Archives: July, 2008

Pickens’ Hot Air

The NYT editorial board is all aquiver over T. Boone Pickens’ plan to increase wind-generated electricity in the United States. A Times editorial gushes:

[Pickens would] develop wind power in states with steady, forceful winds (like Texas) and use it instead of natural gas to produce electricity (natural gas now generates about one-fifth of the power in the United States). He would then use the natural gas saved to fuel cars and trucks. He predicts that oil imports would drop by 40 percent and the country would save $300 billion a year.

Just one problem: Increased wind power may not free up that much natural gas.

Nat gas–fired generation has some important characteristics: Turbine generator nat gas plants are relatively cheap and quick to build, but they can be expensive to operate because the fuel is pricey. The plants can be put into service (“dispatched”) and taken out quickly with little start-up cost. Moreover, nat gas turbine plants can be very small (some are the size of a tractor-trailer) and emit little pollution relative to coal-fired plants, so they can be sited close to (and in) areas of heavy electricity demand.

Given its profile, nat gas generation is often used for “peak” production — that is, used for periods when demand is great and must be satisfied immediately (e.g., hot summer days when air conditioners are running full-blast, “work hours” when factories and offices are consuming a lot of juice) as well as to address localized power problems (e.g., areas that are at risk of brown-outs). This contrasts with coal-, nuclear-, and hydro-powered plants that are expensive to build but relatively cheap to run, that are difficult to idle and to site, and that are used, accordingly, to provide “baseline” power to large areas. (I should note, in charity to Pickens, that nat gas “co-gen” plants are also used as part of the baseline supply.)

Wind-powered generation is an intermittent source of electricity that may not be available during periods of peak demand. Its product, as envisioned by Pickens, would have to be transported over great distances on the nation’s overly-congested power grid — from the “wind-swept plains” to population and manufacturing centers — in order for it to satisfy much of the nation’s energy demand. Thus, it’s unclear how wind-powered electricity can effectively displace much of the 20 percent of U.S. electricity that is currently produced by natural gas. (In contrast, all renewables, combined, produce about 2.4 percent of U.S. electricity.)

If anything, wind-powered generation seems better suited to replace some coal-fired generation (especially in Texas where Pickens is building a $10 billion wind farm and where coal is often the marginal source of power). But since coal isn’t a transportation fuel, this displacement wouldn’t reduce the nation’s dependence on oil — unless there’s a breakthrough in battery technology that would make electric cars more practical. Moreover, if the nation does increase its dependence on wind power, then we would likely have to increase our dependence on nat gas peakers to cover those days when wind isn’t available (which often are those hot days when air conditioners are cranked up).

This is not to say that wind-powered generation should be ignored. The United States will likely overcome its current energy woes through a mixture of technology advances and conservation efforts, and wind may be part of that mix. But Pickens’ claim that wind power could be used to displace 40 percent of U.S. transportation fuel seems like little more than hot air.

Mandelson Does His Bit for Doha

Much has been made (including by me) of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s feud-by-press-release with Peter Mandelson, European Commissioner for Trade, over the EU’s offers in the World Trade Organization’s Doha round of trade talks. And a statement delivered yesterday by Mr. Mandelson clarifies why President Sarkozy feels he can get political mileage out of criticising the EU’s negotiating tactics.

Speaking to the main negotiating group of the WTO at the start of a week of intense negotiations (in the hope of putting this seven-years-old and four-years-overdue round to bed), Mr. Mandelson delivered the EU’s opening statement. The trade press went a bit wild (by trade press standards) when Mr. Mandelson appeards to increase the EUs market access offer in agriculture from an average 54 percent tariff cut to an average 60 percent tariff cut. Other WTO members suggested, and Mr. Mandelson seemed to confirm, that the “improved offer” was really just a recalculation using the type of convoluted accounting tricks favoured by Social Security administration officials. But in amongst Mr. Mandelson’s statement was this gem:

“On agriculture, the EU will be the major net loser in any deal.” (italics in original)

With statements like that from the EU’s chief negotiator and major promoter of the WTO trade talks, is it no wonder that mercantalism is rife in the EU? Mr. Mandelson is (unwittingly?) playing right into the hands of President Sarkozy and other critics of open markets in agriculture.

Farm subsidies in Europe currently account for about 40% of the EU budget, and Europeans currently pay high prices for, among other goods, dairy, sugar, bananas and beef. They deserve a break. While the farmers may fume, the EU would be a net gainer from the Doha Round overall. That’s the message Mr. Mandelson should be delivering to the WTO members and the world at large.

The raison d’etre of the WTO (and the GATT before it) was to allow countries to take politically difficult steps away from serving special interests, like farmers, under cover of promoting exports for other sectors. While I may lament this mercantalist mindset, it has achieved liberalization and avoided a repeat of the tariff wars of the 1930s. But maybe this whole idea has served its purpose. Maybe Brink was on to something.

Terrorist Attacks on Aviation - 11 Per Day!

… or so you would infer from a statistic reported on the Threat Level blog.

