Thursday, June 26, 2008

Step with me now, into the future…

…where you carry your telephone with you when you leave the house and all of the cars are fueled by electricity!

Well, maybe.
We’re told that the US is suffering from the great “gas crisis”; apparently, Americans paying the same prices for gas as the rest of the world qualifies as a crisis. Voters are crying for the government to do something, for God’s sake, to control the markets and “out-of-control speculation”! And who’s opposed to socialism now? They blame the gas company fat cats, and I’ve been called an “extremist” and a “peak oil preacher” for pointing out that petrol is a finite natural resource that takes millions of years to renew. So, all I will say now is nyah-na nya-na-na!

The President, true to form, has blamed everyone else, and gone to the Saudis to beg them to pump out more oil. If there’s anything more humiliating for Americans than a US President grabbing his ankles and telling the Saudis to start drilling, it’s probably only the fact that Celine Dion lives in the states now. That’s all I can think of.

Of the two Presidential candidates, McCain is so far leading the contest to make believe that the state can fix this problem. His gas tax holiday idea was pandering, and his drop-in-the-bucket offshore drilling idea is even more so, but people seem to be falling for it. After all, it appeals to that old bedtime story that goes: “You could totally have whatever you wanted, but those stupid radicals won’t let you!”

On the other hand, he’s getting warmer in offering money to whoever can design the ideal car battery: this is what is going to solve the problem in the next decade. One has to wonder though why the state should be funding research and development for the car companies, especially since the person who develops the ideal battery is already going to make a fortune. Andrew Sullivan argues that McCain just doesn’t seem to understand the free market. But, he could see what’s coming and be trying to take undeserved credit for it, like Al Gore with the World Wide Interweb.

Even more depressing, Barack Obama has supposedly been touting ethanol, which should make him popular with farmers in the same way that supporting a lobster-powered car would win him my dad’s vote. It’s not really a solution either. The ethanol dream is dying slowly, but die it must.

I bow to the superior knowledge of gearheads on this, and the ones I’ve spoken to have said that hydrogen would be the best solution. It’s not hard to produce and a hydrogen-burning car would emit water vapor as waste. It would take years to put in hydrogen fueling stations, but it’s a project that the government could actually handle and it would put people to work.

Alas, it seems that the electric car will become a reality sooner. Renault aims to develop one by 2010, as do Toyota and General Motors. GM’s plan for a plug-in car is somewhat inspiring: executives have invested a fortune in the project, saying that John Kennedy didn’t talk about getting to the moon “sometime”. I suspect we will be driving the things within the decade. One irritation: the electric car is whisper-quiet and people have worried that old people will be run over crossing the road; so, they’re developing a fake engine noise to go with it. I’d be okay with a few old people getting hit if I could have a nice quiet walk.

So, the “greedy” car companies will solve the problem they created, while the government will do very little, hopefully. I suppose this is why I lean more towards the libertarian left- I don’t think the state can, or should, solve these sorts of problems. I’m skeptical that the invisible pocket-picking hand of the free market can either, but at least, if you’re sick of GM, you can force them to change simply by doing what I did- replacing a gas guzzler with a Toyota Yaris. Or ride a bike. With the state, you have two guys offering fake solutions, and if you don’t like one fake solution, you have to wait four years to pick the guy with the other fake solution.

I will say though, as an admirer of American muscle cars, that a part of me will likely get a little nostalgic when I watch movies like Vanishing Point with my gearhead relatives.


narrator said...

Here's how the state acts... there are fuel efficient cars in Europe because the governments have taxed the hell out of petrol for 60 years. Then they've spent that tax money on mass transit. So car companies developed cars which could, financially, compete with mass transit. Such cars do not exist in the US because the government has had opposite policies. EuroSocialism works because it pushes capitalists to respond to human needs. American capitalism doesn't work because... well, Adam Smith was wrong, as John Nash proved.

Anyway, hydrogen works if the French government is running the nuclear program, because producing hydrogen is virtually free as a byproduct of nuclear energy generation. Of course if GE is involved under the US regulatory scheme, we'll accidentally blow up Philadelphia again. It's a competency thing.

And ethanol could work for the US if we make peace with Cuba, sugar cane ethanol is great. Corn ethanol is stupid.

Rufus said...

I do think that we're going to wind up changing the way the country is organized. First off, I think the suburbs will lose a lot of people in the next decade as they move closer to work and cheaper housing. Secondly, I think there's a lot of pressure to build more mass transit. When I was studying in the U of Toronto library, I could skip the hour drive and take the train in every morning and still save money.

Incidentally, I think George Will has also suggested raising gas taxes as the most "conservative" way to address the problem. I'm not sure if I think of that as being nearly as "socialist" as our weird welfare program for corporations.

Rufus said...

Also, since I think they're going to be building a lot of nuclear plants in the future, we might get a hydrogen car. It would certainly be nice to have the choice between electric and hydrogen. As for ethanol, I agree that corn ethanol is stupid, but isn't it really tough to grow cane sugar? It used to be called a "killing crop" because it was so hard to grow. Has that changed?

narrator said...

It is still really hard work to harvest cane sugar, but what both Brasil and Cuba have found is that, if it is valued at a high enough rate (and as an oil substitute it is), it can employ a hell of a lot of people. Then it is not nearly so murderous.