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

25 October 2014

November 2014


“What kind of government have you given us?”— Unknown Colonial matron
“A Republic, Ma’am, if you can keep it.”—Ben Franklin


November is a good month. The weather is cold and crisp; yet winter’s severity has not yet set in. Toward month’s end comes Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, and a uniquely American celebration of inter-tribal peace and plenty.

But this November will be different. Weather.com predicts just one night of brief frost (a bare 32℉) before the election, even in formerly frigid Akron, Ohio, where I used to live. Near Santa Fe, where I live now, no frost at all is foretold through the election, despite the high altitude.

For near Santa Fe, the last two days don’t show any predictions at all. They just show historical highs and lows. Apparently not even modern computers can reliably predict the weather ten days out any more. It’s just like the coming election: up for grabs.

And so we come to the big reason why November is different this year. We’re going to get an answer to Ben Franklin’s challenge. We’re going to find out whether billionaires can turn our failing democracy into a South American oligarchy by getting ordinary people to vote against their own interests—or by keeping them from voting at all.

Is it just coincidence that this critical midterm election comes exactly three decades after we thought 1984 had passed without incident? When prophecies don’t come true precisely on time, should we ignore them?

Ironies abound. Orwell foretold a world of three great warring blocs: China, Russia, and a collection of so-called “democracies,” including England, most of Europe, and North America. There’s no hot war yet, but isn’t his dark vision on the way to becoming reality?

Orwell also foretold a society of surveillance, without privacy or hope of effective individual action. Edward Snowden tried to warn us. Now he’s a political refugee stranded in Moscow.

Think about that. An American political refugee. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But it’s true.

Orwell was wrong on detail. The motive for extraordinary surveillance is not the three-bloc conflict, as he foretold. It’s terrorism. It’s also business, which wants to know everything about us so it can sell us things we don’t think we want. But the level of detailed surveillance of our everyday, private lives, both by business and the NSA, would have been unimaginable in Orwell’s day.

A second irony is our “democracy.” We Yanks style ourselves the paragon of democracy and “freedom.” Yet this November’s election is all about getting ordinary people not to vote.

One method is voter suppression, which our own Supreme Court recently upheld in Texas—the epicenter of American bossism. It upheld new rules making it harder for poor people to vote, especially African-Americans and Hispanics.

Ben Franklin, of course, would understand the ploy. In his time only white male property owners could vote. Nearly all African-Americans then were slaves. Our Constitution counted them, officially, as three-fifths of human beings, and then only to determine how many elected representatives white male property owners could have.

But Ben Franklin was a very smart guy—a Renaissance man. Together with Tom Jefferson, he was the only Founder who understood science. He even made significant contributions to science.

Once you explained to Ben that, in theory, every adult can vote today, he would be sad. He would understand how our promise of universal suffrage is being whittled away. He would know, deep down, the risk of losing our Republic.

Our second method of voter suppression would astound Ben even more: attack ads. You would have to explain to him, maybe more than once, how personal attacks on candidates keep people from the polls by making them cynical and dubious. You would have to let him see for himself how many attack ads are designed precisely for that purpose: to make all pols look like scoundrels unworthy of a vote. You could astonish Ben by noting that, in many key states and districts, 30% or so of the electorate will decide this coming election, simply because the rest don’t bother to vote.

Ben Franklin would be puzzled at first. But he was a quick study. After some reflection, he would be sad, very sad. What, he would ask himself, did we Founders do so wrong that our promising Republic could last barely more than two and a third centuries? Surely he would see it slipping away, with this election a big milestone of slippage.

The last great irony has to do with race. Having been a good man, Ben would be pleased that the descendants of slaves are now free—and can vote freely. He would marvel at their numbers in political office, including the presidency. But their voting, too, would dismay and trouble him.

With only thirty percent of the majority voting, Ben would wonder out loud why the so-called “blacks” didn’t organize, vote as one, and take this election away from the billionaires. He would be filled with hope and anticipation.

Then you would have to explain to Ben some hard facts of life. You would have to tell him that the President, while racially similar, is no descendant of slaves. You would have to inform him that Obama’s paternal, African grandfather was a minor tribal chieftain, and that his ancestors were free men and women, on both sides, as far back as anyone can reckon. You would have to describe to Ben how many native African-Americans are starting to lose hope, just as they reach the final lap in their four-century struggle for freedom on this Continent.

There’s one final thing you would have to explain to Ben, and it may be the most important. You would have to explain the ubiquity and power of modern media, especially television. You would have to get Ben to understand how some homes play Fox for most the family’s waking hours every day.

Then you would have to explain to Ben how Fox is the greatest, subtlest and most powerful machine of propaganda in human history. You would have to show Ben how much more powerful it is than the similar but less sophisticated machines of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. (You would also have to recount for Ben who Hitler, Stalin and Mao were.)

After doing all that, you would have to retell how our Supreme Court, equating money with speech and abstract corporate entities with citizens, allows rich and powerful folk to turn all our twenty-four hour media into machines of propaganda with political attack ads. You would have to show Ben how those ads, financed by billionaires and created by hired media geniuses, cheapen politics, exaggerate good pols’ human failings, and make ordinary people turn away from using their vote to protect their own economic interests.

On hearing all this, Ben would grow pensive and troubled. “Should we have drafted the First Amendment so broadly?” he would ask himself. “Should we have included an escape clause?”

Then Ben would look for excuses. “How could we Founders have anticipated a society of universal suffrage in which ordinary people were so disadvantaged by income, wealth, education and the legacy of slavery? Can the structure of the Republic that we built in a much more innocent time withstand the raw power of these destructive forces?”

Ben would have a lot to think about. And so do we. As we await the results of what may be the most critical midterm election in our history, what we should really be expecting is an answer to Ben’s challenge. Can we Yanks somehow keep our Republic?

Our much-maligned government once gave workers the right to bargain collectively, creating the strongest, most equal and most cohesive society the world has ever known. It also beat Nazi Fascism, Japanese Imperialism, yellow fever, polio, smallpox and AIDS. It developed nuclear power and nuclear weapons, put men on the Moon, and started the Internet and gave it to commerce. Today it’s fighting Ebola here and abroad. If the rich and powerful can convince ordinary folk that this government is an evil, stupid bumbler and an enemy of “freedom”—just so they can pay lower taxes, avoid regulation and get richer—we will have lost our Republic.

If loud paid-for voices can convince millions of voters that the law that brought 7.3 million into our health-care system, that forced health insurers to cover pre-existing conditions and eliminate caps on coverage was a mistake, we will have lost our Republic. If propagandists can convince those who bother to vote that a good President, and not the selfish rich, is the source of all their troubles, we will have lost our Republic. Most of all, if the rich and powerful can sway this absolutely critical midterm election by getting one-third or less of elegible voters to decide it, we will have lost our Republic.

The answer to Ben’s challenge, like the future of our society, is blowing in the anomalously warm fall wind.

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21 October 2014

How Not to Beat Ebola


What a relief! The twenty-one day quarantine period has passed for all of the late Thomas Eric Duncan’s contacts. We Yanks sure dodged a bullet there!

Let’s congratulate ourselves and break out the champagne! We Yanks are so smart and competent we make ourselves sick. No virus needed.

But wait a minute. I know it’s hard for a nation whose people no longer study geography, but look at a map. An epidemic map.

On that map a large part of Africa reads red (infected) or yellow (about to be). Now consider. An out-of-shape Yank can walk fifteen miles a day. A good African can maybe walk thirty. Multiply that daily progress by twenty-one days—the ebola incubation period—and you get 630 miles.

Now extend the bleeding-red incubation map by 630 miles in all directions, except at sea. (Ebola doesn’t swim, yet.) Then you get most of the “bulge” of West Africa infected. If the infected people ride animals, let alone fossil-fuel vehicles, you begin to affect the rest of Africa, the biggest continent on Earth.

Think that large an epidemic might affect us complacent Yanks, if only indirectly through economic and political turmoil, let alone possibly infected refugees?

If so, maybe we ought to start thinking about all the things we’re apparently not doing to get this epidemic under control.

1. What’s the virus’ ex vivo longevity? You would think that, with an epidemic so serious—and for a disease first discovered almost forty years ago!—somebody would have done an experiment or two to see how long the virus remains active and dangerous outside a host. Yet I can’t find that simple number anywhere.

The CDC’s website has that number [search for “5 days”] for hantavirus, a deadly respiratory virus, endemic but rare in the US, vectored by rodents. It’s five days. (I know because I live near hantavirus country and have had occasional encounters with deer mice, the vector of choice.)

Let’s suppose it’s the same for ebola. (No reason it should be, but let’s just suppose.) Then, when somebody gets sick, you could move everyone out of the residence for a week (just to be safe), to a remote quarantine site. Knowing they won’t get infected from viruses still active on inanimate surfaces, you could move them back into the now-safe residence for another two weeks, the remainder of their quarantine period.

There would be no need for strong disinfectants, people in hazmat suits, or letting those people risk infection themselves, unless someone gets sick. We could have done the same thing with Duncan’s residence, avoiding much of the panic and publicity and sparing poorly-trained cleanup crews from risking their health. Think this strategy might reduce the expense, effort and risk of containing the disease in Africa?

2. ZMapp. As I’ve written before, we have more direct evidence—far more—that ZMapp works than we had that atomic weapons would work when we started the Manhattan Project. As you may recall, that Project, to date, is the single most expensive crash high-technology project in our nation’s history. At one time, it commandeered about 10% of our nation’s total electric power just to run the centrifuges to enrich uranium for explosive fission.

Why, oh why, is there no Manhattan Project to crash-produce ZMapp, which has had 100% success in monkey trials, has proved effective at the cellar level (in petri dishes) and has helped cure two out of three of the first people to survive ebola here at home? (The other got antibodies from the blood of survivors.) Why are the Chinese and Canadians leading this effort, and not we Yanks, who invented monoclonal antibodies?

There’s another funny thing. The antibodies grow in genetically modified tobacco plants. Canada is a bit cold for growing tobacco, except in greenhouses. Where is our Yankee tobacco industry, when it could be saving lives instead of selling addiction, suffering and death? It looks like Chinese are stealing another march on us Yanks.

