Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Public Choice: rational ignorance, pork and rent-seeking

[The] Idea that when people go to the polls they are knowledgeable is ludicrous.

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That is just one of the illuminations from Don Boudreaux, chair of the department of economics at George Mason, in the recent Econtalk discussion  “Don Boudreaux on Public Choice”. One of the firm results of Public Choice Theory is often expressed in the shorthand “rational ignorance”. This result is a consequence of two facts — that information is not free, while the deciding impact of an individual’s vote is nearly zero. So the payoff from investing in the study and critical thinking required to place an informed vote is effectively zero, while the cost is relatively high. I.e., just to study a single issue (say energy policy) requires many hours of time that alternatively could have been invested in family time, or in better job qualifications, or …

What’s the point? The problem is concentrated benefits, diffuse costs. A smaller government is less likely to do harm than a bigger government. It is impossible for voters to know what the federal government is up to. In practice they do not know the impact nor effectiveness of what competing politicians are proposing. A smaller government presents less opportunity for politicians to divert taxpayer’s earnings to pay off supporters (pork). A smaller government presents less opportunity for rent-seeking by interests that influence government to provide them special benefits.

For background I recommend the short summary of Public Choice at the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Here is a descriptive excerpt:

(…) In modeling the behavior of individuals as driven by the goal of utility maximization—economics jargon for a personal sense of well-being—economists do not deny that people care about their families, friends, and community. But public choice, like the economic model of rational behavior on which it rests, assumes that people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests and, more important, that the motivations of people in the political process are no different from those of people in the steak, housing, or car market. They are the same human beings, after all. As such, voters “vote their pocketbooks,” supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off; bureaucrats strive to advance their own careers; and politicians seek election or reelection to office. Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics.

Don’t forget that the primary motivation of politicians is to stay in office, to get re-elected. Forget “public good”, that is just romance. Public Choice is “politics without the romance” (James Buchanan).

The Lessons of Public Choice

One key conclusion of public choice is that changing the identities of the people who hold public office will not produce major changes in policy outcomes. Electing better people will not, by itself, lead to much better government. Adopting the assumption that all individuals, be they voters, politicians, or bureaucrats, are motivated more by self-interest than by public interest evokes a Madisonian perspective on the problems of democratic governance. Like that founding father of the American constitutional republic, public choice recognizes that men are not angels and focuses on the importance of the institutional rules under which people pursue their own objectives. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself” (Federalist, no. 51).

Institutional problems demand institutional solutions. If, for example, democratic governments institutionally are incapable of balancing the public budget, a constitutional rule that limits increases in spending and taxes to no more than the private sector’s rate of growth will be more effective in curbing profligacy than “throwing the rascals out.” Given the problems endemic to majority-rule voting, public choice also suggests that care must be exercised in establishing the domains of private and collective choice; that it is not necessarily desirable to use the same voting rule for all collective decisions; and that the public’s interest can be best protected if exit options are preserved by making collective choices at the lowest feasible level of political authority.

For more resources on informed voting, I highly recommend Bryan Caplan’s 2007 book Myth of the Rational Voter.

What can we do before it is too late?

This depressing chart is from Roger Pielke Jr.'s Clean Energy Stagnation.

As I’ve been thinking through “what can we do before it is too late?” the easy out is to leave our fate in the hands of China. If current trends continue China, India and their fast-developing brethren nations, will account for the majority of GHG emissions in the next century. China and India are also among the short-list of nations that are actually doing something about decarbonizing.

If the west continues “fiddling while Rome burns”, China will eventually offer to sell us the nuclear machines that will allow us to escape from our folly. Actually, it would be wonderful to wake up tomorrow to read that China has already covered our collective frivolous bums, having just closed a turn-key contract to supply Indonesia with 100 new 25 to 500 MWe nuclear plants. That would mean that Indonesia's fast-growing industrial economy will soon have affordable electricity all over the archipelago.

