Thinking my way through a carbon tax

A few months ago, I posted here about sustainability. That is, the economic and environmental idea that one should attempt to maintain a level of living without relying on growth metrics. Sustainability is a key metric in understanding whether a socio-economic or environmental decision is likely to lead society to ruin, or give it a chance to breathe a little longer. Humans are in a position where we need to begin taking very seriously the signals we are receiving from nature and act accordingly. I think that the recent drive by Energy Independent Vermont towards a statewide carbon tax is a result of them taking the signals seriously. That’s the right thing for them to do, and I agree with their intent. The question I’m left with is whether it’s the right place to start.

What I’m concerned about is whether the carbon tax system being worked out in the state is the right way to go about moving Vermont towards a more sustainable relationship with fuel and energy. Certainly, I believe that something has to be done. According to Limits to Growth, published in 2004, economically viable oil and natural gas reserves will be mostly depleted by the middle of this century. Even if you happen to be a climate change denier (which you really shouldn’t be), reserves of fossil fuels are what they are. Somewhere between 35 and 50 years from now, we could be looking at a situation where there is a real shortage of oil as opposed to one driven by economic politics. When that happens, we are going to need to be ready to transition to some kind of alternative.

To me, there are two categories of energy needs we will need to account for. The first is for buildings. The second is for travel. For buildings, we need to supply the means to heat and cool them, which is fairly straightforward. It also happens to be where most of our energy goes: generally speaking, buildings use more energy than vehicles because of the constant regulation of temperature. For vehicles, we need to find a way to make them run without incurring an insurmountable expense to their operators and without relying on fossil fuels. I want to look at buildings first, because it’s the most straightforward.

There are industrial, commercial, and residential buildings. Each are perhaps constructed differently, but all need to be able to regulate the environment within them to make sure the people who are inside are safe and happy. This requires energy. For these buildings, there need to be efforts to make them energy efficient and eliminate fossil fuels from their heating and cooling methods. There are currently incentives in place for the energy efficiency, but with a two-year waitlist for homes, more needs to be done. As far as the elimination of fossil fuels, the only two reliable alternatives at this point (for Vermont) are electric heating/cooling systems or wood-based heat (either pellets or cord wood). From a carbon perspective, electrical systems powered by renewably-generated electricity would be the best: no carbon released into the air at the building, and fossil fuels are not required for the generation or maintenance of electricity. Pellets and cord wood are probably going to be more common in homes until weatherization can be completed. So for buildings, we have a path of migration away from fossil fuels and towards relatively sustainable alternatives. Vehicles are a little more difficult.

In order to make the shift away from something, there has to be something available to shift towards. In the case of vehicles, the only currently practical option for commuters in rural communities would be electric vehicles: either personal or mass transportation. Electric vehicles are getting better, but their range leaves much to be desired. If the only affordable model gets around 80 miles per charge, then rural communities need to look at methods by which the charge can be maintained. The range of electric vehicles will improve over time, but it may not be until we are already out of fossil fuels. Right now, however, shifting to an electric vehicle might be sustainable from an environmental perspective, but not from a personal economic one. The good ones are expensive, though the relative price — related to gasoline-powered vehicles — is going down. Still, in the near term, the entrance cost of an electric vehicle is larger than the perceived benefits of shifting away from fossil fuels, and my in fact be prohibitive to certain demographics.

Remember, the goal is to not only find away to migrate away from fossil fuels, but to do so in a proactive way that is socio-economically sustainable as well as environmentally sound. Certainly, a statewide tax on the consumption of fossil fuels will create a market-based incentive to shift away from them, but only in the structure segment is there something viable to shift towards. In terms of travel and farming and logging and landscaping, the carbon tax simply increases the cost of doing business and makes things more difficult for homeowners, commuters, and those who rely on fossil fuels for work. Yes, there is a money back component, but there is such a delay between the carbon tax cost and the refund that it doesn’t help in the day-to-day, and if a balance isn’t found it could lead to the collapse of a home, a farm, or even a rural community. Granted, that is likely to happen when fossil fuels are depleted anyhow.

While this is all just a thought exercise, I believe that there is a gap between the carbon tax and the shift away from fossil fuels that needs to be looked at. Market-based economic incentives work because there are alternatives already on the market place. In the case of fossil fuels, the alternatives are not mature enough to be equivalent and are likely to cause near-term sustainability problems as consumers work to incorporate higher cost travel and maintenance figures into their living budgets. Additionally, people who have chosen to live remotely in more rural areas may be beyond the range of the available vehicles.

