So We Fight To Keep The Dream Alive

Fire hoses in Birmingham in 1960’s

Critical Race Theory. Three words that strike dread into the hearts of many who believe this theory is being forced upon their innocent children, and makes the children feel bad. Of course, most of those who protest CRT wouldn’t know it if it struck them alongside their head like a 2×4. Instead, what we have is a noisy bunch of naysayers who have been driven to protest by what has been said on their various media sources. There CRT is mischaracterized so much that any attempt at presenting a contrary view to the lily-white version of American history is seen as communistic influence aimed at making Americans feel guilty toward the inherent racism of our society.

When will we ever get to the place where we can accept that multiple versions of the truth can exist simultaneously? Sure, the settling of the American Midwest involved much sacrifice by those who tried to eke out an existence for their families on soil they had to tame themselves. But at the same time, it is a fact that this land was occupied for thousands of years before white settlers broke the soil with their plows. The conquest of the indigenous peoples of North America enabled the white settlers to take over the lands and only have to fight nature instead of the previous residents. Sure, we gave Indians great reservations, and set up residential schools for the young (where the indigenous culture was carefully extinguished). Is it any wonder that today, reservations are where you find the most entrenched poverty, along with a plethora of substance abuse problems?

When it comes to the ongoing story of Black Americans, the story keeps getting stranger and stranger. Apparently since we elected a half-African as President, all of the racism in our society magically left and we now are in a post-racial society. Or, at least, that is the bromide Fox viewers keep telling themselves. What is not acknowledged is the social rebound coming from Barack Obama’s election exceeded the push to put him in office. Once he was there, the antipathy towards his policies was not only tinged with racism, racism became the sole motivating force. Using the example of the Affordable Care Act, something that was modeled after a Republican’s approach, immediately became anathema. The requirement to pay a tax penalty if you were uninsured was viewed as onerous and tyrannical. Underlying everything was the unstated fact that this was a program developed by a Black, and therefore must be opposed with every ounce of effort. We tried to link the opposition back to our founding fathers, by calling these racists “Tea Partiers”, as if they would be washed clean by the waters of Boston Harbor through this alliance.

When the rebound resulted in the election of Donald Trump, the unspoken part often became overtly spoken. Like in the response to the death in Charlottesville, where a moral equivalence was drawn between those protesting the racism, and those who emulated a torch march from the 1930’s and who felt morally justified in using their macho car as a lethal weapon. It took the events of 2020 to really show how far these purveyors of white pride would go to maintain their power. Antifa, that paragon of anarchy, became the boogeyman for the right, and their non-existent organization was decried time and time again. Meanwhile, those who instituted real violence on January 6 were coddled since white Americans could never be a danger, even when they used mountaineering tactics to scale walls, and mob techniques to overrun police lines. Of course, it was obvious that the Antifa provocateurs were behind all of this. Everyone who entered the Capital building were peaceful tourists who would never have caused damage or defecated in the hallway.

I am old enough to remember the television news showing the fire hoses and police dogs turned on those who demanded their right to vote. The fact that we have to revisit those scenes nearly 60 years later in response to Republican malfeasance in state legislatures is horrendous. The fact that my Senator from West Virginia believes in a non-existent comity among the Senators is worth more than moving legislation along to address voting discrimination is very disappointing. And the fact that so many folks wish to return us to a previous state of Great where it was ok to subjugate anyone who didn’t fulfill the Aryan ideal is worse than disappointing, it is disgusting.

I am an example of how demography is not destiny. I am a Caucasian retired chemical engineer, who spent his entire career in a manufacturing industry. I grew up in Nebraska, and now have lived in West Virginia for more than half of my life. If anyone should identify with the Fox news archetype for my political beliefs, it is me. But I grew up detesting the evil exposed on that television screen. And I am now exasperated at how we are having to fight the battles of the 1960’s over and over again, only this time with the added burden of those who refuse to recognize the true common enemy of the virus. I hope we have enough strength to repudiate those who select evil over humanity and actually work to build a society where all can share in the great wealth we generate in this country. There are ways we can do that and encourage work and thrift and all of those virtues supposedly embodied in that mythical time when America was Great.

American Taliban? You Decide

It’s an ill wind that blows from outside. The wind that brings disease and death to those it encounters who are not armed against it. The wind that causes schisms within towns and families, as it dismantles inhibitions for those who adamantly believe in the other side’s evil. The wind emanating from the new phenomena of the internet, with its ability to connect huge crowds only to give them faulty information to share among the most rabid.

In the end, the wind comes from ourselves. We are the ones who keep the falsehoods and lies alive through our incessant need to be proven right. We are the ones who end up yelling at each other as we encounter those who won’t follow our correct protocol. Look, I received much scientific and mathematical training during my years of schooling. I know which side of the faith / science divide I land on. It is certainly not the side of those who expound their faith that natural immunity given by God will protect them from this virus they don’t even believe exists.  It is on the side of those who believe God gave man the intelligence to assert dominion over even the lowliest near-life forms we share the planet with.

