Helium: A Very Non-Renewable Natural Resource May 13, 2013Posted by federalist in Energy.
Where are the environmentalists when it really matters? They pitch fits about depleting natural resources, most of which are to some degree renewable or replaceable. Except for one in particular that is practically both irreplaceable and non-renewable: helium. And who shows up to lobby for the continued preservation of this natural resource? “A coalition including orthopedic surgeons, industrial welders and balloon makers….“
Helium has a number of unique characteristics that make it indispensable to current industrial applications, and that seem likely to make it essential for future technologies. (Here’s one interesting backgrounder on the element.) Unfortunately those characteristics include exceptional levity and inertness, so when released into the atmosphere helium gradually evaporates into outer space. The only source of terrestrial helium is radioactive decay, which over eons has produced some natural concentrations in impermeable geological formations. When we drill into these formations for natural gas we often get small quantities of accumulated helium. Once we have tapped those pockets we’ll essentially be out of industrial quantities of helium. The prudent course of action, which the U.S. government has been leading, is to stockpile helium found during drilling in the Federal Helium Reserve. This Reserve just became profitable, which strangely required Congressional action to allow it to continue operations.
Higher Education Bubble Update May 9, 2013Posted by federalist in Education.
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ACTA has been fighting against one of the enablers of the higher-education cartel, the Accreditors, for some time:
The six regional agencies that accredit the vast majority of America’s non-profit colleges and universities have miserably failed to ensure educational quality but continue to control access to federal student aid.
Meanwhile the free market continues to provide solutions to our higher education problems. The latest I came across is StraighterLine: A company offering inexpensive online courses guaranteed for credit towards an accredited advanced degree.
U.S. Government Crosses the Rubicon May 7, 2013Posted by federalist in RKBA.
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Our country was founded on the premise that citizens should have the means to restrain and reform their government, by force if necessary. Implicit in this natural right, which was explicitly enumerated in the Bill of Rights, is the principle that the government has no authority deprive The People of arms, or to reserve more effective weapons to its agents for domestic use.
U.S. gun laws have long since crossed this line. The most salient example was the recent request by the Department of Homeland Security for 7000 Personal Defense Weapons. As the name of the RFP indicates these are the best modern weapons for personal defense. With some extremely expensive and limited exceptions, they are also off limits to citizens for three distinct reasons:
- They are compact (regulated as “Short Barrel Rifles”)
- They are “select-fire,” i.e. capable of fully-automatic operation
- They shoot “armor-piercing” bullets (a restricted category that was recently expanded to include a large segment of popular target bullet)
Government agents are allowed to procure and carry these arms for personal defense. As a practical matter, citizens are not. And any citizen caught in possession of a firearm with one of those three characteristics that has not been properly registered is aggressively prosecuted as a felon and punished with up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
This is always a step in the evolution of tyranny.
Our Collective Duty to Individual Citizens April 30, 2013Posted by federalist in Diplomacy.
Tags: David Sneddon, North Korea Kidnapping
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Something about this is profoundly disturbing: There is compelling evidence that an American student is among the foreigners kidnapped by North Korea. And our government appears to be doing its best to ignore the matter.
Granted, far more disturbing acts of violence and privations are committed every day, including in our own communities. But we naturally revolt against these crimes. To the degree possible we strive to deter, punish, and seek redress for the wrongs visited on our family, neighbors, fellow citizens, and fellow men. After all, if we were the unlucky victim we would hope and expect our fellows to come to our aid. And if we don’t respond to an aggressor we should expect the lack of response to embolden them (and others).
The more brazen an aggressor the greater our imperative to respond. When the aggressor is a rogue country like North Korea the crime, though committed against only one of our citizens, is an affront to every American. One of the explicit purposes for which we formed our government was to “provide for the common defence.” We should each take crimes like this personally, and we should collectively demand the same response we would hope for had a foreign criminal taken us captive.
Net Human Product and Our Purpose April 25, 2013Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Education, Government, Open Questions.