But do we really want to just give up, and leave the innovation, engineering, production challenges all to China? Surely the west still has something of value to offer? If we do have useful knowhow, then we would be smart to make the best deals with China that we can before the price of our decaying skills drops any further. If we can create a joint-venture cooperative fast-track with China everybody wins, and westerners can make big piles of money. Maybe even get to create some nuclear jobs and skills back home.

Deploying all of the advanced nuclear designs is the best way I know to select out the best tools to end energy poverty while protecting the planet. Consider such as TerraPower, FHR, IFR, MSR, LFTR, PB-AHTR. Reading that short list of innovations – it is so obvious that America hasn't the social capability to deploy even one of them. In the current political state, the Yanks just cannot do it. Given the political will, the Brits, French and Swedes could work together to make a big contribution. Otherwise the energy future belongs to Asia.

That's fine with me – what is important is to see coal plants being replaced by nuclear everywhere. More posts on nuclear cooperation worth China…

 

James Hansen: World’s Greatest Crime against Humanity and Nature

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If you’ve not yet read James Hansen’s latest letter I encourage you to do so. I hesitated to write anything after reading it – I didn’t want to write something inflammatory. Most of this will be familiar to those who have been thinking about climate and energy policy. Still, Dr. Hansen’s words are heavy with the frustration that we all feel. Following is an excerpt regarding the enormous cost of the worst US policy decisions:

Nuclear scientists were ready in 1976 to build a demonstration fast nuclear power plant. However, the project was stopped by President Jimmy Carter in his first State-of-the-Union message. Research continued at a low level until 1993 when President Bill Clinton delivered an intended coup de grace, declaring “We are eliminating programs that are no longer needed, such as nuclear power research and development.” Clinton was caving in to a quasi-religious anti-nuke minority in the Democratic Party, whose unrealistic “belief” was that diffuse renewable energies could satisfy all energy needs.

R&D on advanced technologies, including thorium reactors with the potential to ameliorate remaining concerns about nuclear power, was stifled, seemingly because it was too promising. Powerful anti-nuclear forces had their way with the Democratic Party. “Green” organizations had indoctrinated themselves in anti-nuclear fervor, and their intransigence blinded them to the fact that they were nearly eliminating the one option for abundant clean electricity with inexhaustible fuel and a small planetary footprint.

The enormity of anti-nuclear policy decisions would be difficult to exaggerate. It meant China and other developing nations would have no choice but to burn massive coal amounts, if they wished to raise their living standards. It meant our children and grandchildren faced near certainty of large climate change. None of the developing nations and none of our descendants had any voice in the decision.

I cannot blame President Clinton. We scientists should have made clearer that there is a limited “carbon budget” for the world, i.e., a limit on the amount of fossil fuels that could be burned without assuring disastrous future consequences. We should have made clear that diffuse renewables cannot satisfy energy needs of countries such as China and India. It seems we failed to make that clear enough.

The United States, as the leader in nuclear R&D, had an opportunity not only to help find a carbon-free path for itself, but also to aid countries such as China and India. Indeed, such aid was an obligation. The United States had already used its share of the “carbon budget” and was beginning to eat into China’s.

Perhaps our leaders, and certainly the public, did not really understand the implications of decisions made more than two decades ago. But there can no longer be such excuse. If we do not now do what is still possible to minimize climate change and eliminate air pollution, will it not be a crime against future generations and nature? Will it not be a crime of one people against another?

(…snip…)

I have been promoting intensifying nuclear power cooperation with China to accelerate China’s substitution of nuclear for coal; to bring forward the date of “China’s last coal plant”. Dr. Hansen is pressing hard for the same goals:

What the United States should do is cooperate with China and assist in its nuclear development. The AP- 1000 is a fine nuclear power plant, incorporating several important safety improvements over existing plants in the United States, which already have an excellent safety record. There has been only one serious accident among 100 reactors, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, and it did not kill anyone. However, further advances in nuclear plants beyond AP-1000 are possible and the large demand in China allows rapid progress and building at a scale that can drive down unit cost.

