Thursday, July 31, 2008

Welcome Aboard, Peter!

Let's hear a lusty welcome for Peter Richards, now officially aboard the S.S. Pickle. You'll recognize Peter from the Obama Point/Counterpoint, as well as numerous thoughtful, insightful comments. Peter will be posting on foreign affairs, theater & the arts, and really anything he desires. Such is the power of The Pickle.

Environmentalists beware

T. Boone Pickens, a Texas oil man, recently unveiled his plan to “save America” by cutting America’s dependence on “foreign oil” by 38%. His plan calls for harnessing the wind that sweeps across the Great Plains of America and turning it into electricity. This would then free up an equivalent amount of natural gas, which we currently use to generate electricity, and allow us to use that gas to power our…cars. This plan requires a number of large-scale systemic changes. For starters, we all need cars that can run on natural gas. Next, we need a whole new power grid to conduct all this electricity from the middle of the country to the coasts (price tag: at least $70 billion). And let’s not forget all those gas stations that need new infrastructure to store and sell natural gas fuel (another $10 billion). Needless to say, it’s an ambitious plan. But hey, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, seems to think it’s a good idea. And generally speaking, I’m all for alternative energy. So I figure it deserves a fair shake.

The first red flag appears, however, when you examine Pickens’ bio. Ever heard of the Swift Boat Veterans for Bush? That was Pickens; he funded them. Suspicion mounts further when you consider possible motives besides “saving America.” By happy coincidence, having the US taxpayer fork over billions to pay for a new national power grid would be a great boon (sorry, couldn’t resist) to T. Boone’s latest business venture—a mammoth wind farm in Texas. He says he’s 80 years old and doesn’t need any more billions, but I don’t buy it. These cats never really leave the game; their ego is too tied up in it all.

His plan also relies upon a dubious assumption. Pickens says we have reached peak oil; he predicts oil will reach $300 a barrel in 10 years. But the reasoning behind peak oil theory—that the amount of oil in the world is finite and we have already discovered most of it—is, in my opinion, pretty thin. (More on this, perhaps, in another post). If oil is not going to $300 and beyond, but rather to $100 and below, then the economic rationale for investing billions in wind-power infrastructure goes out the window. The national security argument for such investment also takes a hit since we won’t be sending so many billions to the bad guys.

Speaking of the national security argument, how exactly does buying less “foreign oil” translate into more national security? The reasoning is as follows. We send $700 billion a year to foreign suppliers, many of whom do not like the United States. This makes the bad guys richer and the U.S. poorer to such an extent that “we are on the verge of losing our superpower status. In other words, because we are addicted to the oil these bad countries are selling us, our hands are tied and we can’t push them (or anyone else) around like we have in the past.

The problem, then, is not that scary sounding oil producing countries are going to bomb or blackmail the United States (they won’t). The real problem is that the United States no longer has the luxury to bomb and coerce them! Pickens’ argument is rooted in the right-wing hegemonic worldview that America should do anything and everything to protect its narrow self-interest and the rest of the world be damned.

Most environmentalists, on the other hand, look at the world in a diametrically opposite way. They see that, as the earth heats up, we must all work together to solve the daunting problem of global warming because we are all in the same boat. Environmentalists may be tempted, for political reasons, to talk about alternative energy in the context of national security. But teaming up with right-wingers because they are going after the same goal but for different reasons is a dangerous game. Let’s not forget how left-leaning “humanitarian interventionists” teamed up with the neocons in the Bush administration to bring us the Iraq war. The case for wind power and other alternatives should stand on its environmental merits, not on the shaky foundation of a flawed and hawkish national security argument. Thanks, T. Boone…but no thanks.

For more on the myth of energy independence, click here.

Friday, July 25, 2008

History may prove a harsh judge

This is an odd strategy for the McCain campaign.

First, they are under the impression that in sharing with America their in-house nickname for Obama – “The One” – most voters will automatically intuit that they mean it satirically. Then the campaign commercial I just saw. The announcer ominously narrates the unfolding drama of ruinously high gas prices, and then asks “Who’s to blame for all this?” And through it all, a chorus of tens of thousands of voices swells as one, chanting “O-Ba-Ma, O-Ba-Ma,” and The One’s shining face appears.