Could it be that our penchant for putting private profit first, even when war and lives are at stake, is putting us last in the race to fight this horrible disease? Doesn’t this quote from International Business Times tell the whole sordid story: “Due to the limited nature of previous Ebola outbreaks, larger pharmaceutical companies were not developing drugs to treat the virus, which has led to small companies trying to meet the demand”?

If we had run the Manhattan Project this way, we would still have been writing a contract to develop the A-bomb after our troops had spent another year or two slogging their way through Honshu and maiming the Japanese Mainland (and our two people’s relationship forever).

3. The vaccine, safety and effectiveness. Believe it or not, we have a vaccine for ebola. It’s already passed safety tests in small-scale human trials.

It hasn’t passed an effectiveness test yet. But there are several reasons. First, we haven’t yet had enough time to make it in bulk.

Second and more important, it makes no sense to test for effectiveness against a disease as deadly as ebola. You want to expose a control group to ebola without the vaccine just to prove it works, when 70% or so of the control group will die?

The third reason not to test a vaccine in the usual way for effectiveness against ebola is ethics. It’s unethical to condemn people to a 70% chance of death, even with their informed consent, unless there’s no other way to save others.

But there is a way to save others. The way to test a verified-safe vaccine in the midst of an epidemic is to let anyone in harm’s way who wants it have it, as long as supply lasts. Then you see if the vaccine lowers the mortality rate among the vaccinated and mostly likely exposed. (You might have to do some clever statistics to calculate who was exposed.)

For example, ebola’s mortality rate in African now is around 70%. If the vaccine is just 30% effective, it would save 30% of the 70% who otherwise would die, or 21%. That would increase the survival rate to 51% and lower the mortality rate to 49%—a drop visible with simple arithmetic.

So where’s the crash program to produce the vaccine in bulk for these wholly ethical tests? In Canada. Glory to the British Commonwealth, and shame on us!

4. Peacetime Generals. Did you ever notice a funny thing about history? Peacetime generals don’t win wars.

The generals who do win them rise from the ranks after it slowly dawns on their political masters that military skill, not political skill, is required. Abe Lincoln ran through a number of generals before he found one—in U.S. Grant—who could almost match wits with confederate General Robert E. Lee. Generals MacArthur and Patton were irascible, abrasive and sometimes insubordinate, but they got the job done in World War II.

It takes a while for any society to understand when war has come to stay and to pick the best people to run it. Apparently we Yanks have been slower than the Canadians, Chinese and French to realize that we—our whole human race—is at war with ebola.

Once that realization strikes, we will need leaders with no-nonsense command skills, who can ask the scientists, doctors and public-health experts the right questions and then put in motion men, women, machines, and (in this case) vast productive enterprises. In other words, we will need someone like General Leslie Groves, who ran the Manhattan Project.

But in this case we will need more than General Groves’ engineering skills, which allowed him to understand how to make an atomic bomb, if not all the details of nuclear physics. We need a no-nonsense leader who can deal with and command scientists as General Groves did, but with enough general knowedge of medicine, monoclonal antibodies and viruses to lead intelligently.

I’m sure Ron Klain is a good vice-presidential aide. Maybe he’s even politically skilled. But if Klain is that person, I’m Napoleon.

Forgive me for being politically incorrect, but no general or leading physician looks as he does. Generals are in fighting trim, and our leading doctors are trim because they have to set an example of good health. The appointment of Klain as ebola “czar” is a portent of business as usual in Washington. Thank goodness Canada, China and France are on the case.

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15 October 2014

How a Republican Senate Takeover Could Hurt Your Health, Literally


[For a recent post comparing the urgency of the war against IS with the war against ebola, click here.]

What are the chances of a “superbug,” resistant to antibiotics, infecting you or your children and killing them? What are the chances that ebola might come to your city or town, or might maim the global economy that supports you and your family? What are the chances of ebola mutating, going airborne, and turning into a modern Black Plague that could decimate humanity? What are the chances that a “killer asteroid” could maim or destroy human civilization, taking you, your home and your family with it?

You might think all these risks remote and small. Maybe they are. It’s hard to tell because they are all “unknown unknowns.” Not only don’t we know how big these risks are. We don’t even have the data. In the case of ebola we don’t even have good theory.

But we do know three things. First, all these risks are real and nonzero. Second, they are likely to get bigger as time goes on. Third, they are likely to get much bigger if Republicans take over the Senate in November.

Why is that? Because Republicans don’t care about these risks. They don’t take them seriously, except when they can use them as an excuse for bashing the President. Most of all, they don’t want to spend any money assessing them, let alone reducing them. We know that doing either will cost money.

In the case of superbugs, lowering the risk will also require regulation. It will require limiting or prohibiting farmers’ rampant, unregulated and unreported use of antibiotics in raising animals, which creates superbugs. And regulation is a big “no-no” for Republicans.

In the case of ebola, reckoning the risk will require more scientific research, which costs money. Reducing the risk will require not only more stringent public-health programs, but pouring money into producing the anti-ebola drug ZMapp and the already-safety-checked vaccine at scale. We desperately need to do both—on an emergency, wartime footing—if we are to have any hope of stopping the epidemic now ravaging West Africa from getting out of hand.

Government will have to put up that money. Private investors won’t until an epidemic arises, or, in the case of ebola, until it breaks out of West Africa into a developed country and starts a global pandemic. By then it will be too late. Scientific research, let alone mass production of drugs or vaccines, takes lead time.

In the case of killer asteroids, we don’t even know what the risk is. We do know that a big asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We also know that there are a lot of asteroids orbiting out there big enough to do the same to us. We just don’t know where they are and whether or when they might hit us.

If we did our homework and searched the sky, we could know months or years in advance of any impending collision with Earth. We could save ourselves by mounting a mission to nudge a killer asteroid out of its present orbit and avoid a collision. But we can’t do that until we search the sky thoroughly and catalogue all the big asteroids out there that might do us harm. We can’t do that because, in 2007, Congress denied NASA the money needed to continue this mission.

Finishing the sky search and cataloging the results would cost a billion dollars. That’s less than 0.025% of the four trillion dollars (with a “t”) that, according to a recent book-length investigative report, we Yanks have spent in our collective cringe from terrorism since 9/11.

Do you see a theme here? Addressing serious unknown risks of catastrophic consequences requires (1) research, (2) preventive measures, (3) remediation, and (4), in the case of superbugs, strong regulation of unnecessary use of antibiotics. Points (1) through (3) take money—government money—and point (4) requires regulating private business.

Republicans are allergic to both spending by government and regulation. So if they capture the Senate next month, nothing will get done about these risks for at least the next two years. We Yanks will poke our collective heads in the sand and bury them deep.

More than that. Republicans appear to be allergic to knowing as well. Republicans have always been allergic to the truth—and to honest scientific inquiry—when it affects their monied backers’ economic interests.

Remember the tobacco “controversy”? As early as the 1960s, medical researchers (including those inside tobacco companies!) began to conclude that smoking causes lung cancer and contributes to heart disease. But the science wasn’t complete, and much of it was kept secret inside companies’ closed files, only to emerge later in private litigation.

The tobacco companies created a stone wall of denial and confusion. They couldn’t deny that there were plenty of dead bodies, but (they claimed) there was no “smoking gun.” Now, half a century later, we know beyond reasonable doubt that smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in America today. So smoking is heavily regulated, but selling addiction, suffering and death is still legal.

Much the same thing happened with global warming. Suggestive research has been going on for decades. In 2000, Al Gore made it a campaign issue. He became the subject of the most concerted effort at political razzing in American history, at least before Obama became president. In 2005—nearly a decade ago!—the elite national academies of American science issued a Joint Statement that global warming is real and caused by burning fossil fuels.

But the fossil-fuel barons have taken precisely the same approach with global warming that tobacco firms had taken with lung and heart diseases. First they denied that global warming existed. Then, when scientific evidence of global warming became overwhelming, they denied that fossil-fuel burning is causing it. Now, when scientific evidence of human causation is becoming overwhelming, they are claiming that ameliorating global warming would hurt the economy and cost jobs. (They never seem to mention all the jobs that building a national renewable-energy infrastructure and a smart grid would create.) Republicans, of course, have been with the fossil-fuel barons all the way, parroting their lies and disinformation and making sure no regulation or attempt to ameliorate or remediate global warming touches their profits.

Now come the superbugs. Unbeknownst to most people, this problem also has been with us for decades, as Tuesday’s Frontline report on PBS revealed. As early as the 1970s—four decades ago!—our FDA knew that overuse of antibiotics in farming and animal husbandry was and is causing normal bacteria to evolve into superbugs to survive. The FDA moved to curtail that overuse, but a Mississippi senator in the pocket of the farm lobby threatened to kill FDA’s funding, and the FDA backed off. [See this Frontline special and set timer at 19:50.] Since that time, there has been no serious effort to regulate agribusiness’ rampant overuse of antibiotics in farm animals.

What were the results? There are two. First, people who live near large-scale animal farms—animal concentration camps, where antibiotics are widely overused—are getting superbug infections far more often than the general population. The mechanism is simple: animal manure containing antibiotics and the superbugs they cause to evolve get poured on open fields as fertilizer. When the manure dries out and the wind blows, the superbugs get blown to neighboring houses and communities.

A recent study shows just how closely the location of superbug infections and these factory farms match. [See this Frontline special and set the timer at 13:00. For the bottom line, set timer at 15:00.] But the farm lobby stays in character. There is no “smoking gun,” it says, because you haven’t measured superbugs in the manure-infused soil. Andy why not? Because the soil lies on private property. The farmers, with advice from their lawyers, lobbyists and trade associations, won’t let the scientists collect or measure it.

The second result is that superbugs are appearing on the food we buy from supermarkets. For example, tests on frozen turkey sold in the Phoenix area revealed 20% with possibly pathogenetic E. coli (a species of bacteria commonly found in human feces). A third of those samples were resistant to one or more antibiotics. [See this Frontline special and set the timer at 28:00.]

