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

26 November 2018

Sun-Powered Driving

[For a 2018 Thanksgiving Message, click here. For a list of links to recent posts in reverse chronological order, click here.]

[For a five-day post update on the following post, click here.]

Faithful readers of this blog know I’ve been considering what electric car to buy for over eleven years. For over five years, I’ve had a 6-kilowatt ground-mounted solar array, which produces far more energy than I need to run my home. Since I installed it, I’ve not paid a penny for electricity. Instead, I get a check from my power company every month.

But I’ve long waffled on the electric car to go with the solar array. My fiancée called it “the great dither,” but it’s now over. The “solution” turned out to be the same as I first entertained eleven years ago: the Chevy Volt.

That car also turned out to be far cheaper than I’d figured. With the Volt, I’m driving nearly entirely on the Sun’s energy, at least while at home in Santa Fe. And I’m doing so on a budget. Here’s how.

The first trick was leasing, not buying. GM has incredibly good leasing deals. Your total outlay depends on your credit rating, but if you have a good one the deals are hard to resist.

I walked out of the showroom with a brand new 2018 Chevy Volt for a total down payment of $1,980.33. That’s less than an old, beat-up used car would cost! Monthly payments on a three-year, 10,000 mile-per-year lease have been less than $386. (They vary a bit each month, so I can’t put my payments on billpay autopilot.)

My total outlay over the three-year lease will be about $15,876. When the lease expires, I can buy the car outright for about $20K more. Or I can turn it in and buy a Tesla Model 3—which by then may have worked out its production and start-up kinks. The Volt has already worked out it’s own start-up kinks: it’s now in its third generation. Instead of its original 35 mile electric-only range, it now has a 56-mile electric-only range when fully charged.

And what a sweet piece of engineering it is! There’s a big, steep hill south of Santa Fe called “La Bajada”—“The Incline” in Spanish. With my fiancée and a bunch of luggage in the car, I put it in cruise control at 82 MPH (the most I thought I could get away with in a 75 MPH zone) and zipped up the hill with ease. Since everything in the car runs electrically or electronically, the cruise control didn’t dither, as I had in deciding what electric car to get. It worked like, well, an electronic machine. And ordinary driving is quick and responsive, if not quite as much so as in a Tesla Roadster.

One of the most exciting things about the Volt is its noise, or lack thereof. It makes almost no sound in electric mode, and of course it produces no exhaust. You can run the electric motors in your garage, as long as you like, with the garage-door closed, and not worry about carbon monoxide.

The Volt’s electric operation is so quiet that an external sound generator kicks in whenever it’s going less than 18 MPH, so as not to blindside pedestrians or your kids playing in the driveway. The neatest sounds are a little artificial “whoosh” that the dashboard makes when you turn the car on, and a similar “shutting down” sound when you turn it off.

Although the Volt is a small car, I found listening to music while traveling on the highway to be an entirely new experience. I could hear all the musical highs and lows that booming of the engine and exhaust prevented me from hearing in other cars. The only sounds you hear with the Volt in electric mode are wind and tire noise.

The Chevy Volt is a “serial hybrid.” That means it has a small internal combustion engine (“ICE”), which doesn’t connect directly to the wheels. Instead, the engine drives a big electric generator in “series” with the electric motors, which charges the battery. The electricity from the ICE’s generator can also directly power the two electric-drive motors that move the car, one for each front wheel.

This is how diesel locomotives work in the railroad industry. The diesel engine just drives a big generator, which powers electric motors on the wheels. Thus the Volt has no transmission. Have you ever heard a subway car change gears?

When it runs, the ICE runs at a constant speed, optimized for generating the right amount of electricity. This operation produces far less wear and tear on the engine than in a conventional car, with all the strain of starting, slowing, shifting and stopping the ICE’s crankshaft directly. While driving up La Bajada, I could barely hear the ICE running hard to supplement the big battery’s charge, which then was almost depleted.

I could go on about the car’s electronics. It has two USB ports to keep the driver’s and front passenger’s cell phones charged. It has the usual “hand’s free” Bluetooth-to-cellphone feature. The audio system can play songs stored on your cellphone, iPod or iPad automatically. The front console can keep some cell phones charged inductively, i.e., without hooking them up. And computer screens can let you see all four tires’ pressure levels plus the main coolant’s temperature from the driver’s seat, as well as local speed limits.

But since my other car is nine years old, I’m probably too impressed by what now may be standard electronic displays. So let’s talk about Sun-powered driving.

Even with my home solar array, Sun-powered driving takes a little extra effort because the solar array only generates electricity during the day. It can charge the Volt best between the hours of 7:30 am and 5:30 pm daylight time.

So I have to force the car to charge itself only during those hours. Otherwise, the car would charge itself mostly on coal, which produces the vast majority of conventional electricity in northern New Mexico. (I hope our new Democratic governor will have something to say about this dismal picture, in one of the sunniest and windiest of American states.)

Fortunately, the Volt has a feature, designed for another purpose, that can be adapted to Sun-powered driving. An on-board computer allows you to set the charger to run only during your power company’s “off-peak” hours. Normally, those are hours when electricity usage is generally low and therefore so are electricity prices per kilowatt-hour.