I mean, I know Americans love to hate politicians and pop culture, and both rolled into one makes a tempting target. But Obama is a powerful politician, and the “pop” in “pop culture” does stand for popular.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Update: It's more like $300B

Most Pickle readers will be unaware that I'm working at an economic consulting firm this summer, between years of my graduate degree. Accordingly, when one or two people at work caught a glimpse of my post from Friday, I got busted. Using the backs of better, more experienced envelopes, they insisted that my figure of $80B today to take a wrecking ball to all existing coal and gas generation assets on 1/1/2019 is way too low, for a couple of reasons: my initial cost per plant was too low, the useful life was too short, and, probably most importantly, I was using book value, when the real measure of what we taxpayers would owe to the owners should be market value - much higher. I'm hearing numbers between $250B and $600B. I still think the latter is too high - what is government good for if not paying people too little for stuff it says they have to do?

But it's also important to note, as I said in the original post, that this is only one of the costs of the Gore proposal. The cost to replace all that carbon-fueled generation is much higher, in the neighborhood of 1 to 3 trillion. But I wouldn't call that a cost of the plan, in the same way that we call the shuttering of all coal and gas plants a cost. In the former case, market participants would see a huge demand - for electricity - that can not be met once 70% of all existing generation is gone, and they would move to fill that void, with the expectation of earning a return on their investment. In the latter case, however, there is no return - it's taking things that are worth something, and turning them into piles of rubble, worth only the salvage value of the raw materials. That's like burning cash. Dollar-for-dollar, it's the far more economically powerful of those two classes of costs, and that's why, even though it's the small of the two, it's the one on which I chose to focus in my post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Vote Luvh

I'm running for the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild, and since so much of our readership hails from the Southland, maybe one, two, or zero of you would be interested in my Candidate Statement. The election will take place in September, and the candidate statements will be sent out then, so don't think I'm being lazy when you get this exact same one at that time (they were due yesterday). Here it is:

No doubt, the strike was hard. In addition to being a picket coordinator at Sony and then at Fox, I had to get a day job, and my boss in that job turned out to be a massive jerk. But what we got in exchange for our hardships – a deal containing legitimately groundbreaking pathways to some truly great stuff, as well as an unprecedented level of institutional engagement and focus – could turn out to be worth it, so long as we protect and grow our momentum. A solid 2011 deal would bring to life the potential of the one we just signed, and the easiest way to get that is to strengthen our negotiating position now. In my interview with the Nominating Committee, I didn’t realize that I must have said “2011” dozens of times until one of the committee members asked me if there were any “non-2011 deal” issues I cared about. I didn’t really have one. As far as I am concerned, relevance to the 2011 deal is a terrific yardstick for determining whether we’re expending energy on the right things.

There are three primary areas of focus I’d have as a Board member. My top priority is organizing reality and animation. I was a contract captain during the Comedy Central campaign, and the lesson I carried away from that, and one that was reinforced during the strike, was the importance of a social connection underlying an organizing effort. It’s not enough to have Guild organizers talking to reality writers – we need some hot writer-on-writer action. I’d like to coordinate this; reality writers will feel more secure and committed if they have regular interaction with scripted writers reaching out to them. We need to aggressively combat the notion that reality isn’t writing –it meets our formal definition of writing. Furthermore, given the amount of features that are animated and the amount of television that is reality, we can’t willingly forgo that leverage.

Enhancing our coverage is clearly the only route to expanding the Guild, but there are also opportunities to grow the Guild in what I’d like to call a vertical way – improving participation and education of existing members. There is no better tool for this than the captains system, which as you may or may not know will be continued. Serving as a captain, and in fact a coordinator of captains, gave me a good sense of how to mobilize our membership – education and communication are important, but, to be blunt, it’s also important not to bug people. I think a well-led captains system must balance education and motivation with credibility. I also think a great “peacetime” application of the system comes very much from the shop steward tradition: your captain can serve as a liaison, to help you navigate the Guild and tell you what it can do for you. Improving customer service, so to speak, will be directly useful to members, and it will better our negotiating position in 2011.

