest man or woman can ignore harm to others simply because he or she doesn’t see or feel it.

New York today is hardly the world’s most polluted city. It has its bad days, but it’s nothing like Beijing, Shanghai or the refinery farms of South Texas or Louisiana.

Most bosses in their fortieth-floor corner offices on Wall Street aren’t bad people. They try to do what’s right. But they don’t smell or have to breath the toxic and carcinogenic fumes. And so they don’t include them in their decisionmaking.

They and their fellow bosses deal with abstractions. Lawyers deal with words. Business people deal with spreadsheets and other attempts to crush-pack real life into numbers.

But not everything can be quantified, let alone easily. And even if it could, not every hurtful or dangerous quantity gets properly negotiated in a regime of private property rights. Ronald Coase, a path-breaking economist, in 1991 won the Nobel Prize for a 1937 paper proving that point.

More important, he proved that “externalities” like pollution and environmental damage don’t get properly negotiated unless there is good information about them and the “transaction costs” of negotiating a resolution are low. In other words, if the man on that fortieth-plus floor making the decision keeps his back to the nation and the people and doesn’t see or talk to them, the rest of us end up picking up the tab or suffering the consequences. Isn’t that just what happened in the aftermath of the Crash of 2008?

It’s not that he’s evil or even more neglectful than most. It’s just the way the world works.

So I’m much happier if the pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands takes the shortest route, and if the people whose lives it will affect directly have a big role in negotiating where it goes, how safe it is, the precautions its operators take against leaks and spills, and some stake in its financial success. Those people include the First Nations whose traditional lands will be used and the good, ordinary people of British Columbia, one of the most beautiful and still-pristine places on our planet.

As Tip O’Neill once said, all politics is local. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all decisions were local, too, in the sense that the people whose lives, health, prosperity and happiness they directly affected had a commensurate role in making them?

Our Yankee right wing wants to drown our Yankee government in a bathtub to make sure that happens. But it forgets the people who make the really important day-to-day decisions in our capitalistic lives—the ones in those corner offices with the commanding views.

As for our Atlantic oil and gas, I’ll be much happier when the big ocean rigs go up not far from Manhattan, where the movers and shakers can see them, if only through binoculars, from their forty-plus floor corner offices. It’s a small thing, but maybe then they’ll understand, from personal experience, that energy has unquantifiable costs, especially when it comes from fossil fuels.

I drive a car, too. And for the moment, it uses gasoline, not electricity. But as an ex-scientist and a writer with some imagination, I’m fully aware of all the not-so-wonderful things that have to happen to get my car to move when I step on the gas.

Many of those things—including some of the most important—cannot be quantified and don’t appear in the CEO’s spreadsheet. But I think it will help our society—its justice, fairness, common sense, and cohesion—if once in a while he or she can see those consequences personally, if only through binoculars.

Endnote: I don’t mean to imply that only a Canadian province is capable of effective local politics. Our Yankee federalism can be a marvel of effectiveness. Often it works for the public good, even at a local level.

But Canada is a much smaller country, with a much stronger environmental tradition and (generally speaking) greater provincial influence over both the federal government and large corporations. And Canada has not yet chosen to follow our Supreme Court’s lead of equating money with speech. So I have no doubt whatsoever that the unquantifiable harms of the pipeline—and practical means for mitigating them—will get a fairer and better hearing in Ottawa and British Columbia than in Washington, D.C., and our American Midwest.

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18 July 2014

“Strelkov”


You can tell a lot about a man from the name he chooses for himself, or the nickname others choose for him. “Strelyat’” (стрелять) in Russian means “to shoot.” In context, it can mean shoot to death.

So Igor Vsevolodovich “Strelkov” Girkin, the self-proclaimed “Defense Minister” of the would-be breakaway Donyetskii Republic, defines himself by his weapons. Yesterday, as a probable result of his macho self-definition, nearly three hundred wholly innocent fliers and crew on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 were killed.

