Wednesday, March 23, 2011
A Little Energy is a Dangerous Thing
The word has come down from on high, and the word is "No More Nukes". By 'on high', I mean the editorial page of the Washington Post, and by 'word' I mean the unconsidered acknowledgment of a popular impulse. Nuclear power is as dead as offshore oil drilling was after the BP gulf leak. As dead as politicians want to make it. But you can't kill an idea, just pass it on to someone else. While the Washington Post wrings its black and white hands, China explores Thorium reactors. Thorium may not be the solution, but giving up certainly isn't. That's why China is doing a much better job of "winning the future" than we are. Their leaders actually set real world goals and explore every possible way of getting there. Meanwhile our leaders have become more dogmatic than those of a Chinese dictatorship, less open to new ideas, and always eager to pound the table for their dogmatically unworkable ideas. If there had been a Sputnik moment, it should have come in 1985 when our trade deficit with China began.
China's investment in high speed rail isn't the 'Sputnik Moment', the booming economic machine that allows it to invest in unprofitable, but promising technologies like high speed rail is. Obama mistook one for the other, which is as foolish as assuming that a billionaire is successful because he has a private jet, rather than understanding that he has a private jet because he is successful. But when you're over-leveraged, buying a jet won't make you successful, what it will do is bankrupt you.
The People's Republic of China is doing what all new companies with a hit product do, try to expand and diversify-- to avoid an economic shift that will hit when it can no longer count on that trade imbalance built on cheap labor and the value of the dollar. On the other hand, we're doing what all big companies do when they have no plan for the future-- investing in rebranding with a trendy new CEO, a shiny new slogan and lots of big unworkable plans that we partly fund and then don't follow up on.
The real issue isn't nuclear power or high speed rail, it's that we don't plan for the future. And we don't let anyone else do it either. Congress gobbled up pieces of paychecks for social security, because the average person couldn't be trusted to plan for their own retirement, and then showed how trustworthy it was by spending Social Security surpluses over and over again, dooming it to insolvency. Had the directors of a private pension fund behaved that way, they would be facing time in a minimum security facility. But no politician will be dragged before a judge to explain what he did with all that money. Instead the retirement age will be raised, benefits will be cut, wealthier workers will be penalized because they can be-- and politicians will go on repeating the lie that social security is solvent.
The Chinese leaders are no better at math than we are. They can add up the numbers just as well we can, but they actually look at the result. While our leaders have long ago taken refuge in post-modern ideas, in which morality is relative, numbers are imaginary and following a rigid ideological agenda is the solution to every problem. The Chinese understood that too. They had the Little Red Book, we have the Big Green Book. And there it says that instead of addressing social security and creating a friendlier business climate-- we should subsidize high speed rail and green technology. And that will solve everything, because that's dogma. And no one says no to dogma.
The worst of it all is the unseriousness. The unwillingness to think and plan ahead.
A year ago it had become common wisdom that nuclear power was now a credible alternative. Everyone from Paul Newman to Obama had come around to promoting nuclear power as a safe clean alternative. Now after the tsunami, nuclear power is dead all over again. A year from now when memories of Japan fade and another oil spill happens, nuclear power may make another comeback. What does that say about a policymaking apparatus with the attention span of Paris Hilton? Can people who think that way lead a competitive nation, or just ride herd on a collapsing dinosaur by snatching up popular ideas the way a magpie gathers pennies. There's no call for a Sputnik moment here, just an IQ test.
There is no such thing as clean and safe energy. Energy is inherently dangerous and polluting. Start with a basic campfire out in the woods, and you risk ending up with a forest fire that can swallow thousands of acres of forest. And that's with a small fire meant for cooking marshmallows. Now imagine the ridiculousness of pretending that we can have safe power when our goal is to power half the eastern seaboard. We can have cleaner energy, but the cleaner it is, the more expensive it is. Which negates its usefulness. You can build a campfire with two bucks worth of supplies. Now imagine a cleaner campfire that costs 2,000 dollars worth of supplies. Would you use it to roast marshmallows? Of course not. That's why Green Energy is touted side by side with energy efficiency, cleaner energy means more expensive and less available energy. And that means poverty.
All forms of affordable energy delivery have their downside. Coal, gas, oil and nuclear. They all have a human cost. And there's no real way around that. Technology isn't magic. It's a set of implemented techniques that work around the laws of the universe to achieve human ends. It doesn't give us what we want, but what we need. And there's always a price to pay.
