The Sanders Miscalculation

Senator Bernie Sanders has been calling for “rebuilding America’s infrastructure,” particularly in reference to roads and bridges, for some years now. It’s his preferred way of having both a jobs program and a stimulus to the economy. It’s a simple and straightforward idea that, according to conventional economics, would work for both jobs and stimulus.

So what’s the problem? We need only mention the issue of global warming/climate chaos/acidification of the oceans. It should be instantly obvious that roads and their bridges are entirely the wrong infrastructure for a massive rebuilding program. This sort of stimulus would encourage further growth in the sort of economy we should be getting away from. instead of intensifying existing problems, we should create a more sustainable transportation system, economy and society.

Bernie’s program might have been workable for the Great Depression of the 20th Century. He will not succeed in leading us back to that time, nor should we try to follow him there. Conditions have changed considerably since then. The resources to make it work no longer exist. They have literally been burned.

What makes the automotive and trucking economy unsustainable is not just the increasing negative effects of emissions from the fossil fuels it takes to keep this economy running. The fuels themselves have been depleting since the first operation to extract them from the earth. Many of the cheap and easy sources are already depleted to the point that traditional mines and wells are closed. Replacements for traditional mines and wells are more expensive, consume more energy for extraction operations and are more destructive of the environment. Think fracking, mountaintop removal and deep-sea drilling platforms.

There is some price for fossil fuels that is so high it destroys demand for the fuel. In other words, the high price chokes off activities that depend on these fuels. The fossil fuel that powers about 96-97 percent of transportation is oil. The price principle applies to coal and natural gas as well.

There is also some price for fossil fuels so low that it destroys production from expensive sources. In other words, The low price makes some mining and drilling operations not profitable, and the mines or wells are abandoned.

It is not possible to determine exactly what the demand-destroying high price is for the entire oil industry, or the entire coal industry, or the entire gas industry. It is also not possible to determine the exact investment-destroying low price for the same industries. Each operation of extraction and each act of consumption will have a different price, so determining the effect of a given market price is necessarily sort of “fuzzy,” in the sense of “fuzzy logic.”

It’s also somewhat slippery. The slipping comes from variation over time in the value of a dollar, and the value of all the other currencies for which dollars might be traded. The ruler we are trying to use to measure prices shrinks and grows, so that over time, the measurement loses meaning. In 1970, a new Volkswagen cost around $2000. Now, it would be difficult to find a stripped-down model for $20,000. The very same house that could be purchased for a market price of half a million dollars in 2005 might not be able to sell for 300 thousand dollars in 2010.

Though it is both slippery and fuzzy, in principle there still is some high price for fossil fuels that will cause the fossil fuel economy to shrink. There is also some low price that will cause “production” (extraction) of these fuels to shrink. And depletion causes the minimum price to support extraction to rise over time.

When the minimum price to support extraction collides with the maximum price that allows the economy to function, we have an economic crisis which cannot be solved. At that point there is no price which will allow economic growth and increased extraction. The fossil fuel economy collapses. That’s what is meant by “no solution.” The question is, are we close to that point now?

We saw the US economy crash in the late 1970s, when the OPEC oil embargo artificially forced prices of oil over the high price red line. We saw it again in 2008, when without any such embargo, demand pushed the price to nearly $150 per barrel.

Today, as oil drops to around the $70 per barrel mark, we see a lot of concern that oil companies are losing money on fracking operations, and they are drastically cutting back investment on exploration of potential new deep-sea drilling sites.

It’s approximate, and slippery as ever, but we have some rough idea of a maximum and a minimum price that works for the industrial market economy. Just a decade ago, oil prices in the $20-30 range were “normal.” That gives us a clue that the minimum and maximum prices have been converging, as depletion has its effect on the cost of finding and developing new oil.

Now we have two big trends converging on the conclusion that rebuilding the infrastructure of roads and bridges is not a good idea. Massive reconstruction would require manufacturing great quantities of concrete, steel and heavy construction equipment. This would greatly increase the rate of carbon dioxide emissions into our atmosphere. It would also encourage further commitment to a transportation system which creates still more of the same emissions. And all this activity would increase the rate of depletion, bringing closer the convergence of prices which promises a crisis for the entire fossil fuel economy.