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There is a great Twilight Zone episode, “A Small Talent for War:” An alien emissary appears in the United Nations to announce that humans on Earth have not progressed as fast as they had hoped. We have a small talent for war and have wasted our time bickering over borders with crude weapons, far short of the “better things” for which they bred us. Therefore, they have resolved to terminate the experiment on this planet. The American ambassador pleads the case for humanity. The emissary agrees to give the world 24 hours, though he doubts anything can be done in so short a time. When he returns, the General Assembly proudly presents the emissary with a world peace treaty. He leafs through it and then laughs, explaining that their objective was for us to develop weapons and warriors to fight across the galaxy, not to merely to achieve peace amongst ourselves. The episode ends with alien destroyers descending on Earth.
This essay is a discussion of existential matters: Something that, after adolescence, few people stop to consider in any broad context. Discussion following my post on falling fertility raised the Grand Question: What is our Purpose? In the context of that post a successful human life was one that created positive net production in our global marketplace. That’s a fine measure if our Purpose can be expressed as economic activity. But can it? Is our goal as a species to build the maximum economic power? I.e., to produce the greatest possible value of goods and services, where value is defined by the market of individual human wants and needs? By default, and in actuality, the answer is yes.
But we fancy ourselves an “intelligent” species, and so we should not simply accept the evolved answer to the Grand Question: I.e., to what end should our species devote its resources? If the answer is “to satisfy our instincts” then as a species we seem no more intelligent than any other life form.
Are we intelligent life?
We know the key characteristics of all successful life: survival and reproduction. We are currently an apex predator on our planet. As a species we are the apex predator, so we’ve got that to our credit. But we are surrounded by other species that are more survivable than our own: We know there are planetary catastrophes that would extinguish our species but spare “lower” life-forms that can survive more extreme conditions and extended deprivations. So in terms of survival our species is relatively unremarkable.
We console ourselves with the fact that we are “intelligent.” This does indeed seem to be a rare thing: In our own fertile sphere we are unique in our capacity to invent tools, and to create, store, and transmit information. Furthermore, we have achieved reasonable mastery of electromagnetics, to the point where we can send bursts of information into deep space and scan for other life doing the same. Yet our ability to create and harness energy and matter on a meaningful scale is abysmal. We can only transmute elements in the tiniest quantities, and the total energy our species can unleash, even in an uncontrolled fashion, would barely make the faintest ripple in our local space-time fabric. So by some measures we might be extraordinarily intelligent, while by others we may be pathetic.
The rest of our specie’s activities are no more notable than that of any other locally successful life form. In fact, we know that we are only one unlucky gamma-ray burst or other stellar event away from being wiped from the face of existence. Truly successful life would not be so vulnerable.
Intelligent or not, a successful life form would be one that could project itself across interstellar spaces, in some manner able to reproduce and survive on a vastly larger, less precarious scale. Could we achieve such a thing? Almost certainly not in our corporal forms, which have evolved only to survive and reproduce in the fragile fringe of our home planet. But in theory we could build interstellar seeders: self-replicating, self-healing machines that trawl outer space and seed our form of life anywhere it can take root. Our seed sphere would grow slowly, limited by the speed with which our machines can travel, but still exponentially as frontier seeders transform ambient matter and energy encountered en route to spawn more seeders. Perhaps it is possible to design seed rays: packets of energy that, when they encounter matter of suitable composition, transform it into seeders. Though that sounds vastly more difficult, it would allow our seed sphere to grow at light speed.
As intelligent life shouldn’t such large-scale survivability be one of our goals? One might argue that the absence of such a capability is evidence that we are not “intelligent life.” Intelligence may include the ability to create tools and transmit information, but life that cannot alter its evolved behavior and nature to better pursue its objectives does not sound intelligent. And since survival is the most elementary characteristic of life we, as a species, are clearly coming up short.
This brings us back to the Grand Question: What is our Purpose? Nature has given us an evolved, or “default” answer, and that’s mostly what we’ve accepted: Our default Purpose is to maximize Gross Production and Production Capacity – economic measures that we can sample with reasonable accuracy. These measures have steadily increased throughout history. But they reflect predominantly individual interests, not the reasoned, collective interest of our species. For example, included in Gross Human Production today are such things as:
• The construction and maintenance of coastal cities below sea level
• Gold-plated palaces and jumbo jets for sheikhs to fly their extended family around to the world’s finest resorts
• Manicured golf courses where the wealthy and non-producing (“retired”) try to hit balls with high precision
We have enormous production potential, but what are we producing? If one assembled any group of humans and asked them to vote on worthwhile projects for their – or any other human’s – spare time would any of the above examples be on their list? The sad fact is that we, as a species, have no intelligent Purpose.