But it is a reality that the other belief system does exist, and those who adhere to this belief system cannot see the virtues of the opposing arguments. In fact, many of those people believe that the vaccine is a tool for mass depopulation by the evil ones who are inspired by Satan. It is evil these people believe they are facing down as they encounter those who favor public health measures.

In a way, it is like the belief systems exhibited by the Taliban, as they re-impose their will upon a people resistant to their beliefs. They know they are right, and if the entire rest of the world disagrees with them, they know their heavenly reward is guaranteed through their actions. At some point, folks who have a rational bone in their body would realize the rest of the world might just be right, not those few who yell the loudest and grab the most attention.

So the difficulty with defeating the viewpoints of those who deny both the virus and the vaccine is similar to changing the minds of those who adhere to the beliefs of the Taliban. Both are utterly convinced they are the only ones who are right, and they will ignore all contrary evidence in front of their faces. Thus we have the local politician who attends an anti-vaccination rally mere days after the death of his wife from COVID. Thus we have the fanatics in Afghanistan enforcing their version of Sharia law while the society they conquered falls apart around them.

Maybe we need to call the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers the American Taliban, since they seem to exhibit the intolerance of the Afganistanian group. Both groups wish to take society back in time, to where there is no need to acknowledge anything other than the magnificence of God. It is God who governs all actions, and vaccines subvert God’s will in that they prevent God from culling those who should be culled.

In my previous writings, I discussed various existential threats facing human civilization. One of those is the rise of Willful Ignorance. As I look back at this piece of writing now three years old, it is amazing how many of those threats we are facing right now. Certainly we have seen how vulnerable we are to the risk of infectious diseases. A plague that kills only 1% of those it infects is capable of grinding economic activity to a halt. Add to that the growth of Tribalism and Denialism, and you can understand the reaction of many governments to the pandemic. After all, in their opinion, the plague is caused by outsiders, not by true citizens. And then add willful ignorance to the brace of problems we face. What I did not anticipate was the pride that those who are willfully ignorant take in their ignorance. There was no way I could expect a group of people to self-identify who wear their maskless faces as badges of honor, and view anyone who exercises caution by wearing a mask as threats and cowards.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a developed country do not realize the gifts we have been given. We live lives unimaginable to the vast majority of humanity through the millennia who never could enjoy adequate (or excessive) food, comfortable living quarters, personal transportation at our beck and call, treatment for most acute diseases, and instant world-wide communication available in our hands. Many in our world today would trade places in an instant themselves, and to see our civilization ripped asunder by those who refuse to take advantage of yet another of mankind’s advances, a new vaccine therapy, leaves many throughout the world wondering about the sanity of the inhabitants of the US. Count me in their number. I too question the sanity of those who insist upon taking horse de-wormer as a way of treating this disease that in their opinion is supposedly no worse than the flu.

In the end, we will either wear down this virus through mass exposure of the population, or through sufficient vaccination to cause it to seek new vulnerable hosts in vain. Letting the virus course through the population invites still more death and disability. It also enables new variants to develop and sooner or later, one will come about that laughs at our previous vaccines while ripping through the population at a pace that even the most fervent deniers will be unable to reject the evidence of their eyes. When human powered carts roll through our streets, with someone calling out to “Bring Out Your Dead”, then maybe those who have pooh-poohed this virus will finally admit we have something to be worried about. But by then, it may be too late for this civilization to fix the problem, and our descendants will find themselves living lives much like peasants in medieval times. Only with cell phones.

Corn? Corn Is Always Good!

Corn Ethanol Plant Craig MO

It is 2021, not 1973 with its Arab oil embargo and lines of cars dancing the slow samba towards the still-working pumps. Nowadays, no one can claim with a straight face of the necessity to grow corn to produce ethanol, thereby increasing domestic energy supply, and loosening the noose of foreign oil producers on the neck of the United States. Yet the mandate to use ethanol in gasoline has become a sacred shibboleth, and its importance gets reinforced each presidential election cycle, where Iowa is the first state to hold a presidential preference event Thus no serious candidate can propose elimination of the ethanol requirement in gasoline. Why? Because the corn industry, and its lobbyists, will whip up the furor of its Iowa farmers to decry any change in policy as being anti-American.

So we are shackled to a policy which doesn’t save energy, causes demand for corn to be well above the market for nutritional usage, increases soil erosion and loss of nutrients to our waterways, and tricks Americans into believing the mantra of energy self-sufficiency. What’s the upside? We no longer have to worry about gas line freeze-up in winter.

There were two chemicals proposed to increase the oxygen concentration in gasoline. One was ethanol, and one was methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). Increasing the oxygen concentration in gasoline reduces tailpipe emissions, while reducing engine knock. Thus MTBE was favored initially by gasoline refiners since it was simple to produce in scale, and was inexpensive. It does have one very bad characteristic, though. If it is released into groundwater, it migrates into the water, rather than stay with the organic phase. MTBE soon found its way into ground water, and into drinking water. It is a compound that can cause significant harm to humans over prolonged exposure, so MTBE was phased out of gasoline in the early 2000’s. Ethanol soon took over as the preferred oxygen additive to gasoline, and it had the unexpected benefit of raising the cost of corn for farmers in the Midwest who needed a price boost in order to stay solvent.