Those times occur mostly at night, but the computer has a twenty-four hour clock. So you can set them during the day if you choose.

That’s exactly what I do. I set the car to charge during “off peak” hours only, and I set the “off peak” hours as my solar array’s 7:30 am to 5:30 pm peak period (daylight time). I thus force the car to charge itself only on the Sun, and it does so automatically. I just plug the car into my garage wall when I get home and double-check the computer settings. The on-board computer does the rest, and a little green LED on the dash signals, by blinking, how charging is going.

I can Sun-drive so easily because I’m retired and don’t go into town every day. If I were still working every day, I would have to buy a Tesla Powerwall battery to store my solar array’s energy output during the day and save it for car-charging at night.

If you have a Volt but not a solar array, you may not be able to Sun-drive. But here’s the thing. You can still avoid oil-driving and so flip the bird to the Saudis, Vladimir Putin, and all their oil reserves.

Oil generates virtually no electric power in any power company, only on cars, planes and ships. So every time you charge your car from your own electrical outlet you will be saving oil. You will also be redressing our geopolitical power balance with nations whose chief claim to greatness is the fortuity of having 100-million-year-old dead trees buried under their land.

If you want to go a bit further and reduce the acceleration of global warming, you’ll have to take an extra step. You’ll have to find out whether most of your local electricity comes from coal, as it does in my part of New Mexico. If so, you’ll have to install a solar array (or a windmill) to charge the car. Otherwise, you’ll be driving on coal, not the Sun’s energy. Coal produces about twice as much carbon dioxide per mile of driving as either gasoline or natural gas and so contributes doubly to accelerating global warming.

But you don’t have to drive on the Sun’s power. Even if you don’t have a solar array or windmill, and even if you charge your Volt, Tesla or other electric vehicle from your electric line, you’ll still be doing the environment, our planet’s climate, and geopolitics a favor, as long as your electricity doesn’t come from coal.

If your electricity comes from nuclear or hydroelectric power, you won’t be producing any greenhouse gases at all. If it comes from natural gas, you’ll be producing slightly less greenhouse gas than you would driving on gasoline, and a lot less smog. As long as your electricity doesn’t come from coal, you can help reduce greenhouse gases, help oil reserves last, and reset the imbalance of geopolitical power that random oil deposits create. You can find out from your electricity bill (which sometimes says where your electricity comes from) or from Web research, how much coal, if any, your local power company uses.

As for me, my Volt now lets me enjoy Sun-powered driving nearly all the time. I had to use some gasoline to “reposition” it from the Bay Area, where I leased it, to Santa Fe, where I live. But even on that long trip, the car’s computer reported well over 40 MPG efficiency, in part because I charged the car from B-n-B outlets during our trip.

Once we got to Santa Fe, I used only a couple of gallons of gas over two months. I could drive up another big hill at highway speeds to and past town, toodle around town, and drive back, all on electricity derived from the Sun. Only once, as I was driving up to my long home driveway, did the ICE at last kick in. The computer reported an average of 240 MPG.

That’s not perfect, but it’s good enough. It’s a lot better than driving on coal or rewarding the Saudis for brutally murdering a talented journalist living and working in our country and supposedly protected by us. And when you add the quiet, smooth, powerful, and even drive to all the electronic goodies, Sun-powered driving is positively Nirvanic.

Footnote. The Volt uses lots of different fluids, most of which are specialized. Its main coolant, which appears to serve both the main battery and the engine, is not water. Instead, it’s a synthetic liquid that doesn’t boil over until 265℉. I discovered this while reading the manual after stopping by the road while going through Arizona at 80 MPH on a very hot day, when the coolant’s temperature read well above the boiling point of water, 212℉.

Endnote on Charging Stations. Some people with electric cars obsess a lot over charging stations. You don’t have to do that if: (1) you only travel locally, well within your car’s all-electric range; (2) you drive farther only along major Interstate highways, which have charging stations strategically located for long-range (250-miles) all-electric cars like the Teslas and Chevy’s Bolt; or (3) you have a Volt. If you keep a third of a tank of gasoline in the Volt, as its manual recommends, that will give you well over a hundred extra miles of emergency gasoline driving range and so avoid both range anxiety and getting stranded.

In the end, that’s the main reason I eventually settled on the Volt after my long dither. Earlier, I had nixed the Volt because I wanted to be an electric-car “purist.” I didn’t want to carry a heavy ICE around with me if I didn’t intend to use it often.

But I changed my mind on discovering that most of my driving would be within the Third-Generation Volt’s longer all-electric range. Having the extra gasoline range for emergencies would avoid searching for charging stations whenever I wanted to travel farther, for example, from my home near Santa Fe down to Albuquerque and back, about 120 miles round trip. (With a full charge and a full gas tank, the Volt’s total range is 420 miles.)

On my first such trip I discovered another good reason having the extra range: standardization. Tesla charging stations use their own plugs, and other stations use a variety of payment mechanisms, rather than a simple credit card. I’m now in the process of researching which one(s) is/are the best in my area (the Southwest) for me to sign up with.

