Okay, One More Time From the Top

If we have a lot of crude oil supply, why are gasoline prices so high at the pump? In an article titled ‘Abundant crude supply doesn’t push gas prices down,’ the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Nalder goes from Alaska to Oklahoma to walk us through the tortured logic of the wonder that still exists in response to this elementary question.

Crude oil price fluctuations have little effect on short term gasoline prices. Know what has much greater effect? As an economy, America will buy a lot of gas, regardless of price. Our society is structured to virtually guarantee it. Economists call it inelastic demand.

For most normal goods and services, as prices rise, the amount of the good or service will fall. We tend to buy less of relatively expensive stuff. Gasoline, on the other hand, behaves more like goods people are addicted to, like…

Yeah, like cigarettes. Or…

That’s right, illegal drugs. We’re addicted to fossil fuels and no matter the price, we’ll use them, and a lot of them too.

So, let’s get it straight. As long as America, and other industrialized economies, are hooked on oil, prices will go wherever they can, no matter the price of crude, no matter the military or political condition in the Middle East, no matter who’s in the White House.

Got it now?

Hope for Renewables? Even the Slightest?

There may be a model for progress in renewable energy from a somewhat unexpected source.

I starting working seriously in what was then called alternative energy (now,most often, renewables) in the early 1980s. It was a moment of optimism or, more accurately, the end of a moment of optimism, some would say foolish optimism, about weaning western economies off complete reliance on fossil fuels. There were very advantageous tax credits for investment in non-fossil energy, like solar, wind, cogeneration and hydroelectric. The federal and state governments, even many local governments, were investing directly in projects, some pilots and some to full-scale.

As a staff member of a state agency in North Carolina in the 1980s, I remember running some financial analyses in which 55 percent of investment costs in a certain cogeneration project were returned in the form of first-year tax credits, both federal and state. Operating under those conditions, few projects were rejected. That was good, in a way, because a lot of generation capacity and infrastructure was built and a lot of new technologies were developed. But, of course, it wasn’t completely good, because some of those projects were not, as it turned out, the best use of resources.

In any event, there was significant interest in non-fossil energy development, there was substantial growth, new enterprises, significant investment, and projections of much more of the same.

Many of these non-fossil energy programs had started with characteristic super-seriousness in the Carter administration following the ‘moral equivalent of war’ speech to the nation, but fell into disrepute with the election of Ronald Reagan and were either unfunded or allowed to expire. And that, as they say, was pretty much that. Renewables have continued to grow in importance and scale, but at nowhere near the size or pace once forecasted.

In the intervening thirty years, or so, we in America have engaged in mostly ineffective and unproductive, finger-pointing, blaming and shaming Kabuki theater that passes for debate hereabouts. Renewable supporters pretty much directly accuse the mainstream oil and gas industry of orchestrating a money-fueled conspiracy to perpetuate our addiction to fossil fuels. Supporters of the fossil energy industry, including many government officials who still count on ‘big oil’ for contributions to both campaign and constituent economies, complain about undue environmental restrictions which prevent the country from effectively employing its domestic resources.

Result? Mistrust. Muddle. No progress. (By the way, my experience suggests the situation is much more nuanced than our national dialog suggests; people in the energy business aren’t necessarily evil and environmentalists waste a lot of air-time accusing them of being so.)

America might best look – as it often should for examples of how adults behave in matters of serious policy debates – to Europe for a way forward.

Günther Oettinger is the European Commission’s energy commissioner. And, although he was a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party and himself a political conservative, he was won praise from Europe’s environmentalists for promoting a sensible way forward in promoting decarbonization, the use of non-fossil fuels to promote the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. He has also proposed comprehensive energy efficiency programs, funded by utility re-investment.

Oettinger has taken no little flak from his conservative colleagues back home but he has remained steadfast in moving the agenda forward because he thinks it is the right way forward for Europe. No blaming. No posturing. No demonizing.

Can you imagine an American conservative doing the same? Can you imagine one even publicly acknowledging the issue of carbon dioxide emissions much less taking on conservative colleagues to get something done on the issue?

We have so much to learn.

When I Go Away

Early in the morning
When the church bells toll
The choir’s gonna sing
And the hearse will roll
On down to the graveyard
Where it’s cold and gray
And then the sun’s gonna shine
Through the shadows
When I go away

When I Go Away, Levon Helm (Electric Dirt, 2009)

The sound of The Band, prominently featuring Levon Helm’s vocals, was an extraordinary combination of undeniably important, completely unique and timelessly familiar. When I first heard ‘Music from Big Pink,’ The Band’s first studio album, it felt like the first time I ever heard a reading from The Bible.