Once legislative mandates were in place requiring use of corn ethanol, the investment soon followed. When I graduated college in chemical engineering in Nebraska in the 1970’s, there was essentially zero chemical industry in the region. I had to move to where they made chemicals in order to get a job. Now, there are ethanol refineries dotting the farm landscape throughout the corn belt. You can see the steam plumes from miles away. Corn ethanol is favored legislatively. During the formative years of the corn ethanol industry, there was a $0.50 / gallon tax benefit given to gasoline refiners in order to use the mandated amounts of corn-derived ethanol. Thus US tax policy drove gasoline refiners to select corn-derived ethanol, imposing in essence a tax of 5 cents per gallon on the consumer to enable ethanol to thrive. In fact, the true price to the consumer is even higher, since the demand for corn for ethanol has put a floor on the overall corn price. If you look at food prices, much of that comes from corn, through its value in feeds for meats, or use as sweeteners. So by making the price of corn higher than it would be, the price of all derivatives of corn is higher as well.

One of the most pernicious effects of the legislative mandates for increased use of ethanol in gasoline is increasing corn acreage. Using USDA statistics, the 3-year average of corn acres in 2019-2021 was 91 million, while the 3-year average from 1997-1999 was 79 million. The key difference between the two periods was the increased demand for ethanol from corn. The 15% increase in acreage means that corn has increased its fertilizer demands, and it is no surprise that an ancillary effect of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico due to excess nutrients, that dead zone has also increased in size during the two-decade period in question. Not only that, when all inputs are factored in, ethanol from corn may barely create more energy than it takes to produce. If methanol were allowed as an oxygenate, it could be generated from natural gas and reduce the impact on the land.

So why do we have this policy which seems in opposition to many goals we aspire to as a country?  We say we want to reduce the impact of humanity on the environment, yet we persist with a counter-productive policy mandating the use of corn ethanol in our gasoline supply. Square that requirement for an absolute volume to be blended with the now stated policy of converting half of new vehicles to electric by 2030. Sooner or later, the demand for gasoline will fall to the point that you cannot blend the mandated quantity of ethanol and still stay at a 10% ethanol concentration. When we get to that point, it will be interesting to see how the politicians deal with the physical limitations of the gasoline market. Of course, we could always export more gasoline and fulfill the legislative requirement that way, but I don’t think that will be looked upon favorably.

It is time now to look at the mandated use of corn ethanol and begin to wean the farm sector away from the incremental corn demand brought about by this legislation. Phasing out the requirement over a 10-year period would reduce the effect on any individual farmer, and then only the companies who have invested in corn ethanol production facilities will end up on the short end of the stick.

Do I expect our politicians to have this degree of foresight and begin to reduce the mandated volume? Amazingly, there is a bill stirring in the Senate that would repeal the mandate to use corn ethanol to produce gasoline. Tellingly, none of the Senators mentioned in conjunction with the bill are from major corn-producing states. Given the entrenched opposition towards ending any government quota program, my expectation is that the bill will suffer an ignominious death. But maybe, just maybe, it may be revived in the future, and face a better fate. I’ll believe it has a chance when I see some courageous presidential candidate have the guts to tell Iowa voters that corn ethanol is bad for the climate, and economy, and must go.

Don’t Believe Your Lyin’ Eyes

We have seen the future, and it is not pleasant. We have devolved into warring classes where we ascribe horrible motives to anyone who dares think and speak differently than we do. The Republicans seem to take immense pleasure in diminishing the stature of anyone who uses expertise to advocate for a position. Thus we see the marginalization of public health experts and scientists who developed a new class of vaccines and advocated for their use. In Tennessee this led to the dismissal of a public health officer who dared to state the legal fact that some adolescents under the age of majority could take ownership of their own decisions concerning their body. Even when state law is settled and several decades old, this mere acknowledgement of facts brought a backlash Dr. Michelle Fiscus could not withstand, leading to her firing. Not only was she fired, but it resulted in the abandonment of campaigns for any vaccination of minors.

This rejection of science and expertise has ramifications far beyond a mere cancellation of a vaccination campaign in a single state. It is symptomatic for what has become the abandonment of the scientific principle by those populists across the globe who have gained ascendency over the past decade. A scorched earth policy has taken over the political mind. This is especially clear in Brasil, where the scorched earth is literally scorched earth, where virgin rain forest lies in a smoking ruin as the inevitable advance of soybean cultivation marches on.