Possible remedies to this include the following:

  1. Ensure people have access to public transportation options that fit their employment needs and are cost-effective: provide funding for mass transit (rail, bus) on regular schedules to and from major employment centers
  2. Ensure the costs of more carbon-friendly vehicles/transport options are not prohibitive: tax breaks, refunds, deductions for purchasing vehicles; statutory pricing models; subsidized trade-in deals;
  3. Provide additional kick-backs or wage increases (above just income-based) to people whose employment relies on fuel and who have no other option (loggers, truck drivers, rural commuters, etc)
  4. Invest in infrastructure (fiber optic, roads, bridges) and economic incentives to ensure that there are jobs were people live; companies who allow people to work from home get more back from the carbon tax, perhaps; free Internet access for all VT citizens; remote office centers for larger employers (the state, insurance companies, etc)

Whatever we end up doing, we have to find a way to transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources for our buildings and our travel needs. It’s just a necessity at this point and there’s no arguing it. The method we choose to attempt that transition is what will make this successful or not, what will allow us to be ahead of the fossil depletion or fall victim to it. What we choose for a method should be able to meet our needs for the next decade, but also still be viable through the next 30 years.

Why I’m voting for Bernie Sanders (and maybe you should, too)

I want to take this space to be clear about why I’m voting for and defending Bernie Sanders. After reviewing his voting record and speeches, after knowing him for more than 20 years as a statesman from my home state of Vermont, I’m very confident that — while these are my interpretations — they are spot on.

People are not the means to profit

Bear with me, I’m going to start off sounding a bit Marxist, but then I’ll get to where I want to be. In a free-market, capitalist system, the people are the means to generate profit for those in power. If they happen to make a living at doing it, or if they are lucky enough to be in a position to claw their way to the top, that’s fine with the system, but it’s not necessary for the system to be happy.

For example, the idea of a minimum wage was created so that workers could make enough to stay healthy, but not quite enough to rise up from their station. This increases their profitability (a healthy worker is a profitable worker). A capitalist system requires at least three tiers of people: those at the bottom, those in the middle, those at the top. The free-market capitalism creates an illusion that anyone who is at the bottom could end up at the top, but it’s essentially a ponzi scheme where those who start in control gain more control through the efforts of those beneath them. The bottom line (or top line, if you will) is that this kind of system is designed to create profit, but profit that not everyone can partake in.

A government designed to protect this kind of system will necessarily pass laws that ensure the highest profitability for those at the top, while making sure that those at the bottom are passably cared for, but only to ensure prosperity for others. This is the government the United States currently has in place. It feels like a democracy, but it’s not really. It is, as Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Former President Jimmy Carter have said, an oligarchy.

If, however, the system takes the point of view that people are not simply profit centers, you start changing the problems that we need to solve. Instead of asking “What should minimum wage be?” you ask “What wage is required to ensure people can live?” Instead of asking “How do we ensure all people buy health insurance?” you ask “How do we ensure our citizens stay healthy?” Instead of asking “How do we secure constant economic growth?” we ask “How do we ensure all citizens are able to prosper?”

The system that Bernie advocates, the questions that he asks, the solutions he puts forward: these all point to the fact that he does not see people as sources of profit, but the raison-d’etre of government itself.

The government should be in service to the people

This is a sort of standard, bread-and-butter position that all United States politicians should have. It is, after all, a primary tenet of our founding documents. Most of them will say things that imply they believe that the government is “for the people and by the people,” but their actions speak otherwise.

If a politician gives more concessions to your lobbyists than your constituents, he does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician dismisses claims of racism or police brutality as one-off problems rather than systemic, she does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician refuses to admit the impact of humans on the environment, he does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician accepts money from corporations, panders to Super PACs, votes to protect her donors, and is out of touch with reality, she does not believe the government is in service to the people.

It is the people, 300 million very real, non-abstract entities — and not the ideal that politicians claim to follow — that government is meant to protect. If the mantra is only spoken, but the actions denote otherwise, the government is broken.

Sanders is a politician who has never wavered from his belief that by and for the people is more than a nice story to tell in school. His actions first as mayor of Burlington, VT, then as representative for the State of Vermont, then as Senator, and now as candidate for president show us that he is on our side. Free education, equitable taxes, universal health care (not just a rule forcing people to buy insurance from a third party), and accountability for those in power are all present in Sanders’ issues and talking points on the campaign trail.