One of the greatest joys of owning an electric car is “gassing up” in your own garage, without ever having to go to a gas station (or hardly ever!). With the extra margin of range that a few gallons of gasoline provides, I can have that joy for a number of months without worry. On the other hand, if your main long drive is a long commute to work or to an alternative work location, or to a special store or a relative’s or friend’s home, it’s not hard to research the needed charging stations for a known route and order the necessary cards or payment mechanisms. That’s not my case.

Another small consideration in leasing the Volt was weight. The big Teslas with long range weigh about 5000 pounds empty. That seemed, and still seems, excessive for dragging around my 150-pound body.

The Volt has a much smaller main battery, about one-fifth as heavy, just a few hundred pounds. Its ICE weighs far less than the other four-fifths of a longer-range battery, which probably tops 3000 pounds. That’s so even if you throw in the few gallons of gasoline that the manual recommends for the Volt’s extra range in routine all-electric use.

If you’re the kind of person who wants to have a hugely heavy car to bash the other car (and save yourself) in an accident, by all means go for it! But the engineer in me can’t help seeing all that extra weight as waste, even if only the Sun’s power drags it around.

To each his own. That’s why we have such a big car market. But all things being equal, I’d prefer a lighter car, even if its cornering may sometimes seems less solid without all the Tesla’s low-center-of-gravity ballast. So that’s what I got.

Overall, and at the current stage of development of the electric-car market, I see the Volt as the best tradeoff among range, range flexibility, weight, price, performance and having worked out all the kinks. My two months of use so far have only confirmed that choice. Kudos to Bob Lutz, the retired GM manager and car guy most responsible for the Volt, and for announcing the corporate decision that began the electric-car stampede!

Update on weight, efficiency and per-mile running cost, five days post-publication

Two practical points are worth making, one implicit, one unmentioned. First, if you don’t like wasting energy in any form (even if it comes from the Sun), the Volt is a better choice than a luxury Tesla or its equivalent. The reason is weight. The curb weight of a 2018 Volt is, on average, 3,531 pounds. The curb weight of a Tesla model S is, on average, 4,794 pounds. So what you pay for the Tesla’s extra 200 miles or so of range is an extra 1,243 pounds, or almost half the curb weight of a subcompact car.

You don’t pay in performance for that extra weight, because the roughly five times larger battery overcompensates, providing lots of oomph on acceleration. But you do pay for the extra weight in efficiency. You take roughly a third more electrical energy to drive a luxury Tesla a given distance than the Volt.

If your electricity comes from your own solar array or windmill, that’s only a theoretical injury. It hurts nothing but your pride and conscience. Yet if your electricity comes from a nuclear or hydroelectric power plant, or from commercial renewable sources like solar arrays or windmills, your excess weight and electricity usage deprive others of electricity and drive up rates. If your electricity comes from fossil fuels, you are also increasing the acceleration of global warming and probably bringing the runout time of natural gas closer. In any of these cases, driving the lighter electric car conserves power and generating capacity more and, if fossil fuels are used, produces fewer greenhouse gases.

The Tesla Model 3 has a similar but smaller infirmity. Its average curb weight is 3,955 pounds, only 424 pounds heavier than the Volt’s. A couple of big passengers could make that up.

So the Model 3 uses only about a tenth more energy to travel a given distance than the Volt. From the point of view of conservation and efficiency, it’s a much more reasonable choice than the high-ticket, high-performance luxury Teslas offering the same 250-mile electric range. The only trouble is having to wait two or three years for Tesla to work off its production backlog (unless you already have a reservation).

The second point is easy to make in a table: mileage cost. The Volt costs less per mile to run than a comparable ICE car, and the cost of electricity is much less likely to change drastically than the cost of oil and gasoline. The calculations require only simple arithmetic, as follows:

Energy Cost of Driving, in Cents per Mile
for 2018 Volt and Comparable ICE Car

Energy SourceUnderlying Price ParameterUnderlying Mileage ParameterCents per Mile Driven
Electricity12 ¢/kWh2.93 mi/kWh4.1 ¢/mi
Gasoline$2.493/gal 40 mi/gal6.23 ¢/mi
Gasoline$3.556/gal (CA) 40 mi/gal8.9 ¢/mi

Notes: The price parameter of 12 ¢ per kilowatt hour is the national average residential price for electricity, but local prices vary considerably. The electric-car mileage parameter is the 2018 Volt’s fully-charged range (54 mi) divided by its battery’s capacity, or 18.4 kWh. The gasoline price parameters are for unleaded regular gas for November 30, 2018. The lower parameter was the national average for that day; the higher was the average California price for that day [roll cursor over state]. The mileage parameter of 40 MPG is about the highest that even hybrid ICE cars can achieve reliably in regular service.

Of course, higher mileage figures would produce lower mileage costs. But even if mileage reached 50 MPG—a figure that the president just found too high to ask car makers to achieve by 2025—that would only reduce the respective per-mile cost figures to about 5 ¢/mi and 7.1 ¢/mi, respectively, still both higher than the Volt’s 4.1 ¢/mi.