China has initiated nuclear R&D programs, including cooperation with American universities and firms. Cooperation with our universities and the private sector could be expanded rapidly, and areas of relevant excellence persist in some Department of Energy Laboratories despite inadequate levels of support. Training of nuclear engineers and operators in the U.S. could help assure safe operations during a challenging period of rapid expansion. Benefits of cooperation in technology development can eventually circle back to United States industry and utility sectors as cost effective power plants are perfected.

I won’t say enjoy World’s Greatest Crime against Humanity and Nature, but please do share.

Nuclear City: it’s happening in Shanghai and Berkeley

As we try to understand what is really going on in China’s advanced reactor developments, one of the sources has been Mark Halper @markhalper. Mark covered the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 (ThEC13), held at CERN in Geneva last November China eyes thorium MSRs for industrial heat, hydrogen; revises timeline

From Mark’s reports I learned that one of the presentations was by a key figure, Xu Hongjie of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai. Hongjie is the director of what China dubs the “Thorium Molten Salt Reactor” (TMSR) project. One of his slides is shown above, presenting an overview of the TMSR priorities (left side) and the timelines. Happily the Chinese are also focused on the process heat applications of the PH-AHTR (hydrogen to methanol etc.) and the huge benefits to a water impoverished region like China. The Chinese are demonstrating systems-thinking at scale.

There are two Chinese MSR programs:

  • TMSR-SF or solid fuel, which looks to me to be very similar to Per Peterson’s PB-AHTR program at UC Berkeley
  • TMSR-LF or liquid fuel, which I gather is similar to popular LFTR concept.

Both designs are derivative of the Weinberg-driven Oak Ridge (ORNL) molten salt reactor program (that was cancelled by politicians in the 1960s). I understand the PB-AHTR to be most ready for early deployment, which will lay critical foundations for the liquid fuel TMSR-LF (LFTR) implementation a decade or so later. UC Berkeley’s Catalyst magazine has a very accessible summary of the PB-AHTR program.

Mark Halper reported from the Geneva Thorium Energy Conference. The 

I proposed a few days ago a China – OECD cooperation to fast-track deployment of nuclear instead of coal. Fortunately, the Chinese and several of the US labs and universities seem to have figured this out without my help. This is probably all detailed somewhere online, but I’ve not been able to find it so far. These are the parties to the China – US cooperation:

  • Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
  • University of California Berkeley
  • University of Washington

I apologize to anyone I’ve left out.

 

Nuclear City: updates

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Update: Will F @NeedsMorePower in Melbourne (Will’s blog) sent me the announcement Construction of Chinese ‘Nuclear City’ to start at Haiyan in Zhejiang province. And Martin Burkle sent the same press release with the comment 

Since we spent twice the money to build the same thing as China spends, we need about 350 million to get the city started. That seems unlikely.

Indeed – China can make progress faster in the “politically sensitive zones” that aren’t favored by the establishment. So where is China on the road to fast deployment of zero-carbon nuclear energy? So far I’ve not been successful to find out what progress has been completed with the “China Nuclear Power City” since the initial press release (I am finding mostly 404 bad links). Here’s an excerpt from the original press release that Will and Martin sent me:

Plans are advancing for the construction of the first industrial park in China to help with the rapid development of the country’s nuclear power industry, with detailed engineering and construction preparation work at the site in Haiyan, Zhejiang province, expected to start soon.

The coastal city of Haiyan, on the Yangtze Delta, has been selected to house the ‘Nuclear City’. It is some 118 kilometres (70 miles) southwest of Shanghai and close to the cities of Hangzhou, Suzhou and Ningbo. It also lies midway along China’s coast, where several nuclear power plants have been constructed or are planned.

…CNNC and the Zhejiang government plan to accelerate the construction of the nuclear components centre and training centre in Haiyan. The central area of the industrial park and the exhibition centre was to be launched first in July 2010. Enterprises in the industrial park will enjoy priority for bidding quota, bidding training, qualification guidance and specific purchasing with CNNC.

China will reportedly spend some $175 billion over the next ten years on developing the 130 square-kilometre Haiyan Nuclear City.

The Haiyan nuclear industrial park is entitled to all the preferential benefits granted to national economic and technological zones and national hi-tech industrial zones.

