March 30, 2012

March 29, 2012

Oil, Politics, and Amateur Accounting Fraud

Several of the Republican candidates have made extravagant promises regarding energy, the most stunning of which was probably Newt Gingrich’s claim that we have so much oil that we could supply not only our own needs, but those of Europe too. It hardly seems worth bothering to refute such a claim. Suffice it to ask, that if it were true, why did the Bush administration, the most oil-industry-friendly organization imaginable, not open up this bonanza?

Not to be left out of this circus of grand illusions, President Obama started making his own inspirational claims. The one of these that interested me the most was that the US, for the first time in many years, now produces more than half of its own oil. I am not new to this topic, and I know the generally accepted fraction of oil that we currently import is about two thirds. I was curious to see how he might have gotten to his magic fraction of less than half. Here’s how it was done.

The numbers appear to come from the U.S. Energy Information Administration or EIA. Their website tagline reads “Independent Statistics & Analysis”. It is reasonable to be suspicious of any organization that advertises itself as fair, balanced, or independent. The EIA site includes the page below to calm the public’s jangling nerves:

The rabbit leaps out of the hat in the form of a pie chart. It shows that, in 2010, the U.S. got 51% of its petroleum from domestic sources. As a dutifully trusting citizen, I am supposed to think that the President was right after all, and things are not as bad as I imagined. Being a skeptic (and a bit of a cynic) I read the copy. Two passages stand out:

“The United States was third in crude oil production at 5.5 MMbd.[million barrels per day]”

“In 2010 the United States imported 11.8 million barrels per day (MMbd) of crude oil and refined petroleum products.”

Well, ignoring the complication of refined petroleum products, these two numbers yield a crude oil import rate of 68.2% – very close to the two thirds I expected to see. So how did they jigger this down to 49%? The report also says:

“But crude oil alone does not constitute all U.S. petroleum supplies. Significant gains occur, because crude oil expands in the refining process, liquid fuel is captured in the processing of natural gas, and we have other sources of liquid fuel, including biofuels.”

The implication here is that we are being very clever making liquid fuel from natural gas and old French fry grease, but the sad fact is that we are really only making it with an accounting trick. This starts with redefining what “oil” is. When the President says “oil,” you and I, and everyone else outside the oil industry, thinks “crude oil” – but what the President and the EIA are talking about is a much more slippery definition of oil as “petroleum”. From the EIA’s glossary:

Petroleum: A broadly defined class of liquid hydrocarbon mixtures. Included are crude oil, lease condensate, unfinished oils, refined products obtained from the processing of crude oil, and natural gas plant liquids. Note: Volumes of finished petroleum products include non hydrocarbon compounds, such as additives and detergents, after they have been blended into the products.”

The consequence of using this definition is that gasoline and diesel fuel – “refined products obtained from the processing of crude oil” – can be included on the pie graph. That’s a big deal. When an American oil company demands imported crude oil to feed its refineries, that gets tallied on the import side, but the gasoline that they produce – that you and I demand at the pump – presto change-O! – is domestic petroleum, made right here in the USA! Not only that, but whatever crude oil we do produce domestically gets counted to our credit twice – once for the refinery as crude oil and once for the final customer as fuel!

To understand just how worthless this way of calculating oil imports actually is, just consider what it would yield in the worst possible case. Imagine we imported 100% of the crude oil we use, refine it all ourselves, and consume 100% of the refined products. A barrel of crude oil equals 42 gallons. The total volume of refined products from that barrel will amount to about 48 gallons (on average, the refined products are less dense). This ratio, then, would only yield a petroleum import rate of 47% – not the 100% crude oil import rate that actually matters. The worst case scenario would actually look better than the current situation!

We are in trouble. Most of us know this, at least intuitively, when we see the price of gasoline and of everything else going up. Unfortunately, you can’t expect much truth from anyone who still has a dream they think they can sell you, especially in an election year that promises to be a blood match between “the shining city on the hill” and “the audacity of hope”. Oil now flows from the mouths of politicians in great abundance. The facts of geology, however, remain unaltered and indifferent to our dreams.

