Entries from March 2009

Green Power’s Hidden Agenda

David Frum March 26th, 2009 at 3:30 pm Comments Off

You must know the TV game show, “Jeopardy.” In this game, the host provides an answer. Contestants compete to guess the question.

Let’s play the public policy version.

ANSWER: “A great national undertaking to replace the nation’s coal-fired generators of electricity with a vast array of wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal stations.”

If you guessed, “What is a rational response to the problem of carbon dioxide emissions?” alas you return home to Muncie without a prize.

Why? Because a rational response to the carbon emissions problem would seek to move the United States from carbon-emitting coal (which now provides half the nation’s electricity) to the next-cheapest alternative that does not emit carbon dioxide.

Wind, solar, and geothermal, by contrast, are the most expensive alternatives to coal. A kilowatt of power from such renewables typically costs about ten times as much as a kilowatt from coal—and more than six times as much as a kilowatt from nuclear or hydropower.

Alternative energy promoters, including former vice president Al Gore, promise that these prices will decline if only the government subsidizes the necessary technological innovation. Those promises have not come true over the past three decades, and it’s extremely unlikely that they ever will.

The price of solar panels and wind turbines could fall to zero, and sun and wind power still could not compete in an unsubsidized marketplace, for three main reasons:

1) Unlike coal and nuclear plants, which can be sited near the point of energy consumption, the winds blow strongest and the sun shines brightest hundreds of miles from major energy markets. Renewable power would have to flow hundreds and thousands of miles to users. The cost of building a transmission system to move that power would be enormous—and is not susceptible to economies of scale.

2) Unlike coal, nuclear and hydro, which can generate huge quantities of electricity in a relatively small space, wind farms and solar facilities require enormous amounts of land—and vast networks of interconnecting wire. The land has to be bought or leased, the wires have to be strung and maintained. While technology costs tend to decline, the costs of land and labor do not.

3) Unlike coal and nuclear, which can be ignited at will, the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. Since power cannot be stored in any significant quantity, a system based on sun and wind will require elaborate backup systems that are costly to build and operate.

These problems are inherent and inescapable. And so is one more: The points where the wind blows strongest and the sun shines brightest are some of America’s most treasured places, including the windswept Great Plains and the deserts of the Southwest. To exploit wind and sun on any mass scale will mean industrializing these places.

Despoiling natural beauty in the name of the environment seems a perverse kind of policy. It’s even more perverse when cost-effective alternatives are ready to go: nuclear most obviously, but also a new generation of potential North American hydroprojects such as the Nelson River system in northern Manitoba. Yet even as the climate debate intensifies, these more efficient solutions go unconsidered and undiscussed in the environmental arena.

Why?

The short answer is that while environmentalists invoke a “climate crisis,” they are often committed to using that crisis to advance other, undeclared priorities.

Nuclear power has a safety record other industries should emulate and it offers a way to preserve today’s lifestyles while curtailing carbon emissions. But for many environmentalists, the whole point of the exercise is to change those lifestyles, to supplant the culture of consumption with a Birkenstock republic. For them, the high cost of wind and solar power is a feature, not a bug.

For these environmentalists too, opposition to nuclear power—regardless of its practical merits—is a foundational ideological principle. (They do not much care for hydro either—it was the fight against the Hetchy Hatchie power dam that transformed John Muir’s Sierra Club from a ramblers’ society into a political lobby.)

These undeclared ideological commitments explain why many environmentalists react so coolly to “outside the box” approaches to the climate problem. The physicist Freeman Dyson, for example, has suggested that trees could be genetically engineered to grow faster and fatter, voraciously consuming carbon dioxide and storing it in their wood. Then the trees could be cut and sunk by the millions in polar waters—in effect freezing their carbon content forever. That essay produced only tight little smiles in the enviro community, where genetic modification may be an even a bigger taboo than nuclear energy.