The Nuclear City is expected to have four main areas of work: development of the nuclear power equipment manufacturing industry; nuclear training and education; applied nuclear science industries (medical, agricultural, radiation detection and tracing); and promotion of the nuclear industry.

On its website, the Haiyan Nuclear City said that it will be based on the Burgundy region of France, which successfully became an industrial centre for the French nuclear industry. Several small and medium sized French nuclear-related companies moved to Burgundy to actively participate in the global market.

Whatever has happened since the announcement, I take this as a positive indication that the Chinese leadership is thinking seriously about how to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon nuclear. 

Working out what is really happening in China is challenging. For example, reading the WNA China Nuclear Fuel Cycle, I find the identical quote (as above) on “China Nuclear Power City” in Haiyan. Then at the bottom of the section on Industrial Parks I find this:

In May 2013 CGN and CNNC announced that their new China Nuclear Fuel Element Co (CN- FEC) joint venture would build a CNY 45 billion ($7.33 billion) complex in Daying Industrial Park at Zishan town in Heshan and Jiangmen city, Guangdong province. It was to be established during the 12th Five-Year Plan and be fully operational by 2020. However, in July 2013 the plan was abruptly cancelled. The 200 ha park was to involve 1000 tU/yr fuel fabrication as well as a conversion plant (14,000 t/yr) and an enrichment plant, close to CGN’s Taishan power plant.

Dear readers – I would appreciate links to current information. Comments?

Nuclear City: how to help China choose to build new nuclear instead of coal power

Carbon emissions increase 3% per year

Fig. 4. (a) Energy intensity, defined as energy consumption (Gt of oil equivalent) divided by real gross domestic product (trillions of 2005 U.S. $), and (b) carbon intensity, defined as fossil fuel carbon emissions (GtC) divided by energy consumption (Gt of oil equivalent). Energy intensity of China is normalized to 1.56 that of the United States in 2005. — James Hansen 2014

How are we doing on transitioning off fossil fuels? Renewables activists would have us think we are making more progress every year. In truth, we are making less, not more, progress towards zero-carbon emissions. The global production from non-hydro renewables is about equal to one years growth in energy consumption. At the end I’ll offer further evidence on just how serious our situation is.

As a thought experiment, imagine that less developed regions (LDRs) such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia were building 100% new nuclear plants instead of coal plants. In this imaginary future, we would be close to stabilizing the GHG concentration of our atmosphere. I say “close to”, because if the LDRs are willing to choose nuclear over coal, there is no-problem-whatever with USA, UK, EU accomplishing the same.

Can you imagine China and other fast-growing LDRs giving up coal? I absolutely can imagine it.

Rich country politicians and media spend most of their time talking about what rich countries should do. Not about what China will decide to do based on self-interest. For now, let’s stop talking about rich countries. Instead, let’s talk about what we can do that makes China decide to grow their energy supply using only low-carbon options.

To keep it simple, let’s just talk about China – as a proxy for all the less developed nations (LDRs). China has already demonstrated that:

  • The leadership wants to decarbonize their economy.
  • They will not sacrifice significant economic growth to build zero-carbon power.
  • China will do whatever it takes to avoid a shortfall of energy supply relative to demand.

If we could deliver to Beijing the whole technology package for low-cost, fast-build nuclear the leaders would be very interested. I do not think that political motivation to decarbonize is the main problem in China.

Alternatively, we can keep doing what we are doing. In the absence of any serious political leadership, dedicated scientists and engineers in the national labs, universities and a few startups are working hard to innovate. They are developing new nuclear designs that are walk-away safe, fast to mass-manufacture, mass/volume efficient and fast to deploy. None have enough funding to innovate at any reasonable speed.

Worse is that to actually bring their new design to the market is effectively impossible – both in cost and elapsed time. The innovators must pay the entire cost of teaching the NRC staff about their new technology, then pay to the NRC the entire cost of certification, then pay the cost of building first of a kind commercial scale plant, while creating a complex supply chain that suits the new technology. And so forth. Such institutional barriers also mean that nuclear innovation does not suit venture capital funding, where most funds would expire long before the product began to earn a return.

