Saturday, April 26, 2008

Anyone but Obama

I've always thought that you can tell the quality of an American politician by their attitude to trade. In the States it is so easy, but so unimpressive, for a politician of any ideological stripe to make a populist appeal to protectionist instincts. American protectionism can cause so much harm to both their own prosperity and the world economy but it offers easy wins for a politician willing to pander to the protectionists.

Lawson's excellent article in the Independent yesterday sets out just how dismal Obama has been on this issue:

"Obama is one of three Congressional sponsors of "The Patriot Employer Act", which seeks to give preferential tax status to American companies that choose not to invest overseas. His anti-globalisation rhetoric goes far beyond criticism of free-trade deals such as Nafta. Obama told voters in New Hampshire:"I would stop the import of all toys from China". China supplies 80 per cent of the toys sold in the US, so that's one heck of a pile of embargoed fluffy bunnies."

The risks of the current down turn being turned into something far worse by a return to protectionism couldn't be clearer. A trade war with China could cause untold impoverishment and even be strategically dangerous. His hostility to Nafta would undermine the international drive for new free trade agreements that would do great things for poor and rich countries alike.

Any politician who argues for and sponsors this kind of protectionism is either a dishonest hack or an autarkic socialist. Hopefully Obama is the former - it seems quite plausible - but that would still make President Obama an alarming prospect. As Lawson says:

"The trouble is that Barack Obama has now promised Americans that he will legislate in an attempt to prevent their jobs being lost to foreign competition. If he does not do so as President, they will feel betrayed. If he does so, it will be an even bigger betrayal."

This is an area where McCain has been excellent and taken real political risks. Notably, when he refused to pander to the Iowa corn lobby. I think on those grounds alone we, in the British centre right, should wish him well. Particularly if he is against an opponent who, on this issue and others, promotes truly disastrous policies.

Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The unthinking environmentalist embrace of wind power

It won't come as much of a surprise that I think Tim is right on the money in his treatment of 'unthinking environmentalism'. Most 'green' policies are so poorly constructed they achieve very little at prohibitive cost. Plenty have been actively counterproductive.

Tim is right to give the DDT ban and biofuels subsidies centre stage. The human toll in the developing world is shocking. However, we don't need to look to the poor world to see how dangerous misconceived environmental policies can be.

The Renewables Obligation, CERT and the European Emissions Trading Scheme all increase the cost of energy. They are quietly constituting 8% of a household electricity bill, according to Ofgem (PDF). This hits the poor hardest (Chart 6.1, PDF) and, particularly, the elderly.

In the winter of 2006-07 statistics from the Office for National Statistics (XLS) show that there were 23,900 excess winter deaths in the United Kingdom. Anything that makes it more expensive to turn up the thermostat will increase the number of elderly people who take risks and will kill people.

The Renewables Obligation costs taxpayers and costs lives. The big winners are renewables firms. The Financial Times reported some of the figures earlier this year along with this telling quote:

"Peter Atherton, head utilities analyst at Citi Investment Research, said: “It’s a bonanza. Anyone who can get their nose in the trough is trying to."

What do we get in return for lining the pockets of renewables firms with vast amounts of money taken from the poorest taxpayers?

Even if you judge success by the amount of wind capacity the Renewables Obligation is clearly failing. The amount of wind capacity added in 2007 was about three quarters the amount built in 2006 (see the FT report linked above). That is shocking considering the massive scale of the subsidy. The basic problem is that wind power is doubly inefficient. It is financially and environmentally (in the old fashioned sense of the word) costly. It disrupts a great many landscapes for a given amount of output compared to conventional sources which makes getting planning permission for wind turbines particularly difficult. Short of centralising the planning process there isn't much the Government can do about that and it is stalling the development of UK wind power capacity.

Even if it could be made to work wind power is a deperately poor way of providing for our energy needs. Look at this graph (PDF), by the consultancy PB Power, showing the costs of different types of energy. Even compared to nuclear power (which probably needs something of a subsidy to be economical) onshore wind is twice as expensive and offshore wind is even more costly:


That makes wind a complete non-starter in any thinking energy policy that doesn't aim to massively impoverish the population at large. However, it gets worse, from a BBC report:

"We face many hours a year with more or less no wind," says Martin Fuchs, chief executive of one of Germany's biggest electricity grid operators, E.On Netz. "We can save only a very small number of conventional power stations."