Government should ensure justice, well-being, and freedom for all its citizens

Another very basic tenet of government, and another one that — theoretically — the United States is based on. There isn’t a politician currently in Washington who will tell you that the U.S. is not just and free and healthy. That is, no one other than Bernie.

Bernie knows that the systemic racism on display throughout the country, the poor access to health care, the over proliferation of non-whites in prison on trumped up charges, and the dwindling economic possibilities are evidence that the U.S. does not live up to its own rhetoric. He knows this so well, in fact, that his entire platform is built around these core beliefs.

Economic, criminal, and social justice, Sanders says, are on parallel paths. He understands that economics are one of the means by which oppression is enacted and that corruption in the criminal and social justice systems are another. He is looking to transform all three from weapons of the entrenched to vehicles for the disenfranchised.

He is for a single-payer health system so that people will no longer be forced to buy health insurance, but will have it covered with their taxes. He is for an extensive overhaul to family medical leave so families can be physically and emotionally healthy without need to worry about their jobs. He is pushing for vast criminal justice reform that removes racism from policing and puts an emphasis on community building instead of for-profit imprisonment. He is for free tuition for all public colleges and universities. He is against gerrymandering: — long used to divide and conquer minority neighborhoods — the process that ensures districts are populated with the constituents a politician wants and can easily pander to.

Oppression is unconscionable

I come to my culminating point, and the reason why I support Bernie Sanders for president. Bernie is a man who has shown that he will stand in the way of oppression, no matter the form. He has voted against war, but also voted to improve the care of veterans who go to war. He stands against armed violence while still supporting the spirit of the second amendment. He has stood up for the disenfranchised, the outcasts, the ostracized, the stepped-on, and the poor for all of his political life. There is no reason to believe he won’t continue to do so.

The issues he faces as president will sound different than the ones he’s stood against, but in reality they are shockingly similar. While this is evidence that our system is truly rigged to support oppression in all of its forms, it is a situation which which Bernie is not unfamiliar. Whether it’s the right for black, latino, and Native Americans to be truly free in their persons; the right for women to have control over their own bodies; the right for the workers to have control over their own lives; the right for students to have control over their own education: Bernie will stand on the correct side of each of those battles. He will unwaveringly defend and shout down the naysayers. He will be successful.

Why? Because history has shown us all that Bernie has always been right in his thinking. The more people get to know him, and the more his record is revealed, the more it will become clear to us, to the politicians, to the corporations, to the world that Bernie Sanders has always had this figured out.

Response to fuel-efficient super trucks

(Image Source: February 2014 Truck report)

Energy conservation is a really, really good and absolutely necessary idea. And it’s an idea that Americans need to spend more time getting used to. That being said, it’s not an idea that can be brought about by focusing so heavily on its cost savings. The fact is that conserving energy is a change in lifestyle that will in the short-term raise costs in some cases, and require adjustments to ways of life.

The retrieval, transport, delivery, and consumption of energy is a very large and complex process involving thousands of interactions and touch points. Any change we make in one of these touch points will have an impact on the machinations in another. Adding to the complexity, it is a system that is not closed. That is, it is beholden to influences outside of itself. The diagram above oversimplifies this situation. In reality, the calculation of the depicted numbers involves multiple moving pieces: truck owners, shipping companies, fuel prices, fuel company profits, truck manufacturing profits, engine manufacturing, metals industry, just to name a few of the more obvious ones. Unfortunately, the associate report does not go into detail about how the numbers are derived.

Given the complexity, it is entirely possible that if all long-haul truckers drove these trucks, then profit margins for fuel companies would go down due to the reduction in fuel purchasing frequency. Dropping profit margins are anathema to publicly-traded companies, so fuel prices would likely rise to offset the change in the purchase frequency. Also, any savings would likely take years to materialize given the nature of ownership of these trucks and the initial costs to own them. It is entirely likely that private contractors would not be able to afford the short-term costs and be driven out of business (not dissimilar to smaller fishing concerns in Gloucester, MA have been due to increased restrictions and fuel costs), thus paving the way for larger conglomerate companies who can afford the short-term cost increase.

So yes, we will see a reduction in fuel use and an increase in distance between fill-ups, but at a cost that is perhaps not sustainable in our current system of business ownership and relationships.

