Steering the Titanic

by Martin Harris

A single recent event-sequence, largely unreported by the print-and-electronic Main Stream Media but documented heavily in a one-time analysis by The Wall Street Journal, reveals a remarkable turn-around in what’s probably the single most important sector for national economic (and therefore social) well-being: energy. Here’s a quote: “America will halve its reliance on Middle East Oil by the end of this decade and end it completely by 2035…” For the full story, go to the A Section of the 27 June issue, where you’ll find confirmed what you already suspected: the remarkable recent and sudden reversal of economic (and military, and financial, and social, and so on) prospects has been set in motion entirely by private-sector initiative even though it has been almost entirely opposed by governmental policy. Neat irony: a few days before the Fourth, we learn (from one media-voice, anyway) of a new Declaration of (energy) Independence as important in the 21st century as the first was in the 18th. Just like last time, it’s happening now as a result of private-citizen efforts opposed by government. It’s what might have happened in the North Atlantic near Newfoundland the night of 14-15 April 1912 if the passengers had removed a stubborn captain-and-officers from the bridge of the Titanic and substituted their own, superior, steering judgment.

If you’ll allow the analogy, the two events (and different outcomes) both stem from ideology. In 1912 the White Star Line had a single motive: full power and an Atlantic-crossing record, no diversion from course or reduction of speed; today it’s a “green” economy structured around forcing national productivity reductions via the most expensive energy sources in sharply lesser quantities than the more available and larger-quantity ones, both non-fossil (nuclear) and fossil (oil and gas). You might allow that Captain Edward John Smith then had better odds of missing an iceberg than a Nation or State (think Vermont) now has, when it opts into deliberately constructing policy to reduce energy availability and consumption by raising price and thereby causing unavoidable economic contraction. You might also allow that Captain Smith didn’t seek his collision, but national and State (think Vermont, again) specifically do seek theirs. The on-going campaign to remove a full third of Vermont’s electric power from its citizens, with no intent or even possibility of same-cost replacement, adequately proves that point. Just as national leaders have openly hoped and claimed, “…energy costs will necessarily skyrocket…” so Vermont leaders have made clear their wish for citizens to pay more, use less, and reduce standard-of-living and economic activity accordingly. But there’s a difference in citizen response, national vs. VT: if you’ll permit yet another analogy, consider that in 49 States there’s Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of economic activity, the un-coordinated but ultimately same-direction efforts of uncounted individuals to retrieve, sell, and distribute more energy, finding and using almost entirely new domestic sources of oil and gas, and in so doing winning out over governmental efforts at prevention; but in one State (VT) there’s broad electoral support for prevention of exploration and for “investment” of public funds in crony-capitalism forays into the green-energy –wind, bio-fuel, etc.—with the subsidy-demanding “winners” linked to names-in-government in various ways. Private enterprise in States from Ohio to the Dakota’s has made available at sharply lower prices totally new sources of power, boosting citizen prosperity, and State economies, while national prevention has shut down pipeline applications (think Keystone XL), denied drilling permits (think Virginia) and sought to outlaw new technologies (think hydro-fracturing). And there’s Vermont, where oil and gas exploration have been forbidden, with apparent broad voter support, and now gas will be brought in from remote and invisible places by pipeline. On public lands and waters, government all-ahead-full reduce-energy policy wins. On private lands, now even in cemeteries and golf courses) the crew has side-lined the officers and is steering the ship of state to avoid the economic iceberg.

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It’s often argued that government can steer as well as citizens, and the early computers are offered in evidence. They were designed, built, and used in the WWII years to calculate artillery trajectories. If there weren’t subsequently, a Bill Gates and a Steve Jobs, an IBM and a Dell, would the ENIAC technology still be using vacuum tubes for the same limited military purpose? Maybe so. After all, that innovation –automated calculating—originally came from private initiative: the 18th century English textile industry. So, originally, did all the others which have contributed to our contemporary standard-of-living: rail, air, and auto travel, ever-lower-cost food, ever-better medicine, previously-unknown luxury of precise living-space heating and cooling, ever-increasing percentages of population in the service sectors as the more basic sectors, via ever-lower-cost energy, substituted machine effort for human labor. For a while, the make-energy-rare-and- expensive advocates could argue “Peak Oil” –that fossil fuels were an ever-shrinking resource with maximum known reserves recorded in the early 70’s– but now, private enterprise is disproving that enviro thesis and its best-known Congressional voice, Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, has become suddenly silent on his favorite subject.

Even as private initiative has succeeded in reversing the Peak Oil doctrine by finding ever more of the stuff, it has simultaneously gone beyond petroleum –a little British Petroleum lingo there—to seek opportunity (and profit—that’s how capitalism works) in such esoteric subjects as cold fusion, advanced geo-thermal, even such “green” energies as algae-fuel, some with governmental approval and even research grants, most without, because the concepts are out beyond the bureaucratic imagination-horizon. Eventually, no doubt, some or many will prove feasible and, when adopted, will raise living standards by improving human productivity via less labor and lower costs. Compare that objective with the goals of those in government who seek to increase labor requirements –reducing crop yields, for example– and raise energy costs –reducing kilowatt availability, as in VT—and thereby lower both productivity and living standards. With the crew now steering the Titanic, the old captain’s argument of imminent oil shortage with ever higher price having been disproven, the new thesis is energy-price reduction now with newly-abundant oil and gas, and more energy price reduction in the future as such breakthroughs as cold fusion come on line. We’ve seen this sequence of events before in human history: our ancestors didn’t advance out of the Stone Age only because they ran out of stones.