Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sarah's Speech, and the Little-Noticed Problem

Even her detractors acknowledge that Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin gave a helluva speech at the Republican National Convention. I found much to like about it, too, even apart from her refreshing manner of delivery and clever jibes.

But there was one thing that bothered me, and that thing quite a lot. She said,
Starting in January, in a McCain-Palin administration, we're going to lay more pipelines... build more nuclear plants... create jobs with clean coal... and move forward on solar, wind, geothermal and other alternative sources.
She talks as if the natural resources in America – oil, coal, natural gas, and so on — belong to the American people as a whole. They don't. She talks as if the Federal Government is going to do something to get them out of the ground and to market. They won't. They can't.

Resources, when they are of any value to anyone and not just stuff lying in the Earth, are owned by someone or no one. If that someone isn't a private owner or lessee, they do no one any good whatever. The U.S. government agencies have no business structure for extracting oil. They don't operate wells; they don't build or own pipelines. (The Trans-Alaska pipeline, for example, is owned and operated by a consortium of BP, Phillips, Exxon-Mobil, and others.)

Regrettably, the view that the government is somehow central to the creation of wealth is horribly muddled at best, when it isn't downright vicious.

The Feds have only one useful role here: the protection of property rights, and they don't do that one very well. Witness, for example, how ready and willing they are to hobble the energy production industry even further on behalf of an unproven hypothesis, AGW, that is even now crumbling under the onslaught of new evidence.

'Americans' don't own the oil off the coast of Louisiana. Right now, it belongs to no one, made off-limits by Federal regulations. That is one of the reasons that hybrid government businesses of foreign countries are going after it. They are not bound by U.S. law and couldn't care less what Washington wants. So long as they remain outside of U.S. territorial waters — which modern oil drilling technology allows them to do and still get the oil — they don't have to care.

The same could be said about the extraction of coal, creation of nuclear power plants, manufacturing and erection of solar panel or windmill farms, or any other method of large-scale energy production. The Federal Government cannot produce any of these, nor sell the products. They are not in the energy production industry.

The belief that the government is a steward for property owned collectively by 'the people' is even worse from legal and philosophical perspectives.

The best it can do is establish a more rational legal environment that defines and protects the rights and responsibilities of those who can. But that, so far as I can tell, is not being talked about on either of the two popular sides of the debate.

I don't think it's a mere misuse of language, either.

Both sides have come to believe in the fascist view that the public owns the resources, which the government (as its representative) allows private businesses to develop 'for the people'. Letting businesses carve off some profit is merely a way to incentivize them to do so, not something that is theirs by right for having done it.

Nancy Pelosi explicitly said recently,
"If [Republicans] want to drill offshore, we'll say, 'OK,' " said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. "You want to drill in the outer continental shelf? Let's have a discussion and a change of the relationship between our oil, which is owned by the American people, the desire of Big Oil for us to subsidize their drilling, and us not to - the American people not getting the benefit of the profits."
Apart from the absurd way she puts it (Republicans aren't going to be drilling anything), there is again that view — here stated openly — that the oil "is owned by the American people."

That view is as dangerous as it is false... a discussion I take up tomorrow.


VH said...

Great post...right on the money. Also, when Palin or McCain speaks of "energy independence," I doubt that they understand that it will never be economically feasible or even practical.

Jeff Perren said...

"Energy independence" may be unnecessary, but I don't see why it's impossible.

The U.S. has enough coal, oil, and (although the fuel has to be imported) the ability to construct as many nuclear power plants as one would want.

What's lacking, obviously, is the political courage to free up these sources.

Explain to me why you think it is not feasible, please.

VH said...

Hey Jeff,
Environmentalists and their liberal enablers in congress (or in the White House?) would obstruct any and all attempts to move forward on energy--the U.S. achieving energy independence with just this obstacle would take a very long time.

Regarding crude oil, from an economic standpoint, if private oil companies can acquire petroleum cheaper from outside the U.S., then they should. “Energy independence” implies banning all oil imports from outside of the country. Not all of the places we get our oil are hostile to us: Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and the United Kingdom, for example.

If New England states want to buy their electricity from an energy supplier from Quebec because the service provided is less expensive—then so be it.

During the 1979 oil shock Great Britain was energy independent yet oil prices rose in Great Britain just as much as it did around the world. Crude oil is traded on world markets, a shortage in one spot will make prices climb even with energy independence.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think that oil companies should be allowed to drill everywhere feasible. Nuclear plants should be built immediately and they should be plentiful. Encouraging energy development will make energy cheaper and plentiful. I just think that when candidates promise us energy independence, they are making gross statements that appeal to emotions.

