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  • Or we can embrace provincialism again…

    Posted by ken on April 26th, 2005 (All posts by )

    My preferred solution to Peak Oil is to embrace other known, proven high-energy technologies and keep our sputtering drive to the stars from stalling out completely.

    Others advocate a different approach.

    Apparently for some, an energy shortage is the perfect opportunity to force us to embrace the lifestyle they’ve been preaching all along, which can be summed up as “get those damned serfs back on the manor where they belong!”

    You think I exaggerate? Let’s go down his list:

    1. Convert to organic agriculture and grow as much of our food locally as possible.”

    Yeah, screw specialization of labor – local economies are much better off growing their own food. And making their own clothes. And their own computers. (Well, maybe those can be brought in on horseback for the two or three families in town that can afford it). We’ll get our “food security” by not being able to ship food in from anywhere if our particular town’s crops fail. And once our organic agriculture returns fertility to soil that’s been producing less and less abundant crops after decades of industrial chemical agriculture…. well, actually, they’ve been producing more abundant crops as the soil was supposedly destroyed, but it’s industrial (i.e, it doesn’t require enough people to spend 12-14 hours a day doing backbreaking “honest work”), so it’s bad.

    2. Relocalize daily living, work and commerce

    As he puts it “Do people still believe that the destruction brought to our communities courtesy of globalization is a plus?”

    Well, I’d say that the people that got the Hell out of those communities as fast as they could when travel became cheap enough would consider it a plus. If you can’t leave, and your whole world shrinks to your little “community”, you spend your life at the mercy of the local bigwigs, your parents, your in-laws, and everyone else with the power to ruin your life (a surprisingly large number in these “local communities”), and “conform or else!” is typically the order of the day. Just imagine you had to spend the rest of your life in middle school, and that should give you a pretty good picture of what he’s advocating. All the worst stereotypes of ’50s (and earlier) life, and all the worst stereotypes of so-called “Red America”, come from people that grew up in these places, endured years of abuse at the hands of the people that they were tied to by the “bonds of neighborhood” and the “local economy”, and consoled themselves by counting down the days until they were legally free to enjoy the sight of that community in their rearview mirror for the last time.

    Conservatives are sometimes accused of hating those misfits, and wanting to bring back the days when they were forced to conform or else. Bringing back “local economies” as the dominant form of economic life is the best way I can think of to actually accomplish this – if George Bush were every bit as diabolical as he’s accused of being, he couldn’t come close to the level of totalitarian micromanagement of every aspect of your life that the local bigwigs can do if you can’t leave and every last job you can get to can be closed to you with one well-placed rumor.

    3. Vastly expand public transportation.

    Because you’ll go somewhere when we’re damned good and ready to bring you. And you’ll go where we tell you you can go.

    And while we’re imagining that bright new world of his:

    “(Imagine high-speed trains between all major cities and compare that to a trip on an airplane.) ”

    Well, first imagine that you need to be at the train station two hours before your train actually leaves to get through security. Then imagine the FAA regulating every last detail of your trip down to how many bags you can carry. Then it’ll come closer to being a good comparison.

    And of course, he’s once again extolling the benefits of forcing people together for their own good. Gee, where have we heard that before?

    4. Convert to non-polluting, renewable energy sources.

    You mean breeder reactors? Of course not, don’t be silly!

    “Even if we weren’t facing hydrocarbon energy shortages, the dangers of global warming are so great that moving to renewable energy sources is crucial.”

    Yes, we’re facing a critical hazard of crop yields being too high and winters being too mild. Obviously no price is too high to prevent that horror from coming to pass.

    5. Seek to stabilize and then gradually reduce world population.

    As he puts it “Some economists fear that we aren’t having enough children in Western industrialized countries. This is because they believe that older people will simply not contribute enough to our economy as they age. That has proven to be a groundless belief. Many older people go on to second careers when they retire or work part time”.

    Of course, they can do this because their jobs don’t involve manual labor, which in turn is because we’re not all doing local, sustainable, organic farming without that nasty “industrial” or “chemical” substitute for 12-14 hours a day of “honest work” that old people tend not to be able to do.

    6. Vastly increase the efficiency of industry.

    Industry’s already vastly efficient, in terms of human effort per unit produced. But, since labor is (or damn well should be!) cheap, who cares?