To make this innovation remotely feasible requires a complete reform of the regulatory framework, and a top level commitment by the national leadership to actually decarbonize. What do you think is the chance that this is going to happen in America? At least before such time as Norwegian beachfront becomes a hot vacation property market.

OK, so it isn’t going to happen in America. Not in Germany. Not even in France. Keep in mind that among the western nations there are powerful, entrenched political and economic interests who are quite happy with the status quo. And extremely unhappy with the prospect that the old hydrocarbon economy would be uncompetitive against carbon free nuclear energy.

These institutional impediments are similar to that faced by low-performance political systems. You can easily name many such nations just in South America and Africa. China had a similar problem coming out from under the curse of Mao. Deng Xiaoping knew he had to liberate the Chinese economy, including attracting foreign direct investment from the “running dog capitalists.” If Deng had tried to reform the entire Chinese nation at once, well he would have had his legs cut off in a heartbeat. The Army and the wealthy who controlled the SOEs would make sure that the status quo was not destabilized.

Deng wondered whether the Hong Kong model could be replicated in new locations that would not threaten the entrenched interests? Maybe in a place like Shenzhen (one of the first four Special Economic Zones). If that worked, then politically it would be much easier to progressively extend the new successful rules to the rest of China. That is roughly the path that Deng Xiaoping set for China.

Oversimplifying, Deng’s SEZ initiative is similar to the concept that prof. Paul Romer has been evolving around the term “Charter Cities“. These are new development zones “chartered” with proven-successful rules. These charters allow families to opt-in to live and work there; allow investors to opt-in to build infrastructure and factories. Therefore creating a competition of cities: competing for residents, investors and markets.

Why can’t we adapt the Charter City concept to create a Nuclear City SEZ? A place where:

  • Taxes and rule-of-law are attractive to investors.
  • Efficient, suitable regulations can be developed.
  • Ample sites are available for constructing new reactors, from demonstration to commercial scale.
  • The new nuclear supply chain can be grown.
  • Factories and skilled labor can be developed to produce as many designs as can compete.

Where would be the ideal place to locate your Nuclear City? China is the obvious place because they have:

  • An almost insatiable need for enormous amounts of carbon-free energy.
  • The political commitment to economic decarbonization.
  • Ample low-cost capital to invest in new plants whose costs are front-loaded.

To progress from imagining to reality we need two things:

  1. Nuclear life-cycle cost to be comparable to coal.
  2. Nuclear deployment rate at least as fast as coal.

How can we accomplish this? Particularly in a climate where America is having to shut down paid-for, nearly zero-carbon nuclear plants? Where Germany is closing ALL of their paid-for, nearly zero-carbon nuclear plants? And Japan? The MDRs (more developed regions) are setting a shockingly awful decarbonization example for the LDRs.

I believe that nuclear fission can be built out at the cost, scale, and rate required to substitute nuclear for coal. This is a decision for China, not a decision for Western politicians. That means developing and deploying low-carbon energy that is dispatchable, scalable, and “cheaper than coal” in terms of System LCOE (including intermittency costs, not just LCOE).

Serious people talk about the expense of new nuclear. In fact the challenge is even bigger than achieving cost parity – a necessary but not sufficient condition. Aside from low cost, we need to make rapid progress on many human fronts. We can thoroughly simulate new reactors on our super-computers, yet this kind of fast-paced effort depends on real people:

  • Growing the nuclear people skills.
  • Growing the safety culture.
  • Growing a sensible regulatory capability.
  • Creating a new high volume supply chain.

Now, imagine that China has committed to creating such a Nuclear City. How can the old nuclear powers marshal their resources to dramatically accelerate the day when nuclear deployment is so attractive to China that they substitute nuclear for coal. Here’s a sketch:

  • The nuclear-technology nations (US, UK, France, et al) offer a nuclear cooperation and technology sharing agreement with China. The idea is to put your best ideas, your best people and your capital into this project — for the long term (decades).
  • Reform the legal framework that prohibits exporting peaceful nuclear power technology.
  • Lose the popular political idea that “We are competing with China”. Substitute the idea that “We are working together to save the planet while we get rich together”.
  • Lose the idea that dirty energy must be expensive. Substitute the idea that clean energy must be cheaper.
  • Invest national R&D funding into the Nuclear City cooperation.