The moral of the story is that you don’t have to be rich or lay out $70K for a car to drive on the Sun’s energy or avoid fossil fuels. You can do so on a budget and avoid running down the world’s rapidly dwindling supply of oil. If you live in a non-coal-generating area, you can drive without using any fossil fuels or at least drive on natural gas, which produces slightly fewer greenhouse gases and a lot less smog and promises to be around longer.

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21 November 2018

Thanksgiving Message 2018

[The end of the midterm elections seems like a good time to purge this up-front reprise of most recent posts and provide only the reverse-chronological listing of recent posts at the bottom. I’ll have something more specific to say about the midterms when all the results are in. I’ll also have something encouraging to say soon about driving on the Sun’s energy, rather than on fossil fuels. In the meantime, here’s this year’s Thanksgiving message:]

Thanksgiving messages are traditional on this blog, for Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Unlike most holidays, it doesn’t celebrate a religious figure and so avoids magical thinking. Nor does it tout a tribal victory or loss in some collective act of violence and mayhem.

Instead, Thanksgiving celebrates a simple and beautiful act of humanity. Two radically different cultures joined in celebrating a successful harvest: European religious refugees in a strange and cold new land, and the native people who had helped them survive there. The genocide came later, much later.

Merely to recite these facts is to recognize the yin and yang of human nature. There is always something in our lives to lift our spirits and make us proud. And there is always something to make us worry whether we will survive long term and whether we deserve to.

The trick is to keep the optimism and pessimism balanced and realistic. This year we Americans just delivered the first serious rebuke and electoral restraint to the worst supreme leader in our short national history. So we ought to emphasize the positive. We ought recall who we are, what we’ve done, where we came from, and how our strong political culture continues to shield us from the Dark Side.

In that spirit, I offer a dozen reasons to be thankful this November and beyond:

1. The dike of our democracy has so far held back the floodwaters of tyranny. We have kept the most inexperienced, uneducated, ignorant, willful and undisciplined president in our history from ruling us by whim, ruining us financially, or getting us into another needless war.

2. Despite all the structural defects in our democracy, and despite all our gerrymandering and vote suppression, our voters have done what they always do in midterm elections: make a course correction and apply the brakes to unchecked executive power. In this case, the course correction and braking are even stronger than usual. After two millennia, it seems, human culture has learned how to manage a Nero or Caligula without civil war.

3. Our separation of powers has restrained the worst impulses of executive power. While Congress hasn’t done much but fail to act, our judges have curtailed several unjust and irrational executive acts. They include: (a) barring immigrants based on their religion, (b) ripping refugee children from their parents, and (c) suppressing citizens’ votes, as least in some of the most egregious cases.

4. Our press has held firm in reporting the truth and has held back the tide of delusion. Among its feats are reporting, from time to time, all the lies of our supreme leader, prominently and in detail. [The latest such report is here.] In the case of Jim Acosta, our courts have validated the press in its vital role of holding power to account.

5. Youth, minorities and especially women have risen from passivity and apathy not just to vote, but to serve, to run and to win. Not all have won, of course, but many have. Over time, these new faces in Congress, the courts and our state legislatures will direct our national course back toward the straight path. At least they can orient us toward the future, not the past.

6. The light is beginning to dawn in the halls of business. What profit a man (or woman) if he lose his (or her) country and culture? Our people see manipulated rises in stock prices and foreign disinformation and begin to ask at what cost.

7. The light is also dawning on the Internet. It’s neither a miracle nor a money tree, but a human institution, with considerable benefits but serious risks. The first significant regulation (of privacy) has begun in Europe, and more is on the way. Can restraints on societal subversion, fake news, cybertheft, cybersabotage, cyberwarfare and even rampant distraction from school and real work be far behind?

8. Our Second Gilded Age is producing much the same reaction as the first: revulsion at excess, undemocratic power, and gross inequality. Slowly but steadily, our people and our representatives are recognizing that monopolies on money and free expression are incompatible with a free society, regardless of motive. Facebook, the worst bad actor, is heading for a long overdue comeuppance.

9. After wasting money on a tax cut for the rich and corporations that busted the budget, and after using debt as an excuse to skimp on the people’s health care and retirement, our Congress has nothing much left to spend money on than our dilapidated infrastructure. Sooner or later, we’ll get to it. As Winston Churchill once said, we tend to do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives.

10. As a nation, we are getting serious again. We have to. After the “end of history” with the Cold War, after spending money on the biggest, wildest party our government has ever thrown, there’s not much else to do but get serious. Soon we’re likely to see some experienced, educated and smart people return to the top levels of government again, if only because we’ve tried everyone else.

11. Science is disrespected and on the ropes, but it’s not yet down and out. The mildness of its predictions of global warming will soon revive it, as an unstable climate leads to yet more extreme storms, winter cold snaps, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and fires. And just as we lamented the “missile gap” early in the Cold War, we’ll start to fear the gap in personalized medicine, nanotechnology, quantum computers and quantum communication. Trust me, science is on the cusp of a revival, just as soon as we start getting serious again.