    7. Lead fully engaged lives every day.

    “We should attempt to enjoy what we have now as much as possible while working in the present for a better future.”

    Yeah, that’s a good idea. Of course, what “working in the present for a better future” means depends on what you mean by a “better future”. If, like me, you think a “better future” involves greater wealth, safety, and happiness for even the least among us, then most of that work will involve deregulating the hell out of everything and letting people profit from exploiting anything that will produce lots of energy to keep civilization going and advancing. If, on the other hand, you think that kids leaving the farm for jobs that don’t involve 12-14 hour days of strenuous manual labor, and giving the finger to the local powers that be and the local yokels that think misfits were created to be abused and assaulted at will, and enjoying the lifestyle that should be reserved for their betters is the point at which our civilization started to go wrong, then I guess you’ll tie every nuclear plant in as much red tape as you can and cheer for the oil crunch.

    But, if you successfully head off a nuclear powered future and bring us “back to the land”, I wouldn’t recommend gloating where the serfs can hear you, at least if you like your head attached to your shoulders. It doesn’t take an industrial civilization to build guillotines, or to decorate lamp-posts…

     

    27 Responses to “Or we can embrace provincialism again…”

    1. Steve Says:

      Ken, you set up a false dichotomy in your post. It isn’t a choice between continuing our splurging, or face the regression into feudal provincial-ism (dash required to foil spam-filter).

      I preface my comment with this: the government should stay the heck out of our private consumerist choices.

      But, if smart energy consumers seek to maximize their energy dollars, and the health of their families, they will voluntarily conform to a more localized, community-based existence model, while using the new technologies that allow “virtual travel” to remain cosmopolitan and in touch.

      I recall your post on air-cars and my thoughts on the matter. I believe a little less migrancy might be good for our communities, families, churches and eventually our nation’s well-being. The thuggery of child-abductions, the ills of inner-city murders, the threat of nomadic terrorists infiltrating our home-towns, all would decrease if communities were strengthened and families stayed together. If we really knew eachother, much of these crimes would virtually disappear.

      The internet now allows people to “meet” without the need to burn thousands of gallons of jet-fuel, tons of rubber from tires, and the asbestos in our vehicles’ brake pads. It allows the development of a stay-at-home society, and I think the gains to the integrity of our society will out-weigh the loss of industry and commerce that our mass-choices may effect. After all, capital will follow the desires of the masses, and it will invite the innovations that enable this new conservative development.

      Will I stand in your way to make your energy choices for yourself? Never, and how could I? But I will take the steps in my private life to maximize my energy usage, and to harvest the free solar and wind power that surrounds me to live cleaner and softer on our Earth.
      -Steve

    2. David Foster Says:

      Steve…could you comment on Ken’s thoughts re: the relationship between “localization” and conformity?

    3. David Foster Says:

      See the paragraph by Fareed Zakaria here:
      http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110006605

    4. Mitch Says:

      I was struck by the persistence of the old “zero population growth” nonsense, even in the face of population declines in the West and slowing birthrates in places like India and China. Population will peak in less than 50 years, then decline. Completely opposite problems, yet this guy proposes exactly the same solution. Maybe he just doesn’t like humans.

      Most of what he proposes – local work and living, organic farming, non-polluting energy sources, even reduced population – were characteristic of the Dark Ages (plagues, famines, and barbarian hordes do wonders for population control).

      I especially liked the comment about conservatives and libertarians making their living disseminating propaganda for right-wing think tanks. I think my check is late.

      Luckily, most of the world looks to escape the splendid squalor this superior beings want to impose on us. Places like Guatemala and Bangladesh are very close to the ecological paradise described above, but the blessed inmates keep trying to escape to our blighted industrial wasteland. We have all we can do to keep them out.

      Somebody should have smothered Rousseau in his cradle.

    5. pst314 Says:

      “And their own computers. (Well, maybe those can be brought in on horseback for the two or three families in town that can afford it).”

      When computers are scarce only those who really need them will have them. And guess what, these eco-lefties imagine themselves as the new ruling elite. (How do you say ‘dacha’ in Berkeleyese?)

    6. LotharBot Says:

      “Peak Oil” has slowly replaced “overpopulation” as the war cry of the pseudointellectuals. They almost always suggest the same solutions — reduce birth rates and reduce general consumption of stuff (in this case, by making everything more “local”, they hope to reduce the consumption of travel-related stuff.)

