Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hubris is not Triumph

While I was vacationing last week, the junior Senator from Illinois, a fellow with less than two hundred days' worth of experience in that post, went on a tour of some foreign countries. I'm told that a lot of crowds full of people who do not vote in American elections showed enthusiastic support.

This fellow, whose press coverage is generally characterized as messianic, went to Jerusalem and the wailing wall. Though I didn't see any pictures (being on vacation) I suppose his campaign staffers plastered it with campaign posters.

One of Bill & Hillary's press tricks was to stage some phony photo op and then feign outrage. I did hear that the Lord Messiah's prayer left at the wailing wall was pilfered and published. I've every confidence it was as sincere as it was focus-group tested.

I read the New York Times claim of this trip that "even Republicans have described as politically triumphant." Though I missed the pictures of the Lord Obama riding into Jerusalem on the foal of an ass with adoring palm frond waving crowds crying Hosanna, I won't deny the New York Times its Palm Sunday.

Though I once called myself a Republican and have no reason to vote for the senior Senator from Arizona, I would characterize the junior Senator from Illinois' trip as manifesting as much hubris as anything.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Kooks And Nukes

One of the side effects of paying $4.00/gal for gas is the reminder of what politicians said about domestic energy policy a generation ago. We heard all sorts of things about energy independence that was empty rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Saudis paid for a nice park downtown next to the Gerald Ford museum. I figure oil producers have spread around a lot of petrodollars in a bipartisan fashion to get us where we are today. And what do we do about it? Mr. Bush goes to the Middle East and asks the Sheiks nice to increase production. And Mr. Obama tells us our thermostats are set too high.

I've believed a lot of lies spread by malthusans. For one thing, there was an argument about nuclear power plant safety where Navy said they could guarantee nuclear power plant safety and the non-navy guys said that there was a chance of a cascade of rare events that would lead to a nuclear accident. As a believer in the Murphy, I believed the latter. This belief was vindicated by Three Mile Island and Chernobl.

The biggest disaster of TMI was that it gave credibility to Jane Fonda when "The China Syndrome" movie came out at the same time. Nobody died and nobody got cancer from any radiation released by that event.

Chernobl is another story. People died. But think about it. There was a core meltdown and for ten days the Chernobl reactor was out of control. There was no containment of radiation or radioactive fallout.

And the world did not end.

Last spring a friend and I flew over two electrical power plants, a coal-fired and a nuke. The first thing I noticed about the coal-fired plant was the huge amount of space allocated to storing coal with trains bringing more coal in all the time. Coal is not 100% pure carbon. It's a mix of whatever else is in the ground nearby. And when it burns what do you suppose comes out with the smoke, but fly ash. I was surprised to learn recently that there are trace amounts of radioactive materials in that fly ash. If you live downwind of a power plant, you'll get less radiation from it if it's a nuke.

Safe and clean natural gas can also contain trace amounts of radon gas. Radon gas is radioactive and the biggest cause of cancer after cigarette smoking.

But nuclear fission produces nuclear waste that remains deadly for thousands of years, right? Yes. But it doesn't have to. If your president isn't an idiot peanut farmer, you can reprocess nuclear fuel rods to remove unburnt fissionables, greatly reducing the volume of nuclear waste.

Or you can use a different nuclear fuel cycle. Nuclear fission seems to be all about neutrons. And when you burn enriched uranium, the fission products like to soak up neutrons poisoning the reaction. But there are other fission fuel cycles that do not depend upon enriched uranium, and manage neutron flux differently. These reactions produce much less nuclear waste and what they produce has a half-life of a few centuries, not several millenia. Moreover, there's a lot more thorium than uranium on this planet.

And a thorium fuel cycle generates no bomb-grade isotopes, eliminating the risk of proliferation.

And when you're talking about radioactive waste, you should consider the uranium mine in Oklo where a fission reaction burned up all the U235 leaving its fission products safely encapsulated in situ.

So, why is it that we haven't built a new nuclear power plant in this country for a generation? For one thing, it's plain ignorance and gullibility of the public and the media in the face of propaganda by anti-nuclear activists. For another thing, it costs a lot of time and money to license a new nuclear plant. Look at the billions that were lost by Consumers' Power when they dropped the Midland plant. The only way they could have been stupider would have been to buy energy futures from Enron. Putting a lot of money in a decades-long project that's subject to the whims of politicians, bureaucrats and judges is as risky as it gets.

The people who own and operate nuclear power plants know this. They have a license to print money and more nukes would just mean more competitors. They can uprate their reactors, and make incremental improvements, but they'll do nothing revolutionary.

And that's why we're paying so much for energy.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Who Owns This World?

A while back a politician said this:
"We can't drive our SUVs and, you know, eat as much as we want and keep our homes on, you know, 72 degrees at all times, whether we're living in the desert or we're living in the tundra, and then just expect every other country is going to say OK, you know, you guys go ahead keep on using 25 percent of the world's energy, even though you only account for 3 percent of the population..."
This reminds me of the environmentalists of my youth. Back then the line was that the US had 6 percent of the world's population and we consumed a third of the world's resources. This pattern of rhetoric has an unstated premise that the world should be divided into equal parts and distributed in equal shares to each person in the world today.

This sounds reasonable until you think about it. Who owns this world? If you think this planet is owned by its 6.7 billion inhabitants in equal shares, then how is this ownership reallocated when the population of the world increases? For instance, if I were to kill my fellow-man, my shares increase. Or if I have a dozen kids, my family will have an inordinately larger share.

The people who think this way generally think having a dozen kids is a bad idea. Same goes for killing one's fellow-man.

Property and ownership doesn't work this way in a capitalist society. I happen to own the house I'm typing this from and the land it sits on. None of the world's 6.7 billion people have helped me pay the taxes, improve the property, or maintain it. If someone gets hurt on my property, none of those 6.7 billion people will accept legal liability.

There is only way to consistently understand "using 25 percent of the world's energy, even though you only account for 3 percent of the population" in 2008, and say "The U.S. has 6 percent of the world's population but consumes a third of the world's resources" in the 1970s, is to have a continuous redistribution of wealth with the ebb and flow of demographics.

This notion of property is a form of collectivism. The criteria isn't necessarily Marxist because we're not talking about a Robin Hood redistribution from rich to poor, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," but it is redistribution nonetheless.

This rhetoric has been part and parcel of the environmentalist movement for my entire life. I'm not in favor of polluted air or water, but I believe in private property. When someone owns something they take care of it. When nobody really owns something, they don't.

There's more to this world than consumption. There's production and wealth creation. People work with varying degrees of effectiveness. With capital equipment and technology, one can increase one's productivity by orders of magnitude. One of those 6.7 billion people scratching at dirt with a stick will produce much less grain than a farmer with a tractor and hybrid seeds. Few environmentalists bother to point out that Americans produce a disproportionate amount of the world's wealth.

This collectivist notion of property does not correspond to economic reality. Governments throughout the 20th century demonstrated that they could repeal the laws of economics. However that does not mean politicians can't promise this to attract voters.