Monday, July 28, 2008


SHAGH stands for "She/He's Already Got Hers/His," and I plan to use it to refer to those people who are full of wonderful advice for the rest of us, the people who claim that there is an inevitable cost from globalization/climate change/Islamic terrorism/etc., and we will just have to suck it up and pay that price. SHAGHs, of course, are already protected from those ill effects, but they have no qualms about pontificating to the rest of us. They range from people profiting off the change ("yes, I made a big bonus last year from moving jobs overseas, but the American people are just going to have to cope with globalization") to those who are sincerely committed to understanding the effects ("from up here in my ivory tower, protected by tenure, I really hope that the terrorists don't win"). What they have in common, right or wrong, is that they are insulated from the costs and changes and, thus, tend to minimize them.

Al Gore is one of our leading SHAGHs. He has, admirably, taken on the issue of global climate change, and is obviously passionate and committed to bringing about awareness as to what we might need to do to save our planet. And that is commendable, no doubt; he could be coasting on his reputation and making big-money speeches and writing big-advance books and pushing his wife to become president, only occasionally lending his name to "Good Causes."

Realistically, he's been helped by the nature of his loss in 2000, and the utter incompetence of the man who beat him. I doubt that Walter Mondale would have had quite the cachet had he adopted the abolition of gun violence as his personal cause. Al Gore became the symbol of everyone who's ever lost out on a promotion or got cut from the football team, his previous woodenness turned into an admirable, stiff-upper-lip resilience.

But, oh, has he been well-compensated. It's easy to be cynical about this, to question the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize for a PowerPoint presentation, to look at his venture-capital position and his many awards and wonder if we aren't all getting carried away with someone who seems to be doing quite well by doing good. But I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt here; I don't want to question his motivations, but simply to take a look at the things he's saying and pushing us toward.

We start with his announcement of July 17 that, "Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years." There's a lot in his announcement, a lot of ideas that are incontrovertibly true and deserve wider exposure. Others are extremely arguable, and demonstrate that Gore has not fully thought through the implications of his challenge: as I have asked about other ideas, "What's the mechanism?" He blows by a whole lot of issues that will prove to be real stumbling blocks, I wager.

Gore has a naive belief in the ability of inventors and entrepreneurs to make major changes happen on the timescale he predicts, with the predictable awe of market incentives to effect this alteration to America's whole way of life. It's hard to ridicule George W. Bush for his gut feeling about Putin when Al Gore tours a small-scale windmill factory, looks the engineers and executives in the eyes, and comes away with the same feeling about their ability to make his grand vision happen. Of course, he's not totally hypnotized by the market; we'll still have to "[help] our struggling auto giants switch to the manufacture of plug-in electric cars." What about the magical cost effectiveness, Al?

More from Gore:
When we send money to foreign countries to buy nearly 70 percent of the oil we use every day, they build new skyscrapers and we lose jobs. When we spend that money building solar arrays and windmills, we build competitive industries and gain jobs here at home.
The first sentence is dramatic and unarguable. The second, unfortunately, does not inevitably follow from the first. In the magical world of Gore, 2018 will not only see the end of carbon-emitting sources of energy, but a nirvana in which every energy dollar will flow around the United States. If Mr. Gore is as smart as billed, he must see the emptiness of that dream. Does anyone really believe that, once full-scale production is cranked up, the arrays and windmills will be built in this country? All the financial pressures that currently exist to move manufacturing to other countries will still be there (perhaps they'll even be worse as we all pay the price for this precipitous move), so the Shanghai skyscrapers may well proceed apace.

A side note, more relevant perhaps to my education discussion. The jobs that Gore envisions, presumably windmill erectors and solar panel installers, would not normally be seen as college-education necessary. Does this mean we don't need to universalize a college diploma?

Gore does recognize that defenders of the status quo will oppose his plan, but is dismissive of them, basically stating that things have to change, so they will, no matter what some would want. The risks are so great that we'll have to move to something new, and it's so obvious to him, Al Gore, that change will blow away any opponents. This is, once again, not a call to realistic action, but a wish that we could all live in Fantasyland.

This magic extends to the role of the citizen:
To those who say the challenge is not politically viable: I suggest they go before the American people and try to defend the status quo. Then bear witness to the people's appetite for change.
Frankly, the American people are pretty comfortable as they are. They haven't felt so much pain, yet, that they are going to agitate for change, especially when they realize what the costs really are - and Gore is not realistic about those costs at all. In his appearance on Meet the Press on July 20, Gore's only answer to Tom Brokaw's questions about cost is, what will the costs be if we don't make these changes? That's not an answer.

