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June 2010

The Obama Administration Is Failing the Gulf Coast

As I've mentioned before, I really have not wanted to reflexively blame the Obama administration for not doing more to contain and collect the oil spewing out of British Petroleum's disaster. But I keep hearing more and more stories of delays, red tape, and inefficiency. This column by Winston Groom in today's Mobile Register crystallizes my growing dismay (Groom is the author of Forrest Gump and lives in Point Clear, a few miles from me):

" wonder what the administration’s response would be if the oil were spilling up in Long Island Sound and threatening New York Harbor, or in San Francisco Bay — or, worse still, in Nantucket Sound, soiling the immaculate beaches of Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod."

You really don't have to wonder for very long, do you? No resources and no expense would have been spared. No excuses would have been accepted. I don't know, obviously, what's in the president's mind, but he and the people around him are from a class that tends to consider most of the south to be a repulsive place, a land of racist morons and a liability to the rest of the country. I don't say they would consciously choose to take a catastrophe here less seriously than one on the east coast, but that they would do so unconsciously I have no trouble at all believing. One needn't even postulate hostility, just a sense that this part of the country is really not that important.

One gets the sense that Obama himself is mostly annoyed by the whole thing, and that he is less interested in protecting the coast than in using the disaster to advance other agendas. This report of a meeting today bears that out. Granted, that's a hostile source, but the original source is not (I can't link to it because it requires a subscription), and the gist of the story fits with the big speech of a couple of weeks ago, with the continued slow pace of the response as indicated in stories like this one

Here is Winston Groom at greater length and with more specifics. He seems to be wrong, by the way, about the effect of the Jones Act, according to Admiral Allen. But whatever the reasons, there seems no doubt that the skimmers capable of keeping the oil away from our shores are in very short supply here, and sitting idle elsewhere. Probably there are explanations for that, having to do with regulations and logistical difficulties. That it would take a few weeks to get around those obstacles is understandable. But the spill has now been going on for over two months. People here are becoming deeply angry and embittered.

And I can't resist adding: if this had been President Bush, he would have been the object of non-stop vilification and ridicule by people who are mostly quiet now. I'm thinking of the conventional center-left press here; I think serious environmentalists have not been so docile.

Of course the administration is not responsible for the spill. BP gets the blame for that (there is some evidence that ultimately it was one BP employee who made the fatal decision that led to the blowout.) And the Bush administration can be blamed for lax standards at the Minerals Management Service, the agency that was supposed to regulate the oil industry. But Obama's Secretary of the Interior failed to follow through on promises of reform. By all accounts little had changed at MMS.

So the government failed at oversight, and is fumbling the response. Yet it complains that people don't trust it to run the health care system sensibly. 

The Dream Academy: Life In a Northern Town

Weekend Music

How many times does it happen that you hear the chorus of a song coming from the radio through someone's open car window as you're walking through the parking lot at work, and it haunts you so that you have to find out what it is? Not very often for me. In fact I think only once, with this song.

Oh my goodness, am I going to learn to like Kerouac?

At the time in my life when I was young and rebellious and might have been expected to like Kerouac and the other Beat writers, I had no use for them at all. I was a grungy rock-and-roll-loving hippie, yes, but my literary tastes were strictly highbrow: I liked Yeats and Eliot and Hopkins and wasn’t entirely convinced that any American had ever written well. I sampled a bit of Kerouac’s work and thought his prose slack and bland, its self-proclaimed excitement only proclaimed, not produced.

But I’ve been looking at Robert Frank’s famous book of photographs, The Americans, which includes an introduction by Kerouac. And I rather enjoyed it.

Madroad driving men ahead—the mad road, lonely, leading around the bend into the openings of space toward the horizon Wasatch snows promised us in the vision of the west, spine heights at the world’s end, coast of blue Pacific starry night—nobone half-banana moons sloping in the tangled night sky, the torments of great formations in mist, the huddled invisible insect in the car racing onward, illuminate—The raw cut, the drag, the butte, the star, the draw, the sunflower in the grass—orangebutted west lands of Arcadia, forlorn sands of the isolate earth, dewy exposures to infinity in black space, home of the rattlesnake and the gopher—the level of the world, low and flat...