Will cooking the food kill the bad bacteria? Sure. But when you open the package, prepare the food, and touch your face, your sink, its spigots or your utensils, the bad bacteria can get on things that are not sterilized, and from there onto uncooked food such as salads, raw fruit, nuts and the like. So unless you are rigorous in washing your hands and utensils after every contact with store-bought meat or its packaging (if it comes from antibiotic-laden animals), you risk contaminating yourself and your loved ones with superbugs that can get into your gut, appear in your feces and then your bladder, your kidneys and your blood. [See this Frontline special and set the timer at 08:50.]

If these bugs go all the way, they can kill you, and antibiotics can’t stop them. The days when a common urinary tract infection was a minor thing and easily curable are passing. In some locations, they may already be gone.

And so it goes. This November’s election offers a clear choice between two parties. One wants to put our heads in the sand and keep them there, as long as its backers are making money. The other wants to address known and unknown risks as best it can, even if doing so costs a little money and requires a little regulation.

You can ignore these risks if you like. Chances are they won’t touch your family, at least in your lifetime. But before you do, take a good look at the children suffering or dying, horribly, in the best hospitals in the middle of the nation with the most advanced medicine on Earth.

Then think about the dinosaurs. They didn’t think much about asteroids, plagues or superbugs, either. Now they’re gone.

Evolution gave us the brains to think about these things and even do something about them, in order to survive. None of the precautions we could take against these real risks would cost much money.

Yet the party that cares only about money won’t bother to take them. Or it’s ideologically allergic to the regulation we would need. Republicans would rather deny the risks’ existence or downplay their severity, as has been their and their backers’ consistent practice for about four decades—with smoking, air pollution, water pollution, radioactive releases from nuclear power plants, global warming, fossil fuels’ limited reserves, the environmental dangers of fracking, and now the creation of superbugs.

If we fail to use our brains to insure our species’ survival, we are forfeiting our chief evolutionary advantage over the dinosaurs. Your vote this November will help determine whether we do just that.

Footnote 1. I hate to quote That Idiot Rumsfeld, whose absolutely abysmal mismanagement of our War in Iraq caused us untold suffering and led to the rise of IS. But the phrase is apt and memorable. It may be the most sensible two words he ever uttered.

Footnote 2. The second part of Tuesday’s Frontline program shows how superbugs, possibly hospital acquired, killed a young boy after he had successfully undergone a bone-marrow transplant to cure a congenital condition. [See this Frontline special and set the timer at 044:50.] An earlier Frontline feature shows how superbugs attacked a perfectly healthy young girl, eventually requiring a lung transplant. She survived, but her young life has been changed permanently. Your kids could be next, as so-called “nosocomial” (hospital-acquired) infections with superbugs proliferate.

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10 October 2014

The War We Really Have to Win


[For an essay and table of our nation’s eleven biggest unsolved problems, up only two days, click here. Believe it or not, this post is more important. For why and how we should be ready for the next war we must win, click here.]

It’s easy to get depressed reading the news today. The Islamic State, or IS, is busy chopping off heads and conquering towns and territory. Russia is making inroads into Ukraine. Or at least the separatists are. Russia exploits them but may not be able to control them.

China continues to threaten its much smaller neighbors, including powerhouse Japan, raising the specter of a catastrophic new war in Asia. Despite apparently sensible leadership on both sides, Pakistan and India are fighting again in Kashmir. The teenage mutant tyrant of North Korea still has nuclear weapons. And Iran is still bargaining hard to get as close as possible to having them without having its economic ostracism continue, and without having to go to war.

With all this bad news, even an optimist could begin to despair for our species. About the only good news in global politics today is that North and South Korea appear to be making tentative steps toward beginning the long and difficult process of reunification. Godspeed.

We have so many international crises to pick from. So it’s odd to see us Yanks and our allies picking the fight with IS as the one we must win.

It’s true, of course, that IS now wages the world’s most active war. It’s also true that, owing to its medieval ideology, governance, and atrocities, IS is the most repulsive of all the globe’s troublemakers. It’s easy to hate brutal thugs who say, in effect, “Do what I command or die!” and then justify their medieval butchery with self-evident perversions of one of the world’s great religions.

But look at a map. IS is only in Iraq and Syria. It’s hemmed in. To the north and east, respectively, are Turkey and Iran. Apart from Israel, they are the Middle East’s two principal powers. They aren’t going anywhere, and they aren’t going to suffer invasion or subversion, not the least because each has a big buffer of Kurds willing and able to fight for their land and their culture.

To the south are Kuwait—virtually a huge American military base—and Saudi Arabia. That particular part of Saudi Arabia is mostly hundreds of miles of empty desert. It’s ideal territory to stop any invasion with air power alone, and its nomadic and traditional population is hardly the stuff of jihadi recruitment.

To the west are Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. Israel has nuclear weapons and the most advanced military technology in the whole Middle East. So the only things worth saving that might need saving, besides Syria and Iraq themselves, are Jordan and Lebanon. And Lebanon, or part of it, has the strong support of a major regional power: Iran.

Equally important is history. Outside powers have done this region no favors, none at all. We Yanks may have begun the current problem by invading Iraq for no good reason and managing the invasion’s aftermath with inexpressible ineptness. But Russia dug the hole deeper—much deeper—by encouraging its ally Iran to back Assad. And it was Assad’s tyranny, brutality, atrocities and near-genocide that created IS, as surely as if he had grown IS in a petri dish and released it. Now he’s using IS as a convenient excuse to continue his butchery. Lesser culprits include Saudi princes and the various Gulf monarchs, all of whom made their own Faustian bargain with Islamic extremists to maintain their thrones.

From this brief analysis, two things are crystal clear. First, this is not our fight. It doesn’t threaten us Yanks directly. The notion of IS jihadis putting serious effort into terrorizing us and Europe, when they have a new caliphate to run, secure, govern and expand, is (to use Mark Twain’s understatement about this death) greatly exaggerated. And with all the new Orwellian surveillance, it’s not too hard to keep track of Western natives who go to these countries and return. Airlines and border entry points keep records, and boats are slow.

Anyway, the leaders of IS may be brutal, but they have a sort of base cunning. They appear to have learned the lesson of Osama bin Laden, who took on the world’s most powerful nation and is now part of the fish who ate his corpse.

The way to create a viable caliphate is not to terrorize the world’s most powerful nations, but to do exactly what IS has been doing: attacking the vulnerable Middle East at its most vulnerable point—the part that Russia and Iran and, yes, we Yanks messed up with misguided policies and even more misguided action. Yet IS’ leaders are not above trying to terrorize the West with a few random beheadings, just for fun, because we are so easily scared.

The notion of IS jihadis swarming our Western cities is a dangerous paranoid fantasy, much like the one that drove the Cold War or Robert S. McNamara’s “domino theory,” which served us so well in Vietnam. It’s a knee-jerk fear reaction and bit of pro-militarist propaganda foisted on us by people who don’t understand the history or the situation but think we should “do something” and don’t know quite what.

Second, we Yanks are not primarily responsible for the mess today. Nor is Europe. True, we Yanks did invade Iraq stupidly and for no good reason. But we spent a decade there, well over 4,000 lives, tens of thousands wounded, and around two trillion dollars trying to fix Iraq after deposing Saddam.

And what would have happened if we had never invaded and the brutal and capricious Saddam had lived to rule? Likely, the wind of Arab/Islamic liberation that has swept the Middle East would have done exactly as it has done in Syria. Iraqis (especially Shiites) would have risen up; there would have been a brutal crackdown like Assad’s, or like Saddam’s own slaughter of the Marsh Arabs; and the jihadis and extremists would have swarmed in, just as in Syria.

Extremism breeds extremism, as Assad has proven so well and so brutally. Saddam was an extremist tyrant/butcher just like Assad. The chances that his butchery would have morphed peacefully into something unlike Syria today were never very great.

So IS is not our problem or really our creation. Therefore it’s not primarily our fight. It’s part of the Middle East growing up—a process that misguided outside intervention has delayed for several centuries and is still retarding.

Don’t get me wrong. I support the President’s limited intervention. Providing only air support, logistics, weapons and intelligence makes sense. All these things, in essence, support the indigenous people in their fight against brutal extremists.

No leader or pol in the West would ever admit it, but that’s what’s going on. Our Yankee might is being applied at the behest of locals to solve their own problems in their own way. We are serving others; and that’s how it should be.

Anyway, we Yanks simply can’t do more. If our leaders don’t fully understand the history, cultures, and über-complex politics of the region, you think our grunts do? Do we want our own adolescent kids to be facing a mysterious bearded fighter with a Kalashnikov or stolen AK-47 and asking “Hey, dude, which side are you on?”

Didn’t we already try that in Iraq, with such Pyrrhic “success,” despite our superior technology and training? And didn’t Einstein define insanity as repeatedly trying the same thing and expecting different results?

So the assertion that the fight against IS is one we Yanks must win is false. We can help, but it’s not our fight.

And it won’t go global because Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey won’t let it. Sooner or later, all these major Middle-Eastern powers will figure out that it’s their fight. They will combine to stop it, whether or not they ally to do so. If Turkey frustrates us as we wait for it to intervene, we should recall the patience of our European and (then) Soviet allies, as they waited years for us Yanks to enter World War II and years more for us to open a new front in northern Europe. Maybe all our present allies are waiting for their own FDRs.

While we feel all the misguided panic about IS, we are neglecting a much more powerful enemy.

Already it has occupied far more territory than Islamic extremists have taken since the fifteenth century. Already it has killed more people in a few months than died in 9/11.

This enemy is absolutely brutal and relentless. It kills without remorse or a hint of mercy, cutting down pregnant women, children, strong men, and innocent seniors with one scythe. Unlike IS, it is already global, or in the process of becoming so.

This enemy should be far more terrifying than IS because it isn’t human. It isn’t even alive.

By now you may have guessed: it’s ebola.

A must-see report produced by the PBS feature Nova explained how ebola works to kill. The virus is a long string-like rope of proteins that wraps around our bodies’ cells. Its surface has a myriad of protein spikes. When the virus hits a human cell, these spikes attach to the cell’s wall and trick the wall into letting the virus inside. There it reproduces copies of itself, which kill the cell and escape to search and destroy.