Does it take a visit from a xenocidal alien emissary? When faced with a clear and present threat we unite in large groups and concentrate our excess capacity on survival and achievement. Think of the unified action witnessed during the World War II and the Cold War. But no leadership seems capable of marshaling such a response to anything less clear and present. For example, know the consequences and probabilities of a large asteroid impact, but haven’t waged any significant effort to protect ourselves from possible extinction from one. And the threat of a nearby gamma-ray burst is so abstract and challenging that almost nobody addresses it.
I wish we could unite behind one or more “Net Human Products:” Something that humans collectively produce that increases over years and generations, and that our species could hold up and say, “Here is something we did besides just surviving and pursuing our instincts.”
There are, of course, philosophic and religious answers to the Grand Question, but I don’t think they make good measures of Net Human Product. In the most general terms, most measure human success as something like maximizing the number of people who achieve peace with their creator, themselves, and/or their surroundings. But these are human-centric measures: In the end, some number of human beings have lived and died, and some proportion did so in accord with any particular philosophy. That tally may make adherents feel good, and some philosophies may be conducive to higher Net Human Products, but either way they are at best a means, not an end in this discussion.
What do humans produce that endures? Civilization has produced remarkable terrestrial monuments, although over eons our watery planet will eventually erode these all into oblivion. We have managed to sling a few small artifacts out of our heliosphere. Aside from those the substantive human products that have the potential to survive every natural catastrophe and all the assaults of time are our culture and our technology: Everything that can be transformed into data, which can be replicated and beamed to arbitrary recipients at nearly zero cost. We might measure our Net Human Product in terms of the quantity and quality of that data, and the means we have to protect its integrity and longevity.
Maybe if we reconsider our collective objectives we will refocus our resources. For example, instead of spending tens of billions of dollars each year on professional sports, the demand for entertainment and product placement will shift attention towards teams of developers and their efforts to raise our Net Human Product.
Can we spark a “Moon-Shot” program on a global scale to make our species truly “intelligent” by addressing the shortcomings I mentioned earlier? Can we motivate individual human beings to join an urgent struggle to develop fusion energy and interstellar seeders? Can children go to school aspiring to study the STEM subjects that will enable those technologies? Can we go to sleep each night as worried that a gamma ray burst will obliterate us before we succeed, as we did during the Cold War that a nuclear holocaust would destroy everything we know and love?
Transportation Stupidity Administration — Part IV March 30, 2013Posted by federalist in Transportation.
Following September 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created to strengthen the security of the nation’s transportation systems and ensure the freedom of movement for people and commerce. [tsa.gov/about-tsa]
My last post pointed out how stupid are the rules propagated by the massive “Transportation Security Administration.” The purpose and practical operations of the TSA bear further scrutiny. After all, the institution directly consumes around $10BB of government funds each year. Its rules and activities impose even greater indirect costs in terms of delays and obstructions throughout the global transportation infrastructure. The TSA also imposes enormous political and social costs, since in its zeal to pursue its mission it consistently infringes what were once considered fundamental human rights against unreasonable search and harassment by government agents.
Given the public image of the TSA, its official mission and vision are downright Orwellian:
Mission: Protect the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.
Vision: Provide the most effective transportation security in the most efficient way as a high performing counterterrorism organization.
I assume the agency’s political reasoning goes something like this: “People who are afraid of terrorism targeting transportation systems will hesitate to use those systems to travel. Therefore, our job is to minimize our citizens’ fear, so that their fear will not prevent them from using the Nation’s transportation systems.” And this would explain a lot of stupid stuff the TSA does in practice. ”Security theater,” and all that jazz that supposedly makes people feel safer.
