Gridlock, Explained

Matthew Yglesias raises the interesting notion of political deadlock and wonders about the roots and consequences.

It would appear that all the pandering in the world is not capable of convincing anti-Bush Americans that Bush cares about them, while all Democratic efforts to sell the good-government message utterly fail to convince pro-Bush Americans (even those quite disappointed with his unscrupulous actions) that the Dems would actually perform any better in practice. It’s basically a politics of pure ressentiment with both sides more motivated by the perceived evils of the alternative than convinced of the merits of their team.

He’s puzzled by it.

I’m less puzzled by it, because I have a theory. (…a theory which is mine, for you Monty Python fans out there).Bush ought to be losing on domestic issues, much as his father did.

From the left, a substantial minority of the electorate are opposed to much of what he’s doing on principle.

From the right, a growing number are opposed to much of his domestic and fiscal policy in principle. They ought to abandon him, leaving him with the corporate-welfare queens and those National Enquirer-reading voters who base their votes purely on the number of brand impressions that have been bought.

But there’re two problems with that.

One is domestic, and I’ve pretty much beaten it into the ground. The cosmopolitan left has become the engine of the Democratic Party, and for them, love of country is essentially subsumed to a broader vision of interest-group alliance and worldwide bureaucratic order. The average American, who ought to be for the Democrats if voting a paycheck, can’t bridge the social gap, and isn’t buying the international vision.

The other is foreign, and is simply this: “How do we respond to 9/11, and ensure that there won’t be another one?” I hope this doesn’t require any explanation.

The Democrats are beginning understand that they need to form a coherent vision, but I believe that it gets stuck in two areas – the assumption of easy multilateralism, and overreliance on law-enforcement models.

So we wind up with a bunch of potential voters who ought to be in play, but aren’t because they have two top-level issues (values and defense) that the Democrats haven’t yet been able to neutralize.

Will I support Bush? It depends. I don’t want to. But I think that the damage he can do in his effed-up domestic policy is less than the damage that can be done by an effed-up foreign policy. I’ll take a large national debt and a looming class war over a real nuclear war any day of the week. And while I’m a coastal cosmopolitan, I still cringe when my wealthy fellow Angelinos get together, raise millions, and try and explain how, because they make television shows or manage pension funds, they know so much more about the world than “guys with Confederate flags on their trucks.”

So I’m waiting and watching, and I doubt that I’m alone.

UPDATE: Yglesias responds.

A Competition!

I’ve blogged in the past about the Hope Street Group – a potentially damn interesting set of ‘emergent liberals’ based here in Los Angeles.

They’re hosting a competition:

* Papers are due Friday, January 30, 2004.

* Papers may be submitted in any of five topic areas: (1) budget and tax policy; (2) water policy; (3) housing and/or transportation policy; (4) energy policy; and (5) education policy.

* Papers will be judged primarily on the extent to which they provide concise, well- substantiated, concrete ideas for overcoming political and financial barriers to Opportunity Economics in California. Opportunity Economics refers to the notion that economic growth is a crucial precondition for expanding equal opportunity for all, and also that such expansions of opportunity promote long-term prosperity. For more information, see ?Building the Opportunity Economy,? at

* Five winners shall be chosen, one for each of the five topic areas. A grand prize winner shall be selected from among the five winning papers, and will receive a cash award of $2,500. A second prize winner shall also be selected from among the five winning papers, and will receive $1,000. The other three winning authors will each receive $500.

* The grand prize winner will have the opportunity to present his or her paper at a seminar sponsored by the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley.

Check it out. I’m continually impressed by the level of dialog in the comments to this blog. If you’re a reader here, go write something then submit it.

Maybe I’ll even get motivated to write something new.

Energy and Security

Continuing my dialog with Kevin, my second point was:

Second, we’re too dependent on ME oil. We’re going to do something about it, both by pushing conservation, expanding alternative energy, and expanding exploration. We’re going to build the damn windmills off of Cape Cod;

I’ve been reading up a bit on this (note that it’s a pretty information-rich subject, and unlike areas of political theory or strategy, where I feel free to just sit down and let it rip, I do think that some knowledge of fact is pretty important here – a knowledge which I’ll freely confess to lacking, and welcoming input from other, more-knowledgeable parties, to get), and really realize that energy security has to be dealt with in three overlapping arenas.
First, in recognizing that our economic well-being depends to a significant part on our ability to buy energy from people who don’t like us very much, and may at any time choose to stop selling it to us, or take military steps to keep other people from selling it to us. The nature of our response to this will determine a lot about our future: first in our willingness to accept the notion that people can boycott us, and that our response won’t be – as the Japanese was – military; second in that we may well have to project military power to keep the ‘people who don’t like us’ from militarily imposing their desire not to sell to us on others. And you betcha, I’m certainly aware of just how narrow and permeable is that distinction.

