Thursday, January 30, 2014

Flaring in North Dakota: The Perfect Story of Profit Motive Purloining Envirnoment

North Dakota's oil boom isn't just about oil; a lot of natural gas comes out of the ground at the same time. But there's a problem with that: The state doesn't have the pipelines needed to transport all of that gas to market. There's also no place to store it.
In many cases, drillers are simply burning it.
"People are estimating it's about $1 million a day just being thrown into the air," says Marcus Stewart, an energy analyst with Bentek Energy. Stewart tracks the amount of gas burned off — or flared — in the state, and his latest figures show that drillers are burning about 27 percent of the gas they produce.

--Morning Edition, NPR, January 30, 2014

The story of the burning of natural gas as "flaring" in North Dakota is an elegant story illustrating how the profit motive may undermine the planet.  For Republicans of all stripes, one bedrock proposition is that a free market, driven by the desire for profit is ultimately the most efficient and beneficent way. Get government involved with a bunch of do good regulations and you kill efficiency.
Now consider the oil boom in North Dakota: When unearthing oil,  the petrol companies drilling with abandon up there are releasing gargantuan quantities of natural gas, which they burn as a "flare."  Why would they waste all this potentially valuable fuel, you ask. I know I asked. The reason is profit. Natural gas sells for about $4 a cubic foot, whereas oil sells for $40-$90 a barrel, depending on the month. So the oil is more profitable. 
But why waste the gas? Why not cash in on that? Why burn more gas and send more CO2 into the atmosphere?  Because, to capture that gas, you'd need to build infrastructure: Storage tanks, pipelines to transport it. Doing all that would delay getting the oil to market, and it's the oil where the big profits are.
So, it makes sense to just burn the gas, financially, if you are an oil company executive who cares more about profit than about the environment. You might say, well, you can get your profit later, but why despoil the air burning, wasting, natural gas. Just wait a few months, build your infrastructure and reap your profit later. 

But no, companies are not in business to wait for profit.
So what force could possibly force these paragons of private enterprise to do the right thing by the environment and by the nation (if we are worried about energy independence)? Why, the government, of course. The government cares about the common good, not just one company's bottom line or stock price. 
Oh, that nasty beast, the government. Always getting in the way, always thwarting the efficient operation of American industry. Democrats doing that bad thing. Republicans say, drill baby, drill. Burn, baby burn.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

David Remnick: Obama Going The Distance

Rocky Balboa's goal, in the first "Rocky" movie was not to defeat Apollo Creed, but to simply survive, to remain standing after going 15 rounds with the champion, to Go The Distance.

In his 20 page report in the New Yorker, Remnick portrays Barack Obama as having the same mindset, the same limited ambition.  It is his strength to be unfazed by immediate set backs, by people who are writing history in 10 minute increments, but the portrayal is in some ways depressing, not because Mr. Obama looks less admirable, but because as he talks about Obama, Remnick portrays the world in which he lives, the polluted water in which he must swim every day. Obama is discovering, as Thomas Carcetti does in "The Wire," how limited his options are, how little power he actually wields and how the intransigence of his opposition, the structure of our government, the effect of gerrymandering, a Congress which is largely absent, which is not representative of the American people in important ways, can combine to  thwart his best intentions.

One remark which has gained great attention is Mr. Obama's simple observation that marijuana is less worrisome than many other legal drugs, to wit, alcohol and tobacco. Mad Dog speaks with doctors every day, in specialties from pulmonary to gastroenterology to neurology to cardiology and not one would disagree with Mr. Obama's assessment.

But local police chiefs in New Hampshire are shocked, outraged and dismayed the President should say such a thing when the police are working hard to discourage the use of marijuana among the innocent youth of New Hampshire, who risk beginning their slide down the slippery slope from marijuana to crack cocaine because the President has told them that's okay.

It was, surprisingly, a Republican delegate the New Hampshire House of Representatives who said the opposition of the police chiefs was in a sense, a move for job security. As long has they have kids to arrest for smoking pot, we will always need more police, more jails and the so the police justify their own jobs. Pot arrests are something like speeding stops--the police can always count on that business. It's low hanging fruit, shooting fish in a barrel, easy pickings. 

Mr. Obama is said to be "a reluctant politician: aloof, insular, diffident, arrogant, inert, unwilling to jolly his allies along the fairway and take a 9-iron to his enemies. He doesn't know anyone in Congress. No one in the House or in the Senate, no one in foreign capitals fears him. He gives a great speech, but he doesn't understand power...This is the knowing talk on Wall Street, on K Street on Capitol Hil, in green rooms--the 'Morning Joe,' consensus."