      A big part of the problem is that people don’t understand the existance of an energy market. They just assume that when oil production begins to drop, we must consume less energy. But in reality, we only have to consume less OIL — energy consumption can stay fairly similar as long as the market creates alternative sources. I guarantee, the oil companies will be right there with new technologies as soon as they’re profitable, and energy consumption won’t drop much at all.

      I philosophically like the idea of getting to know those in your community better, but the idea that you should grow all of your food locally is a bad one.

    7. Steve Says:

      David, William Voegeli quotes Fareed Zakaria in FDR’s Card Trick here on Opinion Journal, “…Whenever someone says the word community, I want to reach for an oxygen mask.”

      15 paragraphs earlier he invoked William F. Buckley. ‘Forty-five years ago William F. Buckley noted liberalism’s penchant for turning “the skies black with criss-crossing dollars.”‘ I replace the word “dollars” with “energy,” to make this point: when discussing our nation’s energy crisis, even conservatives begin to sound like social-ists. National Health Plan, National Energy Plan – see the similarity?

      Re: Localization and conformity. With the invention of the automobile and the construction of the Interstate Freeway system, we saw an increased mobility of our citizens. We also experienced the de-localization of our newly mobile citizens from the towns of their birth and the extended families that nurtured them. This vagrancy magnified the dynamism of our society and economy, and generally the results of this fragmentation were positive.

      But it carried costs with it. I blame this vagrancy for the breakdown of the family, the national drug epidemic, the frivolity with which many modern adults treat parenting, even the pervasive disrespect of church and other community supports that ultimately lead citizens to look up to a paternal government for the replacement of these supports.

      But our nation is undergoing constant evolution, and I liken the receding, pollution-intensive “Industrial Age” to a man’s pimply adolescence. Looking forward, as our society matures through the “Information Age” I expect that our citizens will choose self-sufficiency and personal ownership over giant government-mediated energy grids.

      When the government fully deregulates energy generation finally allowing the market to relay the real costs of this resource to the consumers of it, the laws of thermodynamics and markets will drive our voluntary conformity to a less energy-hungry model. This model will necessarily require less travel and fewer fossil fuels, the increased use of local sources like the wind and solar in our own backyards, and gratefully fewer bureaucrats. Furthermore, the liberalized energy markets will spur unimaginable innovations in personalized fuel-cell, solar, wind, and even nuclear power plants to power up your mom’s sewing machine, and my daughter’s computer.

      So, like Ken, I see an energy revolution on the horizon but I envision a more localized, efficient, and personalized outcome. Let’s call it more democratic. This is not a luddite regression to feudalism, it is an empowering of the individual with personalized technologies, and the subordination of government intervention to private markets.
      -Steve

    8. Ginny Says:

      Steve,
      Don’t you think part of the impetus was the war – it picked up people from all over America, mixed them up, sent some to Europe and some to the Pacific. Then they came back to a world more industrialized, more urban. And they wanted the old order and peace but were also not so happy with the narrow choices of the towns in which they had grown up. My parents were both in the service and saw much (and heard a lot more); they always seemed pulled both by their desire to explore the world as they had during their war years and to remain in a town where everyone not only knew you but your parents and grandparents (and even the generatons before that.)

      “Lead fully engaged lives” they command. You can’t become engaged with the dead–unless you, too, are deadened.

      Convert to organic agriculture and you’ll need to saw down the rainforests and overfarm the dustbowls. Great idea. Borlaug feeds the world and what do these guys do?

      By the way, via Instapundit, the Democrat’s 9 point plan. The vision is not unrelated – nor dissimilar in its essential pessimism. (At least they’ve fixed the glitch where they misspelled Democrat.) Do these inspire us? (Thanks to Just a Minute.)

      Is it surprising that couples with small children voted 2 to 1 for Bush? He may not be perfect, but he isn’t trying to sell us old ideas and nihilism. Ken’s list includes #5 and the first on the Democratic list is increased funding for family planning (“to reduce unplanned pregnancies and abortons”). More money for headstart but no sense of how to encourage science and math education. Taking oil out of the strategic oil preserves for lower gas costs today.

      Nor is the approach to 9/11 very heartening to parents of small children. As Paine said, there is no more unfatherly statement than he who holds the hand of his young son and cheerfully says, “Well, at least there will be peace in my time.”

