Entries from January 2009

American Politics, Global Obsession

January 31st, 2009 at 9:52 pm 6 Comments

It might strike Americans as odd that people in other countries gather to watch U.S. presidential elections as if they were their own. But they do.

Every four years on the first Tuesday in November, for example, I host a dinner for fellow political junkies. We eat, drink and watch the returns come in with almost as much fascination as we would follow the results in a Canadian election.

I can’t imagine a group of Americans reciprocating; heating up some wings, cracking open a few Budweisers, then trying in vain to find a Canadian news channel on the satellite dish so they can see who wins in Lotbinière-Chutes-dela-Chaudière, Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox & Addington or Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo.

I didn’t host a meal in 2008 for the first time in seven elections because the outcome was a foregone conclusion – no drama, no dinner. Besides, I was uncertain whether I could keep food down with all the media swooning, gloating, gushing and sycophancy that was certain to dominate coverage after Obama was declared the winner.

But why this absorption with your politics? Because who wins the White House matters in our politics. To an extent unappreciated in the U.S. and unadmitted to in other countries, the direction of American politics affects policy in other Western countries.

And not just foreign policy.

The foreign policy impact is the most obvious because it is direct. If U.S. troops go marching off to war in some foreign land, our troops may have to come along in a coalition. And, of course, there is the leftist canard that if your troops invade some far off country, and prick anti-Western resentment in the region, that makes the world more dangerous for the rest of us, too.

There is a policy debate going on in Canada right now over what to do if President Obama asks us to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond our planned withdrawal in mid-2011.

We’ve been on the ground there since the start in 2001. In early 2006, we began doing much of the frontline fighting in Kandahar province. We’ve taken our turn commanding all the NATO forces in the region and even agreed not to come home in February 2009 as originally planned, just to help keep the Taliban at bay.

It was all our Prime Minister Stephen Harper could do, though, to convince Parliament to vote for a deployment extension to June 2011. Even with the changeover from the much disliked George W. Bush to the much idolized Barack Obama, there is not public taste to push our mission beyond that. The most recent polls, taken after the inauguration, show nearly two-thirds of Canadians want our soldiers home according to the set deadline regardless of who is in the Oval Office.

The irony is that our previous Liberal government sent troops to Afghanistan so we could look like a faithful ally without sending any soldiers to Mr. Bush’s Iraq war. Now Mr. Obama seems determined to make Afghanistan his war, so our previous avoidance strategy has plunked us in the middle of the kind of intense war we were hoping to wriggle out of.

But foreigners watch American elections intently because the winners and losers direct our domestic policy debates, too, even if we don’t realize it.

On election night in 2000, I was busy flipping burgers on the barbecue when CBS took Florida out of George Bush’s column – where the network had placed the state shortly after polls closed – and gave it to Al Gore.

I started stomping around the house, spatula in hand, muttering obscenities under my breath.

My guests wondered why the Florida switch had made me so mad. There were 49 other states, they pointed out. I explained that by my calculations, though, there was no way Mr. Bush could win the election without Florida’s (then) 25 Electoral College votes.

I was as ambivalent about Mr. Bush’s policies then as now, but I wanted badly for him to win in 2000 to keep that eco-freak Albert Gore, Jr. out of the White House.

Most of the time I don’t care what self-destructive policies nations adopt for themselves. If the U.S. wanted to elect a “green” president who would have sought to impose all sorts of economically crippling environmental regulations that is its business.

But I was a passionate global warming sceptic even then and I knew one of the few barriers keeping our Liberal national government from diving headfirst into a full Kyoto implementation was the refusal by the U.S. government to back the U.N. climate treaty signed in Japan’s ancient capital in 1997.

Had Mr. Gore been elected, the tone of the administration regarding Kyoto would have changed. Even if the Senate had refused to ratify U.S. participation in the treaty, a President Gore would have said all the environmentally correct things, perhaps even used executive orders to effect most of Kyoto’s emission targets anyway.