Second, in realizing that in strategic military and economic conflicts such as the ones we seem to be in today, that our ability to resiliently respond to changes in circumstance – our ability to adapt our economy and our political and military responses – is going to be a more fruitful path to take than one that attempts to build ever more massive defenses of rigid economic and social structures.

Third, in realizing that not all of the risks to our society through our use of energy come from hostile action. Happenstance (exemplified in the form of the recent blackout), our own bad behavior (as in the gaming of the California regulatory system),and unforeseen or unmanaged consequences (among others, environmental) all will come into play in trying to figure out how to approach these.

I initially wrote a 4,500 word screed, and quickly realized that a) it was just too damn long to post on a blog (unless you’re Bill Whittle!); and b) I was moving down into a level of detail not supported by my knowledge of the facts.

So let me lay out a couple of summary facts, and then some policy challenges and the directions (60,000 foot strategies) I think we ought to be considering in response.

First, we’re getting better at using energy efficiently. The EIA has a history. In 1972, the year before the OPEC embargo, we used 18,650 BTU per 1996 dollar of GDP. This was a slight improvement on the 1949 figure of 20,620. By 1982, we were using 14,890 BTU/dollar, and in 2002, we were using 10,310 BTU/dollar. We’re decoupling our economic strength from our direct consumption of energy, and that’s a good thing. It implies a kind of ‘systemic efficiency’ that we need to keep working to improve.

Second, our current exposure to Islamist boycott (what we’re really talking about here) is not today critical. Here are just a couple of numbers; they are 2002 numbers from the great site, unless noted.

Our total annual energy budget for 2002 was 97,350,684 billion BTU (bBTU).

Of that, the following % of our total energy consumption was from

|coal & coke: |22.9%|
|natural gas: |23.7%|
|oil: |39.2%|
|nuclear: |8.4%|
|pumped hydro: |-0.1%| (essentially, this consumes energy in order to create reserves for peak demand times )
|hydro: |2.7%|
|total renewable: |6.1%|

Of that total energy budget, 38,183,179 bBTU, or 39.2% of our annual budget was in the form of oil, and of that, approximately (I say approximately because the readily accessible numbers include other petroleum products that may not have been used for energy, but for chemical feedstocks, etc.) 19.7% of that was imported from the Persian Gulf states, and if you include Indonesia and Algeria, approximately 22.5% of our imports come from countries where the Islamist movement could feasibly take power. No natural gas was imported from Islamist states.

That suggests that about 8.8% of our annual energy budget is exposed to Islamist control. That number probably isn’t exact, but it probably isn’t too far off (note that if someone who knows more than I could learn about this in three or four hours of searching wants to pitch in here, I’d love to have my back-of-the-hand numbers validated or corrected).

Note that as domestic production flattens or declines, our demand for imports will probably increase, depending on the growth on the economy and efficiency in use.

So we need to replace approximately 10% of our energy budget in order to be secure from energy blackmail by Islamist states. This would imply, as an example, a 50% increase in renewable energy (mix of biomass, wind, and geothermal) for a gain of 3%, combined with approximately a 10% increase in domestic oil and gas production. combined with a 3% increase in efficiency to completely shield ourselves from the economic and political risk of a boycott. 50% of those changes would make the effects of a boycott relatively insignificant, and would probably go a long way toward discouraging such a boycott.

But a boycott isn’t the only risk we face.

First, our economic and social well-being is inextricably tied to the well-being of our wider community, which would include Europe and East Asia. Their political vulnerability is lower (i.e. they are less likely to be subject to a boycott), but they, like us, are vulnerable to disruptions in the infrastructure – which could be caused by a far smaller group than could effectively lead a peaceful boycott. So we need to work to secure the network at it’s most vulnerable nodes – the transshipment points, pipelines, and shipping lanes.

That won’t be easy, as long as they run through areas that are thinly populated, hard to control, and immediately accessible to the people who don’t like us very much.

As long as we’re talking about securing the network, let’s talk about our domestic networks, which are underfunded and maintained, overly complex, and highly vulnerable to temporary collapse through accident or sabotage.

I’ve talked in the past about redefining security to deal with 4G challenges; about creating, as Bruce Schneier says:

Where Schneier had sought one overarching technical fix, hard experience had taught him the quest was illusory. Indeed, yielding to the American penchant for all-in-one high-tech solutions can make us less safe—especially when it leads to enormous databases full of confidential information. Secrecy is important, of course, but it is also a trap. The more secrets necessary to a security system, the more vulnerable it becomes.