Never mind the fact that a lot of people object to what the TSA does, often to the degree that they avoid commercial air travel explicitly because of the TSA’s antics.*
As I will explain in a moment, the TSA can’t prevent or even significantly reduce acts of terrorism. If the TSA were to honestly pursue its vision it would simply close up shop because, given the current threat environment, “the most effective transportation security” would be to leave us alone — let the travelling public and for-profit transportation companies take care of themselves.
Let us think, for a moment, like a terrorist. Your goal is to generate fear and attention through random acts of mass mayhem. You may be willing to die in the act, and you may be able to conspire with like-minded individuals. Would you target commercial aircraft? 9/11 demonstrated that a heavy airplane can be turned into the most powerful conventional weapon you could hope for … if you’re able to take control of it. 9/11 also made that nearly impossible to repeat: Today you not only have to breach a fortified cockpit and overcome armed pilots, but also hold off a cabin full of people who realize they’re probably dead if you succeed. If you’re able to pilot a heavy jet wouldn’t you rather face down the two or three guys in charge of one of those cargo planes at the far end of the airport?
So, with or without the TSA, you can’t turn a commercial aircraft into a guided weapon. But what about destroying it? If you can get a modest explosive on board and detonate it in flight you can kill a few hundred passengers and cost an insurer a few hundred million dollars. You might cause further damage on the ground. Sure enough, airplanes have been consistent targets for terrorist bomb plots over the years. The TSA does not appear to have put a dent in either the number of attempts or in their rate of success. After all, even the TSA admits of bombs, “These items are extremely hard to spot.” So what does the TSA do? More reactionary security theater: A bomber conceals explosives in his shoes, and now we all have to remove our shoes. A plot is uncovered using liquid explosives, and now we can’t carry liquids through security barriers. A bomber conceals explosives in his underwear, and now we all have to have our underwear groped. None of these charades change the fact that the TSA passenger screening process cannot detect explosives.
In fact, even if you were strip-searched and had agents X-ray and paw every item in your carry-on luggage you could, with 100% certainty, make it through security with enough solid secondary explosive to buckle a heavy jet’s wing spar from a cabin seat. The thing that seems to keep this from happening more often is the detonator, which is the trickiest part of a bomb. But the TSA has no better chance at identifying a concealed detonator. Apparently the only thing that keeps plane bombings from happening more frequently is that nobody who is good at building detonators is willing to kill himself, and somebody is preventing good detonators from getting into the hands of suicidal terrorists with airplane tickets. TSA passenger security lines are not stopping airplanes from being bombed.
Still thinking like a terrorist: What if the TSA were effective? What if the thing keeping your functional suicide bomb from instilling fear into the heart of the flying public was that long security line? I wonder what would happen if you instead detonated your bomb right there in the middle of an airport on a peak travel day. You could potentially kill as many people as you’d get on the plane. You’d certainly wound many more. And unlike on the plane, you might be able to slip away right after your bomb makes it to the center of mass and you trigger a detonator with a slight delay. You might get away, or you might get caught, but either way you’d be alive and have all the publicity you could want. I have a theory on why no terrorist has tried this: Because the TSA is already terrorizing the flying public. What more could a terrorist hope for? The diversion of more resources to a bureaucracy determined to harass and humiliate the flying public to the utmost tolerable extent? Of course not. The TSA is a grotesque, living reminder that terrorism works.
We don’t need the TSA. If you’re a terrorist and you can build a bomb you’ll blow up an important building, bridge, or tunnel. Otherwise you’ll rent a heavy truck and plow it into a large crowd at a public event. Or you’ll carry a bag of weapons into a “gun-free zone” and kill as many law-abiding citizens as you can (starting with any government officers who might be armed).
* A June 2008 study by the U.S. Travel Association revealed a deep frustration among air travelers that caused them to avoid an estimated 41 million trips over the past 12 months at a cost of more than $26 billion to the U.S. economy. Air travelers expressed little optimism for positive change, with nearly 50 percent saying that the air travel system is not likely to improve in the near future. The effect of avoided trips cost airlines more than $9 billion in revenue; hotels nearly $6 billion and restaurants more than $3 billion. Federal, state and local governments lost more than $4 billion in tax revenue because of reduced spending by travelers. (Source: Air Travel Survey, 2008)
Transportation Stupidity Administration — Part III March 17, 2013Posted by federalist in Transportation.