This is what happens when stupid, angry children get dangerous toys.

How stupid? Let me count the ways. First, the plane was flying at 33,000 ft and was about 25 miles from the Russian border when hit. At a speed of at least 550 nautical miles per hour (a reasonable minimum for a civilian aircraft at that altitude), it would have gotten there in less than three minutes. To be anywhere near any ground action inside Donyetsk, it would have had to have been diving precipitously.

But it wasn’t. It was visibly proceeding in a straight line at a level altitude, like any civilian aircraft in the middle of a long international flight.

Second, even had the plane been a military aircraft, which it wasn’t, a moron could see it wasn’t headed for military action inside Ukraine. And it certainly wasn’t headed for an attack inside Russia. The last thing Kiev wanted or wants to do is give the Russian Bear an excuse to invade.

Third, in proclaiming himself the “Defense Minister” of a self-proclaimed temporary republic, whose stated purpose was and is to become a province of Russia as quickly as possible, “Strelkov” neglected two vital facts. A majority of people in Eastern Ukraine, including Donyetsk, are Ukrainian speakers. They want to be governed by Kiev.

But “Strelkov” disregarded these essential political facts. A military man devoid of political skill—a child playing with powerful toys—he apparently thought fancy weapons would overcome them. And he may have so convinced Russian authorities, including Putin himself.

We can be sure of one thing. The downing of MH17 was not a deliberate atrocity. No one—not even “Strelkov”—had a rational motive to destroy a civilian aircraft and its passengers and crew; and no one stands to gain from that tragedy, at least not directly or immediately. (Kiev of course will gain politically if a proper investigation eventually points the finger at Russian-leaning extremists, as appears likely.)

It was an atrocity by negligence, but an atrocity nevertheless. Manslaughter or negligent homicide is a crime, like murder, albeit not a capital one. And the deaths of so many innocent people make it an aggravated offense.

Of course many questions remain to be answered. Was “Strelkov” directly responsible for the atrocity? Did he order or permit the downing of an unknown aircraft without adequate verification of its origin and hostile intent? Was he directly in the chain of command? Or was he only indirectly responsible, by creating a rebel culture of negligence, aggression and terror in which such an atrocity-by-negligence was not only possible, but likely?

It’s unlikely that Russia or Putin is directly responsible, for example, by ordering the strike. But was Russia or Putin indirectly responsible? Did either send this reported former FSB agent and retired Russian intelligence colonel into the Donbass, and for what purpose? Or was he a patriotic “volunteer,” like the many foreigners who fought on both sides in the last century’s Spanish Civil War? Did he have official sanction (unlikely) or informal encouragement and some supplies (more likely) from Russians?

Did Russia supply “Strelkov” and his minions with the sophisticated, high-altitude anti-aircraft missile that downed MH17 (unlikely)? Or did “Strelkov” and his minions capture or steal it from a known armory in Ukraine left over from the days when Ukraine was a docile part of the Russian Federation or even the old Soviet Union (more likely)? And if the latter, were Russian authorities complicit and, if so, who?

Only a careful and thorough investigation can answer these questions. A good investigation will take time, if only because the principals may not be available to testify unless and until we catch them first. Remember the Serbian fugitives?

With one voice and one heart, the entire international community should make investigating and prosecuting this crime a top priority. Once caught, tried and convicted, the principal offenders, most probably including “Strelkov,” should spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

But no cloud is so dark as to lack a silver lining. This atrocity-by-negligence may finally cause Vladimir Putin and the Russian people to wake up.

For one of Russia’s smartest and most effective leaders ever, Putin has had an abysmal record in foreign affairs. In his choice of foreign leaders to support, he is zero for three.