I haven’t entirely changed my opinion—this isn’t really all that good—but I guess I’m more tolerant. If you just sort of sit back and let it roll by without looking at it too closely, it’s evocative, and you can feel Kerouac’s delight and awe in the simple experience of seeing this mad land of ours. Maybe I’ll actually read one of his novels someday.

Here’s an interesting video of Kerouac reading on The Steve Allen Show. Steve Allen was a cool guy.

Derb on Soccer

I am linking to this anti-soccer rant from alienated Englishman (and all-around curmudgeon) John Derbyshire because I think it's funny, not because I agree with it (my view is here, in case you missed it—and care). Sample:

The very inconclusiveness of soccer is, I suspect, what has made it the pet sport of the repulsive bobos—David Brooks' "bourgeois bohemians."... In their soft, money-addled minds, these deluded wretches associate soccer with things "civilized" and European: with French wines and Danish pastries, with tiny, fuel-efficient cars and eighteen different varieties of coffee, with universal health care and the prohibition of handguns. How wrong-headed is all this? One hardly knows where to begin.

In fact, it seems to me that attention paid to the World Cup in the US by non-bobos is noticeably higher than at the last go-round. And I’m glad we won this morning (USA 1, Algeria 0).

The Man On the Moon Fallacy

Sunday Night Journal — June 20, 2010

I caught only the last few words of Mr. Obama’s Tuesday night speech on the Gulf Coast oil spill, and have just now tracked down the text and read it (you can find it here). As you may have heard, the speech was not especially well received, even by his admirers. Here are two examples snagged in about 90 seconds of searching: Robert Reich calls it “ vapid,” and Kevin Drum (in Mother Jones, no less) says “This speech felt entirely by-the-numbers to me....It felt like he was reading off a PowerPoint deck.”

I have been very, very tempted to blast Obama’s handling of the spill, but have resisted the temptation. In fact I don’t think Obama has done such a terrible job, though I think it could have been better, and in any event the initial response was really not his direct responsibility. I will say that he didn’t seem to treat it with the needed level of urgency and decision until it had already been under way for some weeks.

The big temptation for me comes from resentment of the difference between the way the media at large treated Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and Obama’s handling of the oil spill. Within a few days of Katrina, most of the media had reached a consensus that Bush’s responsibility for the disaster stopped only at the question of whether he had personally created and directed the storm, and even this sometimes seemed to be an open question. Years later, Katrina is still mentioned in the same breath as the Iraq War as a massive failure of the Bush administration. This is vastly, vastly unfair. And however disappointed Obama’s supporters in the media (which includes almost everyone apart from Fox News and talk radio) may have been with his response to the BP spill, they will never hang it around his neck as a permanent badge of shame as they did with Bush and Katrina.

But that’s business as usual. Hardly a day goes by, and never a week, that there isn’t something in the news that makes me think If a Republican said or did that.... And I try not to let myself fall into the reactionary cycle that seems to drive most political commentary.

So back to the speech: there are a lot of relatively small things to pick at—for instance, the assertion that an energy bill passed by the House last fall “finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America's businesses.” Really? How, exactly, can mere legislation make something profitable, except by some manipulative combination of subsidies and taxes which might or might not bear any relationship to its real costs and benefits?

Most striking, though, is the enormous fallacy which appears as the climax of the speech, the summit of its ambition to solve the problem in both its immediate and long-term aspects. It’s what I think of as the man-on-the-moon fallacy (and I’m far from the only one to remark on it): it usually takes the form of “If we can put a man on the moon, we can [insert whatever problem the speaker is interested in].”

Well, maybe we can, and maybe we can’t. It all depends on the nature of the problem to be solved. I first heard this fallacy pointed out many years ago by my father (who, as it happens, was involved in the space program for a while in the 1960s). It was during the first energy crisis, or perhaps I should say the first recognition of the ongoing energy crisis, in the mid-1970s. He and one of my uncles were discussing the oil shortage, and my uncle wanted to know why the government couldn’t just call together the nation’s most gifted scientists and engineers and solve the problem—develop some kind of new energy source. “If we can put a man on the moon...” he said.