      And meanwhile the greatest incentive for the sense of community Steve likes and the open marketplace Ken wants is “ownership” – of house, of actual assets. Do either of these groups value that? Do either see private retirement accounts in terms of such ownership, such empowerment. I think not.

    9. John F Says:

      The Middle Ages might be an interesting place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

    10. David Foster Says:

      Steve…true, increased mobility has brought stresses and costs. But what are the stresses and costs of “localized” society? In a society in which people rarely move more than (say) 100 miles from their birthplace, social conformity is likely to be rather stifling. The values may differ from community to community, but the pressure to conform will be a constant.

    11. Steve Says:

      Ginny, good point on the Second World War. Certainly it played a huge part. It had to be fought, and its repercussions are still extant in our society. It was mass mobilization on a global scale. I would say it accelerated delocalization, if my bias didn’t prefer the word exacerbated.

      I reread Kurt Cobb’s piece this morning and what I found most annoying was his use of the royal “We” – “We should do this, we should do that.” None of his prescriptions are particularly offensive to me, as long they are voluntary social developments, and not compulsory Big Gub’ment, top-down, social-engineering programs.

      But your link to the Dem’s “9-Point Plan” shows that the Pelosi/Dean Dem’s have the social-ist plan I fear. Looks like I’ll be voting Republican again next election!
      -Steve

    12. LotharBot Says:

      Some of Steve’s points and Ginny’s response, regarding the breakdown of traditional institutions, tie in nicely to a just-started discussion on individualism vs. collectivism over on the Descent BB.

      I’d be inclined to say much of the breakdown was caused by this culture’s move toward a particular form of individualism that centers on the idea that “I don’t need anybody”. Things like increased mobility and returning from the war just served as amplifiers of that trend.

    13. Mark Says:

      In a lot of these peak oil discussions, I don’t think the people are arguing to do away with mobility and force people into localization. They really think that we’re moving into a time of economic and social turbulence that will threaten the foundations of society as we know it. The thought about growing food locally is based on the assumption that we won’t be able to afford to transport central american fruits and vegetables to our local markets. If that were true, then it would make sense to grow locally, to support truck farm style farming in reach of populated areas. The thought on localising community is based on the assumption that we won’t be able to afford to go jetting around. If oil does reach $100 a barrel in the next three years, then how much will plane tickets cost–or how much will we pay in corporate welfare to keep a few of them around?

      It’s not just the nuts who are wondering about peak oil. We’re talking about organizations like the IMF and IEA who are speculating we may be running into supply/demand problems.

    14. Mark Says:

      John F

      Couldn’t agree more; I’m not sure I’d want to go back to the 1930’s.

      Have you seen– Visiteurs, Les (1993) Tagline: When an 11th century knight and his loyal servant try to go back in time, only one thing will stand in their way. The 20th century.

      This movie makes some funny observations about life in olden times. Very funny.

    15. LotharBot Says:

      “It’s not just the nuts who are wondering about peak oil.”

      Of course not. A lot of people wonder and a lot of people speculate. But it’s the nuts who ignore the rest of the energy market (including altenative fuels like hydrogen, and alternative energy generation like nuclear) and make suggestions like the ones that started this thread.

      Oil companies might be evil, but they’re not stupid. I guarantee, when alternative energy sources are needed, they’ll have something ready to go to market. They know there’s great profit to be had when the oil supply can no longer keep up.

      Energy costs might rise quite a bit, but not to the level certain people worry about.

    16. Ken Says:

      “In a lot of these peak oil discussions, I don’t think the people are arguing to do away with mobility and force people into localization.”

      They are if they recoil in horror at the thought of letting investors go on a nuke plant building spree. Continuing our insane hyperregulation of nuke plants, knowing that oil supplies are dwindling, pretty much amounts to deliberately doing away with mobility and forcing people into localization.

      I say light regulation of nuclear power, and the proliferation of thousands of plants is a hell of a lot less dangerous than letting energy prices return to 19th century levels.