In the same vein, if all we really wanted to do was reduce the emission of carbon, our preferred policy instrument would be a carbon tax. That tax could be easily set at a level just sufficient to offset the relatively modest price differential between coal and nuclear power: just a few cents per kilowatt-hour.

By contrast, a tax that raises the price of electricity high enough to make solar and wind competitive would trigger a revolution. Solar and wind can only compete in a market so gnarled and manipulated by abstruse regulations that nobody can decode the cost of anything. Which is why so many environmentalists prefer the Byzantine complexities of cap-and-trade to a carbon tax. The carbon tax is too simple and too transparent. It shows too much!

Outsiders to this hermetic debate are entitled to better explanations than we have been getting. The cultural and ideological commitments of environmentalists need to be declared. If carbon dioxide truly is creating a planetary emergency, then previous ideological bugaboos must give way. If conservatives can learn to live with a tax on coal, then environmentalists can learn to live with nuclear power. Devotion to renewables is not energy policy. It is fantasy.

Originally published in The Week.

Trade: Another Democrat Strikeout

March 26th, 2009 at 10:55 am 1 Comment

Korea may have lost the finals of the World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium on Monday night, but according to the Wall Street Journal, South Korea is about to get a big win for its economy with the forthcoming and possibly imminent conclusion of a European Union-Republic of Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA). And we’re the losers.

The new European FTA is somewhat patterned after the U.S.-ROK FTA signed in June 2007 (a Congressional Research Service summary is here), and the two are, in fact, designed to be complementary.  But Congressional Democrats have been steadfast in their opposition to the U.S-ROK FTA. Even new United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk said that the deal “simply isn’t fair” though he later backed down somewhat in his written responses to questions before confirmation. Still, it would take a lot of pressure from the Obama Administration to get the U.S.-ROK FTA on the Congressional agenda for ratification and even more to actually get it through.

Admittedly, the U.S.-ROK FTA was not signed until June 30, 2007, after the Democrats recaptured control of Congress. So it could hardly have been muscled through. But the Bush Administration could nevertheless have done more – a lot more – to highlight the benefits of the FTA for American exporters and promote free trade more generally.

Meanwhile, the EU, not terribly constrained by protectionist feelings in the Member States even with elections for the European Parliament coming in June, is marching ahead with its own FTA with Korea. The European Commission, which is negotiating the deal, will do what is best for Europe; that’s its job. Whether it’s South Korea or Latin America, one gets the sense that in trade, the EU has its game on, while we’re stuck in politics. And by going first, EU companies will be poised to benefit from the gains from trade that could otherwise have gone to the United States. So it makes it that much harder for us to compete in that market. How that helps American workers and farmers is beyond me.

Add in Mexican trucking, and there’s a pattern emerging: whatever one thinks about trade, this is how the Congressional Democrats treat our friends and allies.  Why, then, would other countries want to remain friends with the United States?

In Memoriam

David Frum March 26th, 2009 at 10:55 am 7 Comments

March 26 is the date of the death of my mother, Barbara Frum. It is a date not easily passed for me or anyone in my family. I have found on YouTube one of my mother’s very last TV appearances: It is featured in our WatchNow box. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation offers a small public video and audio archive here.

The New York Times published her obituary here, but for those who wish to know her better, by far the best account is my sister Linda’s marvelous 1996 biography.

Enviromental Jeopardy

David Frum March 26th, 2009 at 10:55 am 12 Comments

My latest column for The Week opens 

You must know the TV game show, “Jeopardy.” In this game, the host provides an answer. Contestants compete to guess the question.

Let’s play the public policy version.

ANSWER: “A great national undertaking to replace the nation’s coal-fired generators of electricity with a vast array of wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal stations.”

If you guessed, “What is a rational response to the problem of carbon dioxide emissions?” alas you return home to Muncie without a prize.

You can read the rest here

Detainees On The Potomac

March 26th, 2009 at 10:54 am 11 Comments

The citizens of Alexandria, Virginia voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by a margin of 71% to 25%.