To forestall attacks, security systems need to be small-scale, redundant, and compartmentalized. Rather than large, sweeping programs, they should be carefully crafted mosaics, each piece aimed at a specific weakness. The federal government and the airlines are spending millions of dollars, Schneier points out, on systems that screen every passenger to keep knives and weapons out of planes. But what matters most is keeping dangerous passengers out of airline cockpits, which can be accomplished by reinforcing the door.

Good security [which] is built in overlapping, cross-checking layers, to slow down attacks; it reacts limberly to the unexpected. Its most important components are almost always human. “Governments have been relying on intelligent, trained guards for centuries,” Schneier says. “They spot people doing bad things and then use laws to arrest them. All in all, I have to say, it’s not a bad system.”

Amory Lovins, at the Rocky Mountain Institute, is making these same points about our energy infrastructure.

The energy that runs America is brittle – easily shattered by accident or malice. That fragility frustrates the efforts of our Armed Forces to defend a nation that literally can be turned off by a handful of people. It poses, indeed, a grave and growing threat to national security, life, and liberty.

This danger comes not from hostile ideology but from misapplied technology. It is not a threat imposed on us by enemies abroad. It is a threat we have heedlessly – and needlessly – imposed on ourselves.

Many Americans’ most basic functions depend, for example, on a continuous supply of electricity. Without it, subways and elevators stall, factories and offices grind to a halt, electric locks jam, intercoms and televisions stand mute, and we huddle without light, heat, or ventilation. A brief faltering of our energy pulse can reveal – sometimes as fatally as to astronauts in a spacecraft – the hidden brittleness of our interdependent, urbanized-society. Yet that continuous electrical supply now depends on many large and precise machines, rotating in exact synchrony across half a continent, and strung together by an easily severed network of aerial arteries whose failure is instantly disruptive. The size, complexity, pattern, and control structure of these electrical machines make them inherently vulnerable to large-scale failures: a vulnerability which government policies are systematically increasing. The same is true of the technologies that deliver oil, gas; and coal to run our vehicles, buildings, and industries. Our reliance on these delicately poised energy systems has unwittingly put at risk our whole way of life.

He points out, in this document (pdf) that:

*Tightly coupled system: 20 years ago, U.S. had
a few months’ usable total storage, well-head-tocar;
refineries had 3 – 5 days, pipeline customers
5 – 10 days; generally far less now
*>50% of U.S. refinery capacity was in three
states (TX, LA, CA), >69% was in six states
*Refinery concentration and specialization have
increased markedly since 1981
*In 1978, sabotage of 77 refineries would cut cap.
by 2/3, “shatter” economy (GAO); takes one
RPG, wrench, rifle,…at each site
*~84% of U.S. interstate gas flowed from or
through Louisiana
*A few people could shut off, for 1 y, 3/4 of gas
and oil supply to eastern U.S. in 1 night w/o
leaving Louisiana

Lovins’ prescriptions are a little more extreme than the one’s I’d advocate today – not because I think he’s necessarily wrong, but because I think that a less-radical approach is both more politically attainable – but in a nutshell, his policy hierarchy looks like this:

Designing for resilience

* Fine-grained, modular structure
* Early fault detection
* Redundancy and substitutability
* Optional interconnection
* Diversity
* Standardization
* Dispersion
* Hierarchical embedding
* Stability
* Simplicity
* Limited demands on social stability
* Accessibility/vernacularity

His specific policy prescriptions are centered around:

* Conservation
* Dispersed Generation
* Demand-based Pricing

Basically, what he suggests is that we work to become intelligent about using energy (note that this isn’t the Hard Green ‘let’s all go live in agrarian villages’-type conservation, this is the let’s encourage fuel-efficient vehicles, rather than subsidizing the purchase of light trucks for passenger use, as we do today. Personal note: I needed a vehicle that had three rows of seats for trips with the three boys, plus storage behind the third seat for camping and ski gear, plus the ability to tow 1,500 pounds of trailer and racebike. In 2000, I had three options: Large SUV (Suburban, Excursion), Full-size van (Ford Econoline), or minivan (Honda Odyssey). I chose the Odyssey, which gets 24mpg in everyday use, tows the trailered racebike over Highway 14 to Rosamond without complaint, and has as much interior volume as a Suburban. But it’s easy to park, and handles better. If everyone who bought a SUV between 2000 and 2003 made the same decision, we’d have made a dent in the 6% exposure we have to Islamist energy.