That is, if we followed Bernie’s recommended policy, we would be making an investment which is not just destructive to the climate, but is also destructive to the industrial economy. But just keeping this industrial economy puttering along is also destructive, just a bit slower.

It’s a dilemma, and not one easy to solve, or even necessarily one possible to solve, if “solving” means continued economic growth. Possibly we will have to recognize that economic growth is not forever possible, and that we will need to survive a long period of disappearing industry while keeping freedom and justice for all intact.

Clearly, before the price convergence destroys both demand and investment at the same time, we should be investing in clean energy (wind and solar). We should do as much as possible to get ahead of the depletion curve by deliberately reducing fossil fuel demand with measures for conservation and efficiency. That would delay the price convergence, giving us more time to develop low-energy local production of essentials such as food.

If any transportation system should be redeveloped, it should certainly be neither roads nor airports. We should focus on rail for both freight and passengers, because that is efficient, and should be the best use of declining resources for transportation.

Of course, the last couple of paragraphs contain a misleading use of “we.” “We should …” is a shorthand method to avoid the tedious repetition of “Government laws, taxes and other policies should be directed toward …” It avoids the repetition, but sort of slides past the fact that “we” are not in charge of government policies. We don’t even have much influence over policies. We aren’t even close. We are not multi-national corporations.

Now that’s a political problem. It is the political problem the Green Party and other movements are working on. But at least, if we do manage to make government policies work for us instead of against us, we have some clear ideas of what those policies should be.

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Dissecting the Election of 2014

When it comes to understanding what the recent election means, we need to consider more than the immediate effect on progressive and environmental issues.

First off, let’s start with the basics. What is it about the recent election we want to explain? Here’s a couple of facts from http://prospect.org/article/one-reason-democrats-lost-so-big-midterms-exceptionally-low-voter-turnout:

McDonald’s current estimate of 2014 voter turnout: a dismal 36.3 percent of the voting-eligible population (VEP). This is the lowest rate of turnout since 1942, immediately after the entry of the United States into World War II.

and

David Wasserman, Loren Fulton, and Ashton Barry at the Cook Political Report have tabulated the national House popular vote across all 435 districts. So far they have counted 5.1 million more votes for Republican candidates than for Democratic candidates out of 75.0 million votes cast, a 6.8 percent margin.

[end excerpt from Prospect]

Here’s a way to express the result of the election in terms of environmental policy for the next two years: “We the passengers of the Titanic just elected a crew that doesn’t believe in icebergs.” That comes from
http://www.dailyimpact.net/2014/11/07/mid-term-message-abandon-hope/#more-2530

There’s a simple way of describing the general failure of the Democratic Party: “Democrats failed to inspire key demographic groups that typically turn out in lower numbers for midterms – minorities, single women, and young voters.” This comes from http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/DC-Decoder/2014/1105/Midterm-elections-results-Why-Republicans-crushed-Democrats-video

From http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2014/11/05/what-really-went-wrong-for-democrats/, we find a specific description of this failure. It is “… a failure to connect with these voters’ [persuadable voters, ones outside the ascendant Democratic coalition] economic concerns. At the root of these concerns, Mellman says, are stagnating wages and the failure of the recovery’s gains to achieve wider, more equitable distribution.”

According to http://themoderatevoice.com/200239/republicans-won-despite-wrong-issues/, “Most voters don’t know much about policy details, nor do they understand the legislative process. So all they saw was that the man in the White House wasn’t delivering prosperity — and they punished his party.”

That’s kind of an arrogant way of seeing most voters. It implies a discussion among the elite composed of those who do know about policy details and understand the legislative process. The better way to see it is understanding that people who focus exclusively on policy details and the legislative process can fail to notice how corrupt the legislative process is and how the whole range of business as usual polices indeed do not deliver prosperity.

Therefore, a 36.3 turnout means that 63.7 percent of the voting-eligible population did not see any candidates worth voting for. Moreover, we can take it to mean that 63.7 percent CORRECTLY did not see any candidates worth voting for. When we look at the average margin voting for Republicans, it means that, in round figures, 19 percent of the voting eligible population voted for Republicans, 16 percent voted for Democrats and another 1 percent voted for candidates outside the two-party system.