We have built a civilization where scientific advances have made it possible to support an unimaginable increase in human population, and has allowed significant increases in lifespan. But the technological advances have left a significant proportion of the population behind, mired in an ever more futile attempt to stay economically solvent. No longer is it possible to depend upon the mill down the road, or the local assembly plant, to take up the slack of those who lack technological skills in the job market. Multi-national corporations have done two things. First, they arbitrage labor and regulatory requirements globally, moving their operations towards the lowest common denominators. Second, they use technology and their advantage in capital to blast away at local retail establishments. These mega retailers are more efficient, but by displacing an entire class of entrepreneurs they have removed the ability of local communities to sustain a middle class.

So you have huge swaths of the country with no economic raison d’etre, where generations have now grown up with the reality of needing to leave their place of birth in order to have any economic prospects. It is even worse in my state of West Virginia, since the local work force depended upon low-education coal mining as its economic engine. In the time since I’ve moved here in the mid-1980s, I’ve seen the decline in shipments of coal. Few coal barges ply the Kanawha River now, and the coal trains that were once ubiquitous, now are an exception along our rail lines. Still, the local politicians view coal’s demise as a temporary aberration, and see no need in investment in education as the way to bring the local economy into parity with the rest of the country.

  We’ve built a global economy where low price is the mantra driving decisions. We now depend upon systems that would have been viewed as impossibilities 50 years ago. But the maintenance of these systems is dependent upon accepting the science underlying their foundations. If we wish to bring back lower skill industrial work, then we must accept the reality that items manufactured here will cost more. We are seeing the stirrings of this reality as we climb out of the trough of the pandemic, since people are not willing to accept the starvation wages of the service industry. In order to hire people back, wages must increase, but no one wants to accept the higher prices this will cause.

So now the political lines are drawn. One side insists the evidence of your eyes not be believed, and you must transform the events of January 6 into a Spongebob dream world, where prancing unicorns spread candy rainbows across the sky. That side is aligned with those who reject the benefits of science, which has resulted in novel vaccine development in record time. According to this side, not only must you reject the evidence before your eyes, you must reject anything developed by scientists, who after all are only interested in making money, and are wishing to push experimental poisons into the muscles of the unwilling.

The other side is somewhat smugly relying upon their knowledge that they are in the right, and it will only take time before the veracity of their position is apparent to those who are opposing them. Unfortunately, when one side is able to direct the discussion, the triumph of reason and logic is not assured. Humanity reacts to visceral images, and those who proclaim the anecdotal exception as a reason for their rejection of science, are likely to prevail over reasoned appeals about statistics and peer review.

For the side of logic and reason to prevail, it is necessary to bring up the anecdotal evidence of those who failed to take the vaccines and now are regretting that decision as they realize it has cost them their life. Fighting emotional fire with fire is the only way to win in the arena of public opinion, and those who do not wish to get down in the mud to wrestle with the pigs, will see the opponents grabbing the rhetorical high ground.

We are on ecologically shaky ground. As a species, we’ve grown our numbers far beyond the carrying capacity of this planet. The tools of science and logic have enabled this to happen, but the results are complex systems with non-uniform sharing of the economic benefits. It seems the response from many is to tear down the entire edifice, but if we do, we’ll find out how fragile our world really is and how mean and nasty life will become when everything is transformed into a struggle against starvation and warfare. At least, we no longer will be concerned about the fate of the Kardashians.

A Letter To My Senator Joe Manchin

Dear Senator Manchin,

I am a resident of West Virginia and a subscriber to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Therefore, I had full access to your column of June 6 rather than having to settle for the abbreviated versions shown on TV. I appreciate your steadfastness towards your principles, but must disagree with you about the nature of those principles. You appear to believe that the stability of the democracy depends upon the continuation of the filibuster as a mechanism to foster bipartisanship. I believe you are mistaken as to the nature of the opposition, as it is now apparent that the party of Mitch McConnell disdains any attempt at bipartisanship. Just as the fanatics on the right have referred to Democrats as snowflakes, they in turn live in mortal fear at being called RINO’s. Ever since the members of the Freedom Caucus emerged from the primal swamp of the Tea Party movement, and burrowed into the halls of Congress, the rules of the game have changed.

No more is it possible for those of good will to seek out compromise with the opposing party. Being seen as being open to compromise is a sure way to gain an opponent on their right who will decry openness to compromise as socialism light. It is no longer possible to generate even a fraction of Republicans who are willing to extend their necks out in order to have them chopped off by those who still carry weapons for Donald Trump. Therefore, I believe your mission to save democracy by insisting upon the virginal purity of the filibuster to be misguided, and dangerous to the democracy you so rightly wish to defend.

This is the most dangerous time for the status quo to remain in place. With the decennial reapportionment staring at us, the result of redistricting in states with Republican majorities in their legislature will be gerrymandering on steroids. When you consider the results of the last election, where Republicans were able to convert a state where in 2012, Democratic candidates received 81,000 more votes than Republicans. Yet Republicans captured 9 of the 13 Congressional races in 2012 in North Carolina. This is the future you will unleash upon this nation due to your intransigence at both favoring the filibuster, and your opposition to the For the People act.

