Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Why Are These People So Excited?

Why Are These People So Excited?

I think it is remarkable how many people got all excited about the nomination of Sarah Palin to be the Republican Party’s candidate for Vice-President of the United States. On the one hand, some people on the left were apparently so outraged (or panicked) that they launched into all sorts of ridiculous, and sometimes inappropriate, attacks on Governor Palin. On the other hand, the Republican Party’s “base” seems to be all excited about McCain’s reportedly reluctant choice of a running mate. The crowds are bigger and more enthusiastic for McCain-Palin than they ever were for plain old John McCain. Are these people right? Is this a big deal?

First, let me say that I think it’s a good thing that the Republican Party finally put a woman on the national ticket, only 24 years after Geraldine Ferraro found a place on the Democratic ticket. And, I must say, Fritz Mondale’s choice of Representative Ferraro to join him in what was almost certainly a losing campaign could be viewed as an empty gesture. I don’t think it was an empty gesture, however, for a party and a candidate to commit to trying to put a woman a heartbeat away from the presidency, and I don’t think it is an empty gesture this time, either.

On that note, for all those who are disappointed that we’re not seeing a woman at the top of the Democratic ticket, I think the day will come. Some people reacted to Senator Obama’s victory on the Democratic side as if to an apocalyptic event for women in politics. There was a lot of talk about the last chance to have a woman president. I think this may represent, in part, a certain depth of commitment to Senator Clinton, combined with the Baby Boomers’ famous self-centeredness. Yes, it may have been our last chance to see a Baby Boomer woman nominated for the presidency, but there are plenty of younger women out there working there way up the political ladder. Some day, one of them will discover the fire in the belly to make a serious run for the brass ring.

I think that part of the Democrat’s discomfort, to use no stronger word, with the nomination of Sarah Palin has been a direct result of their denial of the nomination to Senator Clinton. Take a little guilt, a sense of having been one-upped, and frustration at having a woman on the ticket from the wrong party, and add to that the very sharp contrasts between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, and you have a recipe for some very agitated Democrats, especially in the feminist camp.

There has been a lot of talk about feminists’ opposition to Palin, attempts to redefine feminism, and whether opposition to Palin is per se sexist. Strip away a lot of the verbiage which is solely intended to promote the chances of one set of candidates over the other, and what I see is that, to members of the established feminist movement (another Baby Boomer phenomenon), Palin may be a woman, but she’s not one of us.

I have often pointed out that there are several kinds of conservative, in the most general kind of categorization. There are those who are of conservative temperament, and then there are those who have a shopping list of “conservative” issues held close to their hearts. (I use the quote marks around “conservative” because the issues on the list change from time to time. Remember when balancing the budget was a conservative shibboleth?) Similarly, there are feminists who would define feminism in terms of support for certain issues, and even for certain lifestyle choices. Governor Palin may be a woman, but she is not on the “feminist” side of many of these issues. She opposes abortion rights. She opposes gay marriage. She doesn’t talk about equal pay for equal work. And so on.

By the way, just as Sarah Palin is a disappointment to many in the feminist movement, so, I think, is Barack Obama something of a letdown for many in the traditional civil rights movement. He has shown that a black man can run for president, can be a serious candidate, can even win a major party nomination, which ought to make the Jesse Jacksons very happy. But he has also shown that the way for a black man to do these things is to focus on issues which are not particularly black issues.

With all of the emotion aroused in the various movements, interest groups, and social groupings by this campaign, it’s no wonder that there has been a lot of “acting out.” But now, let’s get serious about what’s at stake here.

First, what are the consequences of McCain selecting Sarah Palin for his running mate? Well, in the first place, the Republican “base” is, indeed, energized. This can be very good for the campaign, in fund-raising, in door-belling, in staffing all the get-out-the-vote efforts needed for a successful campaign. In some places, the nomination of Governor Palin has certainly nailed down the Christian right vote, the pro-life vote, the anti-gay vote, and the conservative vote generally. Moreover, it may make it harder for the Obama campaign to make headway in some of the “purple” states, like Colorado.

On the other hand, a lot of that conservative vote is in states that McCain was going to carry anyway. Alabama wasn’t going to go for Obama if Mitt Romney had been the Vice Presidential nominee. And California, New York and Illinois aren’t going over into Senator McCain’s column because Sarah Palin is on the Republican ticket. In most places, most of the time, Governor Palin isn’t going to add to Senator McCain’s electoral vote total.