So, why would the various players be motivated to cooperate? Let’s summarize some perspectives:

Update — James Hansen proposes nuclear cooperation  2/24/14 I’m reading Jim’s latest letter this morning Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions? I just came to the part of his letter where he addresses the topic of this post. Here’s a fragment:

Second, the United States and China should agree to cooperate in rapid deployment to scale in China of advanced, safe nuclear power for peaceful purposes, specifically to provide clean electricity replacing aging and planned coal-fired power plants, as well as averting the need for extensive planned coal gasification in China, the most carbon-intensive source of electricity. China has an urgent need to reduce air pollution and recognizes that renewable energies cannot rapidly provide needed base-load electricity at large scale. The sheer size of China’s electricity needs demands massive mobilization to construct modern, safe nuclear power plants, educate more nuclear scientists and engineers, and train operators of the power plants.

The United States nuclear industry and universities have much to offer, and in turn they have much to gain by cooperating in development of modern safe nuclear power in China. Opposition to nuclear power in the U.S. has slowed but not stopped progress in nuclear technology. However, the realistic size of the market in the U.S. for improved nuclear designs, as well as for evolving still more advanced designs, is limited, at least in the near-term. Furthermore, for reasons that do not need to be debated here, construction time for a nuclear power plant in the U.S. is of the order of a decade, while it is as short as 3-4 years in China. Thus deep nuclear cooperation between the China and the U.S. over the next 1-2 decades could produce both (1) base-load electricity in China that allows China’s carbon emissions to peak within a decade and then decline, as is essential if climate is to be stabilized, (2) an opportunity for both countries to achieve progress in nuclear technology and thus a basis for comparing the merits of the most advanced renewable and nuclear technologies.

Jim has a lot more to say, a whole page on this general topic — I highly recommend that you read his new letter.

What is in it for “China”?

  • Manufacturing, deployment and operations capabilities will be developed locally (as with AP1000 deal).
  • Chinese human resources can be developed faster when working alongside western scientists, and when taught by the western experts (many of whom are retiring, their deep knowledge soon to be lost to society).
  • Chinese leaders do have to live in their high-pollution cities, a daily reminder of the priority to transition away from coal.
  • Fundamentally this is a very large scale engineering and project-management undertaking — China’s politicians are comfortable with that kind of approach.

What is in it for the existing IP stakeholders?

  • Long term profits. Instead of going out of the nuclear business (like Siemens), they have a chance to be part of the biggest revolution since the beginning of the industrial age.
  • A chance to be shareholders in the new energy infrastructure – to be part-owners in the new utilities and infrastructure.
  • The IP to be contributed is now owned by governments and shareholder companies. A necessary condition is that the existing IP owners must be satisfied that this cooperation will allow them to protect their share of the return on existing IP, as well as the return on the future IP. That’s a negotiation – Silicon Valley law firms can help with options.
  • In this planet-scale effort, it is better to be cooperating than competing.
  • Scientists at the national labs, at experienced suppliers like B&W, these people know that China et al can contribute many very capable engineers and scientists. The scale of the Chinese contribution is being demonstrated already by such as the well-funded MSR development program at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (CAS/SINAP). In 2012 the project had a $350 million budget and a staff off 334 that was supposed to grow to 750 by 2015.

What is in it for the investors?

  • The scale of this planet-wide market opportunity is easily big enough to attract private investors if the political risk is covered.
  • Building the first large scale deployments in China, by itself, eliminates much of the political risk.
  • The nation-partners will have to put up enough risk insurance to lubricate a public-private partnership. I think that means largely insurance against political risk. Against the risks of the familiar Greenpeace lawyering and demonstrating, but also the Rule of Law risk in the non-western jurisdictions. It’s an interesting question: how far will Greenpeace get demonstrating in front of new Chinese nuclear plants?
  • China has demonstrated the political capability to generate MUCH larger amounts of capital than needed to get this going. So DFI (Direct Foreign Investment) may be a case of the outsiders knocking on the door, asking to be let in.