I believe you find more portions of the For the People act to be good than those that are prone to increase division. This is your opportunity to use the processes of the Senate to propose changes to the bill in order to gain support from the opposition, and become a bipartisan act. But it will only happen if you agree to some sort of proposal to enable the bill to be brought onto the floor of the Senate for discussion and amendment. Please go ahead and express your support for some mechanism to bring this bill up for debate. It does not have to be blanket abandonment of the filibuster, but whatever legislative sleight of hand allows this type of bill to avoid the strictures of being filibustered would be greatly appreciated by this constituent. We know what the Republicans will do if they attain the majority again. Handing them the keys to the car of state by allowing the For the People bill to die a lonely death will not end well. It truly is in your hands to keep democracy alive, but not by the means you believe to be necessary.

Remember Fram Oil Filters?

The bill for deferred action has come due. During the forty years since Reagan famously announced that government was the problem, we have adhered to a philosophy of minimalism in government as an ensurer of social well-being.  According to the adherents of this philosophy, the free market is capable of providing aid in a much superior fashion. Thus we have seen a world where we all raced to the bottom, requiring competition globally for manufacturing wages. People have blamed politicians for abandoning the manufacturing class, with its guarantee of decent wages, but it was the corporations who kept looking for cheaper and cheaper products that drove the conversion. Suddenly you look around and see the only jobs available for folks without specialized skills are in food services, and in big box retailers. Neither of these options provide wages capable of sustaining families in many areas of this country.

We have become addicted to the siren call of the cheap. We didn’t like paying for the higher prices at local stores, so we flocked to Walmart for everyday low prices. Then we got tired of Walmart’s high prices, so we flocked to Amazon for the ability to purchase things for $0.10 cheaper than at Walmart. Now we see a retail environment bereft of local involvement, save for the drivers of the UPS and FedEx trucks hauling purchases to their last mile destinations.

Likewise, we were convinced of the necessity of paying low taxes everywhere. Taxation is viewed as legalized thievery, because all those who had made it in the world were sure it was solely due to their merit they had accumulated so much. And who was it that said we needed to pay for schools? Bah, humbug, to quote Ebenezer Scrooge.

I’ve been railing against the true villains of the age. Four years ago I wrote posts excoriating both Grover Norquist and Arthur Laffer. Their vision of the US has come to flower and bloomed during the pandemic. Unfortunate, the bloom was that of the corpse flower, offending all who were unfortunate enough to inhale its pungent aroma. We now have seen the effect of requiring people to work regardless of their health status due to lack of paid medical leave. Many people became involuntary Typhoid Mary’s as they spread virus particles to co-workers and customers. Likewise, we saw the futility of trying to mandate remote learning among our children, when many were unable to access adequate broadband service, and often were forced to attempt this with inadequate hardware. The virus has damaged many more than those who caught the actual disease, by disrupting education. Meanwhile, we had the science denier-in-chief thinking that he alone could defeat this disease by the power of positive thinking, and thus kept providing contradictory information to the population of the US. You hear the echoes of his proclamations still ringing out among those who were indoctrinated by his media enablers. “This virus is nothing to fear, you can use anti-malarial drugs to fight it, we’re going to develop a new means of interior lighting to zap it inside of the body.” So many have swallowed the lies and denials that we now are in danger of continuing the duration of this disease because folks will not accept the one proven remedy of vaccination.

So now we have a President who is willing and eager to address the deferred bill for those parts of the economy neglected over the past 40 years. Unfortunately, the cost of deferred maintenance is much greater than if proper attention were paid over the generations. But that would have required us to forgo our tax cuts! Well, there was once a commercial for oil filters that brought out the point of “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” It is definitely later. The question I have is whether it is indeed too late to fix the problems. And again, will we try to get by on the cheap for fixes that don’t address the real problem, like we’ve tried for too many decades?

The Chickens Have Come Home To Roost

The true Laugher Curve

Pity the poor Republicans. For forty years, they have followed the mantras spouted by their soothsayers, Art Laffer and Grover Norquist. “Lower tax rates bring in more money. Prosperity will trickle down. I want a government so small I can drown it in the bathtub.” For forty years, we’ve been subjected to an experiment aimed at fulfillment of the Republican dream. Then, with the ascendance of a so-called “businessman” to the Presidency, they had their wish totally fulfilled. Tax rates for corporations were slashed, incremental personal tax rates were cut further, and the estate tax now only affects a truly small segment of the population. We should have seen wild growth in our economy! Everyone truly happy and sharing in the national prosperity.

Except. Except we were not sharing equally in the prosperity this nation generated. Many, many folks were caught in the grinding wheel of trying to survive inside of a high cost society. Some lived in fly-over land, where it took a little less to survive, but still, it was nearly impossible to survive on a single income earning anywhere near the minimum wage. If they fell behind, then there were the predatory lenders, the auto title lords, the pay-day lenders, who would take advantage of those who had the least and withdraw funds feeding those who already had made it.