With the rhetoric different south of the border (to we Canadians, that means in the U.S., not Mexico), it would have been harder to fight the global warming insanity up here.

And it’s not just the environment.

Over the past decade, the political momentum in Canada has been slowly shifting away from our government-monopoly, one-treatment-fits-all health care system and towards a blended public-private system.

That gradual creep away from socialized medicine will now halt or reverse because President Obama has promised socialized care Stateside. Supporters of our centrally planned health system will now be able to ward off much needed private innovation by saying, “See, even the Americans have come to realize that health care is too important to be left to the private sector.”

On welfare, capitalism and financial reregulation, gun control, Middle East policy or the war on terror, America has often been the last, best bastion of common sense in the Western world. And because you remained sensible, the rest of us had to retain some sensibility.

But now that you have elected a president who buys into all the shibboleths and myths about global warming and government planning and jihadis really being decent peace-lovers eager to embrace the West if only we would keep open minds, there is now less chance for the rest of us to stem the tide of “progressive” policies.

That’s really why your elections matter so much to the rest of the world.

God Save The Queen, and Fast!

January 31st, 2009 at 9:52 pm 1 Comment

U.S. counter-terrorism strategy may be in disarray but it’s a paradigm of consistency compared to our closest ally across the Atlantic… A recent article in the Daily Mail details the strange story of Azad Ali, an IT administrator for the UK Treasury, and President of Britain’s “Civil Service Islamic Society” (the “CSIS”).  As reported in the article, on his personal internet blog (“Between The Lines”), Mr. Ali apparently: quoted Islamic extremists touting Muslims’ alleged “obligation” to murder British and U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq; accused the British Government of failing to condemn Israel as a “Zionist terror state”; and characterized moderate British Muslim citizens as “self-serving vultures, feeding on the dead flesh of the Palestinians.” According to the article, although these comments were set forth on Mr. Ali’s personal blog, Mr. Ali did not attempt to hide the fact that he was a British civil servant, and provided a link to the CSIS’s official website.

As reported in the article, Mr. Ali is widely considered by many to be a high profile voice of moderation within Britain’s Islamic community, serving as Trustee of the East London Mosque and the London Muslim Centre.  He has also apparently served on the board of London CrimeStoppers, and sits on several London police committees.  The Daily Mail also reported that Mr. Ali is the former chairman of the Muslim Safety Forum and most recently chaired that Forum’s counter-terrorism work team, which was responsible for coordinating with the British Home Office, senior political officers, and U.K. Security Services.

Mr. Ali has apparently been suspended by his employer while HM Treasury investigates the allegations, and has, to date, declined to comment to the media about the case. Readers can assess Mr. Ali’s comments for themselves at his blog.  However, the Daily Mail also reports that at CSIS’s recent annual dinner, the proceeds of that function were passed along to Interpal, a U.S. designated “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” that the U.S. Treasury Department described as “the fundraising coordinator for HAMAS.” Readers may also take comfort in the fact that CSIS’s dinner was attended by, among others, Peter Lewis, head of the Crown Prosecution Service. The British Government has not designated Interpal as a terrorist organization.  On two prior occasions, the British Charity Commission has investigated Interpal, freezing its accounts during the investigations’ pendency, and on both occasions unfreezing its bank accounts and allowing Interpal to continue to operate.  However, in 2006 the Commission commenced a third investigation (which is still open at this time) and in December 2008 Lloyds TSB directed the Islamic Bank of Britain (for whom Lloyds clears checks) to close Interpal’s accounts.