What is in it for Western politicians?

  • I don’t know, because there isn’t much reward here within their motivational framework of about two years. Suggestions?

This challenge is not really technical — it is almost entirely political. The Western institutional structure makes it effectively impossible to achieve rapid progress. France could not rapidly convert from zero to 80% zero-carbon nuclear today. Politically France-could-not-do-it-today. It’s difficult to put into words how large this challenge is. Two charts help me to visualize what is happening on the ground, first Robert Wilson’s recent essay Renewables Growth: Ignoring The Whole Equation shows how insignificant are the 2011 contributions from all hydrocarbon sources + nuclear. In other woods, renewables are detectable but insignificant . Jeff Terry summarized Robert’s essay as “…fossil fuels dominate for decades”.

2011 Everything Else swamps Renewables

Second, this chart is completely self explanatory. Nevertheless I highly recommend that you read the source: Roger Pielke Jr.’s Clean Energy Stagnation.

China’s leaders don’t want to suppress criticism of the government. In fact, they probably like it

Andrew McAfee is coauthor with Eric Brynjolfsson of Race Against the Machine. If you have not read the book, please do. Then (or first) read Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over. Then please report back here your take on the future, and how we can best navigate where we will be in 20 or 50 years.

Meanwhile, for a quick read I recommend the fascinating McAfee piece Big Data Reveal Three Surprising Facts About Chinese Censorship. The future ramifications of Big Data are impossible to foresee — but this is an excellent example of surprising results today. Excerpt:

Crimson hexagon, which King cofounded, constantly collects a huge amount of social media from around the world. By seeing which of this content later disappeared from within China the team gained an unprecedented view into a dark and fascinating topic: which aspects of its people’s speech a modern totalitarian regime wants to suppress. This view also allows us to make better-educated guesses about why and how this censorship happens. What we learn from it would have surprised even Orwell.

(…snip…) As the old saying goes, “the mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” Not any more, since the advent of social media. Citizens use these tools to complain loud and long about corrupt local officials. This provides a great way for Beijing to know who’s stealing above their station, and hence who to crack down on when the kleptomania and/or public pressure to do something about it mount too high. It’s a perverse result, but free online speech turns out to be the top despot’s great friend, because it allows him to keep his underlings in line.

China fact of the day

Tyler Cowen:

…the pace of actual trade settlement in renminbi has failed to keep up [with its role in finance]. It still accounts for just 0.8 per cent of the global total, a lower share than the Thai baht or the Swedish krona.

That is from the FT, via Amni Rusli. The recently reported fact that the renminbi is now the #2 trade financing currency seems to be simply measuring the carry trade, not the true ascendancy of the Chinese currency as a global reserve currency.

 

A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India

The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan. Most observers in the West view the Afghanistan conflict as a battle between the U.S. and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on one hand, and al-Qaida and the Taliban on the other. In reality this has long since ceased to be the case. Instead our troops are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing and overlapping conflicts: one local and internal, the other regional.

Within Afghanistan, the war is viewed primarily as a Pashtun rebellion against President Hamid Karzai’s regime, which has empowered three other ethnic groups—the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the north—to a degree that the Pashtuns resent. For example, the Tajiks, who constitute only 27% of the Afghan population, still make up 70% of the officers in the Afghan army.

(…snip…)

The Pashtuns had held sway in Afghan politics ever since the state assumed its current boundaries in the 1860s. By aligning with the Tajiks of the northern provinces against the Pashtuns of the south, the U.S. saw itself making common cause with the forces of secularism against militant Islam; but it was unwittingly taking sides in a complex civil war that has been going on since the 1970s—and that had roots going back much further than that. To this day, because the Pashtuns feel dominated by their ancestral enemies, many support or at least feel some residual sympathies for the Taliban.