March 23, 2012

Flag with Complications

The Tea Party and OWS

I have written twice on the Occupy Wall Street movement, registering my distain for the movement’s general lack of coherence or direction. It is time I said a word or two about the Tea Party, another loose association – in this case one with which I myself have been loosely associated.

The first thing one should know about the Tea Party is that they are not the mob of rabid bigots network TV has portrayed. This, at least, is a fiction. I have attended about half a dozen of their meetings and events, and have seen no sign of racism other than a relative (though not complete) lack of non-whites in attendance. They do, as group, hate Obama with a passion – but for reasons of policy rather than reasons of race. The charge of bigotry is an easy one to level these days, and though such sentiments certainly exist, one is not entitled to presume them so easily. One may never know what motives people harbor in their hearts, but it is not valid to ascribe to an entire movement the beliefs expressed by one or two idiotic signs.

My local Tea Party group’s published core principles are admirable enough:

- Respect for the U.S. Constitution
- Limited Size of Government
- Fiscal Responsibility
- Support for the Free Markets

In the present era with its contempt for the rule of law, its ongoing expansion of Government power, its burgeoning debt, and its cavalier lurches toward central economic planning – I can hardly disagree with such a set of guiding principles. Is it better to leave the law to the capricious nature of politicians than to the foundational charter of the republic? Is freedom a meaningful concept if the power of government is without limit? Is an ongoing policy of deficit spending sustainable? Is the policy of Government to favor a few huge companies by manipulating regulations and tax policy likely to produce a healthy economy? In each case, I believe the answer is “no”.

I would like to say that the Tea Party is simply a mass movement of responsible citizens who, though they may not agree on anything else, are bound together by a devotion to this handful of high principles. I would like to – but I can’t. The truth is that, at least at this point in our history, America does not produce many people capable of understanding principled positions of any kind. It produces a few, but they are outnumbered by the various groups of blind partisans of one stripe or another, and those in turn are outnumbered by the apathetic masses who just want someone – anyone – to come and make everything right for them. This state of things has probably always been the norm, so we should not weep too many tears for what is probably, in the end, just the aggregate product of human nature. The deficiency of political foresight possessed by the average individual may be more pronounced in our era than in some others, but I cannot name a single country in any age in which the average citizen has been both well informed and politically responsible.

The Tea Party is both more coherent and more directed in its efforts than the Occupy Wall Street movement, but this is probably because it is dominated by an older, more experienced demographic of the population. It is, like any other mass movement, defined not by the core principles it officially enumerates, but by the core principles that the majority of its members happened to bring with them. Those values are, for the most part, the values of social conservatives. Most meetings begin with a prayer, proceed with various expressions of frustration, and end with exhortations to do one’s best at the polls. And vote the members do, making them politically relevant to the extent that our corrupted form of democracy permits. Even here, they are a force bound by their own inherent lawfulness and devotion to convention. The shouting mob of bigoted haters depicted in the press turns out to be more of an animated PTA meeting in practice. They believe that if they can just gather up all the people who share their relatively narrow worldview they will turn out to be a majority.

I find that I have beliefs in common with the Tea Party, but that those beliefs appear to only be the expedient rallying points for most of its members. I cannot help having the sinking feeling that, for most of them, the desire is not so much to have a government that doesn’t run roughshod over the individual, but simply to have one that upholds and protects their particular values. Most of them would probably not see the introduction of mandated Christian prayer in school as an infringement of anybody’s liberty, though they might haggle bitterly about the denominational leanings of the prayer. I care about the protection of their values from the predations of overreaching social engineers, but I do not think that they would hesitate to support social engineering initiatives that supported a social conservative agenda. The conflict between opposing cultures in America is palpable.

The Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party share two important tendencies. The first is the sort of partisan blindness I’ve already outlined. I doubt the average OWS participant would be anything but thrilled to see the wealth of every American millionaire and billionaire summarily confiscated by the government and redistributed to the unemployed. When people get the ends they want, they rarely quibble over the implications of the means. The second point of commonality between the two opposing camps is a growing awareness that the existing political process has abandoned them. Tea Party members may vote for Republicans, but only in the hope that their numbers and organization will be able to hold them to task. The Republican Party, after generations in the pockets of elites, has finally lost their trust. The Occupy Wall Street movement, I think, is beginning to understand that while the Democratic establishment is happy to use them, it is not really their friend. Democracy, as a whole, has become a farce – and ordinary people are beginning to understand that the joke has come at their expense.