So far, he has supported three monsters: Assad, Yanukovych, and now “Strelkov” (although his support for “Strelkov” appeared to have been waning when this atrocity occurred.) The results of this foreign policy are: (1) a broken and maimed Syria—a pariah among nations and a playground for terrorists; (2) a Ukraine teetering on the brink of civil war; and now (3) a planeload of innocent foreigners, having no connection with any policy of Russia’s, shot down while flying innocently in legitimate international airspace. Maybe Putin, while smart and relatively benign himself, is just a bad judge of others’ character.

Surely Putin, as bright as he is, can understand that these consequences of his own abysmal policies are not good for Russia’s reputation or its future as a global player.

There is irony in all this. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin would never suffer anyone resembling any of these three monsters to govern any part of Russia.

Putin stopped direct elections of regional governors in the Russian Federation in large measure to prevent local monsters—local mafiosi and post-Communist strongmen and oligarchs—from taking over parts of Russia. Yet he suffers monsters to rule and wreak havoc in Russia’s “near abroad.” Maybe this terrible tragedy will cause him to rethink a policy of treating his neighbors as subhuman, as the Nazis once did them and his own people some seventy years ago.

As for the rest of us, we can turn this evil into good, but only if we act immediately and with rare unanimity. We must use this atrocity-by-negligence as a symbol and a warning. We must open a new era of individual responsibility, continuing the advance in human social evolution wrought by the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.

Nearly three hundred people have become victims of negligent homicide. Individual people were responsible: the soldier or irregular who fired the missile, the commander who ordered it, and the people who created the atmosphere of careless aggression and terror that fostered such negligence. The latter most probably include “Strelkov,” but his responsibility should be demonstrated, and widely publicized, in a court of law. All responsible should be tried, and the guilty convicted, in a court of law.

If this happens, “Strelkov” may go to his grave (directly from his jail cell) knowing that his bestial acts and their punishment served as a symbol to advance human social evolution. The near-300 innocent souls will not have died in vain. And our species may be one step farther away from our bad but all-too-frequent habit of putting monsters in charge of our most delicate affairs.

Footnote 1: You might say that Putin is one for four: his policies did result in Russia’s capture and annexation of Crimea. But that was an incidental and unintended consequence of Russia’s debacle in Ukraine, and an illegal action for which Russia will bear the opprobrium and distrust of the international community, and especially Russia’s “near abroad,” for decades to come.

Footnote 2: It’s entirely possible that “Strelkov’s” retirements from the FSB and Russian armed services were forced, and that his appearance in Donyetsk was the brainchild of a McCain-like rump group of militarist extremists within Russia’s clandestine and uniformed services. If so, yesterday’s events show how serious can be the unintended consequences of incompetence without malice: Russia’s government’s failure to keep track of and control people with dangerous skills and even more dangerous temperaments who once worked for it.

Whether officially sanctioned or the plot of a rump group, dumping misfits like “Strelkov” on neighbors is generally not good policy, especially in times of trouble. Avoiding this sort of disaster is one reason for civilian control of the military, which every major and regional power—including Iran but with the possible exception of Pakistan—now has. Maybe Putin’s control of Russia’s military needs to be a bit more firm and precise.

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04 July 2014

The Electric-Car Paradigm Shift


[There are reasons to publish this post on Independence Day. We Yanks will never be energy independent, not for the long term, unless we get our heads around the sun and wind as energy sources. And our human species will never be independent of needless conflict over energy until we do. China’s menace in the South China Sea, despite its consistent policy of non-expansionism for most of a millennium, proves that. Switching from oil to the sun and wind for personal transportation is one vital step in securing that independence.]

Introduction
Why I won’t buy a Volt after all
Why I probably won’t buy a Tesla
The sweet spot for range
Ground clearance
Conclusion
Electric cars’ driving cost advantages
What some imagination could do for electric cars [NEW 7/5/14!]

Introduction

They still don’t get it. The car makers don’t get it. The charging infrastructure builders don’t get it. Even Elon Musk doesn’t quite get it.