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Apparently bureaucratic stupidity is contagious: A bunch of industry leaders are upset and scared that the TSA is letting commercial airline passengers carry some small knives and sticks onto planes.
When I first heard about this policy I just tweeted,
Nitpicking: TSA Bureaucrats doing what bureaucrats do best: tsa_permitted_items_update.pdf … #TSA #DontYouFeelSaferNow?”
If there was an objection, I thought, it would be to the fact that the TSA is just compounding rules for no good reason. After all, “Abandon your rights and your property if you want to board a commercial plane” was easy to understand. Then they started enumerating policies and procedures — no liquids, 3-ounce containers, shoes off, laptops out — and it just got more confusing and annoying but we didn’t really get our rights back and we didn’t get any safer.
I never dreamed people would use safety as a premise for objecting to the new TSA allowed list. For reference, this is the pocket knife I routinely flew with throughout the 1990′s, right up until September 11, 2001:
In those halcyon days the rules on carrying knives on planes were similar to those in many metro areas: no restrictions so long as the blade was shorter than 4 inches and it wasn’t spring-loaded. I would drop the knife in the little bin to pass around the metal detector and clip it back in my pocket on the other side. I only remember one time a security screener took the time to open it and measure the blade against the width of her palm to ensure it wasn’t too long.
I’ve made this point before but apparently it hasn’t sunk in: Knives in the hands of airplane passengers were never an extraordinary threat, but for two hours on the morning of 9/11 during which they were incidental in a ruse to turn heavy aircraft into weapons of mass destruction. As soon as the ruse was discovered it could never be repeated. Any future attempt to use a heavy commercial plane as a weapon will have to overcome overwhelming obstacles: A fortified cockpit door, armed pilots trained to resist cockpit incursions, and a flying public that now realizes any violent actors could be suicidal fanatics who should be stopped at any cost, not placated.
Principled Businesses Supporting Liberty February 21, 2013Posted by federalist in RKBA.
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The Left often derides for-profit businesses as mercenaries that, without proper regulation, would sacrifice the well-being of their employees, customers, and anyone else who stands in the way of turning a quick profit.
The firearms industry is offering a refreshing counterpoint: A significant number of American manufacturers have declared that they will apply the same rules and restrictions to governments as the governments apply to their subjects/citizens. [20130223 Update: ThePoliceLoophole.com is serving as a clearinghouse to list companies that are taking the initiative to close this "police loophole" themselves.]
Yesterday Barrett added this eloquent letter, explaining that they will not service or sell to any government agency that attempts to abridge the constitutional rights of Americans. They take it one step further, declaring that this policy extends to any “individual elected official who, as a matter of public record, has voted for or created regulation that violates the constitutional rights of their citizens.” It’s a great statement and a great model for principled commerce. Full letter copied here:
Efficient Market Hypothesis Disproved! February 15, 2013Posted by federalist in Markets.
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Efficient markets are often explained with a joke about an economist walking by a $100 bill. His companion exclaims, “Look, there’s a $100 bill on the sidewalk!” Without stopping the economist responds, “That’s impossible; if it were really there somebody would have already picked it up.”
So here’s a picture of a $100 bill my wife found folded on the sidewalk outside a parking garage. She picked it up and looked around to find its owner. Seeing nobody, she concluded it must be fake. But she brought it home thinking I would enjoy figuring out what’s wrong with it.
Well, it passes every unclassified test for authenticity. Perhaps God knew that I needed a reminder of how inefficient the real world can be.
Is College Cost-Effective? February 7, 2013Posted by federalist in Education.
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This blog has long criticized the higher-education cartel and bubble.
Rick Bookstaber has a great analysis of the overt functions of higher education — to Learn, Signal, Network, and Party — and proceeds to point out that each of those functions can now be accomplished much more cheaply and efficiently than in a traditional 4-year-college. (Yes, one commenter even suggests an effective substitute for the Network/Party “feature” of college.)