China cares nothing about pollution, we care a great deal about it. So we regulated and regulated, until most of our factories moved to China. Now we have cheap imports, but no jobs. Which would have been a fair deal, if we had chosen it. But instead it was chosen for us by leaders who insisted that we didn't have to compromise on either one. We could have tough pollution regulations without losing a single job. Well we couldn't. And when that happened, the leaders came back and said that we didn't need those jobs anyway. The government would pay for us to go to college and get better jobs, cover our mortgages and pay our bills. All we would have to do is pay taxes. And now we have mountains of debt and no jobs.
We didn't want nuclear power either. It was too dangerous. So we just went on buying oil, much of it from countries that want to destroy us. And so we had few nuclear plants and lots of new enemies springing up out of the ground. Now we're involved in a global and a domestic war against them. And nuclear power is back to being too dangerous. So is domestic drilling. So is foreign oil. So is coal. So is everything. And there you have the problem. It's all dangerous. And it's all no good. The easiest decision is to plow more money into half-baked Green Energy proposals, until the next crisis happens. The next best thing to doing nothing.
Real leadership is planning for the future by balancing risk against reward, setting goals and achieving them. A truly frightening amount of time has passed since we had leaders who did anything like that. Instead we have leaders who focus only on the rewards, and are completely unable to rationally evaluate the risks. Or even consider them. If a goal meets with their approval, then it's considered risk free. When they are forced to confront the risk, they either go into denial or just cut and run. Like children, they can only see the positive outcome. Negative outcomes either don't exist for them or as so frightening that they refuse any course of action which can lead to them.
Children take refuge in dogma. The 'right' course must yield successful results. Everything has to pass an ideological test to determine where it fits. A 'right' policy must work for the circular reason that it is right. If it fails, it's only because of sabotage from wrong-thinking people. Which means that we must redouble our efforts to implement the policy. That is how the Soviet Union ran itself into a ditch. But these days we're using the same blinders. Trying to control the marketplace by picking winners in line with dogma. 'Green energy' is the future because we're funding it. And we're funding it because it's the future. Nuclear, coal and oil are bad because they're greedy, dirty and wasteful. Solar and wind are clean and natural.
A child's reasoning. This is what our energy policy looks like. This is what all our policies look like. "Stop terrorism by telling them how much we like them", "Reform the Muslim world by making them have elections", "Stop hate by passing laws against it", "Pass laws to make everything cheap" and "Take away everything dangerous so people don't hurt themselves or each other". Do you wonder why liberals so often use children to articulate their ideas? Is there anything in the wisdom of the liberal program that doesn't sound like it was thought of by a six-year old?
We no longer consider whether things will work-- instead we decide that they must because we want them to. And so we don't have an energy policy, instead we run back and forth between oil, coal and nuclear-- disapproving of all of them, while tossing away just enough money on Green Energy for it to bite, but not enough to actually get anywhere. The arguments go on and lead nowhere. Because the only meaningful policy can be formulated from an understanding of risks and rewards.
Imagine trying to pick out a car or an insurance policy using the same process, instead of evaluating the product on its pros and cons, two factions would imagine their ideal car and their ideal insurance policy, compare and reject the actual products for not meeting those standards, and then spend the next twenty years trying to make their ideal car and ideal insurance policy, with each administration jettisoning the work of the previous one for its own better alternative. An energy policy? It's a miracle that we still have streets.
Japan chose nuclear power for reasons of energy independence. As the only country to experience nuclear war, they certainly knew the potential consequences. They made the decision and are living with it. And while that policy was not always responsibly implemented, no policy ever is. In the throes of a disaster, the Japanese people and their government have behaved calmly and soberly-- a stark and vivid contrast to the hysteria and foolishness of our media and politicians who caper around like poodles every time some event of note takes place somewhere in the world.
Japan made a decision, we never have. Our search for a safe decision has found that doing nothing is the safest decision. More half-assed regulations, more half-assed grants, more half-assed policies that all add up to nothing. We cannot measure risk and so we either act in a foolhardy manner or do nothing at all. A little energy is a dangerous thing. A lot of it is even more dangerous. The authorities do their best to emphasize that they are in charge. The people and industries are overregulated and prevented from exercising any initiative. We are moving forward, by way of the down escalator. The Sputnik moment came and went in the 1980's. It's not the technology that evades us, but the decision making that would move it forward.