What don’t they get? They don’t get the fact that electric cars are not just a cleaner substitute for gasoline cars, with up to twenty times lower energy cost per mile. They don’t get the fact that electric cars follow an entirely new personal transportation paradigm, with its own peculiar advantages, needs and uses. They don’t see electric cars as a whole new animal.

It’s as if Apple had created the iPad and tried to market it as a desktop computer.

Few readers of this blog will remember what gasoline cars looked like in their early days, before Big Oil’s heyday. They looked like horses and buggies without the horses.

A typical model is pictured here. You sat in the carriage as if you still needed to hold a horse’s reins in your hands. The steering device looked like the yoke of a plow, or a sailboat’s tiller. The engine was in the back, nearer to where the exhaust had to be so as not to blow in your face.

That’s about where electric cars are today. Makers have yet to fully conceptualize what electric cars are, how and where they fit into people’s lives and our transportation infrastructure, and what optimizing them as electric cars means. Instead they work overtime to turn out electric cars that act like gasoline cars, which they are not, and to sell them as such.

It may be “natural” to make an entirely new product look and work like the closest old one. New products evolve like living organisms, albeit much faster. But in order to evolve on their own unique path, electric cars have to impress the people who make and sell them with their unique features and characterisics. That hasn’t happened yet.

So we can expect electric cars soon to look and act as differently from today’s offerings as the cars of the twenties and thirties (let alone later!) were different from the horseless buggy in the picture.

That’s the main reason I’ve been dithering for four years about what electric car to buy. I have my own solar array now. It has plenty of excess power to charge an electric car for my leisurely, rural retired lifestyle. My power company sends me a check every month, instead of vice versa.

But despite having lusted for an electric car for much of my adult life, I haven’t bought one yet. Here’s why.

Why I won’t buy a Volt after all

As faithful readers of this blog know, I once lusted for the Chevy Volt (1, 2 and 3). If I were young and single and could have only one car, I would buy one today. It’s a good car, and I actually promised to buy one in an early post on this blog.

Not only that. For half a century General Motors was one of the stodgiest and least innovative car makers in the world. But it started the whole modern electric-car craze by announcing the Volt. And though it literally crushed the EV-1, its first electric vehicle, GM followed through this time.

All things being equal, I would like to reward an old American company that suddenly got innovative after missing out on both the Wankel engine and the first hybrids. (My very first new car was a Mazda RX-3, with a Wankel engine. It looked like an old lady’s little sedan but could shut down all but the nastiest muscle machines. I loved watching people’s faces as what looked like an old Datsun from the outside left them in the dust.)

But all things are not equal. The Volt has a 40-mile electric range, and I’m seventeen miles from town. The 34-mile round trip is too close to the nominal range to reliably run on electricity alone. More important, the Volt is not an electric car; it’s a hybrid.

True, it’s a serial hybrid. That makes its design, simpler, cleaner, easier to maintain—and more efficient to operate—than those of parallel hybrids like the Prius. From an engineering perspective, the Volt seems a design improvement.

But then there’s that smog-belching, gas-guzzling internal combustion engine, which adds a substantial fraction to the car’s total weight. I don’t need or want it or the inefficiency or un-greenness that it brings. The engineer and Jewish Calvinist in me rebel.

I want to kiss gasoline goodbye and ride on the sun, as much as I can and still live my life. So for me, the Volt is out, as much as I salute GM for introducing it and actually producing it in volume. I have to look elsewhere.

Why I probably won’t buy a Tesla

I admire Elon Musk immensely. He’s a real industrialist and innovator in a society of risk-averse, button-down, spreadsheeting lemmings, especially in the auto industry. He’s in the mold of Carnegie, Edison, Gates and Jobs—a true American hero.

I own stock in Tesla, as I have off and on for several years. It’s done well for me. But Musk has made his company profitable by showing that an electric car can be just like a gasoline car.