12. Amid all the craziness of our politics and rival ideologies, there is one bad thing we haven’t yet done. We haven’t started a single new, uncessessary war. We’ve limited ourselves to childish threats (in North Korea) and proxy wars against helpless people (as in Yemen and Gaza). Doing so won’t inflate our false sense of moral superiority much, but it also won’t destroy us or our species.

We Americans are enduring a time much like the First Gilded Age a century ago. It’s a time of excess, at time of change, a time of transition. We have the knowledge, experience and intelligence to avoid what happened later during the last century: a world-changing global economic depression followed by humanity’s then-most-terrible war.

To avoid similar catastrophes in this century, all we have to do to is to apply the lessons of the past and avoid magical thinking. Our predecessors in the late twentieth century showed us the way. Our recent two-year venture into executive madness, with our brakes just applied hard, gives us every reason to expect we’ll get serious again soon enough and apply those lessons before it’s too late.

So give thanks for the promise and the hope of change, and continue to work for it. Happy Thanksgiving!

Endnote: Pelosi and the Old Guard

On second thought, let’s make it a Baker’s dozen of things to be thankful for. Let’s include House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader-to-be Steny Hoyer and House Whip-to-be Jim Clyburn—the “Old Guard” of the Democratic House.

Why them? Why now?

They have the thing most missing in our national government since Obama left office: experience. With only six years of elective office before he became president, Dubya had been our least experienced president ever, if you count our general-presidents’ military commands as experience. Yet Trump beat Dubya soundly in that regard, with zero experience in politics and public office ever.

Think the world’s toughest jobs might actually require some knowledge and savvy? Well, the jobs for which Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn are headed aren’t too much different from the presidency. There are innumerable rules, customs, traditions and procedures to know, and 434 personal relationships to master. You don’t just jump into these jobs on a college degree and some enthusiasm.

No one is happier than I about the new Muslim, African-American, Hispanic and female reps who just got elected. But don’t they have to find out where the bathrooms are first, before they start running things?

And while we’re on the subject of gratitude, how about pre-existing conditions? If you or a loved one had them insured recently, you owe your/their health and perhaps survival to two pols: Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. They fought the good fight to bring you that real insurance. And they didn’t just fight; they won! They won after a century of struggle, beginning (so help me God!) with Grover Cleveland.

So don’t let yourself be conned by the GOP Cracker Brigade that figuratively sat on the split-rail fence jeering the “gal” and the “black” while Pelosi and Obama were bringing you the best thing for regular people since Lyndon Johnson. The Young Turks will have their day, once they find out where the bathrooms are and how the House really works. Meanwhile, let’s all give thanks for Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn, who can hit the ground running.

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17 November 2018

How Advocates are Destroying Global Society, with Facebook in Front

[For some ways in which youth’s vote in the midterm elections could have improved its and its progeny’s future, click here. For how the midterms might have ended our American Civil War at last, click here. For ways to manage your media to avoid being duped and stay sane, click here. For a plea to Tim Cook to shape up Apple’s OS X before it goes the way of Microsoft’s consumer operating systems, click here. For how I voted early and why, and how easy it was to vote, click here. For a description of how mind-raping propagandists get people to vote against their own interests, click here. For all the reasons why the FBI’s “investigation” of Christine Blasey Ford’s claim of sexual abuse was a sham, click here. Fox sixteen reasons to vote this time for Democrats only, click here. For a note on the likely electoral consequences of the GOP ramming Kavanaugh through to the Supreme Court, click here. For a note on why the issue has become personal for many, click here. For a short note on how important Professor Ford’s charges are, click here. For comment on President Obama’s decision to join the political fray, click here. For a possible path to Trump’s impeachment and removal, click here. For comment on Trump’s deal with Mexico, click here. For a brief homage to John McCain, followed by reasons to support Stacey Abrams, click here. For a brief note on vote suppression in Georgia as a reason to support Stacey Abrams, click here. For other good candidates and causes and how to contribute easily, click here. For recent posts in reverse chronological order, click here.]

For anyone who ever went to law school, the word “advocate” means one thing only: a lawyer or attorney. With Donald Trump a rare exception, people trained as lawyers comprise the vast majority of those who govern us, including members of congress, leaders of executive agencies, judges, and state and local pols.

But in the last century, the “profession” of advocacy has spread far beyond the bounds of the political arena, the law and those who practice it. Today we have many classes of advocates. They include: marketers of products and services, promoters of businesses and politicians, political “operatives,” lobbying firms, public relations specialists, “communications” professionals and so-called “crisis managers.” Every one of these workers and institutions has as their task getting the public or a class of people to see something or someone—a political party or movement, a company, a product or service, a politician, a human error or mistake, or a natural or artificial disaster—not as he, she or it is, but as the people who hired the advocate wants it to be seen.

In modern America, and in most of the free world, there are only four substantial classes of people dedicated to discerning and disseminating reality, i.e., finding the facts and following them wherever they lead. These groups are: scientists, engineers, accountants, and journalists. (I leave out criminal investigators like Robert Mueller because they serve the dual purposes of investigation and advocacy. They are, after all, attorneys who try cases if they think the facts so warrant.)