Apparently in their enthusiasm for change, Alexandria’s Democrats did not fully consider the local impact of the President’s repeated promise to close the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

The Washington Post reports today that the denizens of Alexandria are up-in-arms over the possibility that Gitmo detainees might be tried at the federal courthouse in Alexandria – the same location of Zacarias Moussaoui’s trial.

So long as advocacy for shuttering Gitmo was just another way to distance oneself from the rubes in Bush country, Alexandria’s Democrats happily embraced the closing of Gitmo. It would be a cleansing act after 8 years of parochial Republican rule. No doubt this Alexandria voter spoke for many when she explained her vote for Obama: “When I go on vacation in other countries, people won’t throw their noses up because I’m an American.” And as Obama often reminded the electorate, closing Gitmo would go a long way toward restoring America’s moral credibility in most foreign vacation spots.

One would not be wrong to think that the most vocal supporters of closing Gitmo would also be the most eager to house these terrorists and host their civilian trials. After all, closing Gitmo is critical to maintaining America’s stature in the world and reestablishing constitutional norms. 

Mayor William Euille (D) has made clear, however, that Alexandria’s commitment to constitutional values only goes so far. “We would be absolutely opposed to relocating Guantanamo prisoners to Alexandria. We would do everything in our power to lobby the president, the governor, the Congress and everyone else to stop it. We’ve had this experience, and it was unpleasant. Let someone else have it.” 

Too many road closures. Too much media. Too much inconvenience.

For 8 years Democrats smeared Republicans as eagerly abandoning constitutional principles in a misguided fight against international terrorism. 

Yet when given the chance, Alexandria’s Democrats quickly passed on their commitment to restoring the rule of law… lest they be inconvenienced by the occasional road block.

The iCar – “I” for India That Is

March 25th, 2009 at 8:43 pm Comments Off

Jamsetji Tata was 43 when, in 1882, he applied to the government in Great Britain for a licence to prospect in his own country, India. Tata had come across a report which claimed that Ritter von Schwartz had discovered a “hill of iron” in Lohara. To Tata this was an enormous opportunity; to the imperial government, it was sacrilege. India was, after all, to use the writer Douglas Collier’s words, “a source of raw material, a market for manufactured goods” — and it was desirable to keep it that way. How dare an Indian have desired that Indian steel compete against the English? But they had missed the point. To Tata, this was not just business: it was a positive act of nationalism. He wanted to empower Indians by breaking British monopoly. As RM Lala has noted, Jamsetji “was a nationalist long before this word had any real significance” in India.

A century and two decades later, Jamsetji’s great-grandson, Ratan Tata, declared something equally sweeping. He promised to produce a “people’s car” priced at just 100,000 rupees—that is just over $2,000. He was troubled, he said, by the sight of an entire family riding on a two-wheeler — father at the handle, child standing in the front, mother on the back seat with a baby clutched to her chest — a ubiquitous sight on Indian roads. There are even more troubling sights on India‘s streets, and by their standards the bike-riding families which Tata invoked to build his cars are an enviable entity. But Ratan Tata, like his grandfather, is a man of deed: useful action takes precedence over divagatory thought.

So, in the face of bitter criticism and amidst stentorian calls of imminent doom, Ratan Tata got to work on his ambitious project. But the question remained: what sort of a car could possibly be produced for a price cheaper than the cost of a high-end bicycle? A strong team of 500, led by Girish Wagh, the wunderkind of Indian engineering, started dabbling with a variety of ideas. “All we had,” Wagh later said, “was a cost target — that and the fact that it had to be a real car.” But they were all fired up by Tata’s vision. Wagh acknowledged to an interviewer that his team “knew they were doing it for” Ratan Tata. After five years of hard work, they were ready with the World’s Cheapest Car. Designed, produced and assembled in India, the Nano had exceeded all expectations. Sleek and comfortable, with an innovative rear-mounted engine, it met local environmental regulations and did not, in spite of growing costs, exceed the promised price of 100,000 rupees. “A promise is a promise,” Tata declared as he unveiled the Nano to cheering crowds last year.