I would like to think that a better society will emerge of this rising tide of anger and frustration – but again, I can’t. Reason and stability, historically, do not emerge from such conditions. More likely, we will see an era of liars and demagogues – all, of course, espousing freedom, justice, fairness, decency and the like.

March 13, 2012

The Eye Wall

The Eye Wall - e.m. cadwaladr
The Eye Wall, image by e.m. cadwaladr on Flickr.

The TSA, Civil Liberty, and Reason

By official policy, and the rulings of Federal courts, the TSA is forbidden from profiling aircraft passengers on racial or religious grounds. This safeguards a few from tedious and unpleasant searches. In principle, a minority has its civil rights protected – assuming that the passengers in question are U.S. citizens and are guaranteed such rights. In upholding this laudable principle, however, the TSA has been left with a serious procedural problem: How do you find a terrorist without being allowed to use the most obvious and salient criteria to narrow the list of potential suspects? The answer has been to search everyone, and to randomly search a few more closely.

Most people realize intuitively that this is not a very effective way to conduct a search. To show how thoroughly absurd it is though, let’s consider what might happen if the same kind of constraints where placed on another Federal agency, the Centers for Disease Control.

Imagine there were a sudden outbreak of a serious disease, perhaps a lethal form of influenza, in a major US city. New strains of influenza typically originate in China. Logically, the CDC might want to quarantine people who had recently travelled in China, and generally to search for people with recent connections to China. However, since this would inevitably inconvenience a certain minority, and could conceivably even stigmatize them as possible disease carriers, the CDC, in our scenario, would be disallowed from singling them out. Instead of quarantining travelers from China, it would be much fairer just to quarantine a few people at random, and to declare a universal curfew for everybody to cut down the rate of person-to-person contact. This would, of course, do little to slow the progress of the epidemic. It would keep the CDC just as busy though, and there would be a certain comforting feeling that some action was being taken. Everyone would be inconvenienced, most of them to no good purpose.

I am a civil libertarian at heart. I am well aware that singling out minorities is not a measure we should ever take lightly. The dark example of the internment of US citizens in the Second World War, for no greater crime than having Japanese ancestors, should neither be forgotten nor minimized. Nor should we imagine that the even worse persecutions that have occurred elsewhere are impossible here because Americans are, somehow, just better than that. We’re not. However, if we are to keep our liberty, we cannot allow the ideal of social equality to trump all others on every occasion. There is an enormous difference between a search of someone’s luggage on the grounds that they share a religion or an ethnicity with terrorists, and rousting that person from their home in the middle of the night and hustling them off to a concentration camp. Not only is there a difference in severity, but there is also a difference in kind. One does not follow inevitably from the other. If I share an appearance, a locality, and other characteristics with a criminal, I should not be surprised to find myself in a police line-up – but this does not mean the common characteristics I and the criminal possess are the objects of the state’s persecution. If a tall man commits a crime, it makes sense for the police to look for a tall man – but this does not mean being tall is a crime in itself.

Further, in the process of being “fair” to everyone by inconveniencing us all equally, the Federal courts have established a precedent that should alarm every one of us: the idea that the state may inflict a harm, albeit at present a small one, on persons who are obviously innocent in the name of a social good. When a TSA agent dutifully gropes a four-year-old or an elderly nun it is not done in the furtherance of public safety, but merely in the furtherance of an absolutist sense of fairness. To put this another way, the courts have taken the position that it is not objectionable to treat the public like cattle, so long as officials do not distinguish between the color or religion of the cows. Perhaps this does not lead inevitably to worse infringements either, but given a choice between the evil of profiling and the evil of universal abuse – at least the former achieves its original purpose.

March 1, 2012

Is Fox News?

Once upon a time (always the best way to start any serious essay) the American public sat enthralled by the sober but avuncular face of Walter Cronkite, telling us, in the tight span of less than half an hour, what had happen in the world that day. He never yelled, he never sneered, and nobody that I know of ever wondered whose side he was on. I can close my eyes and still picture this time. I am fairly confident it really happened.