Each of these groups has its own rules and procedures—its own culture and law, if you will. Scientists hope to tease out how the physical and biological worlds work, using a specific formal process known as the “scientific method.” Then they report their findings to their peers and to the public, who review and verify or refute their conclusions. Engineers must make things that do useful work. If what they make doesn’t do useful work or costs too much, they modify, fix or improve it until it works better or costs less. Accountants verify whether what engineers and others do is useful, using profit as a proxy measure. If they don’t measure accurately, businesses can go bankrupt and/or bad actors can go to jail. Journalists find and report facts, primarily about people and their activities, under a code of accuracy and truthfulness relying primarily on multiple human sources and reporting and comparing different perspectives.

There is no simple, all-encompassing term, like “advocates” for their unlikes, to describe people who work in these four professions. “Truth seekers” sounds outmoded, almost religious. “Truth tellers” is presumptuous: being human, people in these categories can err, exaggerate, and even lie. But when they do, they are violating the canons for their respective professions and usually fall from grace. In contrast, when advocates come close to the line of lying—or cross it, as our president has done many times—they are rewarded and promoted, whatever they say, if only they change minds as ordered.

Advocates’ goal is not advancing our collective knowledge of each other and our common universe. It’s delivering to their clients some sort of power over us, controlling what and how we think and believe and thereby (indirectly) how we vote and act. The four other professions try to keep us in touch with some semblance of reality. So let’s just call them “reality-checkers.”

With these points in mind, we can see precisely how and why the current controversy over Facebook has existential implications for our entire human species. That controversy now sits at the nexus of four millennial megatrends that will set our future path and may ultimately fix or forfeit our species’ survival.

The first megatrend is the gradual transition of human governance from nation-states (and their agglomerations, like the EU) to rule by corporations. I’ve described this transition in several essays, including this one and this one, and won’t repeat the analysis here. But the outlines are easy to summarize in four points. First, corporations have the money, while increasingly debt-ridden states do not. Second, corporations have the expertise and the necessary specialization, the more so as human life and human work become increasingly complex and specialized with the advance and spread of science and technology. Third, with their rules for using their products and services, corporations “govern” where people live, below and sometimes under general principles fixed by states’ constitutions and laws. Finally, the development and spread of science and technology, and the accelerating innovation they foster, make it impossible for traditional governments to keep up, even if they had the money, expertise and power, which often they don’t.

The second megatrend is in part a consequence of the first. Corporations increasingly make the rules under which individuals mostly live their lives. They do so in their contractual language, the way they handle disputes, mistakes and customer dissatisfaction, and the ways (rapidly increasing) in which they try to handle these things automatically, without human intervention, or at least often without intelligent human intervention.

As in many things, the United States is in the vanguard of this second megatrend. Our most foundational legal principles—those in our Constitution and its Bill of Rights—simply don’t apply to action by any private corporation or individual. Except as made more widely applicable in statutes (such as those prohibiting discrimination), these principles restrict only “state action.”

Recently our American Supreme Court has underlined this point. It has allowed corporations to remove the entire American legal system from consumers’ and customers’ reach as such with a simple expedient: including a clause requiring private arbitration in form contracts. In addition, we are now in the beginning stages of a mammoth legal battle over whether corporations and even powerful individuals can restrict or even extinguish individuals’ supposed “right” to freedom of speech by including gag clauses in contracts or requiring nondisclosure agreements. The president’s attempt to enforce a nondisclosure agreement against the porn star Stormy Daniels is just one of thousands of examples of this modern phenomenon. (The EU appears to be flirting with a countertrend, both with its international competition (antitrust) rules built into its governing treaties and its recent international privacy regulation. But it remains to be seen how much success these small countertrends will have and whether they will enjoy global adoption.)

The third megatrend is the current explosion of the advocacy professions in numbers, influence, affluence and power, largely at the expense of the reality-checkers. The wanton murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi is just the most recent and sensational evidence of this trend. Donald Trump’s absolute disdain for science and scientists is of equal concern. More subtle and insidious is the slow but steady transition in the corporate world, just as corporations collectively are assuming more and more of the power to govern ordinary people’s private lives by contract.

A century or more ago, engineers began and ran America’s great industrial corporations. The very corporate names reflect the skill and prominence of their founders: Carnegie (who adapted the Bessemer Converter to make steel in America), Bell (whose name graced many telephone companies before the breakup of the old AT & T), Ford (who invented the assembly line and with it America’s consumer society), and Edison (whose name still adorns many American electric utilities). Today, most great corporations are run by lawyers, financiers and business-school graduates, many of whom could not fix, let alone design or build, their corporations’ products or produce their services. With Steve Jobs having passed and Elon Musk now removed as CEO of Tesla, it looks as if the advocate class may have taken over modern American industry.

This megatrend includes yet another disturbing social development, which may now be in the process of starting to self-correct. For decades, business schools have taught their students that the primary and even sole function of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders.