No writer of fiction has ever imagined such an automaton of death. Ebola surpasses the ancient Greek myth of armed soldiers springing up from seeds planted in the ground, for it does something similar inside our bodies. It’s worse than the Athenians at Troy, whose spies inside the Trojan Horse let the invading army in. Every single ebola virus has its own Trojan Horse.

Unlike myths, ebola is real. It’s among us. We can’t negotiate with it because it’s not intelligent. It’s a non-sentient genetic killing machine. It will not stop killing us until we stop it. We must defeat it, the sooner the better.

How can we do that? The Nova feature shows how.

After decoding the human genome, our species got a lot smarter. We no longer search at random for chemicals that can kill or disable a disease agent without doing our bodies too much harm. For viruses at least, we look at antidotes at the molecular level, called “antibodies.” We look for proteins that lock into the weapon-proteins of the virus and disable them.

There are three ways to do this. The first is to let our own bodies do the job. People whose immune systems are strong can fight off the virus on their own, as long as we give them proper hospital care. Their immune systems fight it off by creating and reproducing antibodies.

We know all this from molecular studies. We also know that blood transfusions from people who survived ebola often help those fighting it, because of the antibodies in the survivor’s blood.

But blood transfusions from survivors are an imprecise weapon. Different survivors create different kinds of antibodies. And the donor’s blood type must be compatible with the recipient’s, else the recipient will die. If there’s no compatible blood available and properly stored (blood is perishable!), this defense can’t be used. The need for cold storage makes this method problematic in hot Africa.

The second method of fighting ebola is similar but more precise: vaccines. A vaccine stimulates the recipient’s own immune system to make antibodies against the virus, as best his or her body can. Because the recipient’s own immune system does the work, there’s little risk of unintended consequences, as long as the vaccine is tested for safety.

To make a good vaccine, we have to introduce all or part of the virus into the subject and let his or her own immune system go to work. But we first have to be sure that the virus is disabled from causing disease, or that the part of it we use does not itself cause disease.

The most obvious target for any vaccine against ebola is those Trojan-Horse protein spikes that let the ebola virus trick its way into our cells. It would be nice if we could just cut off the spikes, multiply them artificially and use them as a vaccine. But apparently that has been tried and didn’t work. Perhaps our immune systems don’t respond to the spikes alone, without some other (and perhaps more dangerous) part of the virus.

This brings us to the third, and so far most promising, method of fighting ebola. Suppose we could find a protein “cap” for those Trojan-Horse spikes and find a way to reproduce it artificially. Then wouldn’t we have a powerful drug to fight ebola?

That’s precisely what ZMapp is. It’s a cocktail of several monoclonal antibodies, all of which purportedly cap ebola’s Trojan-Horse protein spikes and render them harmless.

I write “purportedly” only because we’ve not observed the exact molecular mechanism in action. But we have lots of evidence that ZMapp works. A 2014 paper describes an experiment with 21 rhesus macaque primates. Three formed the control group and were given a non-functional antibody after being infected. The other eighteen were divided into groups of six, each of which had ZMapp treatment beginning on the third, fourth or fifth day after being infected. All the control primates died, and all the treated primates survived. Later experiments showed that ZMapp inhibited a Guinean strain of the virus in cell cultures.

More recently, three American medical workers contracted ebola and returned to the US for treatment. Two received Zmapp; the third received blood transfusions from ebola survivors. All survived.

Antibodies work, whether artificial or natural. Natural ones are the product of millions of years of evolution of our immune systems. By copying natural ones artificially (which is what ZMapp’s producers do), we can improve on nature and save ourselves.

The question now is how we make antibodies artificially on a war footing. For our war against ebola is our species’ most desperate war against disease since the Black Plague and the Spanish flu epidemic of the early twentieth century.

War requires an effective, immediate and emergent response. That’s why we have military forces. The President was right to send Army troops to West Africa to construct hospitals and treatment facilities. Our military forces are the only assets we have that we can deploy in days, not weeks or months.

Yet military forces alone are not enough. When we Yanks began fighting the Nazis and Imperial Japan, nuclear physics was a science just under development. Apart from a very few Yanks, its practitioners were all foreigners who spoke English with accents. Prominent among them were Jews and Italians—not exactly the most respected people among us at that time. And nuclear theory and science were so raw that, the night before the first experimental atomic blast at Alamogordo, a scientist stayed up calculating whether it would engulf our atmosphere in nuclear fire and destroy our biosphere and our species.

When we started the Manhattan Project, we had far less evidence that atomic weapons would work than we do that ZMapp works today. Yet we started the Project, put it under the no-nonsense command of the military, and gave it authority to commandeer the nation’s resources, which it did. At one time it commandeered about 10% of the entire nation’s electric power for running centrifuges to purify uranium.

We should do the same thing with ZMapp and ebola vaccines now. The development of ZMapp required, and its production depends on, collaboration among three private companies (two American and one Canadian) and several agencies of the Canadian and US governments. It also requires tobacco plants to express the right proteins; that’s why one of the collaborators is affiliated with a tobacco company. No doubt there are complex contractual relationships among all these collaborators, designed in part to assure that the private companies earn a reasonable profit and that the Canadian and US governments have necessary rights in emergencies.

This is an emergency. How much more emergent can it get than three African nations enduring epidemics and fear, random cases of infection popping up in the developed world, and the people who have to care for infected patients and clean up possibly infected blood, vomit and feces demonstrating and even rioting? We need governments to put practical, no-nonsense leaders in charge and put production of ZMapp and further development and production of drugs and vaccines on a war footing. We can sort out compensation and private profit later.

Our own Yankee patent laws provide for the commandeering or even the sequestering of patents in the name of national security and letting courts decide compensation later, after the emergency or need for keeping patents secret has passed. We should use those laws, none the less because our Defense Department funded part of ZMapp’s development and apparently all of the development of its tobacco-plant production process.

During World War II, FDR put an army general named Leslie Groves in charge of the Manhattan Project. He was smart, good with people, a good judge of character, and tough as nails. Without his leadership, we Yanks might never have developed nuclear weapons. The part of World War II in the Pacific might have dragged on a year or two more, with much higher total casualties and much greater destruction and devastation of the Japanese mainland.

Now we need a Leslie Groves for ebola. What we have now is total war against an alien species. It takes over our cells and uses them to reproduce itself. In the process, it kills us. It’s not intelligent or even sentient. It’s just a relentless biological machine of death.

But it’s the toughest enemy of its kind our species has faced since the Black Plague. Why? An epidemic’s threat is proportional to its latency (incubation) period and its mortality. Ebola’s three-week latency period is much longer than the Spanish flu’s, and its mortality rate is much higher. The only thing that so far has saved us from possible species decimation or extinction is that ebola is not airborne and therefore not easily transmissible.

Viruses are not like bacteria. They’re not alive, and they can’t exchange genes as can bacteria. But they can mutate. We just don’t know how fast, or even by what precise mechanism. So we’d better have lots of ZMapp and some good vaccines on hand, just in case ebola goes airborne.

The President has the Executive power to make all this happen for our national security. He should use it before things get out of hand. The 3,000 troops he sent to build medical infrastructure in Africa are a good start, but they are only a start.

For all the President’s time in office, the opposition has harassed him and sought to stymie him at every turn. But God help them if they oppose him this time. Just look at the videos of the protests in Dallas and the near-riots in Madrid. And this is with only one death each inside the US and Spain! This could be the beginning of a rapid decline of global civilization, unless we realize we’re in a war we have to win.

Eight Reasons Why We Need to Make ZMapp and Vaccines in Bulk Now, and How We Can

If you listen carefully to our medical leaders as they talk about ebola, you will notice something odd. They downplay the value of the anti-ebola drug ZMapp. They call it “experimental.” They say it’s not been proven effective. So far they’ve refused (to my knowledge) to give it to anyone in Africa.

But all reported experiments with it, as well as known uses in two American patients, have been successful. Not only that: the two people who got the drug and survived ebola were American medical personnel.

It doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to understand that ZMapp is both safe and effective, and that our doctors know it. At least it’s the best anti-ebola drug we’ve got. The problem is that it takes time to make and we’re running out of it. Or we already have.

At the same time, we’ve got a vaccine against ebola that has passed preliminary safety trials. It, too, is not available in large quantities.

So let’s pretend we’re all engineers. Pretend we’re practical people who don’t “spin” facts but accept them in straightforward ways. Pretend we try to solve real problems not with ideology or “canned” solutions, but with facts, logic and math. What reasons can we find for putting ZMapp and the already-safety-tested vaccine into production on a war footing now, and how could we best go about doing so?

1. More Than a Maginot Line. Right now, our war strategy against ebola is containment. Find the victims, identify and quarantine or observe their contacts, put the sick in hospital, and treat them as best we can until they die or recover.

Remember the Maginot Line? It was an expensive, static line of entrenched fortifications that the French built after World War I. Its idea was to give the French time to mobilize if the Germans attacked again. But when World War II came, the Nazis drove their tanks right around it, and France fell in weeks.

Our “containment” strategy of field hospitals and treatment centers in West Africa is a bit like the Maginot Line. Of course we need field hospitals and treatment centers to fight any serious disease. But like the Maginot Line, they are static.

In contrast, people are mobile. They can move far and wide during ebola’s three-week incubation period, before they present any symptoms at all. They can even move from Liberia to Dallas.

If they can move as far as Dallas, they can certainly move to the next town or region. They—and the virus they carry—can skirt the Maginot Line of hospitals and treatments centers just as Nazi Panzer tanks skirted the French Maginot Line in World War II. That’s why we now have a whole region of West Africa marked red on our epidemic maps.

We need more than a Maginot Line for ebola. We need mobile defenses, which don’t take days or weeks to build. Doesn’t that mean ZMapp and the already-safety-tested vaccine?

2. Fear. Fear is ebola’s strongest ally. It’s hardly confined to West Africa. We’ve already seen it in the protests of cleanup workers in Dallas and the near-riots in Madrid. Besides the virus itself, fear is the toughest enemy we face.

