Thursday, August 7, 2008

T. Boone's air

Kevin Drum wrote a post yesterday in which he cast some doubt on the altruism of T. Boone Pickens, oil man turned statesman (if you believe his ads). It's pretty interesting to read the extent to which Pickens is going to promote new energy technology, even more to see the complicated ways he intends to profit from it.

Kevin followed it up with a later post in which he quotes a "regular correspondent" to the effect that we need to accept that "tycoons [and] large companies" are going to drive the "alternative energy revolution," and that we'll have to accept the necessary "scandal, absurdity, and gross enrichment" if we're to get this done. Kevin's not so sure about that, but does give some credit to Pickens for "getting the ball rolling."

I won't even question, this time, whether it is wise, as a matter of public policy, to turn something so vital over to the tycoons; the reader can determine what the motives of a Pickens are (let me just point out that the motives may not include the provision of cheap energy to every single person in this country, even if such a thing is possible, not if the maximal profit comes at a different point on the curve).

I would rather look at what Kevin's correspondent regards as the tradeoff, the benefits that will be enjoyed by this country if we let the free market guys extract their gains from the process: "The tradeoff is more jobs, a young and growing domestic alternative energy market that competes with oil, keeps prices reasonable, and begins to swing the pendulum of greenhouse gas production in the other direction." (The following sentence, pledging that "we will always evaluate whether and to what extent these goals are being achieved," doesn't make a lot if sense, at least to me.)

I think the enumeration of benefits sounds really good, and one would hope that the results are along those lines. But we need to remember that it is not the goal of the tycoons to keep prices reasonable, as I alluded to above, and the whole pendulum thing seems to run afoul of the law of unintended consequences and unclear science (is corn-based ethanol better for the environment, or worse - seems the jury is still out on that question).

The most peculiar notion of the benefits of the Pickens/tycoon/large companies view of the world is that it will create more jobs. This is the canard that every presidential candidate has trotted out (at least I think McCain has, too - with him, it's hard to tell from one day to the next). It is simply not necessarily true.

The jobs question is not, will there be jobs created that we don't have now? Of course - there will be all kinds of job titles (such as Windmill Dead Bird Disposal Technician) that don't currently exist.

No, the question is, what will be the effect on net jobs? (Replacing a gasoline truck driver with a liquid hydrogen truck driver does not create a new job.) I can't answer that question definitively, but neither can anyone else right now.

And some of the rhetoric is ludicrous. The idea that manufacturing will be ramped up in order to create windmills, and wind turbines, and all the other artifacts of the new energy revolution, is flawed. The same business pressures that have moved 90% of the toy market to China will do the same for all our new energy items.

For regular readers, you will probably note that I am repeating myself, that I mentioned this topic as part of my Al Gore post a little over a week ago, or in a post of about a month ago questioning the belief in magic that so many attach to this subject, or, perhaps most eloquently, in a post from May that casts doubt on whether the beneficial effects are likely to be realized in this country.

But I don't see anyone else (not that I have the time to look really hard) questioning this line of reasoning, that a new economy will emerge from new energy. And I consider this a very dangerous assumption, especially when people in Washington are setting policy based on this. There is a very real chance that the people of the United States are going to go through very real pain in making this transition, at the end of which will stand the T. Boone Pickens' of the world, profiting from that pain. Preventing this should be a major goal of the process, but carrying wrong-headed thinking into that process is not going to help, not at all.

No comments:

Clicky Web Analytics