A better long-term solution is to drastically alter our reliance on fuel of this kind. To take a look at those things outside this system and see how changes there could have an affect on what we do. Simply using less fuel in a more efficient way will not — in a long-term view — get us where we need to be. At least until our current concepts of business and profit get in the way of true, unadulterated, energy advances.

How about long-haul trucks that are powered by the same kind of solar technology that goes into the pan-Australian race? The fastest car (from the Netherlands) had an average speed of just over 55 MPH. With further research, this can only get better. With better advances in wind power technology, perhaps a solution could be offered that provides on-the-go reserve batter charging for when the sun is down or clouds are above. Perhaps more research into long-distance maglev trains for shipping.

My point is that no matter what solution we propose, there are countless impacts on the existing system that have to be accounted for. A simple poster does not provide an accurate view of what will happen if we enact such things.

This comparison chart from Consumer Reports shows the vast range of differences in cost of ownership across hybrid, standard-, and deisel-fueled models. It’s too long to show here, so I’ll wait. I’m not going anywhere.

As you — hopefully — have seen, the chart shows that the impact of fuel-type on cost is not always positive. There are definitely benefits that owners can realize (financial, environmental, etc.), but it’s disingenuous to say that there will always be a cost benefit. That being the case, I submit that it is just as disingenuous to say the same for owning a hybrid truck.

The argument for hybrid engines — regardless of vehicle type — needs to go beyond cost. There are too many variables to make clear predictions and the historical results are too varied to make a broad statement that it is cost-efficient to own and drive hybrid. Much better arguments are that we are looking to have cleaner air, increase distance between refueling, or use fewer fossil fuels in cars. And if we begin to use these arguments for reasons to own hybrids, it opens up the discussion for other alternative fuels and vehicles such as solar, or mass transit solutions.

Compassion for victims, not for perpetrators

This banner helps me frame what I’ve been trying to say since Monday.

Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens everyday in Syria. Do accept our condolences.
Syrian Revolution hold a banner in support of Boston.

I don’t have compassion for the perpetrators of vile acts.

My compassion extends to the victims of those acts and the environments in which both victims and perpetrators live. Given similar context, environment, and social structure, the only thing that separates a victim from a perpetrator is compassion: perpetrators do not have it.

In other words, responding to an act of terror by saying “we must have compassion and understanding” for the perpetrator doesn’t cut it for me. I have compassion for the situations (Syria, for instance) and for people in general (perhaps those holding the banner), but I will not waste my compassion on those who would turn their own victimization into an act of destruction. Why? Because out of the millions and millions of victims on this planet, only the most cowardly seek to perpetrate their problems on others.

I will not waste my compassion on current psychopaths, rather I will use my compassion and empathy to prevent societies from creating them in the future.

Affecting political change: a suggestion

Lately I’ve been getting into some debates on Facebook about the nature of political change. My position in this discussion has always been that we have to avail ourselves of the tools given to us — free speech, right to vote, access to government officials, etc. — and use every means necessary to get what we want. For some people I’ve discussed this with, my opinion is incorrigible because it includes participating in the government that they loathe so much. My point of view is that we are governed whether we like it or not, so we might as well learn the rules better than those who govern and make the changes we can. My reasoning is that this has worked before: civil rights amendment, black suffrage, women’s suffrage, poll taxes, etc. Their reasoning is that since the government is corrupt, nothing will change, so why bother participating.

As an aside, this position aggravates me to no end. Here’s why. Imagine that 100 people are all stuck in a burning building and are told that the only way to get out is to build a machine on the bottom floor and that at least 75 people have to work on the machine in order to finish it in time. Immediately, 25 people start protesting those who started the fire and refuse to help build the machine. While that’s happening, 33 people head down to the first floor to start building the machine that will be able to break them out. We’re now left with 42 people to help build the machine. If they all helped, then the machine could be built and everyone could escape. Unfortunately, 25 of those people didn’t pay attention to the rules (to remedy this in reality, please read “The Federalist Papers” and “The United States Constitution” and take particular note of the flexible structure that is in place and how change can be affected both from within and without) and head up to the top floor to build their own machine. The result? Everyone dies. That’s why I hate the “protest is the only way to change things” line of thinking: it doesn’t address the problem in the way that creates a solution.