You can buy a Tesla Model S that can go over 300 miles on a single charge. It’s even a muscle car, racing from zero to 60 MPH in 4.2 seconds. Few but the most expensive and exotic gasoline cars can do that.

But what’s the price? The batteries. Not only do they jack the Model S’ cash price up beyond $70,000, a level far outside the reach of most consumers. They also make the car weigh over 5,000 pounds.

I haven’t owned a car that heavy since my parents’ hand-me-down 1950 Cadillac, or the Chrysler Nassau that I bought for $70 my last year in grad school and sold for the same amount a year later. (The Nassau got 11 miles per gallon, but that was when a gallon cost 26 cents.)

Again, the engineer and Calvinist in me rebel. As I get slim and trim for what I hope will be a healthy old age, I weigh in at 150 pounds. Why do I need a 5,000 pound behemoth to drag my 150-pound body around?

That’s a vehicle-to-payload weight ratio of over 33. Rocket ships do better than that, much better, as Musk, who makes them also, knows. Why not cars?

The Model S’ weight is excessive and extravagant, as is its price, and the lighter, cheaper Model X is now reportedly three years away. (There’s also the low ground clearance, but that’s a problem all electric cars share, as discussed below.)

So I’ll have to confine my personal love affair with Tesla to investment, as least as far ahead as I can foresee.

The sweet spot for range

For some reason I can’t divine, electric-car makers still haven’t internalized two key facts about their general line of products.

First, nearly every family has more than one car. Even some single people do. Many families have a car for every person of driving age.

So what’s wrong with each family owning at least one electric car, for clean and efficient near-range commuting and shopping? For a long time yet, every family will have one or more gasoline cars at their disposal for the occasional long trip. So for most families, range is not really an issue, unless everyone in the family scatters to the four winds on long trips daily. How many families do that?

If nothing else, an electric car will make sure that every family that owns one can still do essential business even in a sudden oil crisis, when long lines appear at gasoline pumps, as in Iraq today. So for the vast majority of families, it’s not a question of either/or, but both/and.

Second, people just don’t take as many long car trips as they used to, at least not in cars they buy and own. There are several reasons why this is a long-term trend.

The first is demographics. Our population is aging. As I can tell you from personal experience, we geezers don’t like long car trips. We have to stop to pee more often than younger people, and our backs hurt more from sitting long in one place. The last long car trip I took, from Orlando FL to Akron OH in sixteen hours, was a chore, even though a friend did all the driving. I’m not eager to repeat the experience.

The second long-term trend is changes in roads and traffic. As we roll along crowded highways, breathing carbon monoxide and diesel fumes and watching traffic, billboards and the blank high walls that keep noise levels in nearby suburbs bearable, people my age can recall what traveling by car was like fifty years ago, when the interstate highway system was just being built. The comparison makes you want to take the train or plane.

Advertisers can aggrandize driving all they want. But it’s not the same experience it was when there were far fewer drivers and far more empty open roads.

You no longer have the wind in your hair and feel light and carefree as you roar down an empty highway, savoring your freedom. You have to watch the guy who just cut in front of you, peer around big trucks for highway signs to spot your exit, and consult your GPS or mobile device to avoid the worst of the ever-present congestion, especially during rush hours. You thank Providence when you get where you are going and can relax again.

This is not a driving experience that encourages long trips. The “pleasure” of driving survives only in leisurely trips on blue highways, which few in our pressured, fast-paced society can afford the time to take.

Finally, there’s the whole rental phenomenon. Why spend $30,000 to $40,000 on a big, long-distance car, plus waste several thousand dollars per year in depreciation, insurance and maintenance? For less than a thousand or two a year, you can rent exactly the size and type of car you want for the occasional long trip. And you can leave all the hassle of ownership, insurance, repairs and maintenance to the rental company.

This analysis applies especially to holiday travel, when people go long distances, often with friends or extended family who don’t normally drive with them. Then they need a bigger or more elegant vehicle than the one they ordinarily drive. So renting is attractive. When we drove with our friends and kids from Orlando to Akron, for example, we rented a van much bigger and more comfortable inside (but harder to drive) than either family would think of owning.

