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Truly “Green” Energy

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

“The remarkable thing about fossil fuels,” says science writer Matt Ridley, “is that when we use them, no other animal is deprived of its livelihood.”

In a fascinating talk, Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist and other brilliant, eye-opening books, calls our attention to what really should be an obvious fact: “No other animal [than us Homo sapiens sapiens] wants to eat coal, or oil, or gas.” But, he insists, when we fell a tree for our fuel, “we deprive a woodpecker of its life.”

This helps explain why, in so much of the world, animal species are coming back, their populations growing. They are renewing because of our use of non-renewable energy. (Renewable energy, he says, is quite bad for the ecosystem.)

But that’s just one reason burning fossil fuels is a good thing. Another is increased carbon dioxide (CO2).

“What?!?!” — I can hear the enviro-shrieks from here in my bunker. This weekend there were protests around the world about climate change.

But climate change may be a good thing.

Well, at least, the planet is getting greener. The Sahara’s getting greener. Much of the world’s landmasses are re-foresting — that’s even happening in Bangladesh.

I read about widespread reforestation in The Atlantic years ago. I’ve written about this and other greening before. But the reason isn’t simply because our fossil fuel reliance has made agriculture more efficient, thus requiring less land — that disused land can then grow wild, or cultivate non-agribiz plantlife. It’s also because CO2 feeds plants.

The Amazon, Ridley says, is greener than it was mere years ago.

Could later industrial civilization be saving the planet from the depredations of earlier industrial civilization?

Yes.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Police Officer Un-indicted

Friday, September 19th, 2014

We’re naturally worried about the potential for police abuse of power — cops who roust people for no good reason, then claim that the other party was “resisting arrest” or some such thing.

But sometimes it’s the person on the other side of the badge who reconstructs history.

Several days ago, a story broke about Django Unchained actress Danièle Watts, who is African-American, being accosted along with her white boyfriend by a police officer who wanted to see their IDs. Both later suggested that they were targeted by police for racial reasons. On her Facebook page, Watts reported that she “was handcuffed and detained by two police officers . . . after refusing to agree that I had done something wrong by showing affection, fully clothed, in a public place.”

But audio of the encounter that has come to light shows an officer politely asking for ID, and explaining that he was responding to a call. (The caller had claimed the couple were having sex in public.) The officer is calm; Watts is persistently histrionic. She brings up race; he says race wasn’t the issue, sexual activity in public was.

We can argue about whether the officer should have handcuffed the actress in response to her recalcitrance. (Apparently, an accusation is all that is required to trigger police power, a demand to “see our papers.” It’s hard not to be on Ms. Watts’s pro-freedom side on that.) But now that this recording is out there, her original version of the encounter just won’t stand.

Enough reason to put video-recording devices onto every police lapel . . . in L.A., in Ferguson, everywhere.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

The Uber Rebellion

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Customers in Germany and elsewhere have flouted irrational attacks on the popular ride-sharing service Uber.

As I have explained before, Uber’s software lets passengers and drivers connect in a way that bypasses regularly regulated taxicabs. Cabbies don’t necessarily oppose the innovation. Many see Uber’s app as a nifty way to get customers. And, of course, many riders see it as a nifty way to get rides.

But taxi dispatchers? Well, that’s another story.

At least it is in Germany, where an organization for dispatchers called Taxi Deutschland has kvetched that the San Francisco company lacks the Necessary Permits to do electronic dispatching in Deutschland. Thanks to TD’s loud complaints, a German court issued a temporary injunction against Uber, prohibiting it from conjoining ride-seekers and ride-givers in happy synchrony.

Uber decided to keep operating in the country anyway, despite the threat of huge fines.

They’ve gotten lots of moral support. In response to the injunction, customers quietly but firmly told regulators “Laissez nous faire!” — a.k.a. “You’re not the boss of me!” — by doubling, tripling and even quintupling demand for Uber’s app. Matthew Feeney of Cato Institute points to jumps in signups in the days following the court’s order: in Frankfurt a 228 percent jump, Munich 329 percent, Hamburg 590 percent.

Last July, in the U.K., Brits surged their signups eight times over after protests against the company.

Keep up the good work, rebels.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Registering Dissent in Russia

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Russian politics — does it consist in anything but the progressive unraveling of what modest liberalization of civic life the Russians benefited after the crackup of the Soviet Union?

The latest assault on liberty? The government targeting of Russian bloggers. The most popular ones — those with 3,000 or more daily readers — must now register with the government or risk being shut down. As Bloomberg’s Ilya Khrennikov puts it, “Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking names. Potentially thousands.”

The registrants must supply real names, real addresses.

Mother Russia says it’s doing this to combat inaccurate or defamatory information — i.e., opinions it dislikes; i.e., any too critical of the government. Putin already has authority to shut down “extremist” web pages sans judicial oversight. The new law tightens the noose.