Yes, I’m bearish on higher education. Unless they want to be academics, I don’t hope my kids go to college. I hope they find a passion, or at least a productive interest, and that they will use the modern tools for learning, signaling, and networking to side-step the debacle of traditional higher-education en route to fulfilling their potential.
What’s on my DVR January 4, 2013Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.
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Series I’ve set to record. Remember I can’t stand shows with laugh tracks, so none of those get on my list. Many of these are better than most movies, and almost all are worth re-running if you haven’t seen them:
- Burn Notice – Fun action dramedy about former spooks. Realistic detail in action and tactics, though quality has declined in recent seasons.
- Person of Interest – Darker drama about a former special operators, also with fun and above-average action and tactics. [Feb Update: This season it's my favorite action series.]
- The Unit – Exceptionally realistic show about an active spec-ops unit, but only ran for three seasons; perhaps because it was plagued by irritating dramatic detours involving the operators’ wives?
- Revolution – Contrived plots are redeemed by its blatant pro-gun message and survivalist intrigue.
- Chuck – Entertaining action farce.
- Suits – Brilliant and witty characters make this legal dramedy stand out.
- The Chicago Code – Excellent fast-moving police drama with an enticing subplot about battling machine politics. Cancelled because it cut too close to reality?
- Southland – Darker action-packed police drama. [Feb Update: This season is too disturbing for my taste.]
- Elementary – Interesting adaptation of Sherlock Holmes; very good so far.
- 30 Rock – Worth watching for the characters of Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey alone.
- Better Off Ted – Why, oh why, do they so often cancel shows I so love?
- Community – Usually great, occasionally brilliant, ensemble comedy.
- Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 – Krysten Ritter anchors this with comedic energy.
- The Mindy Project – Comedy centered on the plight of a single, overachieving woman.
- Modern Family – Excellent structure and cast make this a consistent winner.
- The Office – Took some time to get used to the awkwardness of the characters that drive this comedy, but well worth it.
- Outsourced – As good as anything else in this list; not sure why it was cancelled.
- Parks and Recreation – Another consistent performer.
- Scrubs – A great series that lived a full life worth revisiting.
- Suburgatory – Not top shelf, but mixes in some fun satire.
Ever since Mister Rogers gave us glimpses of factory production lines I’ve wanted more extended views:
- How It’s Made – Manufacturing processes shown in detail.
- How Do They Do It? – Almost as good, but diverges into operations and events instead of sticking to factories.
Colbert Report – Hilariously witty political satire … if you can get past the fact that Stephen Colbert is pandering to a live New York audience (which is predictably and irritatingly Liberal).
- Archer – This no-limits comedy “for mature audiences” absolutely nails my sense of humor. I wish there were more like this.
- The Simpsons – This wide-ranging satire has had varying quality over the years, but the total weight of comedic gold makes it worth mining its 500+ episodes.
- Futurama – for when you’ve run out of episodes of The Simpsons.
- South Park – typically each episode is built around a single joke, and frequently littered with unnecessary scatological humor. But the show hits it out of the park often enough to keep it in the queue.
- Robot Chicken – Stop-action satiric comedy for generation X that sets new lows in obscenity.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I December 30, 2012Posted by federalist in Special Interests.
Finally got around to watching Atlas Shrugged: Part I. As a movie adaptation of a book it was very well done: It managed not only to distill the first 300 tedious pages of Ayn Rand’s book into an engaging 1.5 hours, but also to deftly shunt a 50-year-old plot centering on the railroad industry to a plausible near future.
Like the book the movie hits you over the head with its anti-socialist pro-capitalist message. But the story is more salient now than it would have been just a decade ago. What was once considered an allegorical warning about Communism now plays like a historical fiction of modern U.S. politics. In fact it wasn’t until the very end of the movie that one of the socialist bureaucrats finally did something so unbelievable that I actually said, “Well that’s just fundamentally unconstitutional.” (He declared a special federal tax on the “rich” state of Colorado.) Of course most of the movie is about unconstitutional machinations of the federal government and special interests. The sad thing is that today we don’t have to think hard to find comparable real-world examples.
Nuclear Recycling Update December 29, 2012Posted by federalist in Energy.