Moreover, in a few states – Washington, for example, and maybe Oregon, New Hampshire, and New Jersey, the Palin selection is going to guarantee that McCain won’t be taking those electoral votes away from the Democratic ticket. Just as the Republicans wanted to run against Hillary Clinton because she energized their base, so the nomination of Sarah Palin has energized a lot of the Democratic base. For one thing, I think that the idea, which, indeed, may never have been a serious purpose of the McCain camp, that the nomination of Sarah Palin would persuade women who supported Hillary Clinton to vote for McCain is seriously misguided. I think that most of the women who were disappointed by Senator Clinton’s defeat will realize that the Obama-Biden ticket is the one that best represents Senator Clinton.

In brief, I don’t think this election is going anywhere because of Sarah Palin that it wasn’t already going to go.

But let’s suppose it does. The major consequence of the nomination of Governor Sarah Palin to be the Vice President of the United States is that she might actually become the Vice President. And then what?

The Constitution of the United States mentions the Vice President only a few times. It mentions that the Vice President is elected along with the President, and for the same term of office. It states that the Vice President can be impeached, using the same procedures as apply to the President. Article II, Section 1 (as amended by the 24th Amendment) explains that the Vice President may assume the office of the President upon the death of the same, or under certain other circumstances. And it has these two paragraphs in Article I, Section 3:

“The vice president of the United States shall be president of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided.

“The Senate shall choose their other officers, and also a president pro tempore, in the absence of the vice president, or when he shall exercise the office of president of the United States.”

In other words, as long as the President is alive and conscious, the Vice President’s sole responsibility is to preside over the Senate. And the president pro tempore can take care of that in the absence of the Vice President. This is a job which is, as I believe John Adams said of it, in actuality nothing, in potential everything.

But isn’t the Vice President a major adviser to the President? Doesn’t the Vice President have a lot of influence in Washington? Dahlia Lithwick points out, in a recent article in Slate, that Dick Cheney and Al Gore were powerful Vice Presidents because of their intimate knowledge of Washington, and their many contacts in Congress and the bureaucracy, not because of the powers of their office. Lyndon Johnson, that great political operator, was frustrated and resentful in the vice presidency, because he was shut out of key decisions. In the first hundred years of the republic, we spent many of them without a Vice President, due to the deaths of Presidents Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, and Garfield, and Vice President King.

I note, in conclusion, that the furor over the Palin nomination seems to have died down, the Obama campaign has wised up, and they no longer mention Governor Palin in their speeches, and Obama is again (narrowly) ahead in the polls. This was a political nine-days’ wonder. It knocked Senator Obama off the front page for a while, and now it has been knocked out of the news in its turn by the financial crisis. And that is as it should be. The nomination of a vice presidential candidate is not, and should not be, critical to the presidential campaigns.

In the end, if elected (which appears doubtful), John McCain could make great use of Sarah Palin to promote various policies, and she, in turn, could use that time and opportunity to make herself into a national political figure. Or he could send her over to the Vice President’s office off the Senate floor, from which she could carry out her Constitutional duties, unremarked, and far from the public eye.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Housing Patterns and Oil Prices

I am in a constant struggle to keep up with my magazines. I read, and I read, but they keep coming in the front door faster than I can move them to the recycle basket. So, I just read, today, an article in the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic. The article was entitled "The Next Slum?" It was written by Christopher B. Leinberger who, according to the blurb at the end of the article, was "a visiting fellow at the Brooking Institution, a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan, and a real-estate developer." There is a reference to Mr. Leinberger's latest book, The Option of Urbanism, published by Island Press in November 2007. If you like the article, you might want to think about getting the book.

The basic thesis of Mr. Leinberger's article is expressed in this paragraph: "For 60 years, American have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and '70s - slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay."

The article makes sense to me, in part because I have an example of the phenomenon Leinberger describes in my own family. One of my sisters recently moved to a condo in the downtown area of one of Seattle's suburbs. Leinberger may be exaggerating this trend, partly because he may be making some doubtful assumptions about how many people really like urban living. (He does have some survey data to support his contentions, though.) But I think he may be right about the general trend to slowing suburban growth, and renewed growth in urban centers. (I might also note that some of his statements are consistent with Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1962), which I recently read. Jacobs's book is a classic critique of urban planning. It's available in a Modern Library edition.)

This growth wouldn't necessarily be in the old urban centers. Leinberger mentions Reston, Virginia, White Plains, New York, and Lakewood, Colorado. A few years ago, Joel Garreau, who writes for the Washington Post, published a book called Edge Cities, about the growth of these suburban centers. What Leinberger is now adumbrating may be an extension, or an intensification, of the edge city phenomenon. Here's a link to Leinberger's article:

Leinberger himself doesn't refer to energy costs as a motivator for the movement he describes, as he is focusing on the subprime lending crisis as an accelerator. I don't think it takes a lot of imagination, however, to see how "lifestyle centers" would be made more attractive by higher charges at the gas pump.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Problem with the Energy Problem

In response to my recommendation of Crude Awakening, a friend raised a good point with a comment that the problem isn't that we're going to run out of fossil fuels, but that we aren't. He is, of course, thinking of the problem of global warming.

