You always have a choice

The phrase “You always have a choice” is extremely prevalent in super hero movies. Ranging from Batman Begins to Spiderman 3 to Wolverine. In whatever situation you’re in, you can do the right thing do the wrong thing or through brute force come up with an alternative that you can force to occur. This really epitomizes the rugged individual and the ideal American to some extent. No matter how down on your luck you always have the choice to be or do something better. The GOP really pushes for this, where many of the candidates argue that they were self made men. I think this is also the root cause for a typical response to the 99% protesters (or someone asking for an increase in minimum wage) – “Get a job.” If the choices are get a job, or not work, the C -brute force response now is – “start your own company” or “make your own job.”

Before, you assume I’m just bashing the GOP, this also comes from the left. The environmental movement also assumes this is possible in regard to personal behavior and reducing your carbon footprint. In many cases they assume that it’s easy for people to change their behavior, because they want to protect the environment. If we wanted to we could drive less, we could buy the less impactful light bulb, we could turn off our computers at night, etc, but people are lazy or don’t care.

So, are the GOP and environmentalists right? We’re all lazy and don’t want to make the right choices? That we don’t want to work or that we don’t want to do what’s right for the environment? I think that for the most part neither is true. You will find freeloaders or people that protest saving electricity by turning on as many lights as possible. However, most people don’t behave that way. So what’s the problem? Why do we have uneven unemployment in some areas, why don’t we all work to save the environment?

It goes back the the choices we can make. One of the big assumptions in economics is that the work force is mobile, that when there’s unemployment in one part of the country people move to where the work is. However, we saw that in the US that isn’t true with this recession. The only people moving were migrant workers which may have been illegal. Why? Why wouldn’t someone with no job in California move to another state to find a job? Well some of it comes down to their ability to move. If they own a house and the choice is to lose everything end up in deeper debt because selling your house (if you could sell it) would leave you hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole with nothing to show for it, do you really have a choice?

In this way our choices are bounded by our situations. A woman may want to drive less because she wants to do what’s best for the environment, but she has a difficult choice. Move closer to work so she could walk and take her children out of a great school and move them into a lower quality school. I think it’s a no brainer which one she would choose. However, let’s say that the schools are the same, her children may not want to move because they’d have to make all new friends. The gains would be very minimal. There are a lot of costs to moving closer to work even if everything else would stay the same. This case also assumes that there’s only one driver. In many cases this choice would involve two people and the trade offs for one driving farther could complete negate the benefits of moving.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that we are able to make whatever choices we want. Our choices are constrained by the circumstances we live in. There are ways to work around these constraints to improve our ability to make choices, but that is not easy and certainly not free. When we make policies that impact choices and make assumptions about people’s ability to make choices we need to be aware of these constraints and work to remove them.

Can technology Save us: Energy Problems

Energy is one of our largest concerns moving forward. We know, at least on some levels, that the technology that is feeding us power isn’t exactly the cleanest technology or power sources. For the most part, the US is powered through coal and natural gas. Between these two roughly two thirds of our power is generated. Both of these power sources need to be extracted from the ground. There are several ways to extract coal from the earth, those of us from Pennsylvania know of both of these. The first is the old fashioned digging of huge mines. In some cases these mines catch on fire and can burn continually until all the coal is burned through. This can take decades or centuries. Not only that, but if you’ve seen ads or the show Coal on Discovery, you know that it’s horribly unhealthy for the miners and can lead to black lung. The other method is mountain top removal, which is less well known but equally destructive. According to a recent study it has removed 500 peaks and eliminated 2,000 miles of streams in the Appalachia mountain range.

Natural gas extraction is equally destructive, but it’s talked about less frequently than mountain top removal. Fracking has been banned in several countries and regulation in US states has been mixed (Ohio very strict PA very lax). However, the US is being compared to Saudi Arabia in terms of the quantity of Natural Gas in the ground (these estimates are highly contested). Because of the abundance natural gas is being touted as the clean alternative to coal. While it is true that natural gas does burn cleaner than coal it still is not a clean reaction. As it is a hydrocarbon molecule it’s reaction does not lead to 100% efficiency and only water as a resultant material. It still produces Carbon DiOxide but at a much lower rate than coal or gasoline (benzine).

