Hmm. Okay, in Friday’s Bleat, James Lileks com­ments (screed­i­fies?) on a few memes float­ing around that rub him the wrong way. He begins thus:

As I said on the Hewitt show tonight, I feel as if Bizarro World is slowly leak­ing into ours, and one day we will see Superman and note he has that ugly grey faceted skin, and won­der when that hap­pened. Well, we just didn’t pay atten­tion to the signs. In Bizarro World, ille­gal for­eign com­bat­ants are granted con­sti­tu­tional rights; in Bizarro World, peo­ple react to high gas prices and energy short­falls by refus­ing to boost domes­tic capac­ity. You have John McCain nix­ing ANWAR drilling and lend­ing his sonorous monot­one to cap-​​and-​​trade; you have Obama not­ing that gas prices rose too quickly, which pre­sum­ably means he would have favored a grad­ual rise to ninety-​​buck-​​a-​​tank fill-​​ups; you have Speaker Pelosi vamp­ing on the pop­u­lar memes […]

A’ight, well, here’s a mod­er­ate liberal’s reply to the open­ing salvo.

For starters, ille­gal for­eign com­bat­ants haven’t nec­es­sar­ily been granted any­thing. Accused or alleged ille­gal for­eign com­bat­ants, how­ever, have been extended the same priv­i­leges under US law that cit­i­zens of the US are sup­posed to have. To my mind, this makes sense; if we can’t obey our own judi­cial cus­toms in pros­e­cut­ing those who may be clearly guilty — if we can’t adhere to the guide­lines of jurispru­dence in pros­e­cut­ing even the most rabid anti-​​US fanatic, if we have to essen­tially cir­cum­vent the prod­uct of decades of care­ful criminal-​​case prece­dent in order to obtain a con­vic­tion, it seems to me that our cred­i­bil­ity will be sig­nif­i­cantly compromised.

That is, if we have to play a rigged game to ensure a given out­come with some­one who is clearly guilty, any other pros­e­cu­tion we per­form will imme­di­ately — and prob­a­bly jus­ti­fi­ably — be called into ques­tion. The rea­son we have strin­gent rules for pros­e­cu­tion, the rea­son we vet evi­dence, the rea­son we don’t accept tes­ti­mony obtained under duress is that when we do, we don’t actu­ally enhance the sta­tus of our cases against any­one else whose guilt or inno­cence is less certain.

As far as refus­ing to boost domes­tic capac­ity goes, yes, that’s a short-​​term prob­lem (by short-​​term here I mean one to two decades). It’s inar­guable that our depen­dence on out­land oil is a seri­ous prob­lem, and one that will not get bet­ter with time. It’s cer­tain that boost­ing domes­tic capac­ity would fix things on the short term. The prob­lem is that open­ing up ANWAR won’t actu­ally solve any­thing over an extended period — it’ll just shove ahead the date when we have to seri­ously start con­vert­ing to dif­fer­ent (and, at the moment, admit­tedly imprac­ti­cal) means of energy redistribution.

To my mind, it makes more sense to start that tor­tu­ous con­ver­sion process sooner than later. I’ve had a belief for a while now that most humans can’t really see past their own head­stones; that is, we tend to look to the future only as far as we our­selves expect to live as indi­vid­u­als. This means a per­son in her 60s might be look­ing ahead only twenty years or so, while one in his thir­ties might be see­ing the next half century.

This lifes­pan blind spot can make it dif­fi­cult to per­ceive the real­ity that we’re head­ing into trou­ble, and will prob­a­bly be in more trou­ble than we can read­ily con­ceive by, say, 2025.

In the past, of course, there’ve been dire pre­dic­tions about the effects of overuse of this, reliance on that, and dearth of the other. And it’s fair to point out that, by and large, things seem to sort them­selves out.

That doesn’t sug­gest, to my mind, that we have a right today to behave as though this self-​​correction trend will con­tinue, that it will always be there.

We do have to trust in the future; we do have to rely on the strength of our prog­eny to face the unknown with grace and style and suc­cess. On the other hand, we should also be will­ing to try to pass along as many resources (here I don’t just mean energy; I also mean edu­ca­tion and a resilient, vibrant cul­ture) as we can. We’re hold­ing the present in trust to the future, I think; and rely­ing exclu­sively on opti­mism about our species’ abil­ity to over­come any obsta­cle strikes me as being every bit as unre­al­is­tic and pie-​​in-​​the-​​sky opti­mistic as a treehugger’s asser­tion that if we stop abus­ing Mother Earth today, go totally organic, ignore the value of GMOs, set fire to all McDonald’s, and use only recy­cled toi­let paper, all our prob­lems will mag­i­cally disappear.