For his part, Mr. Ali can take heart in the fact that his cause has been taken up by supporters on Facebook, who have wasted no time in launching a new Facebook “Group” entitled Justice 4 Muslims; Justice 4 Azad Ali”.  As also reported in the Daily Mail, he has a wide network of friends through, inter alia, his Facebook account. According to the article, included among Mr. Ali’s Facebook “friends” is Inayat Bunglawala, Media Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain (“MCB”).  The MCB gained no small degree of notoriety for its refusal between 2001 and 2007  to participate in Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies, and (as reported by The Observer’s Martin Bright) circulated Osama Bin Laden’s writings for nearly five months before the September 11 attacks, describing Bin Laden as a “mujahid” and “holy warrior” in an April 2001 email.  After the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Bunglawala graciously ceased lauding bin Laden, instead stating “Osama was a mujahid. I do not consider him as such now. People change.”

The effort to reach out to “moderate” Muslim community leaders, whether in Britain or in the U.S. is important, but also requires honesty and candor. If the CSIS, which allegedly supports a Specially Designated Global Terrorist openly is “moderate,” the term loses all meaning. President Bush used to speak of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” but the British government seems to practice a form of “low expectations for bigotry.”  This is no way to fight a war.

History Is Unkind To Weakness

January 31st, 2009 at 9:52 pm 10 Comments

“I just voted and I’m very happy,” Mukhalad Waleed, 35, said in the city of Ramadi, in Anbar. “We could not do the same thing the last time because of the insurgency.”

So the New York Times reported yesterday.

Saddam Hussein did not promote voting while “children played soccer on closed-off streets in a generally joyous atmosphere.”  And under Saddam did “politicians anxiously [wait] to find out how many councils will change hands, and if widespread dissatisfaction voiced at religious parties will translate into fewer seats for them?”  Not bloody likely.  The Republican Party is exhausted by the Presidency of George W. Bush.  His successes must not be jettisoned in weariness.

The joy of the man quoted voting without violence is a testament to the vision and will of President Bush and the Republican Party.  The Democratic Party voted for the war in Iraq in overwhelming numbers.  It proved feckless in the long haul.  Whether political calculation or a default McGovernism and pacifistic weakness was the main culprit is hard to say.  Either way, the Republicans must not allow the public to forget the cost of Democratic weakness.  

The media overflows with paeans to the new foreign policy of Barack Obama.  I wish him luck and peace in his endeavors.  But recent history has not been kind to Democratic foreign policy.  If the measure of American foreign policy is whether the country is geopolitically stronger or weaker, Democrats fail.  Jimmy Carter watched a dozen nations fall into the Communist or enemy sphere on his watch, and the Soviet Union was emboldened to invade a non-Eastern European nation for the first time since 1945.  The Presidencies of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the integration of the Warsaw Pact into the Free World.  President Clinton, handed an unprecedented unipolar world, let the terrorist threat grow unanswered, and emboldened Osama in Somalia.  He allowed North Korea to obtain nuclear weapons.  He dithered in Rwanda and stumbled into preventable wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.

George W. Bush leaves the Presidency with two of our worst foes from the 90’s, Saddam and the Taliban, dispatched and replaced by friendly governments.  He leaves our relations with the world’s largest democracy, India, at unprecedented levels of cooperation. Japan and Australia grew closer to the United States and, it is also worth mentioning that our relations with China did not deteriorate even as we opposed it in Darfur, the Sudan, and all around the globe.    

The Left will try and solidify its narrative of foreign policy error, but the Republicans have to strike back again and again.  Fecklessness and a failure to defend the United States is the key weakness of Democratic foreign policy.  Obama’s abject interview with Arab T.V. where he agreed with the premise that America is responsible for bad relations with Arab states starts this pattern again.  The Republican Party must repeat: America is not what’s wrong with the world and weakness is provocative.

An Unwelcome Revolution

David Frum January 31st, 2009 at 1:04 pm Comments Off

What did Americans want when they voted for Barack Obama in November?

Some wanted an end to the war in Iraq. Some wanted the middle-class tax cut Obama offered. Some wanted a president who seemed more careful or a better listener than George Bush or John McCain. Some were inspired by Obama’s personal story — some liked his youth, others his race.