While it is strongly debated among politicians the use of coal and natural gas are causing climate change (Obama compared them to Flat Earth Society members), it’s fairly obvious that they cause local pollution levels to increase. However, as we saw from the Iceland volcano ash and other pollutants are able to enter the jet stream and move around the world. This same affect can happen with coal and natural gas power plants.

However, as technology caused a great deal of these problems perhaps it can fix them. One of the first technologies that we should look at is captured carbon sequestering (CCS), which I’ve discussed before. This could help remove the excess carbon in the atmosphere now. However, there are risks it does reduce housing values and can leak to the surface in a similar manner as smoke from a coal fire. However, there has been success in countries like Iceland. While this is small scale, its the appropriate level to be testing in the US. There are several different technologies for CCS and many states in the US could experiment with different technologies. This will allow the selection of the best technology. The US government should encourage testing different technologies through programs at the state level to designed to increase testing different technology. This could include highest capture and lowest leakage rate from the captured location. Companies could then bid on the right to use their technology for the projects. Additionally, as this can be tied to economic benefits such as job creation and pollution reduction, without impacting current power production, it should gain bipartisan support.

Io9 recently had an interesting article about using caves as a method for batteries. This technology, while very very young, would be used in conjunction with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and wave (when that matures more). This would allow for a massive storage area for extremely windy or sunny days to effectively smooth the energy production for a region. In addition it also could be used to buffer from over production for traditional power plants as well. It is difficult to plan for excess demand, but if these caves could be used to store energy from a colder time of the year until the summer it could be used to buffer against increased demand during the hot summer months.

Renewable energy sources must be part of any plan to create a national energy plan for any country. Without these energy independence would be impossible. Creating incentives for home owners and removing barriers, such as home owner associations that are against solar panels, should be a goal of government at several levels. Austin currently has a huge push for renewable energies where something lie 35% or more of the city energy needs should be generated by renewables in 2020. Including individual home owners in this plan will make it easier to reach.

Finally, nuclear reactors will also be required for wide area energy generation. Currently nuclear energy accounts for nearly 20% of US energy production. Developing safer techniques for nuclear energy generation is extremely important with Fukashima and the risk for using the same technology for creation nuclear weapons. Fortunately there are safer materials to use. One of them is called Thorium. This material reacts more safely and cannot be used to create weapons. This type of reactor would also be extremely useful for desalinating water.

To achieve true energy independence we will need to use all of the available materials for energy production. It will likely require a transition period from coal to natural gas to a combination of renewable energy sources and nuclear reactors. This will likely take 20 to 30 years. However, we need to use economic and national security as much as environmental concerns to win the argument. With the current mentality in the US government environmental arguments are not likely to win over many converts. Using job creation, through construction and managing the facility, and the long term economic benefits will likely win over more converts than any other method. Including in the argument a way to capture the pollution as a method of reducing pollution rather than simply require cleaner burning is also likely to win over converts as the GOP tries to defund the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is likely to be a difficult fight to get the US to be independent of foreign energy sources, but it is possible. To do so will require a clear plan of action. Sadly, the US has been lacking that for the past few decades.

Good Byes are never easy

On Saturday I had a going away party in Eindhoven. I’m moving back to Austin tomorrow. I have made some absolutely amazing friends. Friends that have expanded what I think about the world, how the world works and about countries that I never thought I’d make friends from.

It’s been an interesting experience. First living with 7 roommates from all over the world. Walk down stairs and understanding nothing because everyone is speaking Spanish or Urdu. I would then go to class and during the breaks or after class I’d be surrounded by Dutch. With all this going on you’d think I would have done a better job picking up the languages. I know a bit of Dutch, enough to say simple things like “Ik spreek geen Nederlands” or “Spreek je Engels.” Dutch is a hard language to learn because, well it’s a hard language and because nearly the entire country is fluent in English to a level that I can have an in depth discussion about nearly anything.

My friend Greg was telling me that there’s something of a psychological theory related to how Ex-pats adjust to an area they live in. He says that it’s like a parabola. You start out really excited and happy, everything is new and you’re learning a lot. Eventually, the things that were new and interesting become frustrating and just different enough to make it desirable to go home or to be surrounded by people from your culture. It’s easy to understand why there are enclaves of people from the same culture. My Colombian and Mexican friends had the similarity of their languages and a few people that bridged their cultures. I didn’t have anyone from my culture that I was close with, and seeing the closeness of my friends it some times made it even harder because I was essentially adapting to two different cultures at the same time.