Helm’s voice reflected knowledge, life knowledge, sad knowledge, resigned knowledge, in the same way Frank Sinatra’s did. When Helm sang about unbearable yet inevitable heartbreak, you could hear that he knew of what he sang; it wasn’t pretense or artifice. Especially in his later, post-Band recordings, his voice, then showing the effects of cancer, was chillingly honest, raw, natural. More like, say, Johnny Cash’s later recordings than Frank Sinatra’s.

When I heard that Levon Helm had passed this week, I got a sick feeling in my stomach, like I hadn’t kept up with an old friend who moved to a different city. I just listened to a couple of interviews Terry Gross did with Helm on her NPR show, Fresh Air [click to listen].

As in Levon Helm’s song, ‘When I Go Away,’ (selected lyrics above) life goes on when someone passes away. Doesn’t mean we have to like it.

Eternal peace to you, Levon.

Clowns in Funny Hats

1. Daniel Jenky, Roman Catholic Bishop of Peoria

In Sunday’s sermon before the faithful of Peoria, Illinois, Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky said:

“Clemenceau, nicknamed ‘the priest eater,’ tried the same thing in France in the first decade of the 20th Century…Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services and health care…In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama, with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path.”

So, Your Eminence, our radically secular, pro-abortion president is on the trail of Hitler and Stalin? Really? Well, at least Bishop Jenky had the courtesy to qualify the comparison somewhat by comparing Obama to the two most evil and bloodthirsty men of the 20th century “at their better moments.”

2. Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI of the Roman Catholic Church

The church has been facing charges of sexual abuse for decades, more or less unsuccessfully. Victims of abuse, most having endured abuse at the hands of priests as young people, had their claims discounted, filed away, bureaucratically manhandled. Losing patience with the church’s glacial pace, police officials in Belgium raided church offices looking for evidence of official cover-up. The Pope expressed outrage and called for ‘respecting the rights of victims.’ Of course, the ‘victims’ he was referring to weren’t the thousands of victims of sexual abuse at the hands of his church’s priests, but the church itself, which had to endure the unwanted advances of those leather-clad rough boys from the Belgian police.

3. Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, Church of England (Anglican Church)

You see, Bishop Pete is a modern man. Just like most of his flock these days, he uses social media to connect with people and, sometimes, to offend them. In the days following the announcement of the marriage of Price William and Lady Kate Middleton, he used facebook to compare them to sort of a third-rate celebrity couple and predicted the marriage would only last seven years. Now, many people might share Bishop Pete’s sentiments, but few would risk their livelihood to express them publicly, fewer still when the subject is your country’s future sovereign. Hey, Bishop Pete: #fail.

4. Unnamed Muslim Cleric, Europe (representative photo)

Danger in vegetables? As reported in The Telegraph and elsewhere late last year, an unnamed Muslim cleric living in Europe warned women of the faith against the handling of bananas, cucumbers, or other produce resembling the male sex organ, for fear of stimulating impure sexual thoughts. According to the report, the cleric recommended that:

“[I]f women wanted to eat these foods, a third party – preferably a male related to them, such as their father or husband – should cut the items into small pieces before serving.”

No zucchini for you!

5. Bill Murray, actual clown

From his 1993 film Groundhog Day (with Andie McDowell):

Phil (Murray): I’m a god.

Rita (McDowell): You’re God?

Phil: I’m a god. I’m not THE God…I don’t think.

So Long, Dick

For some of my readers, this will come as news. Before the ubiquity of online social media, Google, YouTube, NetFlix, and iTunes, you pretty much had to rely on local radio and, to a much lesser extent, television for introduction to new music. Or maybe, if you were really lucky (as I was – thanks, Melecio), connected and knowledgable friends.

The rest of America relied on Dick Clark and/or Don Cornelius. (You can read my thoughts about the passing of Don Cornelius here.) Clark’s show started as a local affair in Philadelphia; it grew to become Bandstand, then, as it went national, American Bandstand. From the start, a couple of things were obvious: (1) Dick Clark was and was always going to be the adult in the mix – this was no ersatz kid – and (2) he loved music and musicians.

He seemed genuinely happy interviewing the kids who danced on the show and wore the latest fashions (My God, the crushes I had on Bandstand’s cast members.). Clark dug deeply into what they liked about what they’d just heard. American Bandstand, courtesy of the host’s earnestness, must have been gold for the research departments of the nation’s advertising agencies.

