Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Running on Empty

Running on Empty

By Bill Britton

I am one of the 4 percent or so who are atheist. As such, I can look at those in public office with, I hope, a more objective eye than one who looks through the filter of religiosity. What I see, in general, are representatives and senators who wear their religion on their sleeves as if belief makes them more qualified to hold public office. I keep my atheism to myself, unless someone asks me about my church or my faith, in which case I answer, “Atheist,” and leave it at that, although I am amused by the various degrees of shock registered on the face of the questioner. I never proselytize, unlike certain fundamentalist types. I believe that religion, or its lack, is a private affair and should be so for members of Congress, who, in effect, proselytize with each faith-based declaration. This country’s founders ran from state religions; now it is running toward them. How sad.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Letter to a Libertarian Friend

The Wag Crew

Letter to a Libertarian Friend

By Bill Britton
Sorry I didn’t get back sooner, but I was busy working on a funding proposal for a company involved in financing “new energy” projects and the like—in other words, another aspect of the “liberal” agenda but with capitalist overtones. I will continue the rest of my remarks by sketching out a long-winded definition of my accused liberal persona (your label), which in another era might better be called, “moderate.”

Like you, I believe that government is too large. Most governmental departments have become bloated characterizations of themselves. As an example, we now have a Department of Homeland [a “Third Reich-ish” word] Security, a Defense Department, a CIA, an FBI, an NSC, etc., all of which have cross duties that are rarely coordinated.

In the Defense Department, we have both Naval and Marine fighter air wings, both of which do the same work. We have Army and Marine artillery batteries that do the same work. We have hanger after hanger on Air Force bases that replicate each other with the latest in high-tech test gear. We send all our troops into battle wearing socks made in China and with air cover provided by billion-dollar aircraft. Yet, we fail to properly care for the maimed or for veterans in general (or for their widows). In essence, we have a military designed to fight a now-defunct Soviet Union, despite claims to the contrary.

We’ve spent billions in Korea and fought to a stand-off, billions on an imaginary missile gap, billions in Vietnam and lost the war, covered ourselves with “glory” in Grenada, and have been spending billions on two wars in Iraq and one in Afghanistan with little prospect of “winning” either. Our other interventions are countless. Presidents and Congresses have played increasingly loose and fast with military lives lately because the enlisted ranks now come from the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, not from the broad spectrum of American society. Yet, the Pentagon budget is untouchable by either political party, but especially by conservatives.

Of course, you could go through every government department, program, or agency and find duplication and waste, to say nothing of subsidies—three stand out: (1) billions for the oil industry to offset the “risk” of dry wells, which are rare with today’s geo technology, (2) billions for corn-based ethanol production, which will never make economic sense because of the energy costs associated with a 2-step process, and (3) billions for the coal industry. Curiously, the recipients of these examples of governmental largess tend to be conservative, small-government types and, in the case of the Koch brothers, libertarian and Tea Party supporters.

I suspect that Iraq will eventually revert to a polity it is most comfortable with: a quasi-military strong man and his cadre of sycophants, that is, if it does not fragment into three or more tribal fiefdoms that only vaguely resemble the definition of “nation.” The question is whether we finally have the wisdom to recognize that many of the so-called nations around the world were constructed according to the whims of imperialism, not by more rational designs based on ethnicity or commonality.

It is time for the Mideast to sort itself out, free from Western interference. The chips might fall hard here and there, but given an America that is falling apart structurally, socially, morally, and economically, it is time for America and its leaders to address our own people’s needs and not those of corrupt and thankless foreign regimes.

What to do about the two entitlement programs Medicare and Social Security? Both programs were instituted when the U.S. population was much younger and when medicine’s share of the household budget was much lower. Medicare is an end-of-life problem—that is, we as a people have lost touch with the fact that we do, indeed, die. We, and the medical profession, know no bounds when it comes to preserving life—quality of life rarely is part of the discussion. But somehow there must be a line drawn between the Hippocratic Oath and the reality of death. Otherwise, our ageing population will bankrupt the nation.

The Social Security dilemma was engineered by the very same folks who want to obliterate it: our representatives in Washington. The trillion-plus dollars in the SS “Trust Fund” have been ravaged over the years to pay for current expenses, which is, ironically, what home-equity loans have been used for by homeowners. I’m sure Washington will cobble together non-solutions to both problems. Meanwhile, the migration of politicos to K-Street will continue unabated.

The Easter Island metaphor is not without merit if you look at it as an example of what happens when a set of finite resources—in this example, wood and topsoil—are exploited in extremis by a population that exceeds the carrying capacity of its “world.” Our present population of some 7 billion will reach 9+ billion by 2050 or so, according to the U.N. Close to 1 billion suffer from hunger today. That number will likely double by 2050. The Green Revolution is over, and farm productivity is in decline, largely due to topsoil loss and the rising costs of the two basic soil supplements: nitrates and potash. Nitrates are derived mostly from natural gas, a finite resource; potash is mined, and once mined, it is not recoverable and is thus finite. Freshwater aquifers and surface waters are being depleted at an unsustainable rate. There are no technology “fixes” on the horizon that might mitigate this combination of dilemmas.

Free markets are fine in theory, but the two primary beneficiaries are your “monopolists and the oligarchs.” To claim otherwise is naive. The financial market has been taken over by money manipulators who add little value to the physical world in their machinations. Creative methods of finance are, I agree, essential tools for a healthy economy and for enhancing the common good, but when oversight breaks down—i.e., regulatory protections—the entire economic framework suffers; yet the whizzes at Goldman et al. continue on their merry way to becoming the New American Aristocracy.

But I’m afraid that free markets are a one-way street when it comes to our Chinese cousins who will continue to park their Yuan here as long as it benefits them. To the Chinese, free markets mean the ability to steal copyrights, patents, and intellectual property at their pleasure, while simultaneously deriding us if we place a penny tariff on a Chinese-subsidized import. It was the same with Xerox, for example, and the Japanese. Our government, in the name of free markets (and the result of a trumped-up anti-trust suit), forced Xerox to share vital technologies with the Japanese. Within four years, Xerox lost 80%+ of its copier business to the Japanese.

Most of the regulatory agencies in the U.S. are "captured" by the industries they regulate—that is, agency appointments are former industry leaders who are, in effect, in bed with their former employers. The end result is that regulations are compromised by the drive toward greater profitability on the part of vested interests. Nowhere is this truer than in the Department of Energy’s regulatory agencies. Human and environmental interests end up as secondary concerns. When it comes to offshore oil drilling (and now, nuclear power plants), there should be built-in redundancies that provide extreme levels of safety.

The debate over climate change has been going on, it seems, ad nauseum. But the debate should be about that most-critical of finite natural resources, fossil fuels. We have reached, or will shortly reach, “peak oil.” Yes, the industry continues to find new oilfields but they tend to be found in less-accessible, more-costly places. The U.S. has 300 to 500 years of coal reserves, the largest in the world, but again, the “easy” coal is almost gone, with the exception of West Virginia, which is being leveled as I write.

Natural gas is plentiful at the moment, but none of these fossil fuels are being replenished by natural processes, despite what some fundamentalists claim. (Of course, uranium is a natural resource, but the future of nuclear energy is sketchy, given the situation in Japan.) My point is this: The world must make the transition to non-fossil-fuel energy generation simply because the world will eventually run out of all carbon-based fuels. If in fact anthropomorphic-induced climate change is real, then both challenges—fossil-fuel resource depletion and climate change—will then have been addressed by this transition.

My worldview has been on a different arc from yours: I began life as an optimist, and, well, here I am today, a grumpy old guy, but with good friends and two dogs who cheer me with their smiles and tails (the dogs, that is) regularly.

"Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

The damaged No 1, 3, and 4 reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Japan.
Photograph: DigitalGlobe/AP

Regarding the nuclear disaster in Japan, the atomic genii is out of the bottle and all the test-ban treaties and all the reviews of nuclear plant integrity in the world will not put it back in. The terms "safety standards," "back-up systems," "redundancy," and "safe levels" mean little under the bright light of nuclear fission. Those words are merely oxymoronic, or more accurately, moronic.

Remember J. Robert Oppenheimer's words from the Bhagavad Gita, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."