It is tempting to attribute Tata’s success partly to the bruiting about of his critics — adversity, after all, has always served to strengthen the will of the great men it set out to destroy — but to do so would elevate his mawkish critics to a height which they do not deserve, and demean the unwavering vision of a great paladin. Yet it is striking that none of his critics once stopped to appreciate the marvel that Tata had bestowed upon India; none paused to ponder the sheer audacity of human enterprise, right here at home, that embodies the potential to positively empower not just many Indians and other Asians but people everywhere.

Some claimed that the Nano would exacerbate the already awful conditions of congestion under which most commuters in urban India operate. This is the attitude of those who want to punish the nation for the failures of the state. If the problem is congestion, the solution lies in expanding the roads and improving public transport, not in muzzling private enterprise. Other critics, particularly the eco-ayatollahs in the West, repeated the predictable climate-change mantra. It was particularly galling to see newspapers whose principal readership belongs in countries which in the past were at the forefront of polluting the planet in the spirit of carpe diem and which remain among the worst polluters in the world today asking if the world could afford the Nano.

Western voluptuaries who are now advocating austerity to non-Westerners must realise that development cannot come without pollution. To be more blunt, though climate-change is a real threat, those who have overwhelmingly contributed to its causes must also be the ones who devise and pay for solutions to curb it. This may appear harsh to Western readers, but the notion that people in Asia and Africa should renounce or deny themselves the comforts which Al Gore takes for granted is not just ridiculous; it is cruel.

Ratan Tata, whose legendary Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay became the principal site of terrorist slaughter last November, recently disappointed his admirers by offering praise to the Hindu chauvinist leader Narendra Modi (the Tatas are Parsis). But no one can doubt the Tatas’ contributions to India’s growth. Profit is, as it should be, a strong motive in private enterprise of any kind, but the Tatas give a staggering 66 percent of the profits from their parent company, Tata Sons, to charity.

The Nano, which was launched last week, provides millions of people across Asia, Africa, and parts of Latin America — and even Europe and the United States — the opportunity to possess an affordable and relatively safe and comfortable means of transportation; but equally importantly, it provides the privilege of ownership. This moment in history deserves genuine approbation, not condescension.

Chicken Soup For The Teachers Soul

March 25th, 2009 at 8:34 pm 26 Comments

While being formally observed by an administrator the other day, one of my students who likes to show up completely stoned to class (he only attends about once or twice a week) kept blurting out, “Man, this is bullshit, man.” I wanted to jump out the window.

While guiding kids through a lesson on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a student drunk off his rear end (9:00 a.m.) started cracking jokes about my glasses and outfit. I kicked him out and lost my cool, asking him if he is proud of the fact that he’s still in high school and only a couple years younger than me. He’s just about 20.

I take a break from posting when all my thoughts on kids, urban issues and urban education would be highly negative. I think you all have a good grasp on the things that happen in inner city schools; do you need me to tell you they are bad, that kids cuss at adults and fight and carry on; or that girls get pregnant or boys locked up for selling drugs?

I didn’t think so.

Read these two books and decide for yourself where you fall when it comes to the education reform debate:

One is Real Education by Charles Murray. He doesn’t even include schools like mine in his studies because he says there are some inner city schools that exceed all outsider imagination as to what goes on in them. I would say mine is one since we are actually being shut down by the state at the end of the year for failure and persistent danger.

Another is Whatever it Takes, which is a biography of Geoffrey Canada, the education crusader in New York City who founded the Promise Academy in Harlem.

Murray makes me as a teacher cheer because he makes me feel like it’s not all my fault that some kids are far behind and there’s not much I can do in my short time with them to bring them all the knowledge they need. His basic premise is that some kids aren’t college bound and some are and we shouldn’t try and trick ourselves into thinking all kids are going to be or want to be scholars.