Now the Republicans are facing an opponent that doesn’t buy into the Ayn Randian philosophy permeating the Republican party. And those same Republicans, forced to compete on the field of ideas and policy, are retreating to their well-worn phrases against socialism, and attempting to incite culture wars in order to keep their base energized and engaged. It seems as though the first cracks are appearing in the Republican monolith aimed at enshrining Trumpism into the political hall of fame. Erstwhile supporter of Donald Trump, Matt Gaetz, now finds himself at the focal point of the magnifying glass of the Federal investigating agencies, while the bright light of the press shining through that same magnifying glass has caused the first smoldering of combustion to appear.

There now is someone in charge who believes we’ve had a decades long dearth in the investment provided through the Federal government. The bill has come due in the amount of spending required to repair the neglected arteries of our commerce. Perhaps the global commerce cardiac infarction from the Suez Canal blockage will show folks what can happen if something we depend upon within the US is suddenly taken out of service. Were we to suddenly lose train routes from New Jersey to Manhattan, or lose I-95 due to a bridge failure, we would see how vulnerable we are to this type of incident.

But its more. We now have a society where access to the internet is taken for granted in most population centers. Unfortunately, it is not a given in much of the lower population density regions that extends across the nation. As someone who lives in one of these lower population states, non-existent or extremely poor internet service is the norm anywhere outside of what passes for a population center in the state. Private industry has not found it profitable to serve much of the area in the country, since there is so little population there to amortize their investment. One of the real reasons for population declines in my state is due to the inability to compete because of poor internet connectivity. This really was apparent during the pandemic, where there were attempts to conduct remote learning through the internet. Whole swaths of this state were unable to do this due to the lack of internet service. The internet has become a necessary utility, like electric, phone, and water. Now it appears we are addressing those regions where it is not available, and that is good.

So now we hear the wails from the Republicans about the extreme leftists who have taken over the opposition party. Nowhere do we hear about the extremism we’ve endured on behalf of the ideology of “I’ve got mine, now go screw yourself” party we’ve seen for over a generation. Like it or not, no one is a raging success on their own. If we’ve been successful, it’s because of education systems put in place a long time ago. When people began abandoning the public school system, mainly due to the integration of that public system, then their engagement with that system has atrophied. Many no longer believe they have a role to play in the success of the whole. Instead, they decry forced taxation as legalized theft. They don’t care if the poor can’t get ahead, they’ll just hole up in their gated community and enjoy the fruits of their supposed labor.

Well, better historians than me have traced the decline of societies to the times when a significant underclass no longer feels they are able to share in the wealth of the society. That’s when desperation leads to true socialistic movements that will overwhelm any gates the rich can put up to isolate themselves. We can begin to address the obscene inequities present in our current system, or we can pretend that we can escape the world’s ills by flying to Cancun while everyone at home freezes in the dark.

Fossil Fuels? What a Quaint Notion

Fossil fuels are responsible for the huge advances in living standards over the past several hundred years. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the economy has depended upon concentrated sources of energy which is converted into useful work. Coal was the first source of energy meeting this need. Once extracted, and moved to its point of use, a lump of coal when burned expanded man’s capabilities through the turning of turbines and through the production of steam, which could move large machinery.

Then we discovered liquid petroleum. That was an even better source, and quite literally, it seemed to jump out of the ground once we poked a straw into its hidey-hole. Now you could use liquid hydrocarbons to fuel the transportation revolution that unfolded in the 20th century. Humanity grew used to its availability and deemed it as a birthright to maintain access to inexpensive forms of liquid hydrocarbons.

But then the 1970’s happened, and the producers of liquid hydrocarbons realized they controlled the production of a substance the industrialized world was addicted to. Quite logically, they withheld their product, saw the reaction from the rest of the world as of an addict writhing in the agony of withdrawal, and then resumed selling, but at a higher price. Thus the US began a period where the foreign and military policy of this nation was directed to protect the producing nations and protecting the transportation lanes. The military cost for this was never factored into the price of oil, which stayed high but never reflected the full cost for the fuel.

Just when the US grew accustomed to the external costs associated with securing petroleum supplies, technology threw the US a lifeline. See, the true reserves of hydrocarbons greatly exceeded the stated volumes, but much of those extra reserves were locked up in sedimentary rock, instead of pooling in geologic formations. And those oil and gas bearing sedimentary rocks could be found in many areas of the country. Technology gave the tool to unlock these hydrocarbon reserves in the form of fracking.

So the great fracking revolution was unleashed. Since about 2007, fracking has resulted in significant increases in production. So much so, that for several years, we’ve been able to forego much of the imported petroleum we once depended upon. The new solution of fracking was going to replace our old sources of energy, and we could rely upon a new generation of American wildcatters going out and perpetuating the stereotype of macho men dealing with steel and oil.