Threat Level reports on a new policy that has the Transportation Security Administration doing deep dives into people’s public-record dossiers when they arrive at airports without government-issued ID: “The new rules went into effect June 21, and in the first five days, 1705 people out of 10 million attempted to fly without identification and 59 of those were denied access to the plane.”

Fifty-nine refuseniks in five days works out to more than 11 terrorist attacks thwarted per day.

Of course, these weren’t actually terrorists. These were people whose papers weren’t in order. When this happens, TSA employees at its operations center in Virginia dig into public records databases and relay questions to screeners at the airports. If a traveler passes the test, he or she can fly. If the database information is wrong, or if the traveler is forgetful, he or she is stranded.

We were already quite a long way from getting any actual security benefit out of these programs, but as Threat Level suggests, all one need do to impersonate another is memorize the information about them in public records. I think this will happen most often among siblings and family members, who already know such info. But we’re talking about public records. They are collected, packaged, and sold by services like Lexis-Nexis. Sophisticated criminals and terrorists could get them just like anyone else.

Or they could present government-issued ID, having adopted the “clean-skin terrorist” technique that was recently reported to Capitol Hill by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Riddle Us This

I’m currently attending Cato University – extraordinary academics, so-so athletics – so I’ve neither been able to get to the edublogs in too timely a fashion, nor ruminate extensively on their content. I have, though, managed to get to a few blogs, and couldn’t help but notice a question-and-answer in need of facilitation.

Over at Flypaper – the blog of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation – Mike Petrilli has returned from vacation and not missed a beat in his national-education-standards march. Picking up on a recent Jonathan Alter column dealing largely with crippling teacher-union obstructionism, Petrilli declares that:

if we harnessed the resources we currently spend on our fifty-state system of tests for one common system, we could afford to measure subjects beyond reading and math, online, in a way that encouraged intellectually-challenging schoolwork rather than test prep.

My concern here is not with the money-saving proposition. It’s with the “intellectually-challenging schoolwork” assumption. It goes back to an argument I’ve made many times before, but this time another blogger has brought it up, and one quite different than libertarian ol’ me. Asks Andy Rotherham over at Eduwonk, contemplating the gaming of state tests under No Child Left Behind:

Can someone explain exactly how a national, federal, or “American” in the new parlance, test will be any different?  If indeed there is a political pathology out there to make schools look better, regardless of whether they are better, a proposition that seems pretty spot on to me, then how are the politics somehow so radically different at the national level?  National test proponents have never really answered this question except to point to the NAEP.  But, the NAEP is a no-stakes test right now so it really doesn’t make the point.

Terrific questions, Andy, to which I’d just add: How especially would you expect high-stakes national tests to escape gaming pressures when the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, National School Boards Association, and just about every other major education interest group has its headquarters right in the DC area?

I – and I assume Andy – would love to hear the answers to these questions.  

The Bloggingheads of the Conservative Legal Movement

On May 14 I ran a book forum for Steve Teles’s insightful and provocative new book, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement.  The book is groundbreaking, in part because Teles is neither a lawyer nor a conservative – yet remains completely objective and analytical toward his subject matter.  Well, it seems that the book tour/publicity train keeps going, and yesterday Steve appeared on that vaunted new media institution, bloggingheads, opposite Newsday columnist and Fox News commentator Jim Pinkerton.    I’ve only watched a brief bit so far, but it looks pretty good.

Pre-K Pushers Pathologically Panglossian?

The preschool evangelists will not shrivel before arguments or facts, for they believe. Their faith in preschool is strong and pure.

Just because the short-term gains for low-income students don’t last doesn’t mean they can’t last. If we can just make all preschools high-quality, and then make all elementary schools high-quality, and then make all high-schools high-quality, and then make all parents high-quality … then preschool might sustain something other than negligible improvements.

Perhaps, but almost certainly not.

More likely, if we had all high-quality schools and parents we’d once again find that whether a child learns her letters at 4 instead of 5 doesn’t make one flea-hair’s bit of difference by the time she (hopefully) graduates high-school.

Finland should give the preschool activists pause. It doesn’t, but it should.

Children don’t begin formal schooling until around 7. At first, no surprise, they don’t score as well as many countries who park their kids in classrooms at age 3 or 4. By high school, however, Finland’s students are at the top of the pack internationally, and far outperform the laggard US.

So why this national obsession with preschool? Is it to take the blame off of our ossified government k-12 system? More money for the teachers unions?

I don’t think Sara Mead and many of her fellow travelers are henchmen for the union bosses.

Perhaps it provides hope to progressives who place their faith in the power of government but have witnessed only an unyielding failure to sustain effective and meaningful reform in the government k-12 school system.

Perhaps preschool offers a distraction from the despair and fatalism fostered by so obvious a failure of the public sector. A crusade to invigorate the faithful.

Preschool is not our educational salvation, and “reform” of a moribund government k-12 system is a fool’s errand.

The most certain way to improve academic performance and life outcomes for all students in this country, rich and poor, is to expand educational freedom. Oh, and it would save each state billions of dollars too.

Look for more soon in what will soon be the inaccurately-named Preschool Tetralogy