Tough makes me as a teacher cheer because he takes into account all the things that inner city children have to go through and then tells the story of people who work to achieve the American Dream in the most difficult and destitute places.

Canada, the man featured in Tough’s book, takes some hard shots at liberals when it comes to education. This is interesting because Canada comes from a tough inner city childhood background and longtime career as a community organizer. He says in the book that the people who seem to care most about education (liberals) are the ones who destroy it. Canada runs his school like a company – promoting success and personal greatness and high expectations for all.

You can’t understand urban schools by watching Coach Carter or Freedom Writers or by immersing yourself in The Wire. Read up to find out where you fit. Policy ideas should stem from both these studies and histories.

 

There Will Be Blood

David Frum March 25th, 2009 at 5:00 am 3 Comments

One of the grimmer jokes of the Democratic Congress has been the long pretense that the Senate wants to pass a card check law to help unions organize workplaces.

“Of course we all fiercely want to … but if we encounter even the slightest glitch or difficulty of course we’ll have to give the thing up as impossible … even though we all fiercely want to.”

That glitch showed up today. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter announced he would not vote for cloture on card check, reversing his previous declared support for the measure. The Democrats reacted like a professional wrestler hit by a stage-directed punch. “That’s it, we’re beat, it’s all hopeless, fight’s over, we’ll just fall down right here.” Thump.

But that’s not to say that the union cause lacks all support on Capitol Hill. Not at all! Right now the full House is considering legislation that would help the Teamsters unionize FedEx. As is, federal law considers FedEx an airline. As such, its labor relations are overseen by the Railway Labor Board, whose rules are tougher on unionization. FedEx is non-union. Rival UPS, by contrast, is considered a trucking company. It is therefore overseen by the National Labor Relations Board – and it is unionized. UPS and the Teamsters have joined to lobby in favor of the change in FedEx’s status. Tuesday, FedEx fired back, threatening to cancel a big order for up to 30 Boeing 777 jets if Congress approves the change.

Call it a hostage-taking situation. Congress threatens to kneecap FedEx on behalf of UPS? OK – FedEx will punish every constituency in which Boeings are built.

A friend who knows Congress well describes the place as a brokerage house, a place where favors are bought and sold. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say … leased. The lease on FedEx’s favor is expiring, and the company and Congress are fiercely negotiating over the price of renewal, with UPS and Boeing lurking in the wings with offers of their own. It’s an ugly, tainted business. So tell me again why we are proposing to hand these characters a whole lot more authority over the daily workings of the US economy?

Apology Unaccepted, Mr Gutfeld

March 24th, 2009 at 9:03 pm 13 Comments

When I got an email the other day from Bill Graham – not the former Canadian Defense Minister Bill Graham, but one at the Canadian Forces Base in Edmonton – asking “can anything be done?” about “comedian” Greg Gutfeld’s witticism on Fox News about the Canadian military, I didn’t know what he was talking about.

I’d never heard of Gutfeld, much less been exposed to him on TV.

But Graham’s outrage was infectious: “We have four of our lads coming in today who have given the ultimate sacrifice, and this pea brain says things like that.”

Well, I’ve since seen the segment that got not only Bill Graham upset, but the whole country. In yesterday’s Toronto Sun, Joe Warmington more or less took the guy apart, while in an editorial Lorrie Goldstein administered the coup de grace by spelling out the difference between a political satirist “and being an ignorant little twerp.”

Gutfeld holds forth on Fox News’ Red Eye talk show at 3 a.m. – which I suspect is as close as he’ll ever get to prime time.

Frankly, I was more disgusted at Gutfeld’s three ignorant guests than I was at him. Their ignorance verged on pathological, matched only by their smugness.

One thing we Canadians should realize when comedians sound off about us: Their goal is to cause a reaction, to provoke outrage.