Tags: nuclear waste, used nuclear fuel (UNF), Yucca Mountain
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I have always been baffled by the U.S. policy to not recycle nuclear fuel. The used uranium nuclear fuel (UNF) rods that leave our nuclear power plants have only lost 3% of their total nuclear energy. I.e., what we call “nuclear waste” is actually 97% nuclear fuel that could be put back into the same reactors after being scrubbed of tiny amounts of accumulated fission byproducts.
We have spent generations accumulating concentrated UNF in storage pools and dry casks at nuclear facilities, waiting for a “permanent” nuclear waste dump to be established where the highly toxic fuel can be safely stored to naturally decay, undisturbed, for at least one million years!
The whole situation is farcical: U.S. nuclear energy was built on uranium (instead of more practical thorium) precisely because one of the products of uranium fission, plutonium, is most desirable for nuclear weapons. As planned, the U.S. accumulated a massive stockpile of plutonium for its strategic nuclear arsenal. Starting in 1976 the U.S. decided not only that it had enough plutonium, but also that refined plutonium was such a strategic risk that it would not condone further operations in which it could conceivably be produced: In particular, recycling of UNF. A few decades later it signed a START treaty that requires it to dispose of its stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. The agreed method of disposal is to dilute and burn the stockpiles in nuclear reactors. This will be done over the next few decades at the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) using a process that is virtually identical to nuclear recycling, except that instead of a hypothetical risk of enriched plutonium being siphoned off during one of the steps, it is explicitly starting with enriched plutonium as an input.
Following its original convoluted policy, America’s growing stockpile of UNF will still not be recycled. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world does recycle UNF, with nearly half of nuclear recycling being handled by the French company AREVA’s plant in La Hague.
Based on AREVA’s extended experience, a 2008 Boston Consulting Group study determined that lifetime costs for dealing with UNF by recycling were at least 10% less than permanent storage. The economic advantages of recycling have certainly increased since then as (1) projected costs of raw uranium have increased and (2) America’s hopes of establishing a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain grow increasingly expensive and uncertain.
Are Electric Vehicles environmentally friendly? December 28, 2012Posted by federalist in Energy.
Depends on where you charge them. Car and Driver put this useful chart in their July 2012 issue. An electric vehicle is only as environmentally friendly as the generators that charge its battery. (Never mind the distribution overhead and inefficiencies of current batteries.) So unless you’re plugging unto a geothermal or hydroelectric grid your electric vehicle would probably pollute less if it just ran one of the more efficient modern internal combustion engines.
The Holiday Orgy of Wealth Destruction December 21, 2012Posted by federalist in Finance, Transportation.
[S]omething like $13 billion a year, is what’s destroyed through gift giving in the U.S.
Joel Waldfogel wrote a whole book on this: Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays. Add me to the list of those efficiency-lovers who disdain our suboptimal holiday customs.
If you want to give a person something of real value then give money. This gives the recipient maximum flexibility to meet their needs or wants. Purchasing a gift for them (including gift cards or items with gift receipts) simply takes something with maximal utility — money — and turns it into something with less utility. The best you can hope for is to break even, and that occurs only if the recipient would have spent that money on that item at that time.
This guidance does not apply to gifts of time, expertise, or other devotion that aren’t fungible, and which may not even be available for purchase. Which may be where we lost our way: Money seems to be most stigmatized as a gift for occasions where consideration is more appropriate than value. In such cases cash is considered a cop-out — the refuge of scoundrels who don’t know or care enough about the recipient to find something meaningful. In past epochs when markets were less developed and efficient perhaps you could chance upon something at the bazaar that the recipient wouldn’t be able to readily acquire. But today if you could order the item online then you’re fooling yourself if you think that spending hours shopping to find it — on top of whatever time it took to earn the money to pay for it — is doing anyone a service.
Waldfogel has pointed out more systemic problems with holiday consumption patterns. For example: We have to carry excess capacity in our market infrastructure to sustain the holiday surge. That capacity goes idle during the rest of the year. The most efficient economy hums along at 100% utilization year-round.