But in politics, it’s not what the voters want that matters — it’s what they get.

And what American voters are about to get is the sharpest left-turn in public policy since the middle 1960s.

This week, the House of Representatives passed a huge domestic spending bill. The bill is priced at $819-billion (all figures in U. S. dollars), but the true final number could be closer to $900-billion.

This spending comes atop the money for the bank bailout. That number is currently set at $700-billion, but Treasury officials are warning it could rise to $2-trillion.

Together, these two measures put the United States on the way to its biggest budget deficits since the Second World War, at least twice as big (relative to the overall economy) as the budget deficits of the 1980s.

Many economists argue that this spending is essential to combat the sharpest downturn in the world economy since at least 1974, maybe since the Great Depression. They say: The U. S. government can borrow almost infinitely at a time when nearly nobody else can. It should use this borrowing power to put money into the hands of people to spend, jolting the economy back toward growth.

But if all you wanted to do was deliver money as rapidly as possible, here’s the fastest way to do it: suspend the worker share of the payroll tax the U. S. government collects to finance Social Security. The government taxes all payrolls at a flat rate of 12.6% up to an income cap, currently $106,800. Half this money is deducted from worker salaries. (Another 2.6% is collected to finance Medicare, again half from worker salaries. The Medicare tax has no income cap.)

Suspending the collection of the worker share of this money would put extra money into the hands of every American worker immediately — next week if Congress could act fast enough. Up to $560 per worker per month. This tax relief would favour lower and middle income workers over the more highly paid. Warren Buffett would receive the same maximum $560/month as his bookkeepers would.

This measure would be relatively cheap, too. Suspending the worker share of the Social Security tax would cost the Treasury about $30-billion per month at current levels of unemployment, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (which, as it happens, opposes the measure). If that number is accurate, the United States could continue a payroll tax holiday for almost three years for less cost than Congress’ stimulus program.

Or alternatively, Congress could offer a big investment tax credit, incentivizing more productive and rapid private-sector investment rather than slower and almost certainly less effective government spending.

Meanwhile, many of the items included in the stimulus will only just be ramping up three years from now. The basic rule of government spending is that the government can spend quickly — or it can spend honestly — or can spend effectively — but never all three at the same time.

Stimulus proponents know this of course. They champion the stimulus — as President Obama was careful to do in his inaugural address — not just as an anti-recession measure, but more as a way to reshape the US economy.

The post-stimulus economy will feature more spending by government, a more ambitious government role in health care, larger and longer unemployment coverage, and bigger transfers from Washington to the states, especially to more liberal states whose generous social programs have come under pressure in the recession.

It’s a turn away from the more competitive, more open, more dynamic economy of the past three decades toward a more regulated, more protected, and more statist future.

The U. S. political system is ferociously hostile to change. But there are moments once in a generation when crisis creates an opportunity for a new approach. Back in the 1970s, the combined impact of the energy shock, stagflation and the humiliation of the Iranian hostage-taking opened the door to Ronald Reagan’s conservatism — and conservatives have held the advantage in U. S. politics ever since.

A generation later, the situation is reversed, and Democrats seem determined to make the most of it to undo as much of Reagan’s work as they can.

Most of the time, politicians try to follow public opinion, but in 2009 as in 1981, they are leading it. They are testing how far they can go, how fast, before something stops them.

Originally published in the National Post.

Insults Aren’t Policy

January 31st, 2009 at 11:07 am 28 Comments

I’m a political consultant. So I understand the utility of over-the-top populist rhetoric, even when it’s kind of silly. But Claire McCaskill isn’t a candidate in a campaign. She’s a Senator amid a crisis. Her demand that employees at any bank that receives TARP funds receive no more than the President’s $400,000 yearly salary is ludicrous. Yes, it’ll play well to the millions struggling to put food on the table for far less than 400 large. But in the real world of commercial and investment banks, it’s a joke. The day that Citi tries to pay its top traders and bankers (the best of whom currently earn more than 400,000 a month), less than their competitors is the day Citi might as well turn its lights off. Citi’s non-TARP-recipient competitors, including foreign owned banks, would instantly swoop in to snatch its pick of Citi’s talent and that would be essentially the end of Citi’s ability to compete in the global marketplace.