Over the years, Dick Clark presented a dizzying array of artists. Maybe not always the best artists, although that can be debated, but the variety was both odd and amazing. Reading the list induces incredulity. Here’s a (very) partial list:

Sam Cooke, Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Fats Domino, Till Tuesday, The Jackson Five, The Beastie Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Sonny and Cher, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Don McClean, The Temptations, ELO, Jethro Tull, The Young Rascals, Culture Club, James Brown…

Clark became the butt of jokes and a hollow self-parody of his better self at some point, then, in part due to a severe stroke, was seen only as the wooden television presenter of New Year’s Eve. It was a crappy public end to a long and storied career dedicated to something as great as popular music.

May Dick Clark rest in eternal musical peace.

Completely and Precisely Wrong

[PLEASE NOTE: The following photograph is disturbing. Some readers may wish to avoid.]

Earlier today, the Los Angeles Times published photos of American soldiers posing smugly and triumphantly with the dead bodies of their adversaries in Afghanistan. They, and the many other photos the LA Times chose, out of propriety, not to publish, are appalling, disrespectful of the dead, debasing of humanity. Not to excuse the behavior, but these are exactly the characteristics that can come out in people who are in protracted military conflict situations.

These photos, along with those of American soldiers cavorting in “humorously” sexualized positions with their prisoners, from inside Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, paint a horrendous picture of American forces, their commanders and their mission, their disrespect for our adversaries and their Islamic traditions.

And, as one would expect, the statements of response from the Pentagon were swift and furious. But the most intense condemnations were directed, not at our soldiers’ behavior, but at the Los Angeles Times. The spokesperson for Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense, said his boss was “disappointed that despite our request not to publish these photographs, the Los Angeles Times went ahead. The danger is that this material could be used by the enemy to incite violence against U.S. and Afghan service members in Afghanistan.”

Dead wrong, Mr. Secretary.

It is absolutely not the publication of these photographs that will incite violence against America and Americans. It is not even the fact that these horrific photographs exist. What incites violence against our men and women in the armed forces and against our nation is the fact that some of our servicepeople treat our adversaries as playthings and, frankly, the fact that our forces are still in Afghanistan.

Do you really want to end the violence against Americans in Afghanistan, Mr. Secretary? Bring our men and women home. We have no business being there. But because it is impolitic to state the plain truth – namely, that our mission in Afghanistan is both fruitless and endless – you create a false issue around the LA Times’ publication of these photographs.

In this matter, sir, you are not only wrong, you are shamefully so.

One of Us Was Adopted

It was a cold rainy day in the Sierra Nevada foothills, somewhere just west of Sonora, where we first met a few years back. It all started as a lark, as these things often do. Just something to do because we were all damn tired of looking at each other in the closed confines of the dark cabin.

The four of us had taken quite a while before we were ready to even think about getting another dog after our beloved Buck passed. (Anyone who’s known me for any length of time might still remember dear Buck’s writing as my alter ego.) So, it was a genuine surprise that the kids asked to visit the humane society and look at the dogs they had for adoption.

Good to kill a couple of hours, I thought. I should have known better; we never stood a chance.

The moment we walked in, she sat attentively, leaning against the chain-link fencing that separated the dogs from the people. Her big brown eyes never left us. Not as we walked toward her. Not as we walked around to look at her kennel mates.

Looking back, I think she knew she had us from the first look.

We talked with her. Walked outside together. Tested our chemistry.

The kids loved her immediately. The staff told us, in a very serious whisper, that she’d not had a happy young life. She’d been abused. She had some behavioral issues. She was fearful and sometimes aggressive. We had to be ready for that, had to be in it with her for the long haul. She’d be a great dog, they said, with a real family.

And so, we adopted Dee Dee.

From the first day, we noticed the odd quirks (She barks fiercely at UPS trucks but is perfectly fine with FedEX.), the anger coming out of nowhere (Dee Dee reacts violently to Giggy’s former pre-school teacher because, we assume, he has a beard.), the piggishness around bed space (It’s okay because I’m flexible and, heck, I can always sleep in the shape of a pretzel if I have to.).

She’s been part of the family now for about five years. Her neuroses have, if not completely disappeared, moderated a lot. I can’t imagine walking at Fort Funston, or going up to the mountains, or even sitting down in the evening without her.

We may have given her a loving family, but she’s given us plenty in return. Which we knew from the day she adopted us.