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.
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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