Because there are real costs, and I will mention a very few here. My vision of what Gore wants is for, say, August 1, 2018, National Gore Day, to be the day we make the cutover. It will be just like next year's coerced move to digital television, except that there will be no $40 conversion box we can put on our dashboards to convert our cars to hydrogen.

Let's say you need a new car in 2013. The magical engineers have not solved every problem of large-scale manufacture of magic non-carbon autos; even if they have, we haven't rolled out the distribution network that will support whatever technology is chosen (do we really believe that, in today's climate, every employer is going to put recharging stations at every parking lot space?). It is impossible to believe that you will be able to avoid a carbon-based car in 2013 (don't forget, in Gore World, hybrids are just as evil as Hummers). So you're supposed to buy a car that will be worthless in just five years! (And I wouldn't want to be CarMax, stuck with thousands of pieces of useless metal.)

But Gore has a way to address that:
America's transition to renewable energy sources must also include adequate provisions to assist those Americans who would unfairly face hardship. For example, we must recognize those who have toiled in dangerous conditions to bring us our present energy supply. We should guarantee good jobs in the fresh air and sunshine for any coal miner displaced by impacts on the coal industry. Every single one of them.
This is charming political rhetoric, but does it include a buy-back program for every usable vehicle that is still on the road on National Gore Day? How do we pay for that?

Oh, yes, through Gore's proposal to tax carbon. The government program needed to figure out who has been hurt by his plan, and by how much, and to tax someone for carbon, and to give those taxes to the hurt people, well, the scope of this redistribution and the accounting for it is boggling.

To anyone who has even a rudimentary notion of economics, something else will be obvious. As we phase out fossil fuels, our demand dropping to 0, their price will come down. They will become more attractive to developing nations, so there will be at least as much damage done to the world's environment. Not to worry, Gore has the solution:
In order to foster international cooperation, it is also essential that the United States rejoin the global community and lead efforts to secure an international treaty at Copenhagen in December of next year that includes a cap on CO2 emissions and a global partnership that recognizes the necessity of addressing the threats of extreme poverty and disease as part of the world's agenda for solving the climate crisis.
This is a pipe dream, with Gore grasping at straws by tossing the curtailment of poverty and disease into the mix. It sounds very much as if we're going to bribe provide incentives for other countries to follow our lead in celebrating World Gore Day - who will pay for that?

To clinch the deal, Gore pulls out the space race as the clear parallel to his proposal. If we could get to the moon in 8 years and 2 months, we can do anything.

But the parallel is not even close. The nation, rocked by Sputnik, was scared and ready to stand behind anything that would prove that we had reasserted our dominance. For a lot of reasons, we were far more financially secure in those times. And, most importantly, there was little downside (at least publicly). For President Kennedy's challenge to truly be similar, he would have had to say that we would get to the moon in 10 years, but we'd have to stop all commercial air travel to get that done. And that wouldn't have flown.

Most curious is that Gore seems to have lost all taste for working within the political process to get any of this done. Given his personal history, this may be understandable, but it's hard to see how that's possible. Instead, there is hand-waving about the average citizen making it happen.

How? By voting only for Gore-approved candidates? That's absolutely not going to occur, for a host of reasons.

The only way for Gore, or anyone, to achieve these lofty goals, is to lay out a comprehensive strategy that makes the costs abundantly clear, one in which the primary people to benefit are not foreign energy companies or Chinese engineers, one which has some sense as to how the American people can be brought on board. As it is, Gore's call to action is a string of very nice sentiments without any real hope of implementation.

I fear that Gore has read a little too much of his own press, that he believes his moral force will sweep away all problems. I can understand this; even on Meet the Press, the next segment began with Brokaw saying: "No one is better informed on this issue of energy conservation and global climate change than [Gore] is, no one is more passionate about it." That's embarrassing, and Brokaw shouldn't have said it (please tell me that the scientists and engineers working on this have a higher level of understanding than a politician), but it doesn't take much of this rhetoric before the subject begins to feel it's true. And that would seriously get in the way of the very real contributions Al Gore can make to this issue - but he's going to have to get his head out of the clouds and put his feet firmly on the floor.

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