Other important trends reinforce this analysis. As gasoline gets more expensive and driving less and less pleasant, people who can afford to do so will start moving back from the far suburbs toward the city center. The grotesque suburban sprawl that cheap gasoline fostered has reached its high-water mark and is starting to reverse. Far suburbanites who bought in the outback because homes were cheap there are now coming in from the cold. Or, if they remain, they are having to spend more and more on transportation and becoming more isolated. They may well become the new poor—an integrated, equal-opportunity ghetto built upon, and abandoned by, cheap gasoline.

Anyway, cars’ most important use—by far—is the daily grind of commuting and shopping. When GM designed the Volt, its market research suggested that the Volt’s 40-mile electric range was sufficient for over half of consumers’ round-trip commutes. The Nissan Leaf’s and Ford Focus Electric’s longer ranges, about 70 miles, probably encompass two-thirds or three quarters of consumers’ commutes.

So something just a bit north of that may be the “sweet spot” in electric-vehicle ranges.

Take my case, for example. I’m seventeen miles from town, for a round trip of 34 miles. The Volt’s forty-mile electric range is too close for comfort, but the Leaf’s 70-mile range gives me almost a factor-of-two margin of safety.

When it comes to engineering safety factors and redundancy, I’m extremely conservative. At home I have two computers set up and running at all times, and two more old ones that still work stowed away. So I’d prefer an even greater margin of safety, say, a 100-mile range.

But I absolutely don’t need an 150, 200 or 300 mile range for the kind of driving that I do, especially as I’ll probably keep my gasoline-powered Hyundai. Therefore I don’t need a Tesla, with all its huge battery weight and high price. (I still lust for one—a tribute to Musk’s sense of style, flair and marketing—but my engineer’s craving for efficiency and my Jewish Calvinist soul overcome my lust for speed and style.)

Properly scrutinized, “range anxiety” is a bogus concept dreamed up by troglodytes to keep us all in caves. Choosing the right car for long-distance travel, out of two or several cars in each family, is easily within the intellectual capacity of the average driver. When there is no such car, the rental market beckons, with considerable savings over ownership. An electric car is the perfect second or third car because it uses no gasoline and offers a much cleaner and simpler alternative, which you can “gas up” at home, from an ordinary electrical outlet, or a special one if you want to charge faster.

Ground clearance

There is one aspect of electric cars that hasn’t gotten much press, but should. It’s ground clearance.

Designers of electric cars “manage” their ground clearance for maximum efficiency of energy use. In theory, the lower the ground clearance, the less drag from turbulent air rushing under the car, and the greater the car’s energy efficiency.

If roads were flat polished surfaces of glass, you could minimize undercarriage drag and maximize efficiency by putting the chassis mere millimeters above the road. But of course real roads aren’t like that, and drivers encounter occasional obstructions. Road debris crashing under the car and penetrating the battery compartment was the cause of some well-publicized, but ultimately harmless, battery fires in the Tesla.

So ground clearance is an important practical issue for drivers of electric cars, and for their designers. That’s especially so for rural drivers, like me, who have 600-foot-long rutted gravel driveways.

The problem is that electric car makers are coy about this problem. Try to find a specification for ground clearance on Nissan’s website for the Leaf, or Ford’s for the Focus Electric. I couldn’t.

One eager salesman went out and measured a Focus Electric for me, reporting that the ground clearance was “six inches.” Really? The Focus has a better (larger) ground clearance than almost everything but a Jeep and yet doesn’t advertise it in sales literature? I don’t think so. (I bought the Hyundai Elantra over the Prius in 2009 because the Elantra had at least an inch higher ground clearance, and both were well under six inches.)