Another pos­si­ble rea­son for fear­ing open­ing up ANWAR is that it may be the noto­ri­ous thin end of the wedge; in other words, drilling in the arc­tic refuge might today be con­fined to one sta­tion, but in years to come it might spread like athlete’s foot in an over­heated Nike. That’s not an unjus­ti­fied fear. We tend to spread out, quickly, and we tend to choose to ignore the larger effects we have on our envi­rons if we seem to be able to obtain a short-​​term (!) gain.

Lileks goes on to enu­mer­ate some spe­cific objec­tions. They’re well-​​written, but to my mind they’re car­i­ca­tures; though to be fair I think there’s a ker­nel of legit­i­macy when I lis­ten to the rhetoric gen­er­ated by extreme Left thinkers.

1. We have oil men in the White House. Perhaps [Pelosi] meant to imply that they’re more con­cerned with their old indus­try con­nec­tions than the con­sumer, the rate of infla­tion, the impact on the econ­omy, their legacy, and the health and sta­tus of the United States. Goes with­out say­ing, I guess. It is a hardy peren­nial. Remember, there are three men in Texas who have a lever that con­trols the price of oil, and they should be brought in for a stern grilling before Congress.

Now you have to admit that’s funny, though I might have writ­ten it as “Oil Men”, not “oil men” (some­times Scare Caps can be as effec­tive as “scare quotes”). On the one hand, of course it’s ludi­crous to sug­gest that per­sonal amass­ment of wealth will always be of more con­cern to any indi­vid­ual or group; on the other, it’s hard to feel com­fort­able — I think — about the sub­tle ways high-​​money, high-​​stakes indus­tries have seemed to exert a great deal of influ­ence over US pol­i­cy­mak­ing for decades.

And yes, it’s silly that every time the price of gas jumps, we’re call­ing up CEOs and demand­ing to know why. There is no sin­gle sim­ple answer (though the real­i­ties of lim­ited sup­ply against increased demand are pretty hard to dis­pute), and the clear push toward empty scape­goat­ing is basi­cally a waste of everyone’s time.

Contrarily, there is an unre­al­is­tic pres­sure placed on CEOs to keep prof­its high, in order to fore­stall a share­holder revolt that would cost them their posi­tions. This, I sus­pect, can lead at least some to make deci­sions which work extremely well over a year or two or five — but which, in greater scope, are clearly in error. Witness GM’s recent implo­sion in man­u­fac­tur­ing SUVs. While a lot of money was made, very quickly, over a fairly short period of time, the prac­ti­cal out­come for the com­pany, its share­hold­ers and its employ­ees has been rather dis­mal. Had GM cho­sen to pro­duce more moderately-​​sized vehi­cles, they wouldn’t now be clos­ing plants and post­ing losses. (Well, okay, maybe that’s not true; but they’d prob­a­bly at least be clos­ing fewer plants and post­ing not-​​so-​​great losses.)

Lileks con­tin­ues with:

On an unre­lated note: Hugo Chavez is a puck­ish fig­ure whose appeal to the down­trod­den is under­stand­able, given American med­dling in the region; Iranian state oil pro­duc­tion is irrel­e­vant to every­thing, Saudi Arabia can only be dis­cussed in con­text to its ties to the Bush fam­ily, and Mexico’s oil indus­try is off-​​limits as well, lest it some­how bol­ster the argu­ments of xeno­pho­bic racists who oppose unlim­ited immi­gra­tion. Pay no atten­tion to the oli­garchs behind the cur­tain. Look at the car­toon fig­ure with the ten-​​gallon hat and the steer-​​horns on his stretch Cadillac. Boo! Hiss! Goldstein!

Also funny, but unfair in that it’s a skew­er­ing of the most extreme claims made by the most extreme fringe ele­ments. The sug­ges­tion is that Nancy Pelosi holds these views (and, by exten­sion, all Democrats, lib­er­als and inde­pen­dents with lib­eral lean­ings), and I don’t think that’s accurate.

Point the Second is thus:

2. We have 2 per­cent of the reserves and use 25 per­cent of the reserves. Perhaps she [Pelosi] meant to imply that the oil should be dis­trib­uted across the globe by pop­u­la­tion, and the most dynamic, elas­tic, pro­duc­tive economies should be starved to sat­isfy some happy hand-​​holding UN-​​approved kum­baya con­cept of transna­tional fair­ness, and YOU should be putting gas into a bot­tle and send­ing it to Zimbabwe. As I’ve said before: it’s as if a world gov­ern­ment was formed 20 years ago, and the United States has not only failed to live up to its moral oblig­a­tions, it has actively thwarted and dis­re­garded the law. We’ve seceded. Internationally speak­ing, we’re Dixie.