Jeff Perren said...

You make some excellent points.

I agree that under the scenario you paint, energy independence isn't feasible. And, it is often touted in a jingoistic, "America, Right or Wrong" manner.

I agree that energy customers should be left free to get it from whomever they wish, with just this caveat.

Though we get very little oil from Iran, when we're at war with a State like them, I think there is a place for the Feds to step in and forbid trade, as part of their valid role in national self-defense.

There are practical problems with implementing that sometimes, true. But I think the principle is sound. That scenario aside, I agree with you.

And, you're right, the price might even rise.

That's one reason I've said several places that it isn't all about the price of gas. It's about freedom. Even if the price were to rise (which it would only do in the short run), I would advocate the oil producers and refiners be left free to function, that freedom of production and trade is paramount.

P. J. Grath said...

ygirlHave you read the Constitution of the State of Alaska? I have not but understand from Ms. Palin's remarks that it differs from that of other states, in that resources there are recognized as belonging to the people of the state as a whole. Who owns land, who owns resources--these are questions of custom, and the answers have altered over the course of history, from one part of the world to another. The position you are taking is ideological rather than historical.

Jeff Perren said...

M. Garth,

Thanks for posting; interesting comments.

No, I haven't read the Alaska constitution. That could be worthwhile. But I doubt it would change my views.

Your criticism "ideological rather than historical" could be taken one of two ways, both related.

On the one hand, it might mean that I'm being philosophically 'rigid', which is a metaphor for being consistent, not pragmatic. If so, you are right. I do not advocate a pragmatic approach to issues, but one that applies philosophical ideas that are part of a comprehensive system in order to guide choices. That is called being principled.

A more generous interpretation would be that you are suggesting I'm ignoring relevant facts in applying principles. If so, what do you think they are? Are they likely to be found in the Alaskan constitution?

I grant you I'm not an expert on the history of property use in Alaska (or anywhere else). But I believe a few things -- based on facts about human nature and reality in general, as validated by long experience, both personal and historical:

1. Private property is an inalienable individual right. Two or more private citizens can, properly, own property jointly. "The people as a whole" can not. 'Ownership' entails the right of use and disposal. A collective can not exercise that right.

Further, I do not believe that "who owns land" is a "question of custom." That would be ethical subjectivism and/or cultural relativism, two false doctrines I disadvocate. (Is that a word? If not, it should be.)

That a group of people in a certain place and era have a custom says nothing about whether or not that custom is right or wrong. I doubt you would want to apply that principle to Ancient Egypt where the custom was to enslave people to work on the pyramids, nor to Inquisition-era Spain where religious dogma was enforced by the rack, etc.

To argue that "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" opens the door to a great many evils.

2. As a practical matter, when property is in the hands of private individuals -- whether a single person or a large company or consortium -- those resources are generally better used.

In any case, and more immediately, the overwhelming majority of Alaskans favor drilling for oil in ANWR and elsewhere. Even on your own grounds, the Feds should butt out.

P. J. Grath said...

I understand the concept of a principle, thank you, and your philosophical stance is very clear. It is one I found compelling 40 years ago. I now believe that principles are important only because people are more important. This is a general point, not directed at issues of land ownership or drilling in Alaska or anything else. Your idea of principles is absolutist. You are afraid that if we don't have absolute principles, then anything goes. I believe, on the other hand, that there is a lot of territory between those two extremes, that real life is lived out on the slippery slope, and that a pragmatic approach can bring people together, while ideology and absolutism are guaranteed to keep them apart.

Jeff Perren said...

Ms. Grath,

First, apologies for misspelling your name.

I'm sympathetic to some of what you say. I agree that life is often complex. It is for that reason, I think, that we need clear principles all the more, as a guide. But I avoid the term 'absolutist' since it carries connotations of dogma.

I don't see it as a choice between two extremes as much as the suggestion of a false alternative - either we must be pragmatic or we will fall into dogmatism, with the consequence that we can find common ground only with those who share the dogma. On the contrary, having well-founded and reasonable principles - based on fact, but allowing for the difficulty of applying them in hard cases - helps bring us together, because we can bring reason and evidence to bear to persuade rather than cudgel one another.

Besides, anyone with such a cool dog as Sarah must be can't be all bad. :)

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

P. J. Grath said...

Sarah my dog (lately I've been calling her Sarah Lawrence, just to be clear about who she is NOT) is definitely a peacemaker. She brings together people from all parties, persuasions and walks of life. Stop by and meet us in person when you visit northern Michigan. I'm sure we will have a lot to talk about.