      “They really think that we’re moving into a time of economic and social turbulence that will threaten the foundations of society as we know it. The thought about growing food locally is based on the assumption that we won’t be able to afford to transport central american fruits and vegetables to our local markets. If that were true, then it would make sense to grow locally, to support truck farm style farming in reach of populated areas. The thought on localising community is based on the assumption that we won’t be able to afford to go jetting around. If oil does reach $100 a barrel in the next three years, then how much will plane tickets cost–or how much will we pay in corporate welfare to keep a few of them around? ”

      If there weren’t any alternatives, then we’d have to live with that. But what bugs me are the people that think the energy crunch will be good for us – that greater wealth, greater choice, and greater mobility for individuals are horribly wrong, that supplying people energy to continue enjoying wealth, choice, and mobility is wrong, and that the human animal’s rightful place is in these “tight-knit” communities where their choices and their wealth are severely limited “for their own good”. People that think that the energy crunch is a much needed “bitch slap” to get people to see reason and give up their evil ways.

      Like this guy who says

      “Americans will travel compulsively even in a darkening economy. They may not go to Europe right now, with coffee at five bucks a cup there, but they will keep driving around the US because the suburban wastelands where most Americans live are so unendurably depressing that their denizens will pay almost any price for gas to get away for a while — if only to hyper-artificial destinations like Las Vegas and Disney World.”

      This theme runs all through his writing, and the writing of many others writing about Peak Oil – the environment that millions of Americans eagerly flock to is “tawdry”, “depressing”, and so forth and their denizens, by virtue of the fact that they choose to live there, are beneath contempt and deserve everything that’s coming to them. Or they’re misguided children duped by sinister forces in the government bent on letting people buy oil without the interference of the local dictators (this is known, for God knows what reason, as “stealing” the oil). Or spoiled children unwilling to listen to the wise elders telling them to eat their locally-grown vegetables and stop demanding their toys.

    17. Jonathan Says:

      Control freaks and economic ignoramuses.

      Julius Nyerere, call your office.

    18. Sandy P Says:

      –They really think that we’re moving into a time of economic and social turbulence that will threaten the foundations of society as we know it.–

      They certainly caused a lot of it in the 60s and had no problem w/it.

      What’s that you say??? Their foundations of society are threatened and they want to protect their turf?????

    19. incognito Says:

      Thanks for the link Ken, I had a good laugh. Nice to see how leftists make a living: hold a seminar and charge other leftists $39 to hear you ramble on about how the sky is falling, and how communism will save the day.

    20. Shannon Love Says:

      This type of thinking is driven by the intense emotional need of people who produce nothing material to try to create a society in which they are the highest status individuals. Like communism, it is basically just a convoluted argument that leads to world where intellectuals i.e. people whose only skills lay in rhetoric and expression, run everything.

      Up until the the 1960’s the Left based its moral and intellectual case on its supposed ability to deliver the material benefits of industrial civilization more efficiently and more equitably than capitalism. Intellectuals argued that they could manage the economy better than capitalist. That proved not to be the case and by the late sixties that was readily apparent to everyone.

      Unable to dominate and control industrial civilization they then decided to spurn it. If they could not get credit for delivering the material goods then they would try to convince everyone that they didn’t want or need the goods in the first place. Since the the 1960’s the Left has turned increasingly technophobic and hostile to post-enlightenment Western culture in general.

      Its basically a variant of, “I’ll just take my toys and go home” applied writ large.

    21. Steve Says:

      Ken, any site that attracts commentators who believe that “Canada is a full-fledged Capitalist country,” is good for comic relief only.

      Like the website you linked, the forefront of our nation’s energy debate is populated by social-ist thinkers who are trapped in a hyper-regulatory thought-model. I think it is the reflex of America’s energy consumers, so conditioned to flick a swith and – voila, there it is, to simply want it to be plentiful and cheap – even while they do not have a clue where their energy comes from, nor what it takes to distribute it to their hairdryers and microwaves. The outgrowth of this consumerist market-ignorance is the multitudes of “consumer advocates” and “PIRG’s” who advocate for ever more of the government’s pricing regulation and intervention in its markets. It resembles a heroin addiction; If there ever was a vicious cycle, this is it.

      One of FDR’s Card Tricks (Hattip: David Foster) was the creation of the 1933 Tennessee Valley Authority. This grand government project became the blue print for the 1935 Central Valley Project which created the energy and water grid necessary for California’s post-war boom. These are “tricks” because the costs of these projects are borne by citizens who don’t live in the newly electrified communities. The final bill to our nation’s treasury is difficult to tally, and probably never correctly balanced against the measurable gains that our whole nation experiences. Also, these sorts of government-mediated projects spawn millions of hungry constituents for even more “big-government” largesse.