I’m not sure what’s going on. Some components (such as brake-fluid lines) do stick out under a car obliquely, near the wheels. So maybe some lawyer told auto executives not to publish ground-clearance figures because someone might break a brake line by hitting a rock near a wheel and sue.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time that lawyers made customers’ and engineers’ lives harder by elevating covering one’s ass above common sense. (Couldn’t they write a simple disclaimer that some components might reduce ground clearance near the wheels, which, after all, have to touch the ground?)

Another thing that might be happening is that ground clearance in these cars is variable. There might be some mechanism to change it—either jacks in the suspension system or little baffles to reduce undercarriage turbulence and drag—which extend as the car gains speed.

But whatever the answer, I and other drivers like me need to know. The alternatives are to bash the underside of my brand new car, leading to early and unnecessary repairs, or to have to pave my 600-foot long gravel driveway just to buy an electric car. I’m willing to do that if absolutely necessary, but I like the rustic look.

Anyway, car makers need to be a little more honest about a crucial dimensional characteristic of their products. Providing no information about ground clearance just doesn’t cut it, at least until cars become hovercraft or mag-lev vehicles that don’t need wheels.

Conclusion

Maybe I’m just different from most drivers. Probably I am. But I want an electric car because it’s an electric car, not because I really lust in my heart for yet another Rube-Goldberg device with a smelly, polluting, inefficient, noisy and vibrating internal combustion engine.

I want to drive on the sun, for less than two pennies a mile, including the amortized pre-tax-credit cost of my solar array. I want a vehicle-to-payload weight ratio much smaller than 33. I want a car that doesn’t make much more noise than a bicycle. And I want to thumb my nose at countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela and Russia that punch above their weight (let alone their character) because they have far more oil than they can use. I don’t want to pollute the planet and change our climate just to carry my puny 150-pound body around.

If I want another Rube-Goldberg device like a gasoline car, I’ll buy one. There are plenty to choose from, and many are cheap. But I think I’ll keep my little gasoline Hyundai for a while; it’s got less than 11,000 miles on it, and it still drives like new.

I’m retired, so I don’t commute. Like the vast majority of consumers, I don’t need even an 150 mile range for my normal driving. A reliable, all-weather 100-mile range would assuage my most paranoid range anxiety, and the Leaf’s or Focus’ 70-miles range would probably suffice.

But with my 600-foot-long, rutted gravel driveway, I need a car with ground clearance I can trust, at least until I get the car out onto paved roads. I think I’m smart enough to know that the wheels touch the ground and honest enough not to sue the maker if I’m careless enough to bounce a wheel or axle over a big rock and break a brake line or something else that needs to be in the way.

What I seek is an electric car maker honest and customer-friendly enough to tell me accurately how high the axles and low points of the chassis are off the ground when the car’s at rest. And I’d like the maker to do so in the technical specifications of its sales literature, as all car makers used to do, so I can rely on that information.

Is that really too much to ask?

Isn’t it strange that, more than three years after the Volt’s production announcement, and with well over a half-dozen major manufacturers in the field, and more to come, there is nothing on the market yet that fits this simple description? I guess I’ll have to wait until the new “electrically powered automobile” differentiates itself from the horseless buggy once again.

Electric cars’ driving-cost advantages

I’ve “done the numbers“ elsewhere, several times (1, 2, 3 and 4), so I’ll just report the results in a table. The following table compares the energy cost per mile of driving on electricity from solar photovoltaic arrays and on gasoline:

Comparative Energy Cost Per Mile of Driving
Source of energyBasic cost parameter and sourceCost per mile (cents)
My own solar array4.8 cents per kWh1.6
State-of-art commercial solar array1.6 cents per kWh0.53
Gasoline$3.60 per gallon12


The electric cost per mile is based on the Leaf’s and Focus Electric’s similar mileage efficiency of about 3 miles per kiloWatt hour, or 72 miles from a fully charged 23 or 24 kiloWatt-hour battery. The comparative cost of driving on gasoline is based on a 30 MPG small car burning gasoline at $3.60 per gallon. The solar electricity cost includes the fully-loaded cost of the photovoltaic array, before any federal or state tax credits or subsidies.