Combined with the trend toward more advocates and fewer reality-checkers running corporations, this teaching has had some predictable but severe consequences. When you are the developer of a new product or service (usually an engineer of some sort), your first concern is with the product or service, its success and improvement. When you are an advocate selling someone else’s product or service, your first and only criterion of success is likely to be the money you make, both for your company and for yourself. Furthermore, if you are not an engineer or the product developer, but are skilled at managing people, your first resort to solving a big problem may be to make it appear to go away, rather than to solve it. Your own training, the profit-only orientation you learned in business school, and the press of circumstances may conspire to make you an advocate, rather than a reality-checker.

The fourth and final megatrend of our new millennium relates to the Internet and specifically to Facebook. Our species is now experiencing the greatest-ever explosion of communication, in media and forms that are mostly uncontrolled and may be uncontrollable. Much of that communication is unique in kind, not just volume. For example, Facebook’s platform involves so-called “many-to-many” communication, in which many people may be authors or producers, contemporaneously if not simultaneously, and many more may be readers or viewers. In this form of communication, there is seldom a gatekeeper or arbiter of accuracy or quality. Often there is not even a copy editor.

There is no practical restriction on the number of originators or the number of consumers of many-to many communications over the Internet.

Here Facebook is absolutely in the vanguard of the megatrend. Unless the originator of a Facebook page otherwise mandates in the page settings, there is no practical limit on how many individuals can post on that page or how many can read the posts, including real or fake photos and real or fake audio and video clips. And owners of pages—whether corporations trying to expand their ranges of customers or authors trying to expand their audiences—have no incentive to impose restrictions.

In this respect Facebook best exemplifies the full impact of the many-to-many communication mode that previously had been just a theoretical use of the Internet. It permits many more participants than, for example, e-mail, which is limited by the need to insert individual “mailing” addresses, and product reviews or readers’ comments on news or opinion articles, which are limited to particular subject matter, namely, the product or the subject of the article.

At the dawn of the Internet, in the 1990s, commentators focused on the ability of this technology to do good. It can promote democracy and group-building, they reasoned, by taking a powerful means of communication outside of the control of any gatekeeper. But in fact that complete freedom has given way to license, as people unleashed from any restraint—including accuracy, truth, decency, and empathy—have formed flash mobs and hate groups and given undeserved credence to a myriad of conspiracy theories and crackpot ideas.

Facebook and its technology are vital harbingers of our species’ future because they are right at the center of all four of these megatrends. Facebook may not be the richest, most valuable or strongest of the “big five” technology giants, namely (in alphabetical order), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. But it’s the only one that has definitely influenced and probably secured the election of an American president, the imminent departure of a key member of the European Union (leaving that nation at present in complete disarray), and the election of extreme right-wing leaders in Italy, Hungary, Poland, possibly in Brazil, and nearly in France. No other corporation has come so close to demonstrating the practical passage of political and governmental power from nation-states to corporations.

As for rules that practically govern our daily lives, what promises to have a greater impact than Facebook’s rules for who may use its fora and what they may say? Freedom of speech is useless and illusory unless you have a forum that gives you an audience. That’s why our Supreme Court, over the years, has recognized even certain private property, such as malls, as “public fora” in which the Constitution guarantees free speech.

As compared to these limited physical spaces, Facebook gives various speakers, from corporations, through crackpots to the President of the United States, unprecedented fora in cyberspace, without any physical or much cultural or legal restraint. Those fora, at present and by far, comprise the most powerful means of many-to-many communication ever developed.

So the legal and corporate rules for their use will dictate whether the freedom of speech, religion and assembly that our First Amendment purports to guarantee remain realities or become practical charades. And the misuse of whatever freedom Facebook in its corporate wisdom allows will determine, among other things, whether the pogroms once so common in Europe and Stalinist Russia will become as common in today’s America as they once were against blacks in our post-Reconstruction South.

As for the third megatrend—the growing predominance of advocates over reality checkers—Facebook’s own internal corporate governance exemplifies it. Mark Zuckerberg was the developer of Facebook’s software platform and is still its majority shareholder. So he’s the nearest thing in Facebook’s top management to a member of the engineering clan of reality-checkers.

Yet in responding to valid (and so far rather mild) assertions of Facebook’s responsibility for, if not complicity in, catastrophic political and social earthquakes, advocates like CEO Sheryl Sandberg and her team have pushed Zuckerberg aside and controlled Facebook’s response. They’ve overwhelmed whatever engineering influence Zuckerberg may have asserted and pushed relentlessly for a policy of advocacy. They’ve tried to make the problem seem less than it is. They’ve pointed fingers at competitors in order to secure a competitive advantage. They’ve done everything but see and confess a dismal reality: that Facebook now stands at the center of a species-critical problem of hate speech, online mob formation, disinformation, and “fake news” that eventually will require an “all hands on deck” approach using technical means, money, people and, yes, regulation to solve.

For evidence of this point, you need look no further than the New York Times2.2-full-page exposé of Sandberg’s and Facebook’s response to governmental and press attention. To Zuckerberg’s credit as a putative engineer, he sat “stone-faced, [and] whirred through technical fixes” at a key board meeting. Yet Sandberg and her team persisted with a program of the three Ls: lawyering, lobbying and (essentially) lying. Like many of the business leaders responsible for the Crash of 2008, Sandberg has a background in economics, finance, and business, but none in engineering or software. She is therefore only following her training in advocacy.