No, actu­ally; I think the point is that we might want to look at our con­sump­tion in light of a larger stage than we’re gen­er­ally used to. The US is a strongly insu­lar cul­ture, by and large; we’re not over­all xeno­pho­bic but we can be remark­ably deaf to other nations and cul­tures, and can be (I think) strik­ingly cal­lous in our behav­ior on the world stage. We don’t have to bot­tle our gas and send it to some poor under­priv­i­leged per­son over­seas, but we don’t have to con­sume at the lev­els we do either.

In my daily trans­porta­tion needs there’s no prac­ti­cal dif­fer­ence between my Hyundai Accent and an orig­i­nal Hummer with a tur­bocharger, AC blast­ing full all the time, a quar­ter ton of cargo and the full lead-​​lined chas­sis, armor-​​plated wheel spin­ners and bul­let­proof indi­ca­tor lights. Either vehi­cle would get me to and from shop­ping, work and so on with equal efficacy.

However, I don’t need the battlewagon.

Understanding that doesn’t mean capit­u­lat­ing to unre­al­is­tic demands; nor is the sug­ges­tion that we can cut back on our con­sump­tion equiv­a­lent to a cry that we become inter­na­tional door­mats to every other nation. It just means that we can think and behave with a larger per­spec­tive in mind than whether we look good at the stop­light or on the curb or at the car wash.

The third point digresses after the open­ing graf, but here’s how it begins [for con­text, the argu­ment is not Lileks’, but rather his pre­sen­ta­tion of an imag­i­nary Pelosi]:

3. We can­not drill our way out of this. We can­not, in other words, deal with short­ages by increas­ing the sup­ply. Presumably because it wouldn’t have an imme­di­ate effect? Well, then, there’s no point doing any­thing about global warm­ing today or tomor­row, is there. Because it won’t fore­stall the inevitable day when we run out. Granted. So why eat today? You’ll be dead eventually.

This is an unfair jux­ta­po­si­tion. By call­ing for a reduc­tion in energy con­sump­tion, no one is seri­ously sug­gest­ing we should starve our­selves to death. And no one should be seri­ously sug­gest­ing that more oil drilling won’t have an imme­di­ate effect; but the real­i­ties of oil drilling and trans­porta­tion of crude to refiner­ies make it effec­tively impos­si­ble for new ranges open­ing today to have any mean­ing­ful impact in less than five years.

That is, if the Bush admin­is­tra­tion had suc­ceeded in open­ing ANWAR for drilling in 2004, we’d be see­ing the effects no sooner than, prob­a­bly, 2009, which would allow short­sighted com­men­ta­tors (and there is no dearth of them) to attribute the lower costs of gas at the pump to the cur­rent (2009) admin­is­tra­tion. So even our short short-​​term solu­tions aren’t that short-​​term.

Because it won’t be enough in the end to depress prices enough. Yes, three-​​buck-​​a-​​gallon gas, five-​​buck-​​a-​​gallon: six of one, nine dozen of the other, espe­cially if you’re being limo’d every­where. Because we have oil­men in the White House boo hiss. Well: let’s look at who’s mak­ing out bandit-​​wise. According to this page, the profit in California on a gal­lon of gas is 51 cents – which includes, for some bizarre rea­son, “refin­ery costs.” Only gov­ern­ment can make a chart that lumps costs into prof­its into the same wad. Total California taxes and fees: 52 cents. Add the Federal tax, and it’s 60 cents.

I’m think­ing here that the “refin­ery costs” rolled into prof­its have to do with regional tax­a­tion skul­dug­gery, but I’ll admit I’m just as baf­fled at the breakdowns.

There’s more along these lines for sev­eral grafs; the lede resumes here.

It’s not that we can­not pro­duce any more oil; you sus­pect that some are moti­vated by the belief, per­verse as it sounds, that we should not. We should not drill 50 miles off shore on the chance some­one in Malibu takes a hot-​​air bal­loon up 1000 feet and uses a tele­photo lens to scan the hori­zon for oil platforms.

Yes, the NIMBY1 atti­tude irri­tates me as well. One rea­son we have rel­a­tively few wind farms in the US, despite their proven effi­cacy at gen­er­at­ing elec­tric power, is too many peo­ple think they’re ugly; and there’s unre­al­is­tic fear that birds will some­how ensausage them­selves in the whirling blades; after all, it’s a well-​​known fact that birds, in flight, close their eyes.2

Well, maybe fan blades turn­ing over the plains can ruin a sun­set (or sun­rise) for some, though the Dutch never seemed to think so; and yes, maybe if we build the dad­blang things in the migra­tory paths of birds — an easy mis­take not to make — we’ll have one less Christmas goose. But that leaves the ques­tion unan­swered. Why don’t we have more wind farms? Why does it seem that many of the peo­ple who oppose wind farms are the very same ones who want us all to scale back our oil use?