In Major League Baseball, the highest-spending teams are forced to pay a luxury tax to the lower-payroll teams, which is theoretically supposed to fund the salaries of the latter’s players. Imagine a scenario in which teams receiving those monies were forbidden from paying their players more than $400,000 while the Yankees and Cubs remained free to pay whatever they liked. Does anyone think the best players would volunteer to remain Brewers and Pirates out of loyalty or good manners?

However much one might resent the paychecks of Wall Street jerkoffs – and I spent 10-plus years as a financial journalist, clenching my fist every time some kid younger and dumber than me outearned me by 10 times – the fact is that these banks pay what they do not because they want to. They pay it because they have to. Just like your job pays you exactly what it must to get you out of bed in the morning and come to work where you work rather than somewhere else that also desires your services.


But Wait, There’s More Waste!

January 30th, 2009 at 9:55 pm 6 Comments

An internal document obtained by NewMajority on Friday details even more wasteful spending in the now-$1.2 trillion spending bill that the Senate will take up next week.

The bill is so large that only 7 percent will be spent by the end of fiscal 2009. Yet even with this massive spending – if they divvied up and distributed the amount of the bill, it would equal $2,700 for every American man, woman, and child – there is still no aid to avert housing repossessions. Good news though for those who still have their homes: there’s $650 million for digital TV converter coupons in the House bill.

And although only 2.7 percent of the bill is dedicated to small-business tax relief, some small businesses will benefit: The bill offers $150 million in honeybee insurance.

And what a coincidence: America’s top honey-producing state, North Dakota, has two Democratic senators. Don’t look for this measure to be stripped out in conference!

Plan For Failure

January 30th, 2009 at 9:55 pm 3 Comments

Here you are in a school identified as being persistently dangerous and that performs below average on every city and state-wide exam. You’re standing in front of 30 or more kids; many of the kids are identified with some form of learning, behavioral or emotional disorder. Some of them can’t read. You have no aid to help them and the school gives you no copying paper to run off something else that might make everyone’s life easier.

You have a ten-year-old Elements of Literature 6th Edition book and the Canterbury Tales is the next thing in your plan book. Good luck!

This is the book the students are supposed to be able to read if it’s what the school gives me, right? If not, then please give me some modified materials because the tax break for teachers isn’t big enough to buy or make new materials for each kid everyday. I always figure the “experts” who write about education don’t take into regard city schools like mine that are so incredibly far behind and backwards. They must not have lived this reality.

In our school, it’s not uncommon for a classroom teacher of 30 kids to have at least a third of those kids under what’s called an Individual Education Plan (IEP). Each teacher, under law, is supposed to make accommodations and modifications for each of those students for every step of the lesson plan.

So if you teach 12th grade, as I do, and have an IEP student who tests at the 3rd grade reading level, it’s up to you to accommodate that student appropriately all the way through the reading of what are very difficult materials for even the best readers. IEP students should have aids to help out too, but anyone who teaches in a dysfunctional inner city school knows this doesn’t happen. The materials I have to teach 12th grade English revolve around an Elements of Literature 6th Edition book that traces British Literature from Beowulf through post-colonialism. The book is a huge anthology full of reading that is anything but “modified.”

It’s no knock on the student who reads poorly, but does it really serve a purpose to have that student in a senior English classroom? No Child Left Behind has served a good purpose of identifying exactly what level students are performing at, but what to do for those 16, 17 and 18 year-olds who read at pre-primer and primer levels?