The CBS Evening News of the 1960’s is not the sort of news we have today. Neither the broadcast networks, Fox nor CNN bear it much resemblance. News makes only the most superficial pretentions to impartiality now. It makes not even that much to relevance. It follows the lives of Tiger Woods, Lindsay Lohan and (even posthumously) Micheal Jackson as though they were every bit as important as the war in Afghanistan or the upcoming presidential election. It barks and insinuates from more sets of perfectly aligned teeth than could be had on the old Lawrence Welk show. It shows a little leg and a little cleavage. It informs a little now and then, but only as an accidental consequence of entertainment, or in the calculated service of political persuasion.

I was born in a lucky time. Cronkite and other journalists of his era stood on one of the higher points in the development of the press, when the standards of journalistic integrity were high enough to support a functioning democracy with reasonably neutral, reasonably accurate information. It was a high point, rather than the last gasp of any long standing tradition. Our nation began with dozens of small newspapers, most of which had axes to grind. 19th century politics and press coverage was every bit as partisan – and as lurid – as any seen today. What seems new to some of us is not new to America.

Before one can talk about anything intelligently, it is often necessary to clarify certain terms. Here is what I mean by “news”:

For an article of information to be “news” it has to be both reasonably factual and in some way consequential to the life of the recipient.

That “news” has to be factual should be obvious. Opinions, while often interesting and sometimes persuasive, are not “facts” and neither are they “news”. Outright lies are plainly not “news”.

The demand that “news” be consequential is equally important. If a city floods and you were planning to go there, then knowledge of the flood is “news”. On the other hand, the image of a microphone shoved into the face of a weeping flood victim followed up by the question, “how does it feel to lose your family?” isn’t “news”. It isn’t going to tell you anything you either need to know – or have any special right to know. Nor does the knowledge of how Tiger Woods’ divorce is going fill any pressing need. Such things are merely a prurient form of entertainment.

The definition of the “news” I offer here is a narrower one than people are used to, and it is narrow for a reason. It is intended to define “news,” as consisting chiefly of those things which members of a free society must know to participate intelligently in the political process. Non-factual or inconsequential information (e.g. lies, opinions, and trivialities) simply do not add to our ability to participate in elections responsibly. To put it more succinctly:

A broad public knowledge of relevant facts is a necessary precondition for meaningful democracy.

Intelligent people can argue about who is or isn’t providing the public with relevant facts, but I don’t think any rational person can argue that people who don’t have access to relevant facts can still be capable of voting wisely.

The CBS Evening News of the 1960’s provided a concise stream of relevant facts. It wasn’t perfect. I remember the daily body count figures from the Viet Nam War – a sort of football score that was probably neither meaningful nor altogether factual. In the main, however, the institution sought out relevant events and reported them plainly, unemotionally, and without much spin. There wasn’t time in the short broadcast for either trivialities or much editorial comment.

Today’s “news” programs, of all stripes, are much less austere. To begin with, without the time constraint imposed by the half-hour format, “news” networks have a great deal more air time to fill. They need to keep their audiences entertained for hours on end. Maintaining bigger news bureaus to generate ever more news in ever greater depth might be a theoretical possibility for a news network, but in practice there are cheaper and more reliable ways to hold an audience’s attention. The democratic process would be better served by more news and more background material (the causes and history behind events) but in actually practice networks get better ratings and make more money by treating “news” as just another form of amusement. It is much harder to really find out what is going on in Pakistan than to have a reporter follow Lindsay Lohan around and simply recount her social pratfalls. Likewise, it is easier for Fox to invite Ann Coulter onto one of their “new analysis” shows to spin her usual web of unsubstantiated invective, than it is to make the usually abstruce facts of politics clear and interesting.1

So – is Fox news? The best answer would be – “occasionally.” The same answer that holds for nearly every other organ of the press in these stirring and irrational times.


1 I have often wondered whether Ms. Coulter only puts on her performance for the camera, or only during her waking hours, or if in fact she even sneers in her sleep.