Also, there are eco­log­i­cal con­cerns. (The ocean is a wee place, eas­ily disturbed.)

No, it’s not a wee place, but yes, we’re find­ing that it’s sur­pris­ingly frag­ile in a larger-​​than-​​expected set of zones, par­tic­u­larly shal­low regions — which is where most refiner­ies would be located.

There’s some­thing else that may well be my imag­i­na­tion, but I can’t quite shake the feel­ing: high gas prices and short­ages of oil make some peo­ple feel good. This is the way it has to be. Oil is bad. Cars are bad.

Argument in good faith, how­ever, is good.

Cars make sub­urbs pos­si­ble. Suburbs are the antithe­sis of the way we should live, which is stacked upon one another in dense blocks tied together by happy whirring trains. So some guy who dri­ves to work alone has to spend more money for the priv­i­lege of being alone in his car lis­ten­ing to hate radio?


Yes, I know, pro­jec­tion and demo­niza­tion and over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. But this is true: there’s a side of the domes­tic polit­i­cal struc­ture that opposes expan­sion of domes­tic energy pro­duc­tion, be it drilling or nukes or more refineries.

Yeah, that’s an unfair exten­sion, if you’re look­ing at mod­er­ates; though I’m sure there’s an ele­ment of schaden­freude with some crowds when they believe Fat Cats are suffering.

And jeez. We’re retool­ing coal as being sexy and the choice energy of the future over nuclear. I still don’t under­stand that. Granted, nuke power was over­hyped in its hey­day. Granted it’s risky. Granted the waste is damn hard to deal with. But it’s still a long way bet­ter than block­ing a river (and hence com­pro­mis­ing its down­stream ecosys­tem, as we’ve learned to our cha­grin with the Colorado), less ugly than acres of wind farms; and a well-​​shielded pile, even with rel­a­tively low yield, is still far, far bet­ter than a fuel-​​burning plant in terms of pollution.

James Lileks actu­ally has more invested in this than I do. He’s got a young daugh­ter, so he’s not just play­ing some con­ser­v­a­tive for-​​profit buga­boo incon­sid­er­ate angle here; he’s got to have more actual con­cern about the world in, say, 2030 than I have at this moment. However, I’ve been watch­ing the last few decades just as he has, and espe­cially given the trends I’ve seen over the last ten years or so, I don’t see how we can sus­tain things as we have been. That is, if we keep on the track we’re on, I don’t believe his daugh­ter will enjoy the stan­dard of liv­ing at her father’s age that he does now.

By then the world pop­u­la­tion will plau­si­bly be 12 bil­lion; by the time she’s a grand­mother, it could be close to 20 or more billion.

It’s far too easy — and too com­mon — to relate the state of the union to a given admin­is­tra­tion. All economies have brief peaks and troughs. There are larger trends as well, ones which might take years or decades to resolve. To look at where we are today and blame it all on the Bush admin­is­tra­tion (at least in terms of econ­omy) is sim­plis­tic. Nevertheless, we’re fac­ing the clear real­ity that we have finite resources; and as nations like China ramp up con­sump­tion beyond their capac­i­ties to sat­isfy, we’re faced with the fact that over the next few decades, the world polit­i­cal land­scape might well fade into irrel­e­vance in con­trast to the con­sump­tion of energy and resources by pop­u­la­tions, regard­less of statu­tory lines.

However we might feel today about the fact that the US gov­ern­ment is pay­ing about $12bln in sub­si­dies to pro­duce corn for fuel instead of food, the real­ity is that if we don’t choose, as a nation, to be lead­ers in effi­ciency and reduced con­sump­tion, we might well find our­selves forced to accept energy aid from nations which we con­sider, today, to be third-​​world at best.

And if I choose to walk to work a few days a week to pre­vent that from hap­pen­ing, well, that seems like a tol­er­a­ble bar­gain. Even if I never have any kids of my own, oth­ers’ kids will ben­e­fit from that approach, and I think that makes it a fair trade.


1. Not In My Backyard. My per­sonal favorite exten­sion of this is BANANA, Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone. Neither atti­tude is practical.

2. Right?

Full dis­clo­sure: When I pulled Pandagon off my blogroll and RSS feed, it was mostly because Amanda had sup­ported one too many ad hominem attacks against James Lileks and his Bleat. It’s one thing for rea­son­able per­sons to dis­agree; it’s another for some­one to say, in reply to any argu­ment crafted in gen­eral good­will, “Well, you’re a poopy head.”


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