It’s a massive failure of our democracy, and not for the first time. It fits with the general pattern of elections in the United States for decades, with the long-term trend being smaller and smaller minorities supporting winning candidates. What does support the winners, both Republicans and Democrats, is literal billions of corporate money. Laurence Lessig has a lot of worthwhile ideas about corporate money, but Money is not the whole story.

As Harvey Wasserman puts it, “In analyzing this latest electoral debacle, our Orwellian corporate bloviators avoid like the plague any mention of corporate money or imperial war.

But like LBJ in Vietnam…Afghanistan and Obama’s other wars have gutted his presidency and all he might have been. They’ve drained our shrunken moral and financial resources. They’ve turned yet another Democratic harbinger of hope into feeble corporate cannon fodder. They’ve battered and alienated yet another generation of the progressive core.”

[end excerpt from http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/11/05/corporate-coup-detat-nearly-complete]

For the Green Party, the obvious problem is the tiny percentage of votes. The roughly 1% of support from the voting-age population is split among Green, Libertarian and other parties. For Greens, support at the ballot box is just some fraction of 1% of those eligible to vote, or about 1% of the minority of people who turned out to vote.

Let’s look, for instance, at our “worst” result for GPMI, at the top of the ticket this year. In round figures, our candidate for Governor got 15,000 votes, for about 1/2 of one percent of the total vote. Paul said that he is disappointed. We could look at this result and conclude that, as a party, we are just not particularly effective or influential, and then we could all be depressed together before we just give up.

In the week before the election, polling reported by the major media said that “the Governor’s race is too close to call,” implying that Schauer had a real chance at winning. The anti-republicans in this state had no reason to worry about the Senate race, but were no doubt thinking along the lines of “every vote counts for getting rid of Snyder.” That made this particular statewide office the most contested for this election.

In the event, Schauer got 47% of the vote and Snyder got 51%. The margin was 128,000 votes in Snyder’s favor. It turned out to be not really that close; certainly not close enough to expect different results from a recount. Between them, the business as usual parties got 98% of the vote for this office.

One of the things this election tells us – and I think it is the most important thing – is that we have roughly 15,000 hard-core Green Party supporters in Michigan. In 2012, Jill Stein got almost 22,000 votes for less than 1/2 percent of a much larger turnout. 4.7 million people in Michigan voted for President in 2012. Only 3.2 million voted for governor this year.

These hard-core supporters are all across the state. We can look at the detailed, county-by-county results at http://miboecfr.nictusa.com/election/results/14GEN/02000000.html.

There are 18 in Alcona County. There are 221 in Berrien County, for good reason, because we have actively been supporting Rev. Pinkney there. There’s 127 in Eaton County, southwest of Lansing. There’s over 1000 in Kent County; over 300 in St. Clair, 124 in Van Buren, and so on. Just look at the list and think about what should be possible in your county.

We should be able to recruit 1,500 of these 15,000 hard-core supporters into actual dues-paying members of GPMI by 2016. That would just be 10%. Moving from the 100 or so (and I think that’s a generous estimate) dues-paying members we have now to 1,500 or so in the next year may seem an unrealistic goal – and yet, the potential is there. In 2015, we collectively have the possibility of meeting and talking to tens of thousands of people just from circulating petitions to put banning fracking on the ballot.

It’s hard to tell what other issues will give us the opportunity to meet supporters and sympathizers; water shutoffs, flooding, another wave of foreclosures, new pipelines, disaster on old pipelines, a spike in unemployment, intensified wars for oil – this society is so much in crisis that there are more opportunities than we want. The combination of neoliberals and outright reactionaries in charge of our government are certain to continue with austerity and repression for all. Whatever comes up, we’ll be participating in protests, strikes and other sorts of demonstrations.

If we all remember to be seen being green – for instance, wearing a hat, tee shirt, button or bumper sticker naming the Green Party – then we have an opening to mention our platform and MOST IMPORTANTLY ask people to join us. If we have 1,500 or so active members going into the 2016 election season, then we can expect to make a much more significant impact on the election.

To repeat – the potential is there. There are literal thousands of people in Michigan who have already supported our candidates in the face of a good deal of pressure to do otherwise. Our focus for the next year should be on finding and recruiting them.