This is not just a problem of gift-giving. Anyone who has tried to travel during holidays would have to agree that they are barbaric. Our goal as both individuals and as a society should be to smooth out surges, not to, for example, create “the busiest travel day of the year” by simultaneously crowding highways and airports, or overwhelming the same vacation destinations at the same time. These customs spawn deadweight surge capacity, though even that is invariably insufficient for peak demand.
Why do people voluntarily queue up for travel delays and long lines? It’s inefficient and unsafe. It’s insane.
School Massacres: When Will We Protect Our Children? December 15, 2012Posted by federalist in Education, RKBA.
Tags: Newtown Shooting, school shooting
Another utterly horrific and completely preventable tragedy unfolded today as a suicidal lunatic managed to kill 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Preventable why? Not because we can detect psychopaths before they act. Nor because we can stop them from acquiring lethal implements. Predictably, many people are obsessing over the particular weapons used in this case: handguns. Indeed, in the United States mass homicides are mostly carried out with firearms. But without access to guns homicidal maniacs turn to other weapons: knives, motor vehicles, or bombs. Indeed, across the world lone psychopaths have carried out massacres of this scale with all of these weapons and more.
What characterizes this and every other massacre in modern American history* (and indeed many more throughout the world) is not the fact that the killer used firearms. After all, many killers, including many bent on mass murder, wield firearms. No, the single most striking characteristic that distinguishes massacres from common murders is that the victims of the former are always defenseless. In the United States rules and laws serve as virtual government guarantees that targets in certain areas will be defenseless. All mass shootings have been in such “unarmed victim zones:” schools, private facilities that ban gun possession, and government installations.
Firearms may be effective tools of mass murder, but they are even more effective tools of defense. Lone gunmen do not succeed in massacring people where citizens are routinely permitted to carry firearms. This is not for lack of trying, either. Armed citizens have stopped so many attempted homicides that the unspoken outrage is that we continue to send our children to schools that are painstakingly stripped of defensive arms.
This is the outrage: Armed citizens are the only common defense against massacres. Whether it’s a maniac wielding guns or knives, or steering a vehicle or bomb past a barrier into a crowd, a bystander with a gun is the only practical and reliable means of putting the massacre to an end. Yet we round up our children every day and put them in the care of a few adults who are forbidden to carry guns.
We should be demanding exactly the opposite: Those who we trust to care for our children should be required to provide for their defense. We will never know when or how the next lunatic will embark on a homicidal rampage, but we do know that the only thing that will reliably stop his diabolic plans will be an armed target or bystander drawing a gun and shooting him until he stops.
Holiday Tipping Etiquette December 14, 2012Posted by federalist in Markets, Uncategorized.
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This has become the time of year when all sorts of service employees become very interested in you knowing their names and addresses (often post office boxes!). Notes and envelopes appear from garbagemen, mailmen, paperboys — people you may never see. And it’s no subtle mystery why: They want holiday tips.
In many cases this has become a soft extortion racket: Pay up and you’ll get your paper on your doorstep. Come up short and look forward to picking through bushes for your paper.
Too cynical? Maybe some of these servicemen assume that of course you’re thinking of them during the holidays, and they just want to save you the trouble of waiting outside early in the morning to hand them a bonus check and wish them a Happy New Year.
But isn’t this a recent phenomenon? I don’t remember getting these sorts of holiday notices ten or twenty years ago. I do remember when I ran a paper route as a boy being surprised at the extra cash appearing in my collection envelopes during December.
I guess it was inevitable that spontaneous generosity would evolve into a custom and finally an entitlement. I have been surprised in recent years to read etiquette experts enumerating all sorts of people you should tip — as if money trees sprout in December and every gainfully employed person deserves a windfall.
There may still be some who feel moved by the holiday spirit to share their good fortune with others, but it should be neither expected nor solicited. We are plagued by an entitlement culture, and to cure that I like a suggestion Alex Tabarrok made several years ago: If you would like to express some seasonal generosity remit your tip anonymously. That will foil those who are using the holidays as an excuse for extortion, since they won’t know for sure who “paid up” and who didn’t.
Meanwhile, we need to re-normalize expectations. Here’s my tip: If you have a job now be grateful if you get to keep it in the New Year.