Dispersed generation suggests that a strategy based on a fragile, complex, and undefendable energy infrastructure may not be the right way to go. The efficiencies of smaller package generators are increasing, and when combined with the flexibility of power-on-demand and the absence of transmission risk and loss, there can be some significant advantages to them. This suggests that nukes, which are by definition large and inflexible generators of power, may not be the best way to go. Note that I don’t have the ‘ohmigawd, uranium’ issues around nuclear power (which kills far fewer people per kilowatt-hour than, say, coal). But I do think that large-centralized plants aren’t where we should be putting our focus, and further that ramping down the economy in fissionables ought to be a good idea. But I’m not adamant about it.

Demand-based pricing is also a critical feature of the model, in which we simply charge the true cost of the peak-load supply at times when it must be brought online.

That’s a key point; building economic policies that attempt, as closely as possible to mirror the true cost of the goods purchased. (On the Wal-Mart issue, one issue I have is the lack of health coverage for a substantial number of their associates – coverage which I help pay for, even if I don’t shop there, because I pay for the public health care burden the employees impose through my taxes)

So here’s the mix of policies I’d support after a week of thought (obviously subject to change as I learn more from all the commenters who will pile on):

* Improve vehicle fuel efficiency by doing four things:

# Increasing CAFE standards, and setting a more-ambitious schedule of improvements;
# Defining light-duty trucks (SUV’s and pickups) clearly designed and sold for passenger use as passenger cars for CAFE and safety standard purposes;
# eliminating tax incentives to buy fuel-inefficient vehicles;
# explore tax credits for improvements in fuel efficiency in trucking (a large user of energy where there ought to be big incentives to save)

Note that I’d trade all these for phased-in increases in gas (and diesel) taxes (maybe we could implement Andrew Tobias’ notion of paying for a minimal vehicle insurance pool via a gas tax as well).

* Improve residential and commercial fuel efficiency through changes in building codes.

* Review of utility and building regulation to reduce the regulatory barriers to small-scale ‘package’ generation.

Note that this last will get me in trouble with a number of enviro types, who want the smaller power plants (like the one in Redondo Beach near me) shut down. They’d rather have electric cars and power plants in remote areas; but the true cost of that kind of overcentralized system is blackouts and an insecure infrastructure.

Those Damn Vendors

From today’s NYT:

The trail that investigators have uncovered, partly from reading computer hard drives found in Baghdad and partly from interviews with captured members of Mr. Hussein’s inner circle, shows that a month before the American invasion, Iraqi officials traveled to Syria to demand that North Korea refund $1.9 million because it had failed to meet deadlines for delivering its first shipment of goods.

From WoC in May:

So you get ‘Potemkin weapons'; reports, promises, trailers filled with impressive-looking technical equipment, UAV’s that are really just oversized model airplanes. Occasionally, some competent or especially frightened technician might actually produce something – but almost certainly not on the scale that the dictator believes.

So Saddam believes he has them, and from that, we infer that he does, and what is really going on is a bunch of nervous paper-shuffling.



We had a wonderful Thanksgiving at my brother’s; his wife cooked a yummy Southern holiday meal (all great, except for her insistence on boiling the stringbeans until they were limp and gray – a characteristic of Southern cooking I’ll never understand). As usual, the Beaujolais Nouveau went incredibly well with the turkey.

They live in a lovely duplex in South Pasadena; they are talking about moving, though because the living room isn’t big enough to contain their television set. It’s one of the ones that’s about 5′ wide and 3′ tall, and they have it hooked to a satellite dish that numbers it’s channels in the 100’s. They’re both sports fanatics (unlike me) and we spent quite a bit of the pre-meal warmup drinking martinis and watching the Dolphins-Cowboys game. I know the basic rules of football, but the appeal is lost on me. Same with baseball – although an August evening game at Dodger Stadium has its pleasures. I’ll fess up to asking friends to tape Tour de France coverage or coverage of Motorcycle Grand Prix racing, so I’m not a total sports teetotaler.So we drank and snacked and chatted about all and sundry, with a substantial detour into politics – they’re both big supporters – when the game paused, and halftime began.

The halftime show was elaborate, and somehow brought Larry McMurtry to my mind – and it featured a performance by country singer Toby Keith.

I’ve talked about the divide between the country-music part of America and the non-country-music part of America before, and while my sister-in-law isn’t too fond of Toby’s politics (as expressed in his music), she does like him a lot.

The show was – surprise – highly patriotically themed, and I recall that he chose both ‘American Soldier‘ and ‘Beer For My Horses,’ both sung in front of a giant American flag backdrop, with video insets of troops in uniform.