It’s not about being funny or witty, it’s about being noticed. Wit without an audience is a waste. Again – it’s not the humour but the attention it gets. And on this occasion, Gutfeld got attention.

Invariably when a fuss is raised, bad-taste comedians apologize as Gutfeld has done, claiming he was “misunderstood” and meant no disrespect to “the brave men and women and families of the Canadian military.”

Politicians do the same thing – as President Barack Obama had to do when he inadvertently compared his bowling skills to Special Olympics, thereby offending a considerable portion of Americans. The difference is that his gaffe wasn’t scripted or intended to hurt.

What was disappointing in the Gutfeld show was unawareness of the panelists of Canada’s role in Afghanistan – and especially one guy who didn’t know our soldiers were even in Afghanistan, much less fighting there.

“I didn’t even know that Canada was in the war. I thought that’s where you go if you don’t want to fight it,” said this guy, in response to Gutfeld’s remark that Canada is “a ridiculous country without an army.”

Sadly, that’s par for American knowledge of us.

Then there are Americans like retired Col. Austin Bay, military analyst for the Washington Times who says, man-for-man, Canadian soldiers are the best in the world. (“I have yet to meet or serve with a Canadian soldier who failed to impress me with his professionalism and discipline.”)

On YouTube.com, Greg Gutfeld’s programs usually get 2,000 hits. His slamming of the Canadian military had 27,000 hits – not much for YouTube, but more than Gutfeld usually gets.

Fox News, which boasts it is “fair and balanced,” can’t be pleased with Gutfeld’s impact, but for certain he is. He’s got a whole country indignant at him. We’ve taken the bait, even though he didn’t mean his Red Eye show as “bait.” We are paying attention to him – perhaps for the first time in his career. That’s success. For the moment.

By mocking our soldiers, Gutfeld is also mocking American soldiers who, in Afghanistan, are very aware of the quality of their Canadian allies.

Anyway who cares what a 3 a.m. talk show host says – even if he knew what he’s talking about.

The State We’re In

March 24th, 2009 at 9:03 pm 14 Comments

Take a look at where we are today:

A) Taxes are going to confiscatory rates. Examine the bill written by tax cheat Charlie Rangel, the Democrat Chairman of Ways and Means. Under his bill, the tax on any bonus paid to a New York City resident by a TARP recipient bank would be 102 percent for any family with an income above $250K.

The Wall Street Journal explained it clearly.  First, the bonuses are taxed at 90%. Bonuses are also subject to the Medicare FICA tax of 1.45% (not counting the employer’s portion), bringing the total federal take to 91.45%. Employees are also liable for state and local income taxes, which would not be deductible from the bonus tax. For an employee living in New York City, the state and local rates are 6.85% and 3.648%, respectively. Add it all up and the tax liability comes to 101.948%.

$250,000 may seem like a lot of money to most Americans. But in a city where public schools are a wreck, financial executives may understandably feel they have no choice but to send their children to private schools. Tuitions in New York City range between $35,000 and $45,000.

B) This year’s federal deficit will be 13 percent of GDP, compared to 2-ish percent under Bush’s last budget. The Congressional Budget Office says (today) that our deficit will be over 1 trillion per year for 10 years under Obama’s plan. The CBO is non-partisan, but under the control of the Democrats. This is the highest deficit creation since WW2. Our public debt as a percent of GDP will rise from 40 percent (today) to 70 percent by 2012.  What are we, Greece? A superpower cannot run these debt levels.

C) The finance industry, which was a US dominated industry, is being killed by President Obama. Reason: foreign banks do not have the compensation caps that Obama wants to impose… Talented people are spending their time seeking jobs with non-US banks.

John Maynard Keynes would have been appalled by the de-emphasis of infrastructure in our budget bill. And he would have howled at proposed tax increases during a recession. Supply-sider or not, low taxes are good. Controlled government spending is good. A sound currency is good. President Obama will be challenged less by incompetent Republicans than by his own hubris and wrongheaded philosophy.