      Ultimately, we need an “addict-intervention” here, a cycle-breaker. That is why I am such a huge advocate for the personalized energy-generation solution and liberal capitalist markets.
      -Steve

    22. Anonymous Says:

      Re: localized farming and energy consumption. A preposterous proposition. Population has grown enormously since the days of truck farms supporting local urban areas. There isn’t enough farmland, especially if one wants “organic” farming, to grow sufficient foods. And as for the “energy savings”, where do they suppose the energy to heat and light the vast “local” greenhouses is going to come from. Besides, the PETA types and healthfood fascists will never tolerate the increased use production of sausage and other cured meats to get folks through the non-growing seasons while the ol’ victory gardens are non-productive and the high-energy consumption greenhouses are pumping out seasonally adjusted (HIGHER!) food prices.

      Granted I have no data, but I’d bet the farm that its cheaper and more energy efficient to grow the food where it makes sense to grow the food and then transport it to where the consumers are than it would be to save the transport costs and bend mother nature to our local farms will.

      Won’t these busybodies ever shut up and return to their own knitting?

    23. Mark Says:

      Sandy P–What’s that you say??? Their foundations of society are threatened and they want to protect their turf?????

      They’re under the impression that everyone’s foundations are threatened. From their perspective we all have a stake in oil-whether it’s plastics, personal transportation, or transportation of food and other merchandise. It may be Y2K all over again, but a lot of them are scared–I know I’m concerned. That makes me a consiracy theorist of sorts.

      I once read a funny article where they described a man going to work, but as he walked out to his car everything that relied on oil disappeared–fortunately his t-shirt was cotton.

    24. Sandy P Says:

      It’s not about oil. And the 900K y.o. ice core sample the Italians (?) just extracted will prove it. Oil’s the mechanism.

    25. David Foster Says:

      1)I would be astounded of a proper analysis of the TVA did not show a great return on investment. Hydroelectric power, flood control, barge transportation…all kinds of benefits.

      2)Re the discussions about localized growing of food: remember that freight transportation by sea, river, and rail is pretty efficient. Even in the 19th century, when steam engine efficiency was nothing to write home about, these trade were conducted at high volumes.

      I bet the cost per ton/mile of freight transportation in 1890 (in real $, of course) was significantly higher than it is today or even than it would be with $100/bbl oil…

    26. Steve Says:

      David: “I would be astounded if a proper analysis of the TVA did not show a great return on investment. Hydroelectric power, flood control, barge transportation…all kinds of benefits.”

      The problem with socialized projects like this is we can’t ever know. It would require a month of research and an enormous bandwidth to attempt a thorough audit of this program, so the secret is safe for now. But one measure of the viability of any public enterprise is a current analysis of its debt, its ongoing demands for federal subsidies, and the cries from taxpayers and lawmakers for its reform.

      I lead with this question. What can the Ford Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, prominent reform-minded senators like Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), taxpayer advocates and environmental groups all agree on? All agree that giant public utilities like the TVA are insatiable consumers of federal government subsidies, while the “preferred” status they enjoy as public entities perverts the regional markets for their products while perpetuating their operating inefficiencies.

      Let’s start by looking at the federal government’s DOE summary for subsidies and shortfalls estimated (accurate numbers are not available) for the TVA from 1990 to 1999 – coinciding with the end of the Clinton Administration. The summary offers a mixed picture of an improving ratio of subsidy to revenues (ie. shortfalls), but one, too, of a public utility hungry for taxpayer supports and out of sync with private energy markets. After testifying, “TVA supports still high…” this document goes on to offer wide ranges of shortfalls of a subsecting 8-year period under its headline, “Trends in Supports to Electricity, 1990 and 1998”. [Ed. note: Notice in the quote below that the accepted estimate margins that this government account permits exceed $1B.]

      “In 1990 (Table 26), it is estimated that the shortfall in recovering historical costs ranged from $2.2 billion (1999 dollars) in the low estimate to $3.3 billion (1999 dollars) in the high estimate. (147) In 1998 (Table 21), that shortfall had been reduced, ranging from $655 million (1999 dollars) in the low estimate to $1.6 billion in the high estimate. TVA’s recent introduction of higher electricity rates has been important in reducing the overall level of this support. (148)”

      If the TVA and its sister public utilities are such a good continuing investment why is there such a wide spectrum of advocates demanding their reform? The calls for reform rise from both progressive and conservative organizations, as well as the grassroots and the Washington beltway. Here is a line-up with some quotes.