So let’s take a look at this “protest only” method. It’s usually run by a professional protester or activist who has done this kind of thing before. It’s well-organized and scripted, and always presents a particular vibe to outside observers. All of this is tightly controlled. The emphasis with this method is on volume and presence. From my experience in participating, reporting on, and monitoring these kinds of gatherings there is usually a unifying goal bringing a number of people together in one area for the purpose of visually showing how many people agree with one thing. In some cases the participants may not be clear on why they are all there (later adopters of the “Occupy” movement), but support whatever they feel is the purpose. There is also plenty of thematic signage, uniform chanting, and hard-to-understand bullhorn-based speeches. Flash mobs, flyers, community food locations, and distrust of all government sources are also common. In some cases these protests can become violent and dangerous. This depends on the purpose and location of the protest, of course, and more of these kinds of gatherings are peaceful. Civil Disobedience and ending revolution are all possible outcomes of this approach.

I have nothing against protesting and activism. There is a strength and passion to this method that cannot be denied. The media loves images of people with signs sharing their discontent, and quick sound bytes can be easily generated from the groups’ slogans and chants (“Hell no, we won’t go!” etc). If you want quick attention to a current issue, this is a great method. Many movements were started this way, and many more will be as well. The problem with this method is contained in its very DNA: what gathers in one place must eventually disperse or keep doing something new to maintain its energy. Entropy ensues. The message gets lost. This is the flash mob of social progress. Today’s issue is tomorrow’s trivia question. The movement that arose like wildfire fanned by the hot breath of mass media dies by the same group’s smothering blanket of public attention and advertising dollars. Revolutions eventually become the next target of protest — French Revolution, Russian Student Revolt — and the heroes of the picket lines — Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin — are just as quickly demonized by future revolutionaries.

Protest by itself as a method for changing policy doesn’t do anything. Protest is a means by which an issue gets noticed. Once that happens, there is still work to do in order to change policy. Our government is — like it or not — established by those who vote. And as such, the people in government are only beholden to those who voted for them, not the people in the park or street protesting. In fact, statistics are telling the government that those people don’t vote.

You want policy change? You contact your rep over and over again. You can even tell him you’ll be at the rally tomorrow, but you need to contact him. It doesn’t matter if you voted for him or not, you’re still beholden to his decisions. While your at it get everyone at your protest to contact their reps over and over again. If a representative’s constituents present an overwhelming — or even slightly-whelming — position, he has to listen if he wants to get elected again. And don’t give me that crap about corporations and bribery. If he doesn’t get votes, he won’t be there to get bribes. We’re still in control if we want to be.

Case in point: PIPA/SOPA became a massive issue started online. All of those people posting in forums, blacking out sites, creating comics also did something else: they called their representatives. The sponsor of PIPA pulled the bill. He pulled the bill he wrote because people from his district told him to. In the case of SOPA there’s still work to do, but the vote was delayed indefinitely as a direct result of the voting public contacting their representatives.

Counter-case in point: Scott Brown (R MA) was elected to the US Senate by a majority of voters during a low-turnout election. Republicans knew that in order to try and block the health insurance reform bill, Martha Coakley would need to lose. They turned out in droves, while the democrats from a democratic state assumed victory and stayed away — even though a bulk of them would have been participating in cheering for the health insurance reform. Brown won and voted no. Voter turnout had a direct impact on the process in Washington, DC.

There is nothing wrong with protesting, but going around insisting that it’s the only way to affect change in government is absurd at best and dangerous at worst. Apathy is what your opponents bank on. They assume that if you’re in a picket line, you’re not at the polls. Unfortunately that’s more often than not the case. How about surprising the bastards and doing both? Here’s why: effectiveness at the polls is achieved through mass participation. Protesting gets people’s attention, voting tells the system what they want. If we can use both together, then that’s something that could finally tip the scales in our favor.

As an example, let’s look at China and Iran. Protests in those countries have made the news, changed our minds about the nature of social media, gave us some shocking imagery, and maybe inspired some of us along the way. However, little in the way of progress can be reported as a direct result of those protests. Why? Because there’s no recourse for those protesting to directly control the actions of government. Because that’s what voting is: a group of people coming together to express their approval or dissent with issues and people. It only works if we all do it.

In closing, I’d like to point out that a vote-based system of government is very grass roots and egalitarian in nature. It requires broad communication of issues and ideas as well as coordination of efforts and people across social and financial divides. In short, voting en masse is a grass roots, people-powered method of governing. I’m constantly told, though, that the representative democracy we have is selfish and doesn’t account for a greater good. It’s pretty obvious to me that unless we all work together, the building’s going to burn down and we’re all going to die. How’s that for greater good?