I looked at my brother and said – “That’s why the Democrats are in trouble. The imagery right there is currently owned by the GOP, and until the Democrats figure out how to stand in front of it without looking silly, they’ll have a hard time winning national elections.”

We’d been discussing the election. He & his wife are of the visceral hate-Bush crowd, and my mother wants desperately to oppose Bush, but is anxious about national defense – i.e. is in my mind the perfectly typical voter.

I made my point, and they sat glumly watching the halftime show.

I was reminded of this because I just caught something on my homepage, Google News.

Liberal columnist Tom Teepen has an op-ed up: ‘Nasty nonsense, yes, but Democrats must answer.’

The Democrats who would be president are fuming over a TV ad the Republican National Committee is running in Iowa, where the nominating caucuses are near.

The Democrats’ anger is understandable, but the ad is doing them a service. It makes plain, and inescapable, the challenge their nominee will have to meet if he is to have something better than the proverbial snowball’s chance of contesting President Bush’s reelection.

It is not enough for the Democratic contenders to pound on the president’s assorted missteps and misrepresentations in the Iraq War. An increasing number of Americans share that unease, but the terrorist threat remains real — and the abiding question is how it can best be confronted, contained and defeated.

The executive director of Amnesty International USA makes the same point the Republican ad does. William Schulz says junk slogans like “Regime change at home” and “No blood for oil” mask a liberal “failure to give necessary attention, analysis and strategizing to the effort to counter terrorism and protect our fundamental right to security.”

When you are hearing the same message from both your friends and your opponents, it would be wise to listen.


I desperately want to want a Democrat to win in 2004 (no, that’s not a typo). I’m unhappy as hell with Bush’s domestic policies; I think the GOP ‘hand the keys to the Treasury to our donor base’ is arguably worse than the Democratic version of the same thing; I doubt that the kind of tax, employment, energy or domestic security policies that I want to see implemented will make the grade in a Republican Administration.

But I’ve got two large roadblocks in my path.

The first is that I need to see a credible response to what I see as a multinational Islamist threat. Note that ‘using the criminal justice system’ and ‘seeking UN action’ is not, prima facie, a credible response.

Bush has done a lot wrong as I note, but he seems to be doing one thing right.

Yes, the postwar was imperfectly planned. But perfect plans only exist in movies made by Joel Silver. reality is be definition messy, contingent, and frightening – as we are seeing today. His trip and speech meant a lot to me; I’ve demanded for a while that he show an ‘iron butt’, and I’d have to say it will be hard for him to get up from the table after what he’s done now.

The second is that I want to see a Democratic ideology that embraces America instead of holding it at arm’s length.

I know that one comment or one blog post doesn’t define even the individual who wrote it. But I see things out there that lead me to believe certain things.

Here’s a post from Alas, A Blog, a major left blog (note that I’ve had some great and productive discussions with Barry; the quoted post is a Thanksgiving post by his co-blogger Bean):

…many of us (myself included) will also be telling ourselves that we aren’t celebrating the “real” Thanksgiving and all its racist and genocidal history, but rather enjoying the long weekend that allows out-of-town friends and family to visit, the excuse to eat lots of good food, and treating it as any other holiday, with or without awareness of what this day has historically meant. Why should it be any different from the way we celebrate any other holiday — Memorial Day, Labor Day, and (for some of us, at least) Christmas or Passover?

But today is not Thanksgiving for many of our fellow Americans. And, while I will be spending my time with friends and eating good food today, I would like to take a moment to reflect on another “holiday” taking place today.

This was written by a dear friend of mine, Nikkiru, and my thoughts will be with her today.

As many of you are aware, The official U.S. “Thanksgiving” is observed by many indigenous people and allies as the National Day of Mourning. Some may not be aware of the history behind that.

I don’t single this post out to encourage people to rush over and hassle Bean or Barry. I don’t even disagree with them that much of the history of this nation (as all other nations) is written in blood – even often innocent blood.

I do completely disagree over the response to that history. And I do believe that my political party – the Democrats – and many of the supporters of their leading candidate – Howard Dean – are closer to Bean than to me in their view of how to value America.

That’s a problem for me. It’s also a problem for them, since they are really damn unlikely to get the votes of the Toby Keith fans who stood and cheered him on during his performance.

Even though those fans are the ones who would benefit substantially from policies tilted more toward the working and away from the owning. Because people don’t just vote their economic interests.

Sometimes they vote their hearts.

And sometimes they vote their fears.

Right now, both would seem to be in play.