What some imagination could do for electric cars

As always, this blog tries to provide solutions, not just review problems, suggestions and open opportunities. So here are a half-dozen ways that makers could design electric cars to do things—besides run quietly, cleanly and without gasoline—that gasoline cars can’t do:
    1. Cheap, reliable, fully independent four-wheel drive. The current complexity and expense of four-wheel drive derive from the difficulty of getting power to all four wheels mechanically. In a car with a single gasoline engine, that requires an extra differential and a trans axle, with all their extra weight and respective wear, tear and susceptibility to failure.

    An electric car can drive all four wheels much more simply, by putting a smaller electric motor on each one. In addition to driving each wheel directly, without the need for a trans axle or differential, smaller, separate motors can distribute the total engine weight equally among the four wheels, while leaving more space for the passenger/baggage compartments.

    2. Instantaneously responsive four-wheel drive. With a separate electric motor driving each wheel, it’s only a baby step to instantaneous, intelligent traction control for each wheel separately, using the same high-power, solid-state electrical controls that make regenerative braking possible, right now, in such hybrids as the Prius. Such a system could, for example, drop power to a wheel slipping on ice, snow or mud automatically and instantaneously, while distributing power to the other wheels for maximum stability and maximum traction. Dangerous “360s” would become, if not a thing of the past, at least much less common in winter.

    3. Two trunks (“boots” for Brits), not one. Electric car makers have already discovered that putting the heavy batteries below the passenger compartment lowers the car’s center of gravity, improves cornering, and frees up lots of passenger and cargo space. Small motors on each wheel, or just the two front ones (for front-wheel drive with electronic traction control), would free up more longitudinal space and make it possible to provide luggage compartments at both the car’s front and back, perhaps with different amenities.

    4. Trunks to fit the task. Trunks are now still mostly empty space, although a few car makers (like Hyundai) provide removable elastic webbing to hold shopping bags upright, and removable internal covers to hide your loot. With the big heavy batteries at the bottom, and especially with smaller motors on each wheel (or just the front two), it would become possible to design more useful trunks. For example, how about a trunk (front or rear), with a roll-out basket on bearings, so that drivers—especially older ones like me—don’t have to bend over and strain their backs to move bags in and out?

    5. A garage workshop to come with the car. One key advantage of electric cars has hardly been noticed so far. Besides producing no pollution or greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide), they also produce no carbon monoxide—a colorless, odorless, lethal gas, sometimes used for suicide, that can sneak up on you and kill you unawares.

    An electric car’s battery has enough capacity to run a small workshop all day without appreciable depletion. With no carbon monoxide effluent, you can run an electric car’s engine all day, inside the garage with the doors closed in the winter, with absolutely no ill effects. Try that with a gasoline car, and your name will be in the obits.

    So why not provide an external shaft access, appropriately concealed in normal use of the car, to which to attach a small all-in-one-machine shop, complete with a grinder/buffer, circular saw, drill press and maybe (in more expensive versions) a lathe and/or milling machine? A frivolous gimmick, you say? Well, where do most families have their workshops? Right in their garages, as I do mine.

    6. Perpendicular parking. The smallest Smart Car can drive straight into a parking space, perpendicular to the curb. So it can park in the remnants of parking spaces carelessly left by others. Or it can share a single standard space with a motorcycle, motor scooter or another Smart Car.

    In crowded cities, this is no small thing. In the 1970s, I often drove around the block for half an hour trying to find a space near Boston Common. God knows what it’s like today.

    According to the reviews I’ve read, the Smart Car is long on cuteness but short on engineering and quality. Imagine what Elon Musk could do in designing a small electric car for the same purpose: perpendicular parking, no skill required, just forward and reverse.
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