Perhaps the most important impact of having enough ZMapp and an already-safety-tested vaccine will be on fear. The fear now reaching levels of panic around the globe will subside to the normal caution and timidity that accompanies other controlled diseases.

Imagine that ebola had broken out in Iowa and that Africans, not we Yanks, had the best medical technology. Imagine yourself a white Iowan stricken with ebola in a small village in Iowa.

Black folk come in hazmat suits to take you away to a treatment center. Almost everyone there is black, dressed in a yellow hazmat suit, and speaking a language that you can’t understand. The medical workers give you help and seem well-meaning, but they are far too busy with other patients to attend to your emotional needs. They ask you about your family and other contacts, give you some water to drink, and let you lie on your bed and worry.

For days on end, you see no one you know, let alone your loved ones. You get medical care, but as you begin to feel worse and worse, you get little or no emotional support. Pretty soon it dawns on you that you are going to die miserably in this awful place, surrounded by strangers from another race in hazmat suits, without seeing anyone you love ever again.

Don’t you think you might feel a little uncomfortable and fearful? Do you think your friends and loved ones, seeing you go into that awful place—and knowing that over 50% or more of those who go in come out in body bags—might be reluctant to stick around, give contact information and volunteer for treatment if they feel bad?

Now imagine a different scenario. As you go into the hazmat hospital, a nurse gives you some pills. You are told that you need to identify all your family and contacts so they can be given the pills and vaccinated. The doctors explain to you that it’s too late to vaccinate you because you have already fallen ill.

Once vaccinated (and given pills for good measure), your loved ones can visit you in a special room, or outdoors, sitting at a safe distance. You can speak with them and receive and give love, just without touching, hugging or kissing. The presence of your loved ones gives you courage, hope, and the will to live. Their seeing you well cared for, and their getting the medication and vaccines, gives them confidence and hope. So they tell all their friends who have had contact with ebola patients to come in, before they feel sick, to get the pills and vaccinations.

Night and day, you say? Well, if you think so, let’s get to work manufacturing those pills and vaccines.

3. “Boots on the Ground.” As we know so well from the war with IS, no war gets won without “boots on the ground.” The same is true of the war against ebola. That’s why the President is sending over 3,000 troops from our Army Corps of Engineers to build hospitals and treatment centers in West Africa.

The Engineers have to go as ordered because they are in the Army. But our war against ebola needs a lot more people still. It depends mostly on trained medical personnel and their helpers, not just engineers.

Nearly all medical personnel now in West Africa are volunteers, with the French organization Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and the World Health Organization in the lead. So the “army” fighting ebola is nearly all-volunteer.

Right now, volunteers face both great risk and great hardship. They must wear thick, bulky, clumsy hazmat suits while they work. It takes half an hour to put the suits on and another half hour to take them off. Volunteers must be meticulously careful when doing either, at the risk of infecting themselves. One infected nurse thought she might have infected herself merely by touching her face while taking her suit off.

Add the heat to that. Hazmat suits trap the body’s heat and add it to the stifling heat of West Africa. Volunteers sweat like pigs. Sometimes they can barely see for the fogging of their goggles. Sometimes the heat makes them lightheaded or dizzy. Most can work only two hours at a time in this condition. But they soldier on.

ZMapp and a vaccine won’t change this sorry picture entirely. No drug or vaccine is 100% effective. So volunteers will still have to wear hazmat suits in caring for seriously ill patients.

But a drug and vaccine will vastly reduce the fear that volunteers must face. It will also reduce the inconvenience: volunteers will be able to do intake interviews of not-so-sick patients and do contact tracing without hazmat suits, as long as they keep a safe distance from people presenting symptoms and their bodily fluids.

Best of all, volunteers will feel some relief from the constant fear that a single mistake may endanger a patient’s life or their own. Work will get easier and safer—much easier and safer. So there will be more volunteers.

4. Encircling the enemy. Our “containment” strategy self-evidently isn’t working, at least in West Africa. The red epidemic map is spreading like a stain. It continues to grow.

The primary reason is that the virus can travel as far and as fast as people do. And with no cure or preventative available, people have every incentive to travel as far and as fast as they can from areas of infection, even if they might be infected themselves.

ZMapp and a vaccine could change this dynamic by encircling the enemy. If an outbreak occurs in a town, the surrounding area can be protected with drugs, vaccination, or both. At the same time, people can be reassured, so they don’t leave if they become sick or think they might have been infected. The age-old military strategy of encircling the enemy can work with ebola, too.

5. Engineers for the job. It’s no coincidence that the troops the President has sent to build up West Africa’s health-care infrastructure are engineers, from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Engineers are highly educated people, accustomed to using facts, logic and math to solve real problems. They work well with scientists, including medical doctors. They are practical people.

When you think about it, you can see that most of the jobs that need doing are engineering, not medicine. Building hospitals and treatment centers is engineering. Building factories to scale up production of ZMapp and vaccines requires engineering, albeit in close cooperation with scientists and medical doctors.

Even designing ZMapp and the vaccines themselves could be considered a new kind of engineering: bimolecular engineering. The task is to build antibodies that can cap or block those Trojan-Horse protein spikes on the ebola virus. This is engineering at the molecular level.

Accordingly, it may be appropriate to put an engineer from the Corps of Engineers in charge of the whole process, or at least the building of care centers and factories to make ZMapp and vaccines. An engineer/general like the legendary Leslie Groves, who led the Manhattan Project, would do just fine.

6. A new life for tobacco companies? An oddity of ZMapp is that tobacco plants are the best molecular “factories” for the monoclonal antibodies in its “cocktail.” That’s why one of the collaborators in the production of ZMapp is Kentucky BioProcessing, a biotech firm in the heart of tobacco country.

Right now, tobacco growers are facing medical opprobrium, heavy regulation, higher taxes on their products and a declining customer base. No wonder! Their tobacco fields are killing fields for their primary customers: smokers.

To say that producing ZMapp and other monoclonal-antibody products offers tobacco growers a new lease on life would be an understatement. Instead of being factories of addiction, death and suffering, they could become producers of life, hope and health. If I were a tobacco-company executive, I would jump on this opportunity with both feet and put some serious money into it.

7. From complacency to wartime efficiency. Our nation’s leading medical doctors are extraordinary men. Dr. Anthony Fauci is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases within our National Institutes of Health (NIH). More than any other human being, he is responsible for discovering and taming the virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. Dr. Tom Frieden is head of our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Both men are doctors and scientists who have navigated the halls of politics and made extraordinary contributions to discovering and fighting the causes of ever-nascent plagues. And they have fought—successfully—various incipient or real epidemics, including AIDS, SARS, swine flu, bird flu, and the pathogenic variety of E. coli that appears occasionally in improperly prepared or packaged food. So they have have reasons to be confident in their own and their institutions’ ability to handle any new plague that comes along.

Of course part of their job is also to reassure the public and tamp down fear. But as you listen to them speak about ebola, you cannot escape the feeling that they share a dangerous complacency.

So far, our species has been lucky. Nature has not yet thrown her worst at us. AIDS has killed some 39 million people. It took decades before we could control it. But AIDS takes years to kill. In contrast, ebola kills in twelve days. AIDS also takes years to incubate into full clinical disease. Ebola incubates in three weeks. Finally, AIDS requires sexual intimacy or an exchange of body fluids for transmission; ebola requires only much more casual contact.

So we can’t let ebola get loose now. We just don’t have the same kind of time we had with AIDS.

SARS is similar. Although a respiratory virus, it is nowhere near as easy to transmit as the common cold. That’s why we could control it with only a few hundred deaths worldwide.

So far, Nature has been kind to us in tossing us only softballs. Some day, it will throw us a hardball. We had better be ready.

8. Future wars. This brings me to my final point. We don’t really know yet how these various new plagues develop. Since the early 1970s, we have discovered at least a half-dozen new viral ones: ebola, AIDS, Marburg, swine flu, SARS, and bird flu. So far, we’ve been able to defeat them all with vaccines or drugs, or with public-health measures such as isolation, quarantine, contact tracing, containment and the elimination or culling of animal vectors.

Although challenging and deadly, none of these plagues has yet presented the worst possible combination of factors: long incubation period, short mortality period, easy transmissibility, and high mortality. A plague like that could rip through our highly mobile, interdependent global society. It could wound, if not destroy, our global civilization in months.

Unfortunately, we have no reason to believe that some future plague won’t do exactly that. We can’t even estimate the risk because we don’t know exactly how these previous plagues arose. All we know is that most arose from some chance interaction between microbes, people, and animals—whether domesticated, as in China, or undomesticated, as in Africa.

And even if we knew the precise past mechanisms of combination, we have no theory for predicting new ones. If we did, we would probably have to take into account myriads of viruses and bacteria in our environment that we don’t study because they are not pathogenic to humans.

So as good planners, we have to be prepared for anything. Our chief doctors are probably right: we probably can keep ebola mostly out of developed nations with careful public-health precautions like contact tracing and quarantining. But we’re almost certain to have additional isolated cases, and perhaps a small outbreak or two along the way.

Wouldn’t it be more than nice if we had enough ZMapp and vaccine to put this particular plague entirely behind us, just as we’ve done with smallpox and polio? It would certainly do no harm to our badly damaged national prestige and standing if we Yanks could give West Africa a new lease on life and new hope for a better future after its recent civil wars.

But this is far from all. To be ready for the next plague—whose source, strength and peril we cannot even begin to guess—we have to have large-scale laboratories and factories for the rapid development and bulk production of safe and effective monoclonal antibodies. We must develop a national “immune system” at industrial scale.

That will require unprecedented cooperation among scientists, private companies, and government agencies that fund, manage and supervise all activities. We cannot depend on private profit to finance this effort for a simple reason: there is no possibility of profit before a new plague arises, and after it arises it’s too late.

Ebola is unlikely to become a species-threatening plague unless it goes airborne and its transmissibility increases dramatically. Although not impossible, that terrible combination is unlikely.

So we ought to consider ebola a practice case—a “drill” if you will. Just as we’ve developed a military-industrial complex to fight off future human enemies, we need a medical-industrial complex to fight off future plagues. Only then can we be ready when the next plague comes, as it most surely will.