      The Ford Foundation, a consistent voice for conservation and energy efficiency, offers this analysis in relation to the TVA’s ongoing federal subsidization, in the subarticle, 7.3 Publicly Owned Utilities.

      “…publicly owned utilities [like the TVA] are in fact operated somewhat less efficiently than private utilities…the allowance of federal tax advantages for publicly owned electric companies is an unwise energy policy. It is a straight-out subsidy that should, assuming equally efficient plants, generate real income advantages to people who live in privately owned power areas. In addition, the passing on of tax advantages in the form of lower prices, which seems to be a typical pattern, means that the consumption of electricity—using up fuel—and the generation of electricity-related pollution are all increased.”

      The voice of the Heritage Foundation is usually diametrically opposed to the Ford Foundation on economic issues. But here they coincide. The title of this linked article, written by F.R. Duplantier, humorously sums up this Conservative think tank’s view: “Run for Your Lives, It’s Gridzilla!” Quoting Adam Thierer, fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Duplantier writes,

      “These subsidies, and other forms of preferential treatment accorded to TVA, must be eliminated if the deregulated electricity market is to become truly competitive.” And, ” With privatization, hundreds of millions of Americans who receive no benefits from the TVA no longer would be forced to subsidize this inefficient organization.”

      Political calls for reform of these unwieldy entities comes from both sides of the aisle in our nation’s legislature, reflecting a similar convergence of advocacy across the political spectrum. From our House of Representatives comes this press release, Reps. Franks, Meehan Introduce Bill to Reform Federal Utilities. In it Representatives Bob Franks (R-NJ) and Marty Meehan (D-MA) layout the bipartisan rationale for their 1999 reform bill.

      “As lawmakers bring competition to the utility industry, we must ensure that government subsidies to PMAs and TVA do not distort a fair open marketplace,” stated Rep. Franks…Taxpayers in northeastern and midwestern states, who pay some of America’s highest electricity rates, unwittingly subsidize power bills in other areas of the country including the Tennessee Valley.  Yet at the same time, TVA uses those very subsidies and the promise of cheap electricity to lure away businesses and jobs from those same taxpayers.”

      One year earlier, exhibiting his usual clairvoyance and tendency to lead legislative curves (he predicted rightly the pratfalls of McCain-Feingold), Senator Mitch McConnell introduced his own TVA Reform Bill in the U.S. Senate. Outlined in this Heritage Foundation article, The McConnell TVA Reform Bill: A First Step in the Right Direction by Adam D. Thierer (May 13, 1998), the bill uses the massive debt of the TVA and its non-stop hunger for federal tax revenues to support his six-part plan for reining in its appetite, while stopping short of advocating its full privatization. Thierer writes, “…the TVA has amassed roughly $28 billion in debt from problems with gross mismanagement and a lack of accountability to private shareholders or to regulatory officials.” McConnell’s bill attempts to clip the TVA’s excesses by proposing 6-reforms that make the TVA more accountable to the taxpayers and government regulators, and less intrusive in the private energy markets. These proposals are quoted verbatim below:

      1. Reclassifying the TVA as a “public utility” that is fully subject to the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)

      2. Requiring the TVA to disclose and justify all rates, charges, and costs

      3. Terminating TVA’s antitrust exemption

      4. Prohibiting customer subsidization of TVA overseas activities

      5. Specifying that proceeds generated from the sale of TVA assets or resources be used to reduce TVA’s massive debt

      6. Prohibiting the TVA from competing against other private-sector industries

      Of course, it is the citizens that ultimately drive our nation’s government, and without their taxes financing public action, this discussion would be moot. A sample of the sentiment of this “marrow” of our national collectivism revealed that its support for reform of our subsidized utilities is loud and clear. Writing in May of 1995, just as Newt Gingrich and his Republican majority were hitting the pavement with their “Contract with America,” David G. Tuerck at the Beacon Hill Institute at Sufffolk University wrote this from his point of view as a Massachussetts taxpayer:

      “…we won’t much miss the agricultural price supports or the TVA subsidies. Indeed, the proposed cuts in both will benefit New England. Food prices will fall and [so will] the ability of states served by TVA to lure away New England manufacturers with lower utility rates.”