But no, my father explained. It doesn’t work that way. The problem of putting a man on the moon and the problem of finding a new source of cheap energy are not the same sort of problem. In the first case all the physical principles were well known, and at the time President Kennedy made the commitment to accomplish it by the end of the 1960s a fair amount of the engineering work had been done, enough to verify that the basic ideas were workable. It is no disparagement of the eventual achievement to say that the project involved no scientific breakthrough, but rather the heroic development of known ideas. Whereas—my father continued—a solution to the energy problem requires an engineering or scientific breakthrough: either a radically new approach to some known process or material that would get vastly more energy out of it, or, even further afield, a theoretical breakthrough, the discovery of an entirely new method of generating energy safely, reliably, and at reasonable cost. And—this was his last point—you can’t produce a breakthrough on demand. You can put a lot of people to work looking for one, but you can’t guarantee that they’ll find anything.

Ever since then, I’ve seen the question of “alternative” energy in the light of that conversation. Around the time of that exchange, we began to hear the appeals and promises for alternative energy sources that we’ve heard steadily ever since, and that Mr. Obama repeats in his address, exhorting us to a more zealous commitment to their development, ending with not just the man-on-the-moon fallacy but two of its frequent companions: the Manhattan Project and the industrial output of the United States during World War II. The Manhattan Project was (I think) more doubtful than the moon project, in that its theoretical principles were less settled and there could be no incremental experimentation comparable to what could be done with small unmanned rockets in relation to space flight—no little bombs. Still, the scientists were pretty sure about where they were trying to go, and it was essentially a matter of engineering to get there.

And the comparison to World War II industrialism is almost completely irrelevant. We knew how to build airplanes and ships, we only needed to assemble the resources required to build lots more of them. But the problem with, for instance, wind power is not that the supply of turbines is inadequate, but that the amount of electricity they can produce is so small that we would have to cover vast reaches of land with them to make a serious dent in our consumption of oil and coal. The problem with solar power (well, one of the problems) is that the materials which can convert solar power to electricity are expensive and inefficient. The problem with electric cars is that since most of our electricity comes from coal they are in essence coal-powered cars.

And so on. I’m not an expert in this field by any means, but as far as I can tell the situation with regard to alternative energy has not changed dramatically since that conversation between my father and my uncle thirty-five years ago. Even if wind, solar, etc., were widely implemented they would bring their own forms of pollution and other environmental damage with them.

Mr. Obama has not given us the difficult truth, any more than his predecessors have. There is no green-energy fairy who is going to wave a wand and give us all the environmentally-friendly inexpensive energy we want. Nuclear power, which the president did not mention, may—may—come nearest, and although as it’s been implemented in this country it’s been very safe, it carries the risk of doing far more damage with one failure than most other forms of energy production (though I have to say I’m not sure a nuclear plant could do more widespread damage than this oil spill).

There’s no free lunch. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no Santa Claus. Choose your aphorism: the fact is that, absent some breakthrough which can’t be commanded or even foreseen, we can’t “solve” the energy problem in any way that does not leave us with some combination of danger, pollution, and expense in which the levels of at least one of those factors is greater than we as a nation are currently willing to accept. I don’t know whether Mr. Obama realizes this or not. But if he does, and chose not to say it (perhaps for fear of seeming like another Jimmy Carter), he may have done his immediate interests as well as the nation’s future a disservice. It’s just possible that such honesty would have been better received by both his supporters and his detractors. It’s just possible that the American public is ready to hear some realistic discussion of realistic limits.

But then I’m not sure I would bet on that, and maybe Obama didn’t want to, either.

More specifics on the obstacles in the way of massively reducing of our oil and coal consumption by Robert J. Samuelson here.

Little and Ashley: Stole My Heart

Weekend Music

Pure pop candy. Don't try to pretend you don't like it. It will probably get stuck in your head if you listen to it more than once, so just accept it. The video is just the lyrics, which aren’t exactly difficult or obscure, so no need to watch.