Of course, what Remnick demonstrates is the problem is not in Mr. Obama's personality but in the world he finds himself. Lyndon Johnson would not get a single bill through committee in the current Congress.  "They could invite every Republican in Congress to play golf until the end of time...and never cut the Gordian knot of contemporary Washington." That trope, the wisdom of the chattering classes is just the story the Morning Joe people like telling themselves. It fits their own needs, makes them feel superior. 

The description of Mr. Obama's trip to the West Coast  "rattling the cup in one preposterous mansion after another,"  is as depressing a scene as the Mad Dog can remember. It is worse than "The Candidate"  and worse than "Shampoo." It is the view of what it really means that 1% of the population controls 50% of all the wealth in the nation.  People with so much money they junk up their lawns with sculptures, load their walls with priceless art, people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Mad Dog deeply hopes Mr. Obama will survive his Presidency, riding about in his "beast"  Cadillac, with 5 inch thick glass windows, secured against bomb blasts, poisonous gas and sniper attacks. He hopes Mr. Obama can go back to Chicago and walk down the street, with his Secret Service guards a discreet distance behind, and go into a Starbucks and buy coffee and a paper. That's what Mr. Obama misses most, the real world. 

Where he lives is something between "VEEP" and "House of Lies."

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hiroo Onoda: Get Over It

Mrs. Haversham, of Great Expectations is the example of the woman who cannot move beyond disappointment about whom most American school children learn. But there are other, mostly fictional, examples of people, mostly women, who cling to a vow or a hope beyond reason. Joan Baez's first album had a haunting song about a woman who waited 16 years for her lover to return, but when he did, it turned out he had forsaken her while she had waited. Madam Butterfly waited for her naval officer. 
In most cases, we suspect the personwho clings to a promise or a vow beyond reasonable expectation, who clings when the steadfastness seems self sacrificial, has something wrong with her, or with him. 
In this world, the individual who cleaves tight to a proposition despite sea changes in the world around him (or her), is a rarity.
In a sense, the idea of marriage is based on this fidelity to a vow, til death do us part, even after it is apparent clinging to the vow, has been "for worse."
If we have come to suspect psychopathology in some forms of fidelity then we have to come to doubt the proposition that any form of fidelity to a promise made early in life may be a form of neurosis: but that would include the marriage vows.

So, when Hiroo Onoda died, his story still fascinated across time and across cultures.
Onoda was the Japanese lieutenant who remained in the jungles of the Phillipines for 29  years after the end of World War II, claiming he did not believe the war was over and he was remaining faithful to his orders not to surrender until and unless his commanding officer specifically returned to order him to stop fighting.

When you think about it, you know he must have known, or strongly suspected.  the war had ended--when no more soldiers appeared to fight him, when no more ships bombarded his island, when the only people left to fight were villagers and policemen. 
You know he could have slipped into a village and ascertained there really was no more war going on. He must have known the fighting had stopped.

But he continued the fight, knowing hostilities had stopped and he was the only one who still fought on.

Jesse James and  other bands of Confederate soldiers continued to act as marauders after the American Civil War, but the local population came to think of them as simple criminals.  Citizens sent police, not the Army after these die hards. 

When Onoda finally emerged from the jungle and his former commander arrived to deliver the order to cease and desist, he was returned to Japan, to a Tokyo which had glass skyscrapers and he was greeted as a hero. Here was a man who had not embraced the culture of avarice, creature comforts and money, a man who had lived in the jungle, in discomfort, because of fidelity to a sense of honor.

It must be telling, however, that he lasted only a year in the Japan he found on his return, then moved to Brazil and married a Japanese woman there, returning to Japan 10 years later to open a survivalist school, and the story became one which sounds like a man finally cashing in. 

It all reminds Mad Dog of the Japanese student who  studied in the stacks of his college library. He would arrive as soon as the library opened in the morning and stay until it closed at night, coming and going only for classes and meals. Mad Dog knew the Japanese student did this, because Mad Dog was doing the same thing. 
But what Mad Dog did not at first appreciate was that the Japanese student was doing this in a tacit competition. 
 Mad Dog caught this student looking in Mad Dog's direction, as 10 PM approached, often enough that he began to suspect.  One Saturday night, at 9:30,  Mad Dog gathered his books up, put on his coat, took the stairwell down one flight of stairs. The library closed at 10 PM on Saturday. Mad Dog never left before 10 PM, but just to test his own hypothesis, that night Mad Dog cleared out his stuff from his study carrel 30 minutes early. He waited in the stairwell for 10 minutes and returned to his carrel, looked down the row of carrels to the carrel occupied by the Japanese student, and saw the student had cleared out.