Mild Erratum: While I was thinking about this post, it occurred to me that ZMapp (and any anti-ebola drug counterpart) likely has to be administered in the form of injections, not pills. The reason is that its active ingredients are monoclonal antibodies, which are proteins or parts or them. In general, there is too much risk that digestion will destroy or modify the antibodies, or otherwise reduce their effectiveness, to use pills. So they have to be administered directly into the bloodstream or tissues, by injection.

Injecting a fluid on a public-health scale of course requires more infrastructure than giving people pills. Liquids are harder to preserve, store, transport and administer. Often they must be refrigerated to prevent degradation. And giving injections requires basic nursing skills, whereas administering pills just requires sentience.

So giving injections will be a bit harder and more costly than giving pills. But nothing else in the reasoning or analysis of this post changes. Giving injections still beats building emergency field hospitals and treatment centers, or donning and doffing hazmat suits, let alone the cost of having to sterilize the suits reliably or wear a new one for every working session.

Anyway, most vaccines require injection, if only subcutaneous. So the physical and human infrastructure and method of administration will not differ as between ZMapp (or other monoclonal-antibody drugs) and vaccines. The only difference is that drugs work as cures, or immediate preventatives, whereas vaccines work to prevent disease longer term and tamp fear. I regret the error, but it doesn’t change the thrust or validity of this post one whit.

BTW, this minor error helps justify my penchant for fully-reasoned posts. Without complete reasoning, how could anyone tell how much, or whether, an error like this minor one affects my conclusions? One strong impetus for our nation’s rather precipitous decline is our modern inclination to substitute bumper stickers for complete and careful reasoning.

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08 October 2014

How our Eleven Big Yankee Problems Still Fester


Nearly three years go, I posted a table and essay analyzing what I called our “Ten Grave National Problems.” This essay and table updates that analysis.

My previous post was a bit deficient in counting. There are actually eleven problems: one had parts A and B.

But that really doesn’t matter. In the intervening almost three years, not a single one of the eleven has come close to resolution. Most we haven’t even begun to address seriously.

Isn’t that just what we should expect, with our do-nothingest Congress ever and a President stymied except for unilateral executive action? Supposed “leaders” calling each other names and fighting over abstractions, including ideology that borders on theology, don’t usually solve problems. Our present Congress is a far, far cry from the common sense, pragmatism and cooperative engineering spirit of our Founders.

We have made a little progress on a few problems. Fracking for oil has reduced our foreign oil dependence, but nowhere close to zero. The Fed’s new rules, plus similar rules of foreign central banks, have reduced the risk of finance going rogue again. But length, complexity and lobbyists have turned the much-vaunted Dodd-Frank law into mush. Mush won’t hold up well to pressure, let alone stave off the next financial panic.

We’ve made some progress on endless wars. We’ve wound down our direct combat involvement in two, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a cynic would say we’re still at war in both places, just on a smaller scale and more discretely. And even if our new war against the Islamic State is not a whole new war, it’s at least an extension into Syria.

We’ve made some tiny progress on infrastructure decay: we’ve fixed a few bridges and we’ve talked a lot. But we still have about $2 trillion (with a “T”) of work to do and money to find. Our national deficit is falling rapidly, although our national debt is still increasing, albeit with lower annual deficits. We’ve not done much about our public education lag, but our states are experimenting with solutions, some of which seem promising. At least we’ve mostly stopped arguing about how venal and blameful are our teachers—the lowest-paid educated professionals in our entire society, and the ones on whom our collective future most depends.

Yet nearly half of the Eleven Big Ones are virtually untouched. Economic inequality, immigration, and the decline in our science (except maybe for medicine) are worse. That fact that we’re over a year behind in developing vaccines or drugs for ebola while it begins to penetrate our heartland speaks volumes. Broken government and global warming are much worse.

Meanwhile, nearly three years have passed. That raises the average longevity of our Eleven Big Ones up to 20.5 years—more than an entire generation!

Which brings me to my primary point. If you’re a regular post-secondary student beginning community college, college or university, our Eleven Big Ones are, on average, older than you are. If we continue to work on them at our present lazy rate for just twice again as long, you will be retired, or nearly so, and none of them will have been solved. Your retirement won’t be nearly as secure or comfortable as mine is because the Stars and Stripes may be flying over a banana republic.

Unless you become an activist, an Elon Musk, or an FDR, the most important thing you can do to keep all this from happening is to spend some time and vote this November. If you spend as much time researching for whom to vote as you do on your average daily homework, you will know how to vote. If not, you can read this essay.

The table below shows, for your despair, the Eleven Big Ones that have festered so far, on the average, for more than a generation. In my earlier essay, I explained at length why my longevity numbers are extremely conservative, i.e., very low, with a couple of exceptions. In essence, the listed years of origin for nearly all the problems mark the first broad public notice of them, not their true substantive origins. For global warming, for example, the true origin goes back to the Industrial Revolution.

Here are the Eleven Big Ones, arranged in roughly descending order of importance. Read them and weep:

The Eleven Big Ones: Our Long-Unsolved National Problems

RankProblemOriginYearLongevity
1Broken GovernmentRoutine Use of Filibuster197539 years
2Foreign Oil DependenceSecond Arab Oil Embargo197341 years
3Global WarmingJoint National Academies’ Statement20059 years
4Economic InequalityGrasso Pay Controversy200311 years
5Infrastructure DecayMinnesota I-35W Bridge Collapse20077 years
6Decline of ScienceCanceling Superconducting Super Collider199321 years
7Public-Education LagReport A Nation at Risk198331 years
8Finance Going RogueGramm, Leach, Bliley Act199915 years
9Endless WarsBush Declaration200113 years
10ImmigrationImmigration Reform and Control Act198628 years
11National DebtOff-Budget Iraq War200311 years


Average longevity of The Eleven Big Ones: 20.5 years

(Comparisons: We rose from isolationism to become a decisive factor in winning World War II in four years. In the process, we invented atomic energy and nuclear weapons. We went to the Moon from a standing start in less than ten years.)
If you are not a pol yourself, or a billionaire, you have only one recourse to have any impact on this dismal record: inform yourself, think and vote. And as you think, ponder whether how easy it is for gays to get married, for women to get an abortion, or for anyone to carry a gun legally is as important to your children’s happiness as any of The Eleven Big Ones, let alone all put together.

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01 October 2014

Fossil Fuels: the Case for Divesting


[For this page’s principal post on fossil-fuel divestment, click here. For a brief note on why the Tesla Model X is the electric car I’m buying, click here.]

The Lesson of Ebola

This week the inevitable happened. Ebola made its way to a developed nation.

It was ironic but perhaps fitting that it landed in Dallas. Governor Rick Perry of Texas stole the show on TV, trying to reassure his public.

There he was, in his ill-fitting business suit, looking like a cowboy who had just changed his clothes and combed his copious hair on his way back from the rodeo. He stumbled a bit over unfamiliar medical words, but he did manage to maintain his usual Texas braggadocio. Dallas, he assured the public, is not West Africa.

He even managed to make three substantive medical points. First, we Yanks know how to track contacts and quarantine carriers. Second, we also know how to isolate patients to prevent the disease’s spread, while taking good care of them. Third, we have the advanced facilities and the science and technology to do so, as no other nation does.

One doctor and two aid workers (see 1 and 2) previously had flown home to America, with ebola. All three have survived and are free of the virus. They were cured without infecting anyone else.

So, uncharacteristically, Governor Perry missed an even bigger chance to brag. He didn’t say—although he should have—that ebola hit a brick wall when it landed in America: medical science.

But never mind. Governor Perry has made progress. He managed to make three key medical points in simple language. After spending his entire political career demagoguing God, religion and economic nostrums so dogmatic and simplistic they might as well be religion, he relied on medical science to reassure his worried public.

Bravo, Governor Perry! Welcome to twenty-first-century America! Now, as governor of one of the sunniest and windiest states in the nation, maybe you’ll extend your newfound acquaintance with science. Maybe you’ll consider promoting solar and wind power, so that Texas can remain an energy powerhouse when the Eagle Ford Shale runs out of fossil fuels. After all, calculations show that solar power falling on a mere twenty-ninth of Texas’ land area could have supplied all our nation’s electrical needs for the year 2005-2006.

But I digress. The lesson of ebola is simple. If it can teach someone as thick as Governor Perry the value of science, it can teach the rest of us, too. Science works when religion, prayer, fear and bumper stickers don’t.

Ebola hit a brick wall when it landed in Dallas because we Yanks (or most of us) still believe in science and excel at it. All in all, despite our abysmal health-insurance system, we Yanks have the best medical science on the planet. We know how to keep people alive and healthy, at least when they can afford to pay.

Now the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas has a very important patient. His name is Thomas Eric Duncan. He’s important because he’s a Liberian and he’s black.

If the hospital can cure him and send him home to Liberia healthy, just as American medicine has cured the three white Americans who were flown home from West Africa, that feat alone will work wonders to advance the cause of science. At the very least, it may convince West Africans to listen to doctors and scientists in their own countries.

Science knows why two of the worst diseases to emerge in the last century—AIDS and ebola—have come from Africa. The reason has nothing to do with race or politics. It’s a simple matter of lifestyle.

Some Africans live closer to undomesticated animals and eat more of their “bush meat” than any other human beings. Undomesticated animals act as reservoirs and breeding grounds for new viral diseases. Their closeness to Africans who live near them and eat them gives these deadly new viruses a chance to jump to humans.

The good news is that all of us humans are 98% genetically identical, regardless of race or nationality. So when science finds a vaccine, a cure, or a method of isolation and treatment that dramatically boosts the survival rate, it’s almost certain to work for all of us.

No one knows yet how high the survival rate can be when ebola patients are treated in first-rank modern hospitals. It may prove to be higher than anyone expects. Or the unfortunate Mr. Duncan may die. But if we can save him, we may convince the world, including West Africa, of the value of science and modern medicine.

Ebola offers other opportunities for the advancement of science, too. West Africa can become—and should become—an emergency testing ground for drugs and vaccines to fight ebola.