Many teachers spend their own money buying easy reader books or video players as ways to modify lesson plans. Many teachers, similarly, do nothing because they feel helpless, especially once the reality of it all sets in and they tire of trying to invent appropriate materials each day.

I’ve spent a good chunk of change trying to find materials that my students can read and understand. Our school has a ridiculous copying rule because we are so short on copy paper, so I’ve spent way more at Office Supplies than any young bachelor should.

Behavior problems in English classes occur when those students who are labeled as “low readers” or “non-readers” are asked to do reading, analyze that reading and write coherent responses to it. To modify each lesson for a third of a class that reads at primer levels while maintaining a collegial atmosphere for the mid to upper level readers is a recipe for failure, especially at schools such as ours that do not offer any advanced classes.

And though everyone seems to be arguing to pour more money into science and math classes, no one talks about doing the same for English classes. Well, if the student reads at a third grade level, he or she isn’t going to do well in those highly funded science and math classes. Definitely, an equal amount of money should go towards pushing all students to read at an 8th grade level so they can at least read a newspaper.

IEP students are supposed to be getting help – it’s mandated under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act. They are also supposed to have IEP meetings a few times per year. Of the dozens of IEP meetings I have attended, parents have been in attendance a handful of times. Each of these IEP students has a file folder several inches thick. The state has all kinds of rules, but I feel confident saying most of the rules are broken or skirted past. What’s the result of all that work and of all those laws if after all the years the kid is still reading and behaving well below grade level?

Any new solutions to close the achievement gap must take into consideration the insanity of the current situation in our worst schools. Teachers always complain of being overwhelmed, whether they teach in a good or bad school. I often pooh-poohed all the whining until I saw the madness of being a public school teacher in a low-income area.

Go Nukes

January 30th, 2009 at 9:55 pm 25 Comments

Fortunately, the US has experienced only a few black-outs and regional power outages in the last three decades. The biggest happened on August 14, 2003 Ñapparently the result of a tree branch falling in Ohio–and affected much of the Northeast, the Midwest, and Ontario.  Such incidents may not remain rare much longer, however.

Our capacity to generate electricity and to transmit it to where it is needed most will be exhausted within a few years without new power plants and significant upgrades to the vast interconnections of power lines known collectively as “the grid”. Blackouts like the one in 2003 could become more frequent, more long-lasting, and more expensive to individuals and businesses.

Peter Huber and Mark Mills, among others, have shown convincingly that improvements to material well-being are inextricably linked to greater use of electricity. Furthermore, the proportion of our total energy consumption that is electricity has increased steadily and will continue to do so in the Internet Age (those PCs, data warehouses, and servers need a lot of juice).

Not only do powerful, well-established trends show that we will need both more electricity and more reliable delivery of it, but a substantially upgraded electric system may also offer us our best hope of weaning ourselves from petroleum-based transportation fuels like gasoline. The earliest examples of a new automotive world are already running on our highways.

On the whole, our system of investor-owned utilities, government-sponsored entities, and transmission wires have provided the US economy with continuously improved output and service for the last century.

So why should we be concerned about looming blackouts now?

Because we have underinvested in generating capacity and the transmission grid for about three decades. Political obstacles and disincentives have been the primary reasons.

For example, of the 104 nuclear power plants in operation in the US today, all began the arduous process of planning, permitting, construction, and final approval before 1979.

Even without an explicit, official prohibition of nuclear power plant construction since 1979, utilities and other investors could see that a vast array of federal, state, and local bureaucrats, judges, and “public interest” lawyers had the ability to block construction, impose long delays on construction and even prevent operation once constructed—as was the case with the Shoreham reactor that eventually bankrupted the Long Island Lighting Company.