During this time, I had to do some growing and try to figure out how to deal with it. I of course continued to throw myself into the two cultures by hanging out with my Dutch friends and my Latin American friends during my first year here. Eventually, after hitting bottom you begin to adjust and accept things are different and figure out ways to work within the system. Things definitely got easier when Brian and Greg moved over here as they are from the US.

I’ve learned so much while being here. Through my education, from my friends from different cultures and just being in a totally different type of place. I’ve learned that I can adapt to truly different and stressful situations. It made me appreciate what I have back in Austin and I think that I’ll be a better friend and husband than I would have been otherwise. I’m more patient and less prone to say rash things. I think that I’ve grown a lot and I can’t help but say it’s because of the support of my friends here and Davianne back home.

Good byes are hard, especially when you know how much of an impact on your life your friends have made. I’d like to thank you all for being in my life and I look forward to continuing to keep in touch. Hopefully I’ll see you in the US and the next time I come to Europe. I also look forward to visiting your countries too!

Denouncing Rush

My friend sent me this email. If women’s rights matter to you, then please read on.
Sandra Fluke is a classmate of mine.  You may have heard of her.  She’s an inspiring woman who worked with victims of domestic violence before coming to law school on a public interest scholarship.  She is the woman who was supposed to testify before congress on birth control but was blocked by republicans.  This was the congressional hearing about birth control in which no woman was allowed to testify.  The statement she had planned to make was later publicized.  Rush Limbaugh completely misrepresented it, called her a slut, and demanded that she post sex tapes online.
Even if you do not believe that birth control should be accessible for contraceptive reasons, or even life-saving medical reasons, I hope you do find it unacceptable for Limbaugh to defame a woman and lie about her testimony. Limbaugh is attempting to bully women out of speaking and create positive publicity for himself. Sign this petition if you want it to backfire on him.  http://dccc.org/pages/denounce-rush
Please forward this to anyone you think would be interested in signing.

Biting the hands that feeds it

Yesterday I read an article which explained that a Republican Congressman berated the head of the National Science Foundation for high gas prices. This is pretty distressing because it shows a clear lack of understanding of the goals of the NSF, the role of industry in innovation, consumers and the policies the Republican party and the US government has in place in regard to fuel usage.

First of all, the NSF is an organization that funds cutting edge research that expands the frontier of science. The goal is not to pick winners at that early of a stage. Picking a technology specifically to reduce the cost of fuel would be that. The goal is to pick the best ideas in a broad range of topics and fund several ideas within the same topic to get competing technologies and research groups. They groups can look at the same problem with a different perspective and lead to very different results, which together could lead to a huge break through (if they each don’t get their own break through or the same one). The goal is to create variety. I’m sure there are tons of projects that are focused on creating alternative fuels and increasing the efficiency of our combustion engines. However, the research isn’t going to be commercializable for 10 to 15 years. That’s just how long it takes. The research we’re funding today will be driving our economy through the next decade. 
If the Congressman wants a better target to go after, he should look to the car companies. There has been research for a large number of years on engine technology, however not all of it has been used to actually improve efficiency. Some times it’s used to increase the power of the vehicle. They do this because that’s what the consumer wants. Americans love their big powerful cars. There’s no reason why my mother in-law NEEDS to drive the extended Tahoe, but she does – she feels safer in her “Battle wagon.” However, the vehicle gets very low gas mileage, which of course is a double whammy when the prices increase. Huge tank and high prices make it expensive. The more gas the vehicle uses the higher the prices will be going. In Europe the gas prices Americans are complaining about are absurdly low. In the Netherlands it’s something like $8/gallon, around $3 of that is in taxes. However, in those countries there are much more fuel efficient vehicles because they have to be. Many of those countries don’t really want people to be driving.
The same car manufacturers that complain about putting minimum fuel economy standards on cars are able to meet higher standards in Europe. The US government could easily play a role in increasing the standards for new vehicles. They may not be doing enough. Continually increasing the standards with higher gas prices will increase the incentives for manufacturing those vehicles. Especially if the US government provides a customer for those cars. This would ensure that the car companies will be able to sell a minimum number of the vehicles without fear of a complete flop of the technology.