There is just one problem with fracking, though. The input costs to get the energy out are a more significant portion of the energy produced when compared to standard oil wells. See, in energy production there is the little matter of energy return on investment (EROI). Similar to a financial ROI calculation, this ratio shows the energy return for any form of technology. And fracking has a lot of inputs that a standard drilling rig doesn’t have. The inputs for fracking are sand, water, and chemicals, and a large amount of excess water produced from fracking has to be disposed of. Anyone who has lived in or visited an area with active fracking can attest to the volume of trucks going to and fro dealing with the water from the wells. Plus, another secret with fracking is that the amount of oil and gas produced declines much faster with a fracked well as compared to a standard well. Declines of as much as 60% from year to year are noted in fracked wells, whereas a standard well may decline only at a 5% per year rate. Thus to maintain or improve production requires ever more drilling, and this vicious cycle perpetuates through the lifespan of the producing field.

The chart below shows expected EROI for various forms of energy. Note the steep drop off once you get below an EROI of about 10. In particular note the figure attributed to biofuels. Since corn-generated ethanol is the main source of biofuels, it is evident that it takes about as much energy to produce it as it releases. The original reason for the corn conversion to ethanol  was to reduce US dependence on foreign oil. But when all of the inputs are considered, it is obvious that ethanol from corn is strictly a political beast that has developed a constituency far beyond its original intent. That is a subject for a separate post.

Looking at this chart, one would think that fracked oil and gas offers a significant increase in the available hydrocarbon supply. It does, but not as much as standard reservoir wells. And the steep depletion rates for these wells masks another issue with fracking. The cost of hydrocarbons needed to produce a positive ROI is higher than the current price. In other words, fracking does not make economic sense while the cost of oil is near $50/barrel. At $80/barrel, you can show a positive cash flow, but not at the price we’ve seen for many years. So we now are in the situation where the technology we’ve used to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, is shown to be an endless dollar pit.

So now, as almost all problems go, this has become a political issue. One party in the US wants the fossil fuel party to continue, noting that our lifestyle is dependent upon an ever-increasing supply of hydrocarbons. And one side has looked into the future, seeing that the only way to keep the fossil fuel party going is to increase the cost of that fuel beyond the ability of the population to handle. So we should deliberately speed up conversion of the economy towards renewable sources of energy, in order to avoid falling off of the energy cliff.

You might bring in concerns about global warming into this discussion, but in my opinion, that is icing on the cake. It is a straight-forward economic calculation that will dictate our migration away from fossil fuels. By the way, one final thought on the EROI charts – if you are using a fossil fuel to convert it into electricity, you run into thermodynamic losses. Even in an extremely modern power plant, 40% of the fuel goes into waste heat, which greatly reduces the EROI of the fuel source. So wind and solar, even though they show up as lower on the chart than fracking, they have the advantage of having converted input energy directly to electricity, thus avoiding the thermodynamic losses.

We in the US are at the mercy of our political class understanding these issues and making decisions that are better in the long run. Given the track records of the parties, skepticism is warranted.

Visions for the Nation

I find it more than ironic that one party in the political spectrum has so closely aligned itself with a proven loser now holed up at a resort in South Florida, that it cannot shed its skin even when the loser has left office. We see the examples of state Republican parties castigating its members for inadequate fidelity to said loser, censuring the apostates in Arizona, in Oregon denouncing the betrayal of the 10 Republicans in the House who voted for impeachment, in Wyoming where rallies are planned decrying Liz Cheney’s act of independence, and supporting the QAnon-supporting elected member of Congress (Marjorie Taylor Greene) in Georgia. At the same time, they are vociferously calling for unity in their desire to not call the ex-President to account for his actions in inciting the crowd to storm the Capitol on January 6.

Though the party in control in Washington has changed, the tone of the discussion has not. Fox News and those on the extreme right of the political discussion now claim that any utterance from a Democrat is evil, socialistic, and reprehensible. Thus the sincere efforts to reach a bipartisan solution seem doomed before they start. If the proposal for additional relief due to the pandemic is shoehorned into a reconciliation bill, then maybe at least the Biden administration will be ahead of the Obama administration. It took a long time before Obama ever gave up on trying to include Republicans into signing on to legislation. Even 14 months after his inauguration, Obama tried to gather Republican support in favor of his Affordable Care Act legislation. If President Biden learns within the first month that it is not possible to seek agreement on a bipartisan basis, then he will be more than a year ahead of his predecessor in recognizing political reality, and dealing with the actual landscape instead of the idealized vista one could hope for.

In the long term, it is not Trump that is the problem. He is the nucleating center around which the precipitate of the party came crashing out of solution. But it is the toxic solution that is the problem, rather than the current center of attention. In the short term, even if Senator McConnell wants Trump neutralized, the belated second impeachment trial is unlikely to serve as an adequate repudiation. Maybe the two sides will at least agree to a censure, which will have as much impact as being repeatedly poked with soft cushions. But don’t look for any resolution to come from the trial in the Senate, because the upcoming failure to convict will only have the effect of validating Trump’s actions in the months after his defeat in the election.