In retrospect, Mad Dog realized his own devotion to study and isolation was more than a test of will; it occurred against a background of no other really tempting options, and in a state of neurosis.

And Mad Dog wonders whether or not most or all fidelity is like that. As Oscar Wilde said:   "I can resist anything but temptation."

We project a set of heroic features on a man and his story, but, in the end, extreme behavior often looks more like simply eccentricity, sometimes simple social inadequacy dressed up as strength of will. 

And if that applies to the man who chooses to remain in the jungle, does it apply less to the woman who stays loyal to a husband who has moved on psychologically, or to a marriage which has become little more than a habit?

When young soldiers pledge themselves to each other, when they fight for survival together,  that loyalty is functional, self preserving. But they do not expect to carry sacrifice forward for thirty years. They anticipate a battle "for the duration," but the duration is expected to be relatively brief.

But what do we do with people who remain loyal to one idea for an unreasonably long time? And what do we say about institutions which depend on this sort of vow taking?
Obadiah Youngblood,  "Feeder Canal"

Sunday, January 12, 2014

New Hampshire: Liberal Arts in a Conservative State

Surfers' Cove Rye New Hampshire--Obadiah Youngblood

Mad Dog has been trying to wrap his mind around the experience of New Hampshire. A great deal of it has to do with ideas that coalesce around three observations:
1. Many people here grew up in families with more than four children. For them, there was never the prospect, the ambition of going to college as a pathway into the future.
2. For many living in the Seacoast now, their jobs, their livelihoods do not seem to have been dependent on what the college experience offered: They are, whether they are producing things or selling things, simply managing information, using computers. And what they know about computers they did not learn in any sort of school, public or private.
3. Those who are struggling, working two jobs, living paycheck to pay check do not blame anyone or anything beyond themselves for their tough lives, but when they do, they blame some amorphous Big Brother government, which, somehow seems to them to be at the root of all evil.

Mad Dog spent most of his life in the Washington, DC area, a city surrounded by close in suburbs in Maryland in Virginia where almost everyone went to college, most had graduate degrees, and all hoped and expected to send their children to college, and not to just to college but to "elite" colleges, where, they believed, their children's future and fortunes would be made by what they learned there and who they met there.

For the most part, Mad Dog has come to believe, both groups, the blue collar New Hampshire Yankees who cynically dismiss the value of college, or of any organized, meaning public education and the white collar Washingtonians, who worship at the alter of the Ivy League--are fundamentally wrong.

The college crowd seems unfazed by the realization that the economy they graduated into and the future for which college prepared them was fundamentally the wrong one. Few, if any, colleges prepared students for the revolution which was fomented by people who either never went to college (Steve Jobs), or who looked around Harvard and concluded the faculties were clueless and left (Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.) College was then and still is a place to get your ticket punched, but the actual experience, until recently at least, did little to really prepare students for life, because the faculties were simply not competent or connected enough to see what life outside the academy held.

On the other hand, the blue collar crowd never learned to question, one of the things which might occur in college.  The blue collar crowd listens to Rush Limbaugh, watches Fox News, listens to the men down at the barber shop or the hardware store and cannot think to challenge the stuff they hear. And for some reason, they do not watch Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart.

One thing Mad Dog realizes is he is out of touch with what UNH has to offer and he will attempt to remedy this by surfing the UNH website. He has been impressed by the credentials of the faculty--state college jobs must be good jobs, judging by the numbers of UNH faculty who hail from brand name schools, bringing their high priced merit badges to the Granite State.

But what are the citizens of New Hampshire getting for this investment?
Can graduates of UNH cut through the choppy waters they face, downstream?
White Water--Obadiah Youngblood

Monday, January 6, 2014

New Hampshire, Fair and Free

North Hampton Rocky Beach--Obadiah Youngblood
Mad Dog considers himself lucky to be living in New Hampshire. But watching the legislature dither over whether or not to provide its citizens with health insurance is painful to behold. It's one thing when you see old time New Hampshire codgers struggle with the idea of agreeing to taxes and a government which actually has ambitions to help its own citizens--they look quaint and honest and plain spoken.