The final megatrend that Facebook exemplifies is the explosion of many-to-many Internet communication like a nuclear weapon over human society. Here Facebook is not just part of the trend. It exemplifies it. Facebook is by far the most widespread and powerful example of the technology globally, the one most successful technically and financially, and the one most closely associated with catastrophic (and mostly unpredicted) social and political earthquakes.

Almost every development in technology can work for either good or ill. Despite their awful carnage and lasting radioactivity, nuclear weapons stopped the world’s most terrible war, without a bloody and prolonged invasion of Honshu. They have kept the peace among major powers for over three-quarters of a century. Yet they almost extinguished our species in October 1962, and the threat of their doing so still remains serious and growing.

Just so, Facebook’s innovative medium of communication has the potential to bring people together for the common good. It did so in the Arab Spring, which, although failed, was the first green shoot of democracy in the now-war-devastated Arab world. Yet no one anticipated the extent to which that potential to bring people together could be used to divide a peaceful world (including America!) into warring tribes, promote hate and pogroms, and put utterly unqualified right-wing bullies in high office globally. In the long run Facebook has the potential to be just as devastating as nuclear weapons, either by allowing fateful divisions that lead to actual nuclear conflict or by getting us humans to neglect the greatest self-caused challenge in our species’ history, namely, global warming.

Some 36 years ago, another corporation experienced a sudden challenge of a different kind. A maniac, still unknown, put cyanide in some of Johnson & Johnson’s bottles of then-leading painkiller Tylenol. Seven people died from taking the poisoned tablets. Sales plunged.

The firm’s CEO, James E. Burke, was the product of a business school, just like Sheryl Sandberg. But unlike Sandberg, he was a CEO of the old school.

Burke instructed his team to save the people first, and only then the product. So Johnson & Johnson recalled the entire nation’s supply of Tylenol, all 31 million bottles, at a loss of over $100 million. Then the company introduced bottles with triple tamper-proof seals and slowly, painfully and expensively restored Tylenol to its leading place in the over-the-counter painkiller market that it still enjoys today. If J & J had responded to its “Tylenol crisis” with the same inaction and defensive advocacy with which Facebook has responded to its global misuse crisis, hundreds or thousands of additional innocent people might have died of cyanide poisoning.

As for me, I’ve never much liked or used Facebook. I consider its platform a piece of garbage software, virtually unusable compared to Amazon’s website or Google’s Gmail and Blogger. I’ve delayed deleting it only because of the midterm elections and software problems with Apple’s OS X. Once I’ve finished assimilating my new Google Pixelbook (on which I’m editing this post) and I’ve checked whether Facebook ever downloaded my data as promised, I plan to delete my Facebook account and expunge it from my computers and my life forever.

Institutions matter. The Catholic Church, with its authoritarian approach to God, astronomy and everything, delayed the advent of modern democracy and science for about a millennium—the last half of the first millenium and the first half of the second. It suppressed Galileo’s discovery that our Earth revolves around our Sun, and not vice versa. It delayed the development of modern medicine for centuries by forbidding dissection of cadavers in a search for knowledge of how the human body works.

As it begins its third millennium, our human species is on a cusp. It could be nearing a prolonged Golden Age, if we respect science and each other. We could halt the acceleration of global warming and work together to eliminate poverty, inequality and violence. In so doing, we could make life as much better for every human being, compared to today, as today’s life differs from the “nasty, brutish and short” lives of the first millennium. But if we dissolve into warring tribes, if we revel in magical thinking and superstition, if we credit fantastic and crackpot conspiracy theories, we could relapse into violence, extreme inequality and poverty and let rampant war and/or global warming destroy us and our planet.

Facebook has the potential to give us a strong push in either direction. But its current leaders don’t seem to care much which way they push, as long as they are making money. Therefore it’s up to our government and the rest of us to encourage Facebook’s leaders to make the right choices, even if doing so requires a universal boycott, massive federal intervention, or rampant litigation over breaches of privacy, complicity or acquiescence in bigotry and terror, and simple misuse. The stakes are just too high to let the inertia and greed of a handful of pampered and self-interested business people set the direction of our species for this new millennium.

Endnote: Another reason to exclude criminal investigators/prosecutors like Mueller from the category of reality-checkers is transparency. The results of Mueller’s investigation of the President will not likely be made public unless he decides to prosecute or recommend prosecution (including impeachment). It is far more likely that Trump is just a lier, scoundrel and all-around sleazebag than a convictable or removable criminal. If so, then the results of Mueller’s investigation may never come to light.

That’s why public release of Trump’s tax returns is so important. They will show, with evidence prepared by his own hand (or his lawyers’), with a view to protecting his own income and interests, exactly how rich he is, how he makes his money, the extent to which he has lied, and how much he indeed is a scoundrel and sleazebag. Making that case is a lot easier than indicting a sitting president (which some legal experts say cannot be done), or removing one after impeachment when a majority of the Senate is of his own political party. Public proof of his true character might at least prevent the American public from again buying the proverbial “pig in a poke,” as it apparently did in 2016.

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