The real question is how to detoxify the solution that resulted in Trump’s elevation to the Presidency. That solution has grown more concentrated as continued exposure to lies has convinced many more to identify with the conspiracies that drip with ease from the mouths of those whose only goal is to manipulate. I almost feel sorry for the followers of Q who had to face severe disappointment when the storm was not released on the day of Biden’s inauguration. To have such a strong belief ripped apart before their eyes as the A-list stars lent their voices to the inauguration, that dissolution of their belief system physically hurt many who had burrowed deeply down the Q rabbit hole. It is no wonder that there is a small remnant who have latched onto the Sovereign Citizen movement, and still expect Donald Trump to be inaugurated in early March as the successor of the true Republic of the United States. This is instead of the corporation we became as we signed our control over to the banks of London and the Rotschilds. (I’d better watch it or I’ll give myself a cheek hernia.)

In a way, it will be better if Donald Trump attempts the formation of a new MAGA party, aimed at perpetuating his hold on a segment of the population. We could become the new Argentina where we reminisce 60 years from now on how good things were under the Perons, and reach for each new generation’s version of a Peronist.  But realistically that would result in even more politicians like  Marjorie Greene being elected, thus legitimizing the totally ludicrous belief system she espouses.

No, right now it is instructive to see those elites in the political right stir up the emotions of their true believers. According to them, we are only weeks away from rounding up all dissenters on the right, forcibly removing their guns, and sending them off in boxcars to the nearest FEMA camp.

In this day of images substituting for content, one image stands out. On one side, the title says Young Democrat, and under it is an image of Amanda Gorman. On the other side, it says Young Republican, and beneath it is the image of Kyle Rittenhouse. Nowhere else can you find a more succinct description of the dichotomy we see here today. One side believes only in the power of their weaponry, and its ability to sow destruction, and the other side believes in the power of their words, and the ability of language to bring about unity around an ideal.

Slimey Bids Adieu?

The swamp around DC

Slimey turned towards me, eyes pleading. “What should I do?” he exclaimed.

Slimey, as you may know, is a 9′ tall reptile with typical claws and sharp teeth as you might expect from a creature of the swamp around DC. Yet somehow he is capable of blending in with others, and indeed, had served in lobbying firms dealing with this past administration, now in exile.

I let him in through my door and he ducked his head as he entered. “Slimey, I wasn’t expecting you. Last time I saw you, you were working for QAnon. What happened with that?”

Slimey carefully maneuvered his tail around so as to not knock over anything found on low surfaces in the room. “Q? The market for that kinda petered out after the election. I could see the writing on the wall. So I had a good offer, one that I really would like to accept. I’ve been offered a position with the Secret Service!”

“Why, that’s great,” I said. “I figure you would snap up an opportunity like that quickly” You know, it’s amazing how many times my words around Slimey focused on one of his overwhelming physical characteristics.

“It is great. It would involve working security for an ex-President. But it is contingent on something.”  Slimey swung his ponderous head from side to side, seemingly indicating his conflict concerning this offer.

“What’s the contingency?” I asked.

Slimey set his bulk down upon a sofa before replying. “It’s contingent upon my being willing to relocate to the town of Ossining, NY. And it is contingent upon the New York court system acting first so that there will be someone to guard there.”

Slowly I realized the central part of Slimey’s dilemma. “You’ve been offered the job to guard President Trump in Sing-Sing.”

Slimey looked up at me. I could see a tear forming in one of his eyes. I thought about crocodile tears, but quickly put that thought away before it escaped my mouth. “Yeah, that’s it. I could be one of the guards who would keep him safe while he’s in prison. You just don’t know what that would be like. I’d have to be kept there myself in order to prevent someone from taking him out.”

I thought for a minute, then I said “I’ll bet there’s some times when you wished you never left the swamp.”

“You don’t know the half of it. The problem is I’ve gotten addicted to having this stuff called money around. I can exchange it for things I never knew existed when I was down there. But the more I keep trying to get it, the worse it is for me. I mean, I have my standards. I just don’t know if trying to keep the ex-President from being shived is worth it. I mean, if the word got out, nobody respectable will want to talk to me.”

Part of learning how to relate to all kinds was knowing when it was best to just listen, and not offer any guidance. So I sat down myself, and just made a little noise of affirmation.

Slimey thought for a long moment, which seemed like a really long time when you are dealing with something as large as he is. You hope that the reptile portion of his brain wouldn’t grow active and take over, and slash out with his deadly claws and massive tail. Even if I didn’t lie in a pool of blood with my entrails scattered, he could make a real mess of the upholstery if he tried.

Finally, he stirred, and gathered his limbs to stand. “I know what I have to do. I have to go back to the swamp. I just can’t deal with this human world any more.”

I realized that our time together was near an end. Not just this meeting, but probably any meeting in the future. Once Slimey had re-acclimated himself into the murky waters, I couldn’t see any chance of him re-emerging and trying another round at taking part in human society. And I certainly had learned my lesson, and would steer clear of the Tidal Basin so as to avoid any accidental contact. I counted myself fortunate that I had managed my relationship with Slimey and still had all of my organs intact.

Slimey went towards the door. “Friend, I don’t know if I’ll see you again. Thanks for listening to me and helping me decide what to do.”

I held the door open as he once again ducked his head on the way out. I said to him “I’ll miss you.” And then he was gone.