It seems there’s little we can do about this in the West except express our sympathy for Russians fighting the commissars.

Well, one other thing, at least; and not so little. Western tech firms can refrain from abetting such repression the way Yahoo did when, several years ago, it turned over user info on Chinese dissidents Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao to the Chinese government and thus enabled their imprisonment. Facebook, Google+ and other hosts of Russian-language blogs can flatly reject demands to censor or delete these blogs — or to supply the Russian government with identifying info on the authors.

Obviously, predictions of the end of history have indeed proven premature. We’re not all liberal democrats now.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

You Own You, I Own Me

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

There’s been a lot of talk about Robert Draper’s New York Times article on a possible “libertarian moment.” On Townhall, “last weekend,” I focused on the partisan political aspect of the movement. There was a lot of curious stuff in the article, and I haven’t seen anyone comment on one of its stranger passages.

Call it a moment of culture shock.

The article briefly profiled a “Washington-based journalist” who sported “a tattoo under her right biceps that reads, ‘I Own Me.’” This is a provocation, of course, sure to annoy authoritarians and collectivists and . . . David Frum:

“What does that mean, ‘I own myself?’ ” David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and Republican commentator, sputtered in exasperation when we spoke later. “Can I sell myself? If I can’t, I don’t own myself.”

Taken at face value, one could simply answer Frum by mentioning that in olden times people could sell themselves — into slavery.

Or one could make an extended political point. “Haven’t we all sold ourselves long ago?” That might be unnerving.

But the informed answer is this: “We can’t sell ourselves because our ‘self-propriety’ (as Richard Overton put it long ago) differs from other kinds of ownership. Our self-ownership is inalienable. That’s why it’s so important.”

It’s like this: You own you, I own me — we are free.

It turns out, Mr. Frum, that this “inalienability” idea was central to much discussion of rights at the founding of our country. Funny you don’t seem to know anything about that.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Central Banks Losing Control

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

The rapid rise of interest in and use of “virtual currencies” like Bitcoin has been astounding. It probably won’t surprise you to learn what the established masters of the worlds’ monies say: Bitcoin is disruptive!

Heavens.

Bogdan Ulm, writing on Bitcoin Trader, noticed the concern in Ireland:

“Virtual and digital currencies can challenge the sovereignty of states,” says Gareth Murphy, senior Central Bank of Ireland official. At a recent digital money conference in Dublin, he mentioned that rivals are interfering with a bank’s ability to sway the price of credit for the entire economy. Murphy warned that there might be considerable threat to the finances of a country if increasingly more transactions for services and goods fade away from the tax system due to the use of crypto currencies such as Bitcoin.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that there are many economists — from a long tradition — who have denied the necessity of anyone acquiring the ability to “sway the price of credit for the entire economy.”

Separate bids and offers for credit (loaning money with interest) can be seen as signals of competing evaluations in the economy. There are tremendous forces pushing interest rates to align, and when they do (or don’t), their alignment (or lack thereof) sends important additional information to market participants about both the present and the future.

But when anyone (say, a central bank) presumes to corral all interest rates into a “coherent plan,” much of the useful meaning of signals gets lost, or jumbled, and the economy gets (inadvertently?) programmed for boom and bust.

So, when I hear that modern digital currencies could prevent central banks from “doing their business,” I wonder if, perhaps, this is not a good thing.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Declare Your Independence

Friday, July 4th, 2014

Today is Independence Day, and we’re celebrating. Tonight there will be fireworks to watch. So I’ll try to be brief.

The original independence that the Continental Congress of the seceding colonies declared, was dramatic and fundamental, as I’ve tried to honor these past two days in Common Sense.

But the idea of independence, and of our liberty that it was meant to secure, extends beyond events over two centuries ago.Declaration of Independence

Today, we are riddled with at least two kinds of dependence that are worth resisting.

  1. Economic dependence. I’m not talking about foreign trade. “Independence-with-freedom”  assumes that we will always depend on each other by co-operation. But the terms of that co-operation should be mutual. The great problem with crony capitalism and the welfare state — and even to some degree with a large federal workforce — is that increasing numbers of people (whole classes) increasingly depend on taxpayers rather than their own productivity and commerce.

    This sort of dependence depends on wealth, but provides poverty.
  2. Partisan dependence. The polarization of the two political parties has become increasingly ideological — as it was at the beginning of the country, actually — and is becoming increasingly nasty. Americans seem “stuck.” Breaking apart from the parties might make for a more honest and productive debate.

One way to accomplish the latter? Work for general, non-partisan — “transpartisan” — reforms, like term limits . . . and other measures aimed at greater representation, from mandating smaller districts to establishing ranked choice voting.

Remember, in 24 states and most cities and towns, citizens also have the initiative and referendum process to act directly. Staying focused on issues is the key to working across partisan divides.

Who knows what improvements we might be able to make?

What begins by thinking independently comes to fruition in successful cooperation.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.