But it's quite another when those tough old Yankees start to look like superstitious ignoramuses, clinging to some mystical, religious notion that we shouldn't help our neighbors because it makes them weak and it makes us enablers.

The big argument against accepting federal dollars (which Granite staters have already paid into the federal coffers) is that, down the road, some day, it will  have meant we have actually bought into the notion we might get involved with the federal government. As if we have compromised our virtue by allowing the local woman of easy virtue to contribute to our collection for widows and orphans.

It puts Mad Dog (pictured below) into a funk.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

What's Eating The Right Wing Now?

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dom: Aka Koch Bros.

Have you noticed how quiet the Tea Party has been lately?  Is it just that Mad Dog has not been paying attention or is it simply that Congress is not in session?

They are still out there, even when you don't see them. But you know they are there, like cockroaches, busy, unseen, ready to come out when they think the time is right.

President Obama has been taking punches on the roll out of Obamacare, but now, as more and more people have locked down policies, you are, at least if you listen to NPR, beginning to hear stories from more or less ecstatic people who have health insurance, who either never had it before or who had dreadfully inadequate policies.

If this keeps up, people might just get to like having health insurance; they may even get to depend on it like Medicare and Social Security, and if that happens, people may just begin to believe government is good for something.  And if the government is good for something, then what can those anarchists in the Tea Party sell?

Well, maybe  they can always try to kill Obamacare with a thousand cuts and bleed it anemic until people start to dislike it  because it cannot run up the mountain in its weakened state.

Presumably, Ted Cruz and Eric Cantor and the entire Congressional delegations from South Carolina and Texas and Arizona are huddling with the Koch brothers and Carl Rove and other luminaries of the Tea Party Thought Palace, rehearsing their songs.

Charles M. Blow, notes in today's NY Times that 43% of Republicans (Pew Research) are now "staunch conservatives" in terms of their ideas on the size and role of government, economic policy (trickle down good,  government rescues bad),social issues (gay marriage, bad, guns good, government restrictions bad) and moral concerns (Heaven only knows what constitutes moral concerns in Tea Party Republican eyes nowadays.) A majority of these "staunch" types watch Fox News regularly.

 Of white evangelical Protestants 73% disbelieve evolution. This is in contrast to all Republicans, of whom 54% believe in evolution.  This means 73% of evangelicals and 46% of all Republicans believe "humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time."

Billy O'Reilly has been inveighing against the "War on Christmas," which he hears in the greeting "Happy Holidays" as opposed to "Merry Christmas."  Newt Gingrich picked up the Christians-under-attack theme, "There's a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concern on the other side, and none of it gets covered by the news media." Apparently, Mr. Gingrich does not watch Fox News.

Tea Party Republicans, which is to say, Republicans, or at least 43% of Republicans, the staunch set,  depend on anger, resentment and a sense of having been wronged.  (Actually, Mad Dog would like to know who those other 57% of Republicans are who are, who are not staunch. And who represents them? John Boehner? Mitch McConnell? How are these guys different from staunch?) Republicans are the party of anger. 

This is not the first time the Republican party has been the party of grievance. Of course, there was the McCarthy era Republican party of Who-lost-China?  and deep paranoia. But, originally, when the Republican party emerged from the Whigs, and nominated Abraham Lincoln, a lot of them were abolitionists, and being angry about slavery, even today, more than 150 years later, that seems appropriate. But there is a world of difference between being angry about slavery and being angry about Obamacare.

During Mad Dog's youth, there was the war in Vietnam. America was killing peasants in their rice paddies, burning babies with Napalm, and sending off its sons from America to die for "honor" and glory and to "fight for freedom" and to "defend our country."  That was something to get mad about. Republicans weren't bothered by all that then. It was disaffected Democrats who roiled about Vietnam. It was Democrats who served notice on their own sitting President he would not be renominated and it was Democrats who rejected the candidate of smoke filled rooms, Hubert Humphrey, because he supported the war in Vietnam, and it was Democrats who self destructed and handed the election to Richard Nixon because Democrats were angry at their own for having blundered into Vietnam.

But what issue today rises to the level of evil reached by the institution of slavery or  war? The War on Christmas?  Gun control?  Teaching evolution in schools? 

Mad Dog must be missing something here. But what have the Republicans got to get America boiling mad about now?