Surges of wind-generated electricity risk overloading the grid, he adds, causing power blackouts."

European wind power turbines typically produce less than 20 per cent of their rated capacity.

It's important to note that too much power is sometimes as much of a problem as not enough. That's the problem with breathless articles like this one from the Telegraph celebrating wind power's 'good' days. Big countries that can't just sell the energy off at a loss like Denmark does risk causing blackouts. The 'rebuttal' from a wind power lobbyist in the next paragraph is very weak. Ordinary power plants don't regularly shut down unless we tell them to.

Serious thinking about energy policy leads you very quickly to one of two conclusions:

1) We aren't in a position to effect a practical transition to non-fossil fuel sources of power right now. Given that Britain produces a tiny proportion of world emissions and China, in particular, shows little willingness to impede its development in the name of restraining emissions our cuts won't achieve much anyway. We should work on adapting to the expected effects of global warming and investing in science to find a better to solution to the problem of providing low carbon dioxide emission power than the ones we have now.

2) We should replace the renewables obligation with an old fashioned non-fossil fuel obligation. This will slash the costs as you can then include nuclear power which is, as can be seen above, pretty cheap compared with the renewable technologies. You could get more low-emission power for much less cost to ordinary consumers and taxpayers.

Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ben Hur

Along with Gracchi and a few others I was at the Festival Hall last Saturday to see Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ - the 1925 silent, pre-Heston version - with the London Philharmonic Orchestra providing the score.

The experience was incredible. The live music sucks you into the emotions of the story in a way that a soundtrack will always struggle to. Just like with Metropolis I found the lack of dialogue

very easy to cope with. In some ways it is liberating and allows you to enjoy the visual and musical feast that the film and orchestra provide.

In scale this film is hard to parallel. Gracchi suggests that the cast may number in the tens of thousands and you can well believe it. Even Hero doesn't have the same mass of humanity in crowded scenes and this is long before computer animation provided a substitute for such large numbers of extras. When you see this number of people moving about you realise how far computer graphics still have to come. CG just isn't as credible as actual people even at a distance - I think it is the reduction in variety associated with a CG crowd that does it. Despite being over eighty years old this film felt incredibly tangible compared to many modern, rendered works.

I actually think that the film conveyed its message more effectively, and with less compromise, than Gracchi suggests. He argues that because Marcellus, Ben Hur's nemesis, is killed and his family are cured of leprosy the film has not been able to entirely reconcile itself to the Christian moral message that "forbearance [...] a confidence in eternal justice, [...] meekness, kindness, forgiveness no matter the slight and turning the other cheek" are the right path instead of "the pagan virtues of revenge and anger". I think Gracchi misses the film's message in that synthesis.

While Ben Hur does achieve his revenge over Marcellus it does nothing for him. He is instantly dissatisfied and complaining that his revenge has not brought his family back. Instead, his family are brought back thanks to their "confidence in eternal justice". This is the same way the same message is put across in the Lord of the Rings - not by having someone foresake violence but by showing a character who succeeds in the pagan fashion and finds the victory pyrrhic. I see no reason why this approach compromises the message at all.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Great Article on Colombia in the Washington Post

"There are two important countries at the north of South America. One, Colombia, has a democratic government that, with strong support from the Clinton and Bush administrations, has bravely sought to defeat brutal militias of the left and right and to safeguard human rights. The other, Venezuela, has a repressive government that has undermined media freedoms, forcibly nationalized industries, rallied opposition to the United States and, recent evidence suggests, supported terrorist groups inside Colombia. That U.S. unions, human rights groups and now Democrats would focus their criticism and advocacy on the former, to the benefit of the latter, shows how far they have departed from their own declared principles."

Just like Israel it looks like Colombia is being singled out not because it is particularly in the wrong but because the cause of human rights is being perverted as a means to attack those perceived as on the wrong political 'side'.