Fermi 2 (Practically) Forever, if DTE Prevails

DTE Energy, formerly known as Detroit Edison, is in the process of renewing the license to operate its Fermi 2 nuclear reactor in Monroe. The original license expires in March of 2025. If the extension is granted – and so far 72 out of 72 applications for license extensions have been granted – then DTE will be allowed to operate this reactor until 2045. Another 20-year extension is possible, pushing the expiration date out to 2065.

Nuclear proponents say that extending plants’ lifetimes is both economical and a good way to hold down carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, fission power plants, though generally profitable for the companies which operate them, are both expensive and dangerous.

Nuclear power plants would never have been built without massive subsidies, including especially the Price-Anderson Act, which says that the federal government will pay for damages above $10 billion resulting from a nuclear accident such as a meltdown. $10 billion sounds like a lot, until you notice that the Japanese government recently announced that it’s borrowing about $30 billion more to cover costs related to Fukushima, bringing the total amount the Japanese government has borrowed for this purpose to around $80 billion.

The $80 billion does not include damages to the more than 150,000 people who had to evacuate the Fukushima region. It is “just” financing for the direct cleanup effort, and there is no indication that the cleanup will be finished for decades to come. In case of a meltdown at Fermi 2, there is no exact determination of how many would need to be evacuated from this much more densely populated area. Roughly 5 million people live within 50 miles of Fermi 2.

Multiple official documents state that the danger of a meltdown is negligible. In fact 4 of the roughly 400 commercial reactors in the world have melted down. Fermi 2 shares the exact General Electric Mark 1 containment design with the three Fukushima reactors that melted down in 2011. While we need not expect a tsunami in Lake Erie, there are many other possible events that could cause a lengthy loss of station power for Fermi 2, and that’s all it takes to cause an identical meltdown.

While there are no carbon dioxide emissions coming directly from operation of a nuclear reactor, there were plenty of emissions coming from coming from the mining and manufacture of the steel, copper, concrete and other materials needed to construct the plant. There are ongoing emissions coming from mining, manufacture and transportation of nuclear fuel rods. And many more carbon emissions will come from handling and (ultimately) properly disposing of spent fuel and other radioactive waste.

In fairness, carbon dioxide emissions are also generated in the mining, manufacture and transportation of solar panels and wind turbines. All these means of creating electricity are products of our industrial society, and both carbon dioxide emissions and other forms of pollution come from the process of creating this equipment.

For a simple first-order comparison, operation of a nuclear reactor, a wind turbine or a solar electrical panel does not directly generate emissions, while operating a coal-fired, gas-fired or diesel fueled power plant does generate carbon emissions. Of course, neither wind turbines nor solar panels generate radioactivity with all its attendant costs and dangers.

In other words, a nuclear reactor is a good way to hold down emissions in the same sense that a combination of purging, smoking and methamphetamine is a good way to lose weight quick. It works, but the side effects are terrible.

The other thing that proponents of nuclear power say is that we need the electricity. This argument sounds irrefutable, until we examine it. What would it take to replace nuclear reactors, and how soon could we do it?

In 2013, solar PV and wind together accounted for roughly 4% of all electricity used in the United States. (See http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/.) Let’s suppose, just to see what could happen, that the United States were to have a sustained energy policy focused on developing wind and solar. Yes, it would take profound political change caused by a strong environmental movement, and we don’t have that – but let’s see what would be possible anyhow.

Let’s say the amount of installed wind and solar (4% in 2013) were to increase by 26% each year. That’s doable. It would take three years to double the amount of installed wind and solar. Faster is actually possible, but let’s do the calculation with a three-year doubling time. Do the math, and we would have 5 doubling times by 2028; from 4% in 2013 to 8% in 2016; 16% in 2019; 32% in 2022; 64% in 2025; and 128% of 2013 levels by the end of 2028.

It’s possible then, to replace all coal, nuclear and natural gas used to generate electricity. We could have the electricity without the radioactivity of nuclear or the carbon emissions of fossil fuels. Yes, things could change that fast, if we had in place today policies that would push us in that direction. Closing Fermi 2 in 2025 would be no problem at all. We would also take a giant bite out of carbon emissions. It will happen only with a strong environmental movement that will not take “No” for an answer.