Of course all experimental medicines should be tested for safety first. But once tested for safety, they could be offered to anyone willing to take them. If I lived in Monrovia, with panic and un-isolated ebola patients all around me, I would take any vaccine or drug I could get my hands on, as long as the doctors assured me it wouldn’t give me the disease or kill me in some other way.

If the truth be told, the developed world has failed the developing world with regard to ebola. We haven’t put much effort or energy into vaccines or cures because we didn’t think the disease would ever reach us. Now it has.

So now we have the opportunity to show the world what we Yanks can do—and how quickly—in bringing this awful disease to ground. That would be something we could all join Governor Perry in bragging about.


This Monday, I sold shares of Exxon Mobil. On Tuesday, I transferred the money to my bank account. On Wednesday, I used part of it to reserve a Tesla Model X. I’ll probably invest the rest in a leading-edge firm like Apple or First Solar.

My family already has a nominal 6.24 kW solar array for our home. So after Tesla delivers my Model X next year, I’ll no longer use fossil fuels to get around or to power our house. I’ll just use some natural gas to heat it in the winter.

That’s a start on my own, personal fossil-fuel divestment. Call it a protest if you like. Call it investment “radicalism.”

After all, I did go to college at Berkeley. Perhaps as a result, I’ll go to my grave believing fervently in the power of peaceful protest to change the world. Protests helped halt our disastrous blunder in Vietnam, got African-Americans, women and gays civil rights and a running start at equality, and helped abolish Apartheid, including through divestment. Peaceful protest by youth is one of the very few ways our species changes its collective mind without war.

So I’m a big fan of protest. But I’m 69 years old; I’m no longer young. Marching in the streets is not my style, if it ever was. I see my divesting not as a protest, but as an intelligent choice among investment alternatives.

As Will Rogers once quipped about land, “They ain’t makin’ any more fossil fuels.” Nature and geology took millions of years to turn the cellulose of ancient forests into methane, ethane, propane and butane (and their polymers) for our profligate combustion.

Once we’ve burned them all—or all we can reach at reasonable cost—there won’t be any more. We’ll be like the vanished Easter Islanders, who (anthropologists speculate) had to leave their lovely tropical island, and leave it denuded, after burning up all the wood there.

But for our entire human species, there won’t be any other place to go. There’s no wood or fossil fuels on the Moon, Venus or Mars. At least there’s none that we know of, after diligent searching.

Today there are still lots of fossil fuels on Earth that we haven’t found yet. And there are certainly still more in the Arctic, which we can get to easier now, as global warming melts the ice. But when all that starts going, then what?

What our species will have then is an incomparably massive collective investment in extracting, transporting, refining, supplying and using fossil fuels. We will have unsightly oil and gas derricks, dry-land and deep-sea wells (both conventional and “fracking”), monstrous pipelines, massive supertankers, huge LNG terminals, enormous refineries, and innumerable global investments in fossil-fuel burning cars, trucks and planes and the factories that make them.

But what good will all this hideously expensive infrastructure be when there are no more fossil fuels, or when the cost of extracting the few that remain becomes prohibitive? We will have built an enormously expensive global infrastructure that will be obsolete and worthless, or in a rapid process of becoming so.

Talk about “stranded assets!” Any fossil fuels still left in the ground for the purpose of slowing the acceleration of global warming will be negligible compared to this stranded global infrastructure.

Not only that. Our collective investment in soon-to-be-worthless infrastructure will get larger per unit of energy as fossil fuels run out. Even today, it takes hundreds or thousands of “fracking” wells to produce the same oil or gas that a handful of conventional wells used to do, when oil or gas was nearer the surface, in bigger subsurface reservoirs, and in subsurface strata that didn’t need to be cracked to get them out. (Remember the “gushers” in the old movie Giant?) So we can expect our collective investment in soon-to-be-useless infrastructure to rise, perhaps exponentially, just before the fossil fuels it taps run out.

How long might that take? Over two years ago I did a calculation for us Yanks and our own natural gas. For about a decade, natural gas has been the “fossil fuel of the future.” It still is. But if it becomes our chief source of energy, it won’t last very long.

If we Yanks use all of our known national natural-gas reserves for continuing our present uses (mostly heating and industry), plus replacing coal for generating electricity (a change already well under way), plus replacing oil for driving cars and trucks, our reserves will last 39 years. And that includes all known conventional reserves on our territory, all known “fracking” reserves, plus then-newly-discovered reserves in Alaska—with every one computed under the most generous estimates made by promoters of fracking.

So if you wonder why youth are pushing their colleges and universities to divest, just think of time scales. Before youth protesting today are even my age, they and their entire societies will be wondering why humanity didn’t plan better. They will be wondering why they spent the best years of their lives building and investing in an enormous and hugely expensive energy infrastructure that is rapidly becoming obsolete, and that will almost surely be obsolete before their own children are my age. They will be poorer, sadder and very, very angry. And rightly so.

All this is part of the reason I invested in Exxon Mobil in the first place. Four years ago, that dominant oil-and-gas firm recognized this very point. Although it had always been an oil company par excellence, Exxon Mobil surprised the financial world in 2010 by buying XTO Energy, a natural-gas “fracking” company.

In the financial press, Exxon Mobil’s managers explained why. They had bought XTO Energy because new sources of oil were getting harder to find, and the oil from them was getting more expensive to extract. So they bought into the natural-gas business because it offered cheaper energy.

It still does, but not by nearly as much. After summer of this year (2014), retail gasoline was only about twice as expensive as retail natural gas on an energy-equivalent basis. Just 2.5 years ago, it was three times as expensive.

Exxon Mobil’s managers may have been sticking their heads in the sand on global warming, but they are good energy engineers and can do arithmetic. When they bought XTO Energy and leapt into the natural-gas business with both feet, they were just being good planners.

But not good enough. Right now, as you read this, the developing world is growing at rates we Yanks, Europe and Japan will never see again. Their rapidly growing populations are madly building roads and cars, trucks, planes and trains that run on fossil fuels. They are also building derricks, wells, pipelines, refineries and all the rest of the fossil-fuel infrastructure to supply these vehicles with energy to run.

Today’s frantic builders of fossil-fuel infrastructure constitute well over half the human race. They are building that infrastructure much, much faster than the rest of us, in “developed” nations, who are still doing our share. Think our species’ finite reserves of fossil-fuels might run out quicker as they do so?

If oil reserves numbered in the billions of barrels sound big to you, just recall that global consumption of oil and liquid equivalents is now north of 90 million barrels per day. So it takes less than 12 days for our species to burn up a billion barrels. And global consumption is projected to increase by more than one percent every year.

Careful readers might note that I have not yet even mentioned global warming and consequent climate change—subjects increasingly on everyone’s mind, which are now driving the divestment debate. Nor have I mentioned pollution, which burning all fossil fuels creates, and which burning coal creates in superabundance.

Does it really make sense to put all our energy-infrastructure eggs in one basket when that burning basket will not only become obsolete in a single lifetime but will also cook us and choke us in the process?

There’s one other point that I’d like to make that, to my knowledge, no one yet has emphasized. It’s labor.

While young and working as a scientist, I had the experience of working at depth in two hard-rock mines. No work that I know, let alone have done personally, is more unpleasant, dirtier or more dangerous. And I was working as a scientist, not a miner, and in a hard-rock mine, not a coal mine.

After a long day about a mile down in the Lucky Friday Mine near Wallace, Idaho, I went to sleep in a local hotel that once had been a brothel. It had open transoms above every door, and a rock band was playing directly beneath my room. A light sleeper, I was afraid I’d never get to sleep. But I slept as soon as my head hit the pillow and didn’t wake up for ten hours.

My scientific colleagues and I discussed this phenomenon, which they, too, had experienced. We attributed it to carbon dioxide and stranger gases, which remain in the atmosphere at depth in any mine despite heroic attempts to ventilate it.

Coal-mining is, of course, the worst fossil-fuel work. But oil and gas drilling are not far behind in dirt, difficulty and danger, especially when done offshore. Recall the eleven men who died, incinerated, in BP’s offshore explosion and spill in the Gulf.

I know, I know. Coal miners and drilling roustabouts take pride in what they do. But were I one of them, and had I time to think before accumulated gases in my blood and tissues (and sheer physical exhaustion) put me to sleep every night, I would daydream about erecting solar arrays, windmills and the power lines to connect them to our cities, in the bright sun, above ground, and in fresh air.

Capitalism is not evil. Unless you prefer the way the Pharaohs built the Pyramids, or Stalin’s forced industrialization of the Soviet Union, it’s the fairest and most effective way our species has yet discovered of organizing productive effort.

Nor are capitalism’s managers evil because they are imbued with the gospel of profit above all. They are just narrow-minded and short-term thinkers. They don’t intend to do anyone any harm. They just don’t think much about consequences beyond the next quarterly or annual report.

They don’t think much about what might happen—and how soon—if our estimates of fossil-fuel reserves are inflated, or if the efficacy of fracking turns out not to be quite what we hoped. They don’t think how soon our reserves might become exhausted or uneconomic to extract.

They don’t dwell on the enormous amounts—now steadily increasing for every barrel, BTU or megawatt-hour of energy gleaned—that we are spending every day on new infrastructure just to keep pace with rapidly increasing global fossil-fuel demand. And they certainly don’t think much about how useless all this infrastructure will become as accessible fossil fuels run out, as they eventually must.

If they don’t even think about these basic planning factors, perhaps we can excuse them for failing to think about global warming, climate change, pollution, and the hard lives of people who subsist by extracting fossil fuels from the ground and refining them, in places like Angola and frozen Edmonton.

I can think about these things because I’m an ex-scientist and retired. My family’s solar array has been generating over a megawatt-hour per month for the last year, far more than we need to run our own household. My power company sends me a check every month, and our array generates electricity without any dirt, noise, effluent, greenhouse gases, smoke, or pollution whatsoever. I can’t even hear it run.

I watched the men erect it. I have absolutely no doubt that I would rather do what they did than work in any coal mine or on any oil or gas rig. And as for longevity, I don’t think sun in Northern New Mexico will run out anytime soon, let alone in the lifetime of the kids or grandkids of anyone living today.