Finally, I am extremely excited about the Guild’s new political operations. I was a part of the Guild’s delegation to the California State Democratic convention in March, and with a few others have begun a Writers Political Committee. This group will lobby elected officials about our issues in exchange for assistance with messagecraft (and inescapably, fundraising). The WGA doesn’t have SEIU’s strength in numbers, but we do have the rare ability to communicate well with mass audiences. Every elected official who hears that they could have Guild members helping them with a stump speech or rapid response is instantly excited. And I think there are real gains to be made in this forum, particularly if we have a federal executive branch that is not hostile to labor. Something like the Employee Free Choice Act, which I grant will take hard work, would make organizing reality and animation much, much easier.

There are a great many other issues I have strong opinions about – credits, enforcement, and diversity, to name a few – but in the interest of brevity, Ashley Gable and I have put together a website further detailing our views:*. Ashley is an incredible candidate; she knows more about 2008 deal than anyone I know. I wholeheartedly endorse her candidacy as well as that of David A. Goodman’s.

I’ve never been prouder to be a member of the WGA. Thank you for reading, and I hope to have your support.

* Pickle Nation, this website isn't up yet. But soon!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

It's all about priorities...

Yesterday, Al Gore said that we should get 100% of our electricity from carbon-free sources in 10 years.

There are a number of problems with this. My initial reaction was that it was just stupid. We’re not talking about changing a bunch of frickin’ light bulbs here, Al. In the grand scheme of things we can accomplish if we put our minds to it, transitioning to zero carbon electricity ranks just above transitioning to breathing nitrogen. My second reaction was that it was just unhelpful. Al Gore has built a tremendous amount of credibility on this issue (see Prize, Nobel Peace), and if we manage to improbably escape utter ruin, we will owe him big time. What we don’t need is him marginalizing himself by saying we should do something that everyone knows we won’t do.

But then something interesting happened.

There are a lot of people who have put a lot of money into some pretty expensive doo-dads that generate electricity from fossil fuels, and blowing them up in 10 years is most certainly a cost of the Gore plan, and a good starting place for thinking about its overall costs. I thought I’d use an envelope for about all the use it has left in the internet age and explore this question for the Pickle: How much would it cost to shut down all US coal and natural gas power plants on January 1, 2019? Another way to think about it: If, right now, we paid anyone who owns a coal or natural gas power plant a fair price to shut it down forever on January 1, 2019, what kind of price tag would we be looking at?

Using every square inch of our business-size envelope, we throw down estimates on a few questions:
• How much electric generating capacity is there in the US? About 1000 gigawatts (both G’s are soft, please)
• How much of that is coal or natural gas? Maybe 70%...
• How much does it cost to build a 1 GW coal plant? About a cool billion.
• How long does it last, and how old are our plants on average? 50 years and 20 years seems about right.

Well, if you take all that, and you do a little finance hoo-ha, and you figure that it’s fair for the American taxpayers slash electricity-users to buy out whatever value there is left in those suckers as of 1/1/2019, you get a number in the neighborhood of about $80 billion. That is, it would take about $80B in today’s dollars to buy out all existing fossil generation effective 1/1/2019.

Now that’s a whole lot of money, to be sure. But now seems like a fair moment to point out that we’ve spent almost a TRILLION dollars on a war that has no purpose, started at the urging of the Vice President, who was paid a severance package of something like $50 million by Halliburton on his way to the White House, and a good part of that TRILLION seems to have been paid to former Halliburton subsidiary KRB so they could build temporary housing that apparently takes carbon-based electricity and electrocutes American servicemen and women with it. Perfect.

Update: Halliburton gifted the future VP $20M on his way out the door, not $50M. I owe the man an apology for impugning his character.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I'd like to hear from Barack Obama on today's FISA vote

Well, I've come a long way since June 30th. I am freaked out by how freaked out everyone is getting over this.

A 15-minute scouring of the internet has not yielded any public comment from Obama about today's vote. I guess it's likely we'll all see it at once once he says something, but if anyone finds his statement, help a Pickle out and post a comment...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008