Additionally, the US suspended recycling of spent fuel rods during the mid-1970s and has never resumed the practice even though recycling facilities in France, the UK, Russia, and Japan are all successful in radically reducing the amount (by volume and weight) and radioactivity (in terms of years remaining) of the nuclear waste produced through power generating operations.
Even without an antagonistic government and legal system, construction and operation of nuclear power plants are inherently more complicated than for other types of electric power generation. The “up-front” nature of the investment and relatively small subsequent operating costs meant that investors in nuclear power plants were that much more vulnerable to the depredations of opportunistic politicians.

We still managed to put off the day of reckoning through resourceful “up-rating” of nuclear power plants (i.e. operating them longer than originally envisioned) and by building lots of natural gas burning combined-cycle turbines which were relatively quick to construct and benefited from low natural gas prices during the 1990s.  We are approaching the physical limits of existing nuclear power generating capacity though, and the dramatic increase in natural gas fired generation since the early 1990s led to much higher gas prices and to significant imports of liquefied natural gas for the first time in our history.

We have almost eliminated petroleum-based fuels (< 3%) as a source of electric generation since 1973. Ninety-five percent of US power generation is fueled by just four sources and these will remain the important sources for a long time to come:

  • Coal (50%)
  • Nuclear (20%)
  • Natural Gas (18%)
  • Hydro (7%)

“Alternative” power sources like wind and solar excite the chattering classes but will never be more than ancillary sources of electricity. It is also a virtual certainty that no new hydroelectric dams will be constructed in the US.

To some extent, expanded and more reliable transmission capacity (more and “smarter” wires) can substitute for generating capacity. Because demand for electricity is different across the country, the ability to wheel electricity from one region to another economizes on generating capacity.  Some parts of the Midwest and Southeast do still have unused coal and gas-fired generating capacity.

A grid controlled by state-of-the-art silicon switches is certainly desirable but even an advanced grid cannot substitute indefinitely for new generating capacity.

That leaves new coal and nuclear plants as our primary hopes for sustaining our standard of living.  Unfortunately, coal fired plants emit significant amounts of CO2 (at 2.5 times that of gas-fired turbines for each kilo-watt/hour generated) and the Obama administration and most Democratic Congressional leaders are determined to curtail US emissions of CO2 on the grounds that it leads to global warming.

As nuclear power plants emit no CO2 (or pollutants into the atmosphere) they are the power generating source of choice for a growing number of the environmentally minded.

Indeed, thirty years after the Three Mile Island accident, nuclear power is almost fashionable again. Newspapers and magazines have referred to a “nuclear renaissance.” Even some well-left-of-center, environmental movement luminaries have become nuclear power advocates such as Stewart Brand, founder and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, James Lovelock, of Gaia hypothesis fame, and Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace. The Manhattan Institute’s Max Schulz makes the point that some important liberal Democrats have also revised their previously hostile stances towards nuclear energy.

Private capital seems interested in finding nuclear power opportunities as well. MidAmerican Energy, the utility arm of multi-billionaire (and Democrat-friendly) Warren Buffett has announced its support of nuclear power generally and its willingness to invest in new nuclear power plant construction in particular.

In 2007, NRG Energy filed the first full Nuclear Regulatory Commission application for new nuclear power plants since Three Mile Island. NRG hopes for federal approval for its two proposed units in south Texas in 2010 and to have one unit operational in 2014 and the second in 2015.

The US Nuclear Renaissance may be short-lived

Such developments are encouraging but hardly an occasion to break out the champagne.

The fact that the time from statement of intent to when NRG’s new plants actually generate power is seven to nine years is painfully significant. In fact, the seven to nine year horizon represents the lower bound on the planning, permitting, and construction phase of nuclear power plants.

Resistance to the NRG plans are relatively low because it is a “brown-field” project (there are already two nuclear power plants at the south Texas site with long-distance transmission infrastructure already in place) and because popular attitudes to power plants in Texas are less unfriendly than elsewhereÑsuch as in New York or CaliforniaÑtwo places that are at especially high risk of blackouts and major economic disruption.