Maybe business-school folk can be excused for thinking about none of this. They are weaned on profit and trained on spreadsheets showing only income and loss, and then only for the current quarter or year. They are simply not trained to take a longer or wider view.

But investors ought to know better, especially in universities. If they don’t take the long view and consider all relevant factors, who will?

In any long view, investing in solar or wind energy, let alone hydropower, is far better than investing in fossil fuels. Maybe that’s why I’ve made far more money in a few months investing in First Solar and Tesla than I made in fourteen months waiting for my leap call options on Exxon Mobil to rise or expire. Maybe that’s also why the Germans, who are among the best planners and engineers on Earth, have invented a new word, Energiewende, to describe their historic transition to renewable energy.

When I gave up on Exxon Mobil this week, it wasn’t because of my political views. It was because, as an ex-scientist and ex-engineer, I’m accustomed to thinking about consequences and following all of them long term.

It was also because my investment didn’t pan out. I came to the firm conclusion that fossil-fuels stocks are worthy of divestment—even by a small individual investor like me—because yet more investment in fossil-fuel infrastructure is bad our human species in the long run, and maybe even in the medium term. If we don’t feel the consequences in our lifetimes, our kids will feel them in theirs.

But let’s be frank. The global balance of supply and demand for oil and gas is precarious. As fossil fuels inexorably run out, there are going to be moments when the balance shifts, perhaps dramatically. So there may be big spikes and dips in fossil-fuel prices before the end comes.

Wars in the Middle East might suddenly cut supply. So might a war in Ukraine, by cutting vital pipelines. On the other hand, successful politics might suddenly increase supply. For example, success in the current talks with Iran might suddenly increase the global supply of oil by ending the Iran Oil Boycott. (If the Oil Boycott isn’t actually suppressing global supply, then what good is it?) So might Libya’s getting its national and political acts together.

So there will be spikes and dips in oil and gas prices, perhaps dramatic ones. There will be opportunities to profit from fossil-fuel-companys’ stocks, among other things. That’s why, as the globe was recovering from the Great Recession, I bought the longest-term leap call options on Exxon Mobil stock that existed and held them for about fourteen months. I made some money, but not much for the long wait.

In the end, I was ashamed of myself. Why, I think now, should I have bet on our species’ inevitable transient energy tribulations? Isn’t there something morally odious about that? And even under purely cold-blooded investment analysis, isn’t that much like trying to time the market—something that every rational investment adviser tells us not to do?

If that’s wrong for a small, individual investor who’s just trying to maintain a comfortable lifestyle in retirement, isn’t it wrong for the folks who run and fund our great universities and the pension plans on which our workforce and retirees depend?

Our university endowments and our great pension funds have fiduciary obligations that go far beyond transient success in what amounts to gambling outside Las Vegas. They have an obligation to invest in things that seem reliable, including our species’ future. They have an obligation to discover, as much as they can, what in our future is close to a sure thing.

Nothing in our species’ discordant and chaotic future is surer than that fossils fuels (or those we can reach at bearable cost) will some day run out. So nothing is more certain than our species’ collective need to find other sources of energy. If the smart people who work in and manage our great universities and pension funds can’t see the writing on the wall and act on it, who can?

All this has nothing to do with “politics.” It’s all about the good planning and engineering that we Yanks used to consider our birthright and that, if we don’t resume them soon, will spell our inevitable national decline. And if the rest of the globe follows our heedless lead, as it often does, the same head-in-the-sand approach might spell the demise of our species, or at least its prolonged and unnecessary suffering.

It’s a Tesla Model X!

Faithful readers of this blog know that I’ve been dithering over what electric car to buy for nearly four years.

Almost seven years ago, I wanted to buy a Chevy Volt. I even promised to do so.

My primary reason was to reward GM for its useful innovation, after a half-century of woeful industrial stagnation. It was GM’s corporate commitment to the Volt that started the global auto industry moving beyond hybrids toward real electric cars.

But as time went on and GM’s leadership took hold, I began to think more carefully about my own personal situation. After I retired, I moved to Northern New Mexico.

New Mexico is consistently one of the sunniest and windiest states in our nation. Yet its energy leadership is pitiful. It lags woefully in wind and solar energy, falling far behind states like California and Texas, even on a per-capita basis. At the time I started looking into the matter (2011), about 87% of my electrical energy still came from coal, the dirtiest fuel in common use and our principal source of greenhouse gases from stationary sources.

I was not about to switch from cleaner gasoline to dirty coal for driving. I wrote a blog post about my dilemma and warned others, too. Eventually, I decided I would have to install my own solar array to avoid driving on coal. In summer 2013, I did.

Our nominal 6.4 kilowatt solar array is over a year old now. According to actual on-line measurement, it produced 1.1 megawatt-hours in a single month, August 2014. That’s enough to charge a Volt or Nissan Leaf 44 times, or more than once a day.

So now I’m ready to roll. Except perhaps for long trips, I can drive on the Sun alone and never buy a gallon of gas again.

In the meantime, the electric-car field has become a lot more crowded. There are a number of entries at the low end, including the Volt, the Nissan Leaf, an electric Ford Focus than never seems to reach critical mass (or serious marketing), and a host of lesser also-rans. At the high end, one pioneering innovator stands out: Elon Musk and his Tesla Model S.

As the field grew, I reluctantly abandoned the Volt. It’s not really an electric car, but a serial hybrid. Since I live 17 miles from town (Santa Fe), a round trip for mere grocery shopping would push its nominal 40-mile electric range. And as I understand it, the Volt itself, not the driver, decides when to run on electricity and when to run on gasoline.

Don’t get me wrong. The Volt is a fine car, especially for singles and single-car families with short commutes. They can use the car to shop and get to work, running only on electricity. And they don’t have to buy another vehicle for long trips; they can go on gasoline. If I were still young, single and working, I might well fulfill my promise to buy one. But I’m not. My needs have changed.

So with the Volt out, my gaze shifted to the rest of the field. It quickly focused on the Tesla, for two reasons. First, the Tesla Model S is a mouth-watering piece of technology fit to excite any engineer’s techno-lust. Second, Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors is the only car company on the planet to bet its entire future on fully electric cars, without hedges or compromises. It offers GM’s Volt leadership on steroids.

Just as I had wanted to reward GM for its initiative in producing the Volt, I now wanted to reward Tesla for taking the next giant step. The significant money I made by investing in Tesla’s stock whetted my appetite (and will help pay for the car).

There were just four drawbacks. First, I don’t really need a range over 200 miles. The farthest I’m likely to go without careful planning is down to Albuquerque and back—a distance of less than 100 miles round trip. Second, the weight of the Model S required to achieve much greater range—over 5,000 pounds—seemed excessive for my 150-pound body. My engineering Calvinist sensibilities rebelled.

Third, there was the matter of ground clearance. I’ve got a 600-foot rutted gravel driveway. I didn’t want to damage my first-ever brand new luxury car, let alone its all-important battery pack (the lowest thing on the chassis) the first time I drove it home.

Finally, there was the price. I’ve never spent anything like $70,000 for a car. I use cars for transportation, not self-aggrandizement. My current car is a Hyndai Elantra that I bought over the phone for less than $17,000. (I love it.) Before that, I had a 1984 Toyota Corolla that I bought for around $9,000 and ran for 25 years in four states, including Hawaii.

The deciding factor was new information on Tesla’s website. Tesla offers an optional Smart Air Suspension [scroll down or search] with the Model S (which requires an optional Tech Package) that makes the ground clearance adjustable. Comments on a German forum suggest that ground clearances well over 6 inches are possible—more than enough for my long, rutted driveway, which is mostly flat.

I assume the same thing will be true of the Model X, a four-wheel-drive SUV designed for use in country applications like mine. That’s the car I intend to buy. I hope the adjustable ground clearance will be standard in it, as the off-road applications suggest.

With the only serious engineering drawback resolved, the others melted away. Having excess range can’t hurt. And the extra battery weight it requires won’t produce any greenhouse gases or pollution because I’ll charge the car from my own solar array.

At my solar array’s 5.40 kW peak measured power, and the industry-standard mileage of 3 miles per kWh, I can charge the car enough to get to town and back, with a three times range safety factor, in less than seven hours. If I want to go to Albuquerque and back, I’ll need a two-day charge. But I can manage that, as I’m retired and rarely use a car more than two or three days a week. So I can enjoy the excess range and tolerate the extra weight, all the while driving solely on the Sun.

As for the price, I’ll have to gulp hard. I just put down the $5,000 reservation fee, and I hope to have the Model X in about a year. After that, I’ll drive on the Sun and thumb my nose at the Koch Brothers, the frackers, rising gasoline and natural-gas prices, and the Saudis. And I'll be running one of the most elegant and advanced pieces of machinery ever offered the driving public—and one whose drive train promises far rarer and cheaper maintenance than any internal combustion engine.

Who says being being environmentally conscious can’t be fun?

Footnote 1: As of September 22, 2014, the national-average retail price for a gallon of gasoline (all grades) was $3.43. As of June 2014 (the latest month for which figures were available when this post was written), the national-average retail residential price of a thousand cubic feet of natural gas was $16.06. The energy-conversion factor between the gallon of gasoline and the thousand cubic feet of natural gas is 8.27. [Scroll to note entitled “Natural Gas (Residential)”] So the cost of a volume of natural gas that is energy-equivalent to a gallon of gasoline was $16.06 / 8.27 = $1.94—a bit over half the actual price of the gallon of gasoline.

With rapidly increasing demand, the energy-equivalent price of natural gas has risen rapidly, from about one-third that of gasoline in March 2012. As the “fossil fuel of the future” becomes the fossil fuel of the present and the past, there is no reason to doubt that the price advantage of natural gas over gasoline will continue to decrease.

Footnote 2: For all the many reasons why electric cars should be more reliable, and should require far less frequent maintenance, than the Rube Goldberg machines that now line our streets, click here. For a Model S owner’s experience with the “ninja-like” service that Tesla offers to put its customers first, click here.

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