The Long View 2004-03-26: Other Paths to Power

When it comes to energy, I am as interested as the next guy in new technologies, but I have boundless skepticism, nay cynicism, about them all. As it turns out, the oil market predictions John copied here from the National Interest seemed pretty plausible for most of the last 15 years, and then fracking finally dropped the bottom out of the market. However, it sure didn't look that way for a long time.


Other Paths to Power

Once again, I want to thank those readers who are buying books through this site. I maintain the blog, and the rest of the site, in large part for the intelligent feedback. Nonetheless, the commission fees from Amazon are also good evidence that someone is listening.

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Speaking of gratuities, The National Interest recently sent its readers a "Special Energy Supplement." The National Interest are the folks who gave us Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, which many people disagreed with, but which no one concerned with foreign affairs escaped talking about. It could quickly be the same with the issues raised by the four articles in this supplementary pamphlet. There are three points you should keep in mind:

(1) For the first time, the demand for oil soon really will exceed supply;

(2) The chief sources of new oil that we know about are in Russia;

(3) The chief market for new oil, and the reason for point (1), is the explosive economic growth of China.

The rise of the Chinese economy means that the US and associated developed countries will lose leverage over the suppliers. The US and Saudi Arabia, for instance, traditionally had each other over a barrel. The US and Europe needed the Kingdom as a supplier, but then the Saudis needed the US and Europe as customers. The same has been true of Russia since the mid-1980s: the supplier-consumer relationship ensured a measure of cooperation on all issues. However, China (and soon India) are enormous alternative consumers. This will give the suppliers much more room to maneuver on other issues.

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Perhaps you think that fossil fuels are just too tacky for words. Well, somewhat to my surprise, I recently had occasion to link to a legitimate story about cold fusion. At the time, I did not know the half of the continuing research in this area. Now The New York Times reports that the US Department of Energy is giving the question a second look:

Despite being pushed to the fringes of physics, cold fusion has continued to be worked on by a small group of scientists, and they say their figures unambiguously verify the original report, that energy can be generated simply by running an electrical current through a jar of water.

Last fall, cold fusion scientists asked the Energy Department to take a second look at the process, and last week, the department agreed...

Some cold fusion scientists now say they can produce as much as two to three times more energy than in the electric current. The results are also more reproducible, they say. They add that they have definitely seen fusion byproducts, particularly helium in quantities proportional to the heat generated.

Things have reached the point where there is even a language issue. Some people prefer the term "low-energy fusion," since these table-top reactions are not really cold. If you ask me, though, "cold fusion" should be used if we can get away with it. Cold fusion sounds like it has something to do with wrap-around sunglasses. Low-energy fusion smacks of malingering.

The place to start if you want to familiarize yourself with all this is Infinite Energy magazine. I would be more reassured, however, if the top page on that site did not also mention anti-gravity.

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There is an old theory on the reactionary right (the real reactionary right, not to be confused with conservatives or libertarians). It holds that liberal democracies are doomed, because, in international affairs, they necessarily lacked the persistence and focus of autocracies. Sometimes, when I listen to John Kerry or Howard Dean, I start to think this too, but it's nonsense: the historical record is clear that liberal societies beat every other kind of society hollow. A clue to why this should be may be found in Peggy Noonan's March 25 column on the recent 911 hearings:

One summer day in the late 1990s I had a long talk with an elected official who was a friend and longtime political supporter of President Clinton. I asked him why, if Bill Clinton cared so much about his legacy, he didn't take steps to make America safer from terrorism. Why didn't he make it one of his big issues? We were at lunch in a New York restaurant, and I gestured toward the tables of happy people drinking golden-colored wine in gleaming glasses. They're all going to get sick when we get nuked, I said; they'd honor your guy for having warned and prepared. Yes, the official said, but you have to understand that Clinton is purely a poll driven politician, and if the numbers aren't there he won't move.

Too bad, I thought, because the numbers will someday be there.

The strength of democracy is that sometimes the numbers are there. That is more than even the most fearsome totalitarian state can say. The Soviet Union collapsed because its rulers never really thought of themselves as legitimate, and so never dared asked their people for anything more than submission. Nazi Germany lost the Second World War because the leadership feared to risk unpopularity by putting the economy on a war footing. Britain, in contrast, was the most thoroughly mobilized of all the combatants; even more so than Stalin's USSR. The very qualities that enabled Britain to do that, however, also made it possible for the country to entertain the self-delusion and evasion that prevailed in the 1930s. Sometimes, what looks like a fatal weakness is really a latent strength.

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Through the miracle of quantum tunneling, I have obtained the following excerpt from a parallel-universe edition of The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, March 24--President Bush's former counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, testified on Wednesday to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that the Bush administration systematically discounted long-standing evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda in order to pursue a fast, politically popular war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. "It was a case of the drunk looking for his lost wallet under the street lamp," Mr. Clarke told the commission. "The drunk has no reason to believe what he seeks is there. He looks there because that's the only place he can see."

The accusations come in the wake of Monday's suicide bombing against the US Air Force base at Al Hila, Saudi Arabia, in which the bomber and 20 Air Force personnel were killed. The number of deaths of US military personnel from terrorist acts in the Middle East since the invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001 have now reached 150.

Mr. Clarke's dramatic testimony overshadowed the earlier appearance of George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, who emphasized the continuity of the Clinton and Bush administrations' policy. "Both the presidents I have served recognize the greatest danger threatening the American homeland today to be the confluence of the development of weapons of mass destruction by hostile states and the existence of terrorist groups willing to deliver them," Mr. Tenet remarked. "However, we can do only so much at once."

Mr. Tenet could not confirm reports that Iran and Libya had secretly developed a nuclear capability, but rejected the assertion that those countries' nuclear programs might have been encouraged by the failure of the US to take decisive action against Iraq.

The hearings are being held in at atmosphere dominated by Democratic complaints that the Bush administration has taken the path of least resistence against the terrorist threat. Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry told the annual meeting of the National Psycho-Social Service Workers Union yesterday, "When I am president, you can be sure, I will not allow dangers to gather until they pose an imminent threat."

At the hearings, Mr. Clarke had this to say about whether the Bush team had enough new information about Iraq after the September 11 attacks to justify an attempt to remove the government by force:

"We haven't known what has been happening in Iraq since the UN inspectors left in 1998. All we know for sure is that it's worse."   

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