And after all, these would only be two plants and many specialists believe we need at least thirty more in the US to satisfy demand over the next fifteen years.

Major Democratic politicians in New York State have not only opposed new nuclear power plant construction but actually also want to shut down the two Indian Point nuclear reactors —the most important power plants serving the New York metropolitan area. The supporters of this inane idea a year ago included then-Governor Eliot Spitzer, and Democratic congressmen John Hall and Nita Lowey.

In his cautiously optimistic piece noted earlier, Max Schulz also notes this about Indian Point:

Closing Indian Point would remove 2,000 megawatts at a time when the operator of the state’s electricity grid says more power is needed in the next few years just to keep the lights on. Renewables are unlikely to pick up the slack. Indian Point’s reactors generate more than five times as much electricity as all 390 of New York’s windmills can on their best day.

That several successful politicians in one of our largest states can still advance such lunatic proposals tells us that we still have a very long way to go.

What Needs to be Done?

GOP candidates and issues activists now have an opportunity to establish themselves in the public mind as the party of environmentally friendly, safe, affordable, and reliable electricity. The political battle must be fought in state capitols as well as in Washington, DC and in legislatures as much as in executive branches.

Part of the good news is that building new nuclear power plants and upgrading the grid will not require handouts. Private capital stands ready to make the necessary investments.

What changes would lead to a real Nuclear Renaissance?

  • The regulatory approval process at the federal and state levels for new nuclear power plants needs to be made significantly faster.
  • State utility regulators need to assure utilities that investments they make in the transmission capacity and switching controls on power flows will be added to regulated “rate-bases” of those utilities even if out-of-state consumers will also benefit from those grid investments.
  • Open the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada as soon as possible. This would significantly reduce the risk that spent fuel rods would have to be stored on the sites of nuclear power plants around the country indefinitely.
  • The federal government needs to recognize that methods of recycling spent fuel rods have advanced significantly and that these latest methods should be approved officially.

Without these changes, we can look forward to black-outs, brown-outs, and serious interruption of commercial and industrial enterprises.

If that comes to pass, it won’t be fun but let’s be sure that we will have been on the right side of this issue when public opinion begins to shiftÑand shift quickly.

Steele Is The Right Guy For The Job

January 30th, 2009 at 3:57 pm 4 Comments

Some Democratic spinners will attack the Republican National Committee for indulging in tokenism.  And yes, some members may have voted for Michael Steele because he is … Catholic.  But never mind what the other guys say:  they would have found grounds to attack any of the choices.  What matters is that Steele is the right guy for the job.
 
The task of an out-party chair is fundamentally different from that of an in-party chair.  An in-party chair works in the shadow of the White House, faithfully serving presidential interests without having any of the prestige that attaches to a West Wing job.  It’s dreary and frustrating.  An out-party chair is a major spokesperson for the party, and can play a big role in launching the party’s comeback.  It is no accident that the RNC’s most innovative and creative periods – the mid-1960s under Ray Bliss, the late 1970s under Bill Brock, and the early 1990s under Haley Barbour – all came when the Democrats ruled the federal government.  An out-party chair can rebuild the party apparatus, provide forums for fresh thinking on policy, and work as an effective critic of the incumbent president.  Steele has the talent and smarts to do all of these things.

I’m Betting On Michael Steele.

January 30th, 2009 at 3:17 pm 2 Comments

I’m thrilled with Michael Steele’s victory.  His outsider persona, record of success in Maryland government, strong rhetorical skills, and boundless enthusiasm all bode well for a rejuvenated RNC.  But we all have work to do, as Steele will remind us.

I think it’s great as well that he was elected on the same day as President Obama appointed a “Middle Class Task Force” headed by Vice President Biden.  So we’re in a race:  which party and which leader is going to come up with the best ideas for real solutions to the problems middle-class Americans face every day? 

I’m betting on Michael Steele.