There is also an age-old Pashtun-on-Pashtun element to the conflict. It pits Taliban from the Ishaqzai tribe, parts of the Nurzais, Achakzais, and most of the Ghilzais, especially the Hotak and Tokhi Ghilzais, against the more “establishment” Durrani Pashtun tribes: the Barakzais, Popalzais and Alikozais.

Beyond this indigenous conflict looms the much more dangerous hostility between the two regional powers—both armed with nuclear weapons: India and Pakistan. Their rivalry is particularly flammable as they vie for influence over Afghanistan. Compared to that prolonged and deadly contest, the U.S. and ISAF are playing little more than a bit part—and they, unlike the Indians and Pakistanis, are heading for the exit.

(…snip…)

In the eyes of the world, never has the contrast between the two countries appeared so stark as it is now: one is widely perceived as the next great superpower, famous for its software geniuses, its Bollywood babes, its fast-growing economy and super-rich magnates; the other written off as a failed state, a world center of Islamic radicalism, the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, and the only ally of the U.S. whose airspace Washington has been ready to violate and whose villages it regularly bombs. However unfair this stereotyping may be, it’s not surprising that many Pakistanis see their massive neighbor as threatening the very existence of their state.

(…snip…)

For the Pakistani military, the existential threat posed by India has taken precedence over all other geopolitical and economic goals. The fear of being squeezed in an Indian nutcracker is so great that it has led the ISI to take steps that put Pakistan’s own internal security at risk, as well as Pakistan’s relationship with its main strategic ally, the U.S. For much of the last decade the ISI has sought to restore the Taliban to power so that it can oust Karzai and his Indian friends.

To achieve this goal, the Pakistani military has relied on “asymmetric warfare”— using jihadi fighters for its own ends. This strategy goes back over 30 years. Since the early 1980s, the ISI has consciously and consistently funded and incubated a variety of Islamic extremist groups. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid calculates that there are currently more than 40 such extremist groups operating in Pakistan, most of whom have strong links with the ISI as well as the local Islamic political parties.

(…snip…) 

Pakistan-watchers are unanimous that, while Kayani is mindful of the Taliban threat in his own country, his burning obsession is still India’s presence in Afghanistan. As I was told by a senior British diplomat in Islamabad, “At the moment, Afghanistan is all [Kayani] thinks about and all he wants to talk about. It’s all he gets briefed about and it’s his primary focus of attention. There is an Indo-Pak proxy war, and it’s going on right now.” 

Excerpts from the The Brookings Essay by historian William Dalrymple – highly recommended, but definitely not for bedtime reading.

Why the U.S. helps defend South Korea and what can go wrong

This is another case where the diplomatic logic is not obvious until Tyler Cowen explains it

It is not because we need to subsidize their defense per se, to cite one argument which some non-interventionist critics have attacked.  It is so, when North Korea behaves in a ridiculous manner, the South can respond (not respond) with great restraint.  What we are subsidizing is a) a feeling of security, and b) not building nuclear weapons in response.  We do something broadly similar for Japan.

The potential problem is when the same U.S. acts which produce a feeling of security in South Koreans produce a feeling of insecurity in North Korean leaders.  And the broader game we are playing, with numerous allies, means we might end up pushing some individual confrontations  beyond an optimal point (e.g., how would Israel respond with Iran if we wavered on South Korea?)  Might we have to overinvest in the South Korean feeling of security — from a strictly Korean peninsula point of view — to keep Japan, Israel, Taiwan, the Saudis, and others ‘in line’?

It would be good if the North Korean leadership would read this blog post, as they would then realize that what to their eyes appears to be American ‘overstepping’ is done for the sake of other audiences.  It is problematic for the American government to itself communicate this point.  Imagine announcing ‘we don’t stand by South Korea as much as it appears, we are just doing this because Israel faces a signal extraction problem and we can somewhat sway their inference toward relaxing about their own security situation.’

It would be bad if the Saudi leadership would read this blog post (or understand this to begin with).  The American government would then have to produce a feeling of security for South Korea all the more.

Question: where in the media have you seen any discussion of this nuance?