      A last taxpayer sentiment is found in the advocacy newsletter called the Waste Basket. Its October 1989 bulletin headline quips, Omnibus or Ominous? Congress Fails Taxpayers. Its reason for feeling letdown? TVA Subsidies: “The bill provides $1 billion to refinance TVA’s federal financing bank loan. It also provides $50 million for TVA’s non-power programs, circumventing the work of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee.”

      The environmental lobby chimes in for reform where another public utility looms large, in California’s Central Valley. Only two years younger than the TVA, but equally dependant on federal subsidies, the Central Valley Project (CVP) entity has garnered the intense scrutiny of environmental groups of late. Worried about the inefficient use of the water that the state redirects each year from natural watersheds, many have been auditing our federal subsidization of California’s agriculturalists by tallying the unpaid liabilities of the contractors and other beneficiaries of this federal largesse, with eye-opening results.

      First, let’s peek into the lack of integrity in the enforcement of the liabilities of contractors who use this public resource as it shines a light on one of the grinding inefficiencies that plagues “preferred” entities, and has raised the ire of independent auditors: the use of the courts to re-negotiate the terms of longstanding contracts. This article dated March ’05 from the Media Center summarizes one recent court-mediated liability adjustment: “CVP Municipal and Industrial contractors’ repayment obligations will be reduced by a total of $96 million.” [Ed. note: What’s a million here, or a million there, between friends?]

      The histories of unmet contractual obligations and budget shortfalls in government-subsidized entities are similar for public water utilities, like the CVA, and public energy utilities, like the TVA. So both are pertinent to this discussion. It is hard to calculate the inefficiencies in the CVA because, even if the operating costs are posted online, they are not fully known. This table, A-13 posted for one California water project, the San Luis Reservoir (source: Monterey Peninsula Water Management District), provides a look at maintenance and water conveyance costs, and reveals the gaps in the ultimate tally. It shows that total capital costs in 1998 dollars were $190 million while excluding mitigation measures. And O & M costs were approximately $1.6–3.5 million/yr (a $1.9M margin), while excluding storage, Cal-Am (ie. water-treatment costs) and mitigation costs because these storage and Cal-am O & M costs are “unknown.” [Ed. note: Imagine running a business without knowing your O&M costs!]

      Here is where the work of environmentalist auditors comes in. This report by the Environmental Working Group captures in tables and graphs the subsidized inefficiencies of the CVP, and details how far removed the pricing of its commodity, irrigation water, is from its actual market price. A graph near the bottom of the page illustrates that the CVP is selling this precious resource at a tenth of its market price. The report says:

      “This massive project carried an equally massive price tag: The CVP cost the federal government $3.6 billion to construct. Part of the original deal was that farmers would pay back over $1 billion of this cost within 50 years of project completion. [1] But in 2002 — more than 60 years since the water began flowing — irrigators had only paid back 11 percent of the tab…Irrigators are not only failing to pay back what they owe, they are also receiving an additional subsidy: No interest.”

      Fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and seven after our nation rejected Nationalized Medicine (Hillary-Care) we still have one social-ist monkey on our back. It is our New Deal-inspired, subsidized Public Utility network. As we work to balance our budget with one hand, while fighting the essential War on Terror with the other, let’s keep both eyes on the revenue savings that the reform of these outdated beneficiaries of government largesse offers. It is no secret that our nation needs to execute new ways to deliver energy in all its forms to our citizens, and the enlightened politik that elevates the efficiency of market forces over the sluggishness of government-mediation demands this reform.

      -Steve

    27. Mark Says:

      I stand corrected on this. There is an activist and violent(?) luddite/anarchist(?) strand of peak oil thinkers advocating the destruction of technological society:

      “Keep the Lights Out”
      Even if we don’t actively trigger the downfall of industrial civilization, we should be ready to make sure it doesn’t get up again where we are. We should know how to destroy or disable roads, railways, electrical grid components, factories and machines, and be ready to to so. As I write in various ways, “Once the lights go out, it is our job to make sure that they never come back on again.” Basically, when industrial civilization falters — and we know it will — we must strike to cripple and disable it wherever we can, at our local levels, so that it will be finished for good.
      http://inthewake.org/stratprem.html

      This is mixed in with various practical things about growing and preserving vegetables, and recycling grey waste-water. Go figure.