It is a good point, but it is also wrong. It's a good point because the causal chain of burning fossil fuels, increases in greenhouse gases, atmospheric warming, climate change, potentially catastrophic physical changes to the planet is well-established. The more fossil fuels we burn, the more input goes into that causal chain, and the greater the magnitude of the consequences.

Where this formulation of the problem goes wrong is in the statement that this is "the problem." A lot of experience and study have taught me that whenever someone says "the problem is ...," he's wrong. At the very least, she is about to give us a very partial picture of the situation, in which she will identify as "the problem" that issue which happens to be most salient to herself and her concerns. If there were only one problem tied to our use of fossil fuels, it wouldn't be nearly so hard to figure out a way to solve it. There are, however, several problems, and finding a course of action which will solve all of them is very, very difficult.

First, to acknowledge my friend's point, there's global warming. The solution to global warming is to burn a lot less fossil fuels, coal, natural gas, and oil.

Next, there's the evidence that the world oil supply is at or near its peak, if it has not already passed it, so that we are going to have steadily declining reserves. We may be seeing the beginning of steadily declining annual production. The solution to this problem is to burn a lot less oil.

Third, there is the Malthusian problem of a large and rising population, which is facing limits upon the resources necessary to sustain it. The solution to this problem is to limit population growth, and to increase the production of food and other basic necessities.

Now, it would seem that the first two problems have solutions which are mutually consistent, if not reinforcing. If we are burning less oil, are we not burning less fossil fuel? Well, no, because when we stopped (mostly) using oil for electric power generation after the oil shock of the 1970s, we turned to natural gas and coal. Coal is less energy dense than oil, I believe, so you have to burn more of it to get the same amount of heat, and, therefore, electricity, so you tend to put more carbon into the air. Moreover, at this time oil is the only stuff that's really good for transportation. Even those two-mile-long coal trains that run out of Wyoming to the East coast are powered by diesel fuel. Substituting other stuff for oil in transportation is complicated (because of the lack of infrastructure), expensive, and often self-defeating. It takes about as much oil to make a given quantity of ethanol (from corn) as the ethanol replaces. It takes, with current technology, more oil to make a given quantity of hydrogen than the hydrogen replaces. (Much more, like four or five times as much.)

And the example of ethanol brings us to the interaction of the third problem with the other two. The so-called Green Revolution, which radically increased food yields, and which allows us to sustain a population of over six billion people, was really a petroleum revolution. (Crude Awakening has a discussion of this point.) In addition to providing fuel to power tractors and other farm equipment, oil and natural gas are the feedstocks for the fertilizers that allow increased yields, and the pesticides which allow the bulk of those yields to be harvested. Trucks and trains and ships, all powered by oil, allow us to move food around the world, so that people almost anywhere can have a balanced diet at any time of year, and no matter how limited the locally-grown crops may be. Plastics also protect food from pests and decrease spoilage. According to some figures bruited about on Crude Awakening, if oil runs out (should I say, when oil runs out), the planet will only sustain a population of about 1.5 billion people. 1.5 billion is the population of just two countries - China and the United States - today. (Or India and the European Union. Or any number of other combinations, each of which contains only a small minority of the countries of the earth.)

Now, then, according to some guesses (and they are guesses), global warming may displace a few hundred million people from their current living areas. It will increase the difficulty of cropping some areas, but will increase production elsewhere. A lot of the effects of global warming we can deal with, as long as we have a plentiful supply of energy. But the end of the era of oil could mean the deaths of five billion human beings, as well as of huge numbers of the animals dependent upon them. So, which should get the priority?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Nominee at Play

Last night on Washington Week in Review (PBS), Jeanne Cummings commented that she didn't think any questions about Sarah Palin's life were off limits. After all, Governor Palin had been offered, and had accepted, a position with the potential to make her President of the United States in the near future, and we know very little about her. We need to know as much about Governor Palin as possible, especially considering that her running mate, Senator McCain is 72 years old, and that her career has been short* and in a rather obscure part of the country.
The image above is one which the Governor obviously enjoyed having captured. One presumes this is one of the ways in which she likes to be seen. In any event, it may be useful for all of us in considering how we want to vote in November.
*Governor Palin has held statewide office for even less time than Senator Obama.

Crude Awakening

I seldom recommend movies, but I think Crude Awakening, a 2006 documentary about the oil situation, is so compelling, so comprehensive, so depressing, that we all ought to be aware of it. These guys use numbers to show how hard it will be to replace oil as a fuel, partly because oil is still very, very cheap. Here's a nice figure from the film: one barrel of oil contains enough energy to equal 25,000 man-